Smoke Signals

Burned by Toast


Every morning, I burn my toast.

Every damned morning of my life.

I do not burn my toast intentionally. Quite the contrary. I would love to start my day by biting into an unburned piece of toast, butter tantalizingly seeping into the porous surface rather than sliding in one slowly melting blob across the impermeable charred toast topography, more reminiscent of the black lava landscapes on Hawai’i’s Big Island than it is a food item that, under the best of preparation circumstances, is hardly considered a delicacy in most hard-core foodie circles.

Alas, it is not meant to be.

I’d like to think the burned-toast blame does not lie solely with me.

My toaster is a basic Cuisinart model that, I see from eyeballing the company website, is no longer available. That says a mouthful. It cost something like 20 bucks at Wal-Mart some hazy time back in my deep dark past. It felt flimsy from the get-go. Wal-Mart has a no-questions-asked return policy that I ought to have availed myself of, especially after burning my toast on days one, two, three and so on forevermore. But I was too lazy. And, besides, I assumed I would figure things out — either about the toaster or about myself — well enough that I would not continue to burn my toast for a significant percentage of my adult life.


My toaster’s rotary dial is numbered, perplexingly enough, 1-6. One-through-six what? International Toastiness Units (ITUs)? I mean: Why 1-6? I would think the dial would be numbered 1-5. Or 1-10. Something more in line with standard WASP/OCD-based arithmetic symmetry.

My toaster was made in China, so it’s entirely possible that numeric uniformity simply gets lost in translation. (Have you ever eyeballed Chinese numbers? They are certainly aesthetically appealing on the font front, but, Christ Almighty! How do those folks manage to figure out things like baseball batting averages, miles per gallon and the cost per bottle of a six-pack of craft beer?)

I’ve had toast in China, and, let me tell you, toast is not that otherwise wonderful country’s national dietary specialty. From my admittedly limited experience, the Chinese would not know a well-toasted piece of toast if it pissed on their Peking duck. Their main problem in this context is that the Chinese are not big bread eaters. Their carbohydrate intake is more based upon rice, noodles and, surprisingly enough, potatoes.

They have expanded their gastronomic horizons into leavened realms mainly to please the tastes of Western visitors who, Chinese cooks seem to think, cannot pass a single meal without some manner of bread being placed upon a table otherwise dominated by such delicacies as braised chicken feet and filet of venomous snake.

Without bothering to take my order, the waiter in the hotel at which I stayed would bring me a breakfast consisting primarily of poorly toasted toast, which was something of a cross-cultural bummer, given that I could get all the poorly toasted toast I would ever want back in my own kitchen. I do not travel so my palate can suffer the same alimentary affronts it suffers at home. I want my palate to suffer in new and intriguing ways when I am on the other side of the planet! (Please see previous reference to braised chicken feet and filet of venomous snake.)

Though I very much appreciated the effort, the main problem with the toast in China was consistent inconsistency. Sometimes, one slice would be completely carbonized, while the other would barely be past the point of freshly kneaded dough. Other times, one side of a single slice might be black as night, the other white as snow. You might get two slices that appeared to have barely survived a raging inferno or two slices undercooked enough that they should have been listed on the (non-existent) menu as “toast tartare.” It was like they were trying to cover all their toast bases in one fell, unpredictable swoop. It was one of those vexatious conundrums that inclines an unrepentant liberal arts major to consider the misapplication of “mean” and “median” to an apparently unsolvable equation. The issue might have been that the bread they used was made from rice flour instead of wheat. I have since experimented with toasting rice-flour bread and the outcome reminded me very much of the toast I was served in China.

I should have learned prior to my six-week visit how to say in Mandarin, “No toast for me today, thanks!” Alas, that thought did not enter my head until it was far too late. My pocket dictionary did not, that I could see, include “toast.” The closest word I could find was “fire,” phoneticized as “huo.” I would say, to the obviously bumfuzzled waiter, “huo,” while shaking my head vigorously from side to side, while simultaneously wagging my right index finger back and forth inches from the poor garcon’s schnozz. I have read numerous articles in travel magazines over the years about gestures that, abroad, mean something entirely different than they do in the U.S. For all I know, shaking your head from side to side while wagging your right index finger back and forth in China means you want something to be 50 times more intense. Or that you would like to have sex with a poodle. The waiter never got the message I intended. Neither did he flee or toss my poorly toasted toast in my face. In the world of toast, I take small victories where and when I find them.

Be all that as it may. It is obvious the Chinese are not the people you want calibrating the toaster that sits on your kitchen counter in the American heartland. Great walls? Call the direct descendants of the Qin Dynasty! Opening ceremonies for Olympic games? Dial 1-800-BEIJING! Toaster measuring systems? Where are the Germans when you really need them?

My toaster’s 1-6 toastiness dial does not function with any semblance of predictable relativity. Not even close. It would seem that a setting of 4 would result in toast approximately one-sixth more toasted than toast toasted at a setting of 3. But my toaster’s measurement preferences seem akin to the Scoville and Richter scales, where every subsequent digit amounts to an order-of-magnitude increase of measureable chile piquancy, seismic intensity or toastiness.

At level 3, it is not toasted near enough for my taste. You would be generous to even call it toast at that point. More like warmed bread. But turn the dial to 4 and — poof! — smoke will shortly rise from the electrified recesses of the toaster. I can scarcely imagine what my toast would look like if I ever dared to crank that dial all the way up to 6! Spent plutonium comes to mind.

Understanding the deficiencies of my rotary toaster dial, I sometimes stand and watch (intently!!!), trying to look down into the red-hot toast slots, hand on the lever, ready to quickly raise the toast manually when it looks to be at the ideal shade of pre-incineration. I always jump the gun, lifting the lever too soon, when the toast is at a stage of toastiness somewhere between what experts on the surprisingly extensive palette of brown would call “wood brown” or “fallow.” (1)

Sometimes, this is because I am very hungry, and that hunger is exacerbated by the irresistible bouquet wafting up from those red-hot slots. People who study the effects of olfactory input on the salivation glands consider baking bread — a broad genre of which toasting toast is an undeniable sub-set — to be among the most-appealing of all aromas — by one measure, behind only freshly brewed coffee and vanilla. (As an interesting aside, the phantom smell of burned toast is considered in old wives’ tales to be a precursor to an imminent stroke or a sign of a brain tumor. I am glad the smell of burning toast in my neck of the woods is assuredly not phantom, though, given the sheer quantity and frequency of burning-toast smell I experience, there’s no way I could possibly know if a phantom smell happened to be mixed in there. Maybe I should get a CAT scan to be on the safe side.)

More often, though, I lift the lever prematurely because I fear that, if I am not vigilant, if my reflexes are not lightning quick, my toast will once again get burned. Then I tentatively push the lever back down, with full intention of raising it again in, say, 20 or 30 seconds, when the toast is perfect. But it’s really hard to see the sides of the toast when it’s down in the toaster slots. So, it’s almost impossible to tell when it has reached the desired color, which lies somewhere on the aforementioned brown palette in the pigmentary ballpark of raw umber, chestnut or russet. Not that it matters, because, invariably, my attention will wander (this morning, my phone, located in a different room, rang (it was a telemarketer trying to sell me generic Viagra) … yesterday, my dog started barking at a herd of passing javelinas … it’s always something) and, before it wanders back, visual evidence of yet another toast miscue fills the kitchen air. It comes up charcoal black. Maybe noir. And the kitchen smoke detector, strategically placed directly above my toaster, awakens yet again from its short-lived slumber. (I have to replace the batteries in my smoke detector far more often than the average homeowner.)

I then dejectedly pull the overdone toast out of the toaster. It, being at that point hard as a slab of granite, makes a clanking sound as I drop it on a plate in such an unceremonious manner that its presentation would make a practitioner of kaiseki choke on his or her takiawase.

I long ago gave up trying to scrape the char off with a knife, the way you would scale a fish. I buy cheap bread. By the time I scour both sides, I’ve pretty much whittled away the entire slice. I end up holding rings of scorched crust over piles of what looks like black sand, which I then feel compelled to spoon into a mouth that does not bear a satisfied smile.

(Does the bromide, “waste not, want not” apply to items you, under no conceivable circumstances, would ever want?)

I have mulled the notion of buying heftier bread, one of those natural brands made with seeds, nuts and twigs, but many of the ingredients listed on the packaging of these pricy options are very similar to the materials I use to kindle fires. Perhaps my propensity to burn my toast would translate to full-fledged conflagration were I to purchase products with names like Orowheat, Nature’s Harvest and Country Hearth.

So, I once more masticate embers. I might as well stick my head into the wood stove every morning and take a mouthful of last night’s ashes.



Maybe I should throw in the toaster towel. Give up the toaster ghost. Given that I prefer hot breakfast foods over, say, a bowl of mushy, cold-milk-saturated Cheerios, I have considered changing to instant oatmeal, which is what I eat for breakfast when on a backpacking trip. But that would be admitting defeat. What’s wrong with admitting defeat? Well, I do not view my inability to make it through a single morning without burning my toast as a defeat per se, the overwhelming objective data notwithstanding. I view it more as a series of tactical miscues that do not necessarily translate to a campaign totally lost. Try, try again. Life is, after all, long. I am of British stock. My people do not look at repetitive behavior achieving the same result ad infinitum as a sign of insanity. They view it as resolve. Let’s face it … if there is any nationality you can easily envision glumly eating burned toast day after day, it’s the Brits.

Besides, properly toasted toast is what I really want to eat for breakfast. Toast is one of my very favorite foods. Growing up, our cash-strapped family often dined on that tried-and-true English nutritional fallback option: beans on toast. Back then, my long-gone mom made the toast. She rarely if ever burned the toast. I clearly did not inherit her toast-making genes.

My inexplicable inclination toward burning my toast is, sadly, not limited to breakfast. Early-morning grogginess is not the culprit. I also burn my toast when I make BLTs or club sandwiches for lunch or dinner.

Which is weird as shit, as I am otherwise culinarily fairly aptitudinal. I am both recipe literate and able to concoct savory meals in extemporaneous fashion from available materials found in the dark recesses of a refrigerator that is older than my toaster. I have successfully prepared chicken l’orange. I have made corned beef hash from scratch in a cast-iron skillet over a campfire, which is harder than it may seem from the civilized sidelines. I have baked cookies and cakes, to much acclaim. I have even made Yorkshire pudding, another poor-people’s favorite among the Brits, but one that is a hell of a lot trickier to make than beans on toast. If your timing is not spot on, it collapses into an unappetizing mush. Even my mom, who considered Yorkshire pudding to be one of her proudest specialties, occasionally fucked it up.

Toast seems to be my one and only nutritive nemesis.




I have given serious thought to buying a new toaster. I have even surfed the web, wondering if there is a model that would allow me to consume unburned toast for breakfast. There are so many to choose from! It is dizzying!

There is, for instance, a Hamilton-Beach Classic Chrome Two-Slice model that boasts more dials and buttons than does the dashboard of my wife’s late-model Subaru Outback. Its toastiness knob does not even have numbers but, rather, diagrams of various shades of toastiness. No measurement ambiguity caused by an inaccurate translation of Chinese to Hindu-Arabic numeration there! The Hamilton-Beach Classic Chrome Two-Slice model also has a means by which you can tell the toaster’s central command system whether you intend to toast basic bread, waffles or a bagel! Be still, my beating heart!

There’s one by a company named Dash that’s a “clear view” toaster. You can actually observe the toast as its being toasted through a little side window. I don’t see how anyone could burn his or her toast with this type of technology!

There’s an inexpensive Proctor-Silex model that has a toastiness knob that goes from 1-7 ITUs — which means it either has a greater range than does my current toaster, or its increments are more fine-tuned. (It is made in Bangladesh, a country, like China, that is home to a perplexing, though very aesthetically appealing, system of digits.)

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the impressive-sounding Waring WTC850RC Slot Toaster that retails for a whopping $650! This is an industrial machine capable of toasting 300 slices per hour! Much as I like toast, that might be a bit much, though, if those slices of toast came out unburned, I might find myself tempted to make up for lost toast time.

There is even a commemorative “Battlestar Galactica” toaster, which, by some mysterious means, manages to toast your toast with the facial image of a dreaded Cylon Centurion! (2)

Clearly, I have been living in the toast Dark Ages! I might as well have been skewering slices of bread with a straightened-out coat hanger and holding them over an open flame, roasted-marshmallow style.

But purchasing a new toaster would mean discarding my old toaster. We have burned a lot of toast together. I understand how silly this sounds, but I bond with my possessions, even those inclined to incinerate my breakfast every single morning. I guess I attach inexplicable life force/essence to inanimate objects.

About 20 years ago, my wife’s sister gave us what at the time was a cutting-edge television set (read: it had a working remote control). It had a square screen measuring maybe 20 inches across, was two full feet deep and weighed about 200 pounds. It sagged whatever piece of furniture it was placed upon. When the broadcast world went totally digital, things went visually awry. Football scores bled off the side of the screen, which was OK, as those scores simultaneously became too blurry to read. We were only able to watch the middle section any movie or show, which made cheesy plot devices like Indians ambushing unsuspecting cowboys especially startling.

But we stuck with that TV, partially because it simply refused to die and partially because it had essentially become as much a member of the family as an inorganic item could be. It had been with us through five residences, two cats, two dogs, five computers, four cars and two arrests. It was as much a part of our lives as the mementos gathered from our extensive travels, which adorn our walls, bookshelves, dashboards, headboards and fireplace mantel.

Eventually, though, when we came to realize we were the only people left on Earth who did not own a modern flat-screen high-definition smart television set, the prices of which had been plummeting for a good long while, we heavy-heartedly decided to retire that old TV. I took it to the corner of our local landfill reserved for electronic devices, all of which are destined to be recycled by inmates at a prison in Arizona, which amounts to a form of admirable reincarnation. The only other time I had ever been to the landfill, dozens of outdated TVs were stacked atop one another, looking like an art installation piece that was trying to convey a poignant near-daguerreotype statement about the vicissitudes of American consumerism.

This time, there was not a single other set in the designated electronic drop-off area. A recycling pick-up must have occurred literally earlier that day. I had been hoping my obsolete TV would have the company of others of its antiquated ilk as it sat there awaiting its fate. But, no. I unceremoniously discarded the device upon which I had watched all the re-booted “Star Trek” series — “NexGen,” “DS9,” “Voyager” and “Enterprise.” Upon which my wife had watched her beloved Denver Broncos play in six Super Bowls. Upon which I, along with an entire apartment filled with visitors, had viewed, jaws agape, the slow-motion police-car chase of O.J. Simpson.

When I caught a final glimpse via my rearview mirror of the TV set alone in the dirt, a lump rose in my throat and I almost turned around and retrieved it. I suspect I would feel a similar sense of guilt if I abandoned my toaster.

I cannot explain why I feel such bonds with lifeless objects. I mean, I feel terrible when I discard tattered dishtowels, torn T-shirts and ratty pairs of underwear and socks. I bid them a fond farewell and thank them for their service before placing them in a lilac-scented plastic trash bag.

I am not the only one. I have a friend whose laptop recently shit the bed. She cried, not because of impending inconvenience or data lost or cost of replacement. She cried because of the connection she had developed with a computer that had been with her through the first six years of her daughter’s life (she learned how to properly change diapers via a YouTube video), the horrible dissolution of her marriage (she found her divorce lawyer online) and the long, challenging journey of becoming a rent-paying blogger and teacher (she had joined numerous virtual support groups). She cried when that laptop died because there can indeed be ghosts in machines. (3)

Who among us has not felt totally awful when trading in or selling a vehicle that has borne us on so many adventures, a vehicle that may even have had bestowed upon it a proper name?

I understand that the scale of comparison is way off. No one names his or her toaster. No toaster bears its human companion to Canyon de Chelly or Pueblo Pintado. No one pens a poem or a play on a toaster. There are no special corners of the local landfill reserved for discarded toasters.

I talk to my toaster. I try to convince it to not burn my toast. Sometimes, I play the role of a “What the Bleep Do We Know”-type Quantum physicist, telling my toaster that, if it tried really hard to visualize an outcome dominated by flawlessly toasted toast, then, perhaps, future reality would physically manifest that vision. Sometimes I play toaster cheerleader. “Go, toaster, go!” Other times, I threaten the toaster with oblivion if it once again burns my goddamned toast.

My toaster sits stoic and mute, unmoved and uninspired.

My toaster reminds me of my ancient cat, who pukes a lot, almost always in places I really wish she would not puke. Like on my pillow and on my keyboard. I plead with my cat — who, coincidentally or not, is the exact same color as very burned toast — to please for the love of all that is good and righteous to stop puking on my pillow and on my keyboard. I encourage her to puke instead on the easily cleanable tile that lines our spacious hallway. Or in the backyard. She pays me no heed. She does not even acknowledge my admonitions. Yet, I do not consider discarding her. Well, I consider it, but I do not follow up on that consideration, at least partially because she has severe kidney issues and will soon pass of her own volition and my wife would divorce me.

Instead, I pet her and tell her everything will be alright, and she purrs and bites my hand. Soon thereafter, she will assuredly puke, probably on my pillow or my keyboard.

I will sorely miss that cat when she goes. I will not, however, miss the puke.

Maybe my toaster will soon pass of its own volition. That would make things much easier.



Given its track record, it would be easy to speculate that my toaster intentionally burns my toast, which you would think would be counterintuitive from a self-preservation perspective. Like, if you keep burning the toast, most people are going to eventually take you to the old toaster home.

Plus, if you were a toaster, wouldn’t you want to be the very best toaster you could possibly be?

No — I think my toaster would really like to not burn my toast, but it can’t quite pull it off. Maybe it’s suffering from early-onset toaster dementia. Maybe it’s kind of a stoner/slacker toaster; its DNA-level indifference prevents it from getting its shit together enough to not burn my toast. Maybe I have a cognitively challenged toaster. Maybe I need to enroll my toaster in an appliance special-ed class. Maybe it needs toaster Ritalin.

I think it speaks highly of me that I have stuck with my toaster through this rough stretch, which has gone on for a couple decades now — a period during which the only non-burned toast I have consumed has come from the kitchens of restaurants not located in China.

Maybe I should take a toast-cooking class. Study under a toast master at someplace like IHOP, Denny’s or Waffle House, where the resident toast sensei could teach me the nuances of properly adjusting the toastiness dial on a persnickety Cuisinart. Teach me what words to say to my toaster. I need a toast whisperer.

Or maybe I should try to develop a taste for burned toast.

Andrew Zimmern, host of Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” TV show, suggests in a 2015 Time magazine article that repetition is one of the keys to acquiring a taste for food you don’t like, “assuming the food is cooked the right way.” (Emphasis added.) I would think that eating burned toast several thousand times would fit anyone’s definition of repetition. And, as far as cooking the food the right way, well, here we deal with something of a logical conundrum. I mean, how does one correctly cook food that is by its very definition cooked incorrectly? Were I able to toast my toast correctly, I wouldn’t have to go through the repetitive process of acquiring a taste for it, because I would already have a taste for it.

Maybe I should seek out domestically available food items or condiments that pair well with, or, at worst, mask, the cinder-like flavor of burned toast. Perhaps anchovies. Or Cheez Whiz.

Or maybe I would be well served to simply dance a semantic two-step around my apparent Sisyphus-ian lot in life. Instead of calling it “burned toast,” I could from now on refer to my breakfast as “blackened bread.”®™ But that which we call blackened bread by any other name would still taste as shitty.




There is a surprisingly extensive array of burned-toast-related musings available for recreational perusal on the Internet, the most prominent of which is a parable about a mom who, after a long, hard day at work, burned the toast that would serve as her family’s supper. When the kids complain, the even-tempered dad delivers words of inspirational wisdom that completely re-wire the thought processes of his previously unappreciative offspring. (I instinctively think of Ward Cleaver delivering those words to Wally and the Beaver, except that June Cleaver 1) would never have served her family toast for dinner and, if she did, 2) it would never have been burned.) (This particular tear-jerker appears in many places, in many forms. Almost like a burned-toast-based game of telephone or Chinese whispers.)

Another looks at burned toast from a marketing perspective, arguing that, if you can sell burned toast, you can sell anything and, if you can’t sell burned toast, then perhaps the sales profession is not your vocational calling.

Someone named Treb, writing on the website Chowhound, said, “One of my favorite ways to make toast is to burn them up [sic]. I love the flavor darkness brings. Since I was a kid, I’ve always enjoyed the smell of burning toast in the morning.” Weird as this might seem, the comments section that followed Treb’s observations overflowed with enthusiastic concurrence. There is, I now know, apparently a burned-toast cult.

Perhaps I should try to contact Treb — who, I hope, is not suffering from a brain tumor or about to have a stroke — and his rapidly oxidized disciples. Perhaps someone among them is vexed by an inability to toast toast that is not burned. We could arrange a toaster exchange.



My wife recently persuaded me to adopt the so-called “caveman diet.” “For health reasons,” she said, while surreptitiously eyeballing the toaster sitting on the counter next to our early-era microwave. For the next month, nothing but meat, fish, nuts, fruit, vegetables and eggs for me.

Cavemen apparently did not eat toast.

First morning out, I came within a whisker of burning the bacon.

But I did not burn the bacon! (I really do not like bacon.)


(1) According to surveys in Europe and the United States conducted, or at least cited, by someone named Eva Heller, who wrote a book titled, “Psychologie de la couleur: Effets et symboliques,” which I have not read because, among a long list of other reasons, I do not understand French, brown is the public’s least-favorite color, because it is most often associated with “plainness, the rustic, feces and poverty.” There is no mention in the Wikipedia listing I pretty much just plagiarized about whether the public was shown a well-toasted piece of toast before being interviewed by Ms. Heller.


(2) On the TV show, “Battlestar Galactica,” Cylon Centurions — malevolent artificial life forms — were known very pejoratively as “toasters” because the shape of their robotic noggins reminded their human enemies of, well, toasters.


(3) The term “the ghost in the machine,” is often misattributed to prolific science-fiction author Isaac Asimov — mainly because of its awkward placement into the movie “I, Robot.” In fact, the term was first introduced in the 1949 book, “The Concept of Mind,” by British sociologist Gilbert Ryle. It was used by Ryle to describe mind/body dualism, rather than, as is often assumed in popular culture, to ascribe human-like consciousness and self-awareness to mechanical devices such as robots or toasters. The common perception that “the ghost in the machine” actually refers to a-corporeal shit like robots and Cylon Centurions was further cemented by Arthur C. Clarke, who named an entire chapter in “2010: Odyssey Two” “Ghost in the Machine.” That chapter title referred to virtual consciousness within a computer, in this case, the infamous HAL-9000.



Smoke Signals

Drinking with a dead woman


All photos taken in the cemetery of Ware Episcopal Church in Gloucester County, Virginia


The dead woman drank an impressively steady stream of margaritas. A veritable salt-rimmed, ice-adorned River Lethe of tequila, triple sec and lime juice. She sat two barstools to my left. I did not yet know she was dead. She looked alive enough that I struck up a superficial conversation, something I am not inclined to do with the dearly departed. Come to learn she had once been a trauma nurse in an emergency room somewhere in California. She was now working part-time as a motel maid in a major-league ski town populated primarily by members of the upper crust. This seemed like a big vocational drop-off, a subject with which I am well familiar. I guessed she was in her mid-50s. Pretty. Well coiffed and attired. Looked to have a full rack of dentition. No ghost-like aura. No visible signs of decomposition. No foul stench.

Though it hovered on inappropriately personal, I could not resist asking about her apparent downward career trajectory. She admitted, yes, it might seem a bit odd to go from being a high-level health-care professional to changing bed sheets soiled by affluent strangers. I suspected some tale of woe — like maybe getting busted stealing pills from the hospital pharmacy.

Instead, she told me that, eight years prior, she had died.

I assumed, as any of us would, that she had experienced some sort of medical emergency — a heart attack perhaps, or a near drowning, or an overdose — and had been miraculously resuscitated, like so many stories we all have seen on TV.

No, she said, she had actually passed away. She was, at the moment we were sitting there chatting amicably in well-polished watering hole in a beautiful Colorado mountain town on an idyllic summer’s eve, dead as a fucking doornail.

As this unusual autobiographical tidbit was sinking in, my memory reflexively revisited what until that moment had been the strangest introductory bar encounter I had ever experienced. I had mistakenly wandered into a biker-gang clubhouse in Prescott on a very busy Friday night thinking it was nothing more than yet another in a long line of skanky dives that have borne my boot prints over the years.

The stunningly unhygienic giant next to me did not look more frightening than any of the other patrons — most of whom sported facial scars — so I said howdy and we talked as much as we could above a raucous din dominated by the sound of pool cues being shattered over people’s noggins. The stunningly unhygienic giant, who was actually affable enough, asked what had inclined me to wander into the establishment in which we were sitting, the implication being that I was essentially in the Wrong Place, my MC bonafides being obviously sorely lacking. After explaining my innocent disorientation and begging for my life, I, in turn, asked after his story. He moved his face close enough to mine that I could accurately count all three of his remaining teeth and responded that he was the high priest of the biggest satanic cult in the entire state of Arizona. It was only then that I noticed the bright-red goat pentagram tattooed on his, well, forehead.

I looked down at my watch and mumbled words to the effect of, “Oh, my! Look at the time! I must be on my merry way!”

The margarita-swilling dead woman trumped the three-toothed devil worshipper.


Naturally, I assumed the dead woman was bullshitting me and/or so drunk that her immediate reality was blurred and/or batshit crazy and/or trying to dissuade further attempts at discourse. All she did was inflame my curiosity, which, upon further reflection, may have been her intent after all, as I assume it could get a bit lonely being dead in a lively ski town.

She told me she was, of all fortuitous coincidences, in the emergency room of the hospital in which she worked when it happened: a fatal brain aneurysm. One second, she was standing there scratching her ass, the next second, she hit the deck like a monster load of elephant dung splatting down on the dusty African veldt. Almost immediately, she was under the care of a medical team consisting of her co-workers. They performed valiantly, the dead woman told me, but their efforts were in vain. She felt herself slipping away. She had always thought talk of a bright white light was poppycock concocted by the swirling brain chemistry of people with one foot in the grave who were yanked back from the mortality precipice. Her opinion changed as she lay dying.

“I was greeted by my ancestors,” she said, over yet another margarita. “They were standing there, intensely illuminated, waiting to help me cross over. It was lovely.”

“How did you know they were your ancestors?” I asked, with just the slightest hint of cerveza-enhanced skepticism creeping into my intonation.

“Among my earliest childhood memories was a great-great aunt, who must have been in her 90s when I was a toddler,” the dead woman responded. “She was there. I recognized her. She told me the other people were my ancestors.”

The dead woman, though, was not yet all the way gone. Back in the emergency room, the attending physician, who she knew well, whispered in her ear, “I am going to administer one last drug. It won’t work, but I still have to try. I hope your journey to the other side goes smoothly.”

(Along about here, the dead woman’s narrative thread started to lose whatever minimal linear coherency it had maintained up until this point, a situation likely exacerbated by the fact that I, like her, had not exactly been practicing teetotalism during the course of our convoluted conversation.)

“As he guessed, the drug was not effective, but it was effective enough that it pulled me away from my ancestors,” the dead woman said. “I was in no man’s land — neither conscious nor unconscious, neither alive nor dead, for three months. Back in the hospital, they called it a coma.”

When she finally emerged from her coma, she was, she said, dead. And she has been dead ever since.

“Was it like an out-of-body experience, where your spirit rose and looked back down on yourself still lying on the bed?”

“No,” the dead woman said. “There was no disconnection. My eyes opened and I sat up, dead.”

“When that happened, weren’t you in the same hospital in which you suffered your brain aneurism and did you not then walk among the very same people who had worked to save your life in the emergency room a quarter-year prior? Did they not welcome you back to the land of the living with the same degree of enthusiasm with which your ancestors welcomed you to the land of the dead?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’ll admit that part was strange. It was very disorienting to suddenly be in the presence of people who did not understand that I had died.”


The dead woman had previously made reference to her children. So I asked about that. How could she possibly still have interactions with her offspring if she and they dwelled on different sides of the great divide?

“I am completely different than I was when I was alive,” she said. “I do not like the same things. I never used to like tequila, for instance, and now I can’t seem to get enough of it. Because I am so different, my children are very different. They are not the same people they were before I died.”

“You still visit them, right?”

“Yes, several times a year.”

“Do you appear to them as an apparition?”

“Maybe. I don’t know how I appear to them. We interact, but in a completely different way than before.”

“Do they consider you dead?”

“They know I am no longer alive.”

“By what means do you travel to visit them?” I asked. “Teleportation?”

“My driver’s license expired shortly after I did,” she said with a smile. “So I fly.”

Shit, I thought, every kid’s worst nightmare: Being haunted by your mom after she dies. Every kid’s second-worst nightmare: Being visited by a mom who thinks she’s dead. I mean, my mom certainly had her faults, but, in the 30-plus years she’s been gone, she has never once dropped in for a posthumous visit, which I appreciate more than words can convey.

“Speaking of which,” I asked, “how did you come to be in this town?”

“I was called here by forces I could not define or resist. I arrived on a Greyhound bus in the middle of the night with no money, no place to sleep, no job, no life. I did not know a soul here.”

The dead woman went on to say, by way of what I assumed to be an attempt at clarification, that all of our cultural perceptions about death and the so-called hereafter are based upon notions of either/or: you are either alive or you are dead. Sure, she admitted, there are a few rare grey areas, like, I would guess, when you’re lying in bed for three months in a vegetative state with all manner of tubes running up your nose, down your throat and up your ass and the ever-present EKG and EEG machines making those endless bleep-bleep noises — any sane person’s definition of hell on earth.

Our perceptions toward the afterlife, according to my newfound a-corporeal drinking chum, are based upon the belief that there is a partition, the other side of which is found a world that essentially defies our understanding of rational thought and the foundational laws of physics, a confusing place occupied by spirits, angels and characters from Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas.”

“The notion that the afterlife is totally different from the living world is complete fiction, the work of self-proclaimed visionaries looking to explain the unexplainable to people desperate enough for something to believe in that they are willing to believe in utter nonsense,” the dead woman said. “There isn’t a wall between life and death. If anything, it is more like a permeable membrane. Like cosmic Gore-Tex. Or cheesecloth.”

But the mountain-town in which this conversation was transpiring was obviously very different from the place she was during that brief time when her ancestors stood arrayed before her as the emergency room people were trying to pull her back. Where was that place and how does it relate to a watering that, I surmised, served as a sort of post-death interstate-highway rest area, a purgatory with bowls of Chex Mix thoughtfully placed before every patron.

“I don’t know,” she answered. “I’m still trying to figure that out. I go looking for them every day. I walk the streets in the early morning hoping they will appear. I would rather be with them than sitting in this bar day after day.”

I suggested she consider visiting other establishments, there being endless options in this town.

She said this was the only place that made margaritas the way she liked them.

“Have you ever thought about killing yourself,” I offered by way of a positive solution to her apparent after-life dilemma. “Maybe you get deeper into the afterlife the more times you die. Or, maybe dying when you’re already dead amounts to a mortality double negative. Maybe you would be reborn as the person you were before you died.”

“I have no idea where a dead person goes when he or she dies,” she said softly, staring into her glass, which was glowing in the late-afternoon sunlight. “The thought scares me. I plan to wait to see what happens. At least for a while longer.”


The theological implications of the dead woman’s perspectives and contentions were both well above my alcohol-numbed intellectual pay grade and unsettling on several levels, not the least of which being that, if she were indeed dead, and the place where we were imbibing our libations was some inexplicable variation on the “what’s-next?” theme, then wouldn’t it logically follow that everyone else at that time in that bar would, likewise, have to be deceased? Including, you know, me.

“Though I do not know for sure, I would not be the least bit surprised if you were dead also,” she said far more nonchalantly than I thought appropriate, given the inherent implications of the message.

“But but but — unlike you, I do not remember dying,” I stammered.

“Maybe it happened so suddenly, the experience did not have time to imprint. Maybe you had a sudden heart attack way out in the woods and you died instantly. Or maybe you got vaporized by a falling meteor. I don’t know what happened to you. That’s your concern, not mine.”

In the movie, “The Sixth Sense,” the creepy little kid said that most dead people did not know they were dead. Could that be the case here and now?

Equally concerning in this increasingly morbid context, in that same movie, the creepy little kid was able to see dead people. That might be worse than actually being dead. But, if I was cursed with being able to see dead people, then I was sure enough not the only person in this bar thus afflicted. The bartender could clearly see the dead woman, who he addressed by name as he served her one margarita after another. Unless, of course, he too was dead and, like the creepy little kid, I was able to discern them both!

I was fast beginning to regret my decision to smoke a bowl of hash before entering the bar.

I have not seen, heard or read any codified religious references to the possibility that, when you die, you end up in a mountain-town bar drinking with the likes of yours truly. Such a scenario would likely not set so well with the more fundamentalist sectors of society. No lounging around on a cloud plucking at harp strings while the dogs from your childhood frolicked at your feet. No bright white light. Not even any burning in hell. Just a bar, a seeming endless supply of adult beverages and the occasional fellow dead person with whom you can while away the afternoon. Many would be sorely disappointed by this manifestation of the hereafter, but others, including me, would end up much relieved. Damned sight better than burning in hell. And better also than waking up and realizing that you had been reincarnated as a dung beetle or a leper in Calcutta.

We take what we can get out of life, I suppose.

(I will venture this guess: The first organized religion that promises its adherents an afterlife that includes time spent in a ski-town bar will see a dramatic rise in its membership. Perhaps there’s room for a holy man in this mythical sect, which I proclaim shall be named “Barism!”)

When I returned from a visit to the men’s room, the dead woman was gone. Her glass was gone, as was the coaster upon which that glass sat. The stool that had so recently borne her posterior was pushed up close to the bar — by who, I do not know. It was as though she had never been there, which, I’ll admit, seemed a bit creepy.

Many years ago, I had this buddy, long since — appropriate enough for this tale — passed away. He was one of my high school teachers. We hated each other with a passion that twice approached physical violence, which would not have turned out so well for me, as he was a weight-lifting, martial-artist, ex-Marine. The class he taught was well outside my realm of comprehension, even if I had given the slightest shit, which I did not. Though it mortifies me in retrospect, I was not just a desultory student. I was also a disruptive student, one who negatively impacted the vibe of the classroom. I was a one-man academic wrecking crew. I do not blame the teacher for hating me.

Once I graduated by the skin of my teeth, that teacher and I reconciled our differences (mainly because we both enjoyed ingesting illegal intoxicants) and became fast enough compadres that we shared a house for a few months. During that time, he was dating a lady who was still in high school. These days, that would be a prosecutable offense. Even then, this affair bordered on an audacious indiscretion.

But they were in love. Eventually, teacher and student got married, and married they stayed for decades. Then, one day, with absolutely zero in the way of discernible forewarning, my friend’s wife woke up a completely different person. Something had happened during the night to reshape her entire personality. Maybe a really bad dream. Maybe demonic possession. Whatever it was, when the alarm went off, she became a stranger to her husband and herself. This was not sudden-onset amnesia. She knew who she was. She knew who her spouse was. But she liked things she previously hated and vice-versa. Out went her old wardrobe. She traded in her car.

They visited every manner of health-care professional looking for a diagnosis and a treatment. To no avail. Her condition could, they were told, be a result of any one of a dozen mental disorders — schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD et al. It could, they were told, be a result of a heart attack, stroke or, yes, a brain aneurism. Or it could be a ruse.

The couple eventually divorced.

My buddy related this story on one of my infrequent visits back to the place I say I am “from.” He indicated it was, to say the least, a surreal experience. “It was as though she had died and come back a different person,” said the man I once detested, the man who once detested me.

Maybe this is what happened to the dead lady in the bar. She had, after all, suffered a major medical malady. Despite her insistence on labeling it as something more ethereal, she lay dormant for three solid months before regaining consciousness. If my friend’s wife could rise one otherwise normal morning and be someone completely different with no apparent impetus, it is not just possible, but likely that the margarita-swilling dead woman could emerge from her vegetative cocoon likewise transformed beyond recognition.

But she was convinced it was much more than that. And who was I to disagree? If, as the margarita-swilling dead woman had speculated, I, too, no longer walked among the living, then it would have bordered on hypocritical for me to argue that she was both alive and delusional and that it was highly unlikely the hereafter, or an ill-defined component of the hereafter, was a bar in a ski town that happened to serve heavenly margaritas. And, if, as I believed at the time and I continue to believe, I yet live and breathe (in the traditional sense, that is), then I would have had little standing to weigh in on a subject about which I had zero in the way of applicable expertise.

Whatever the case, I did consider the possibility of having become inebriated with a dead woman to be a somewhat sobering experience.

Like every single one of us, I have no idea what happens when our time is up. It is not a subject I have spent much time pondering. It would be nice if it involved beer, bars and beautiful summer evenings in the mountains. That would be good enough for me, even it went on for the better part of eternity. No need for angels. No need for demons either. But all are welcome when it’s happy-hour time, so long as lyres and pitchforks are left outside on the other side of the gate.

I downed the last of many pints and ventured forth into the tilting sunlight, which was angled low enough that I had to shade my eyes for fear of walking straight into something completely unforeseen. Potential obstacles notwithstanding, I had myself a decent buzz, and there was still ample time for a walk along the river before darkness fell.

It felt mighty good to be alive, even if maybe I was not.








Smoke Signals

O.J. goes down the river


Over the course of three years, O.J. Simpson took at least a half-dozen vacation trips to altitudinous Summit County, Colorado. Two-plus years ago, the Summit Daily News carried numerous flattering photos of Simpson and a straightforward celebrity-comes-to-town-type story penned by my friend and long-time partner-in-journalistic-crime, Kimberly Nicoletti. It is accurate to say that a letters-to-the-editor firestorm ensued. Many people were absolutely goddamned red-faced incensed that the Summit Daily, a paper I helped start in 1989, would treat Simpson in such a neutral fashion. Advertisements were pulled, subscriptions were cancelled and the editor received many irate calls.

Once the first wave of righteously indignant letters was printed, many retorts followed. The theme of those retorts centered around fundamental jurisprudence, that old “he was found innocent of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman in 1995, so leave this man alone” argument, which, well, is hard to ignore and/or refute in a country founded on the notion of innocent until proved guilty.

The inevitable retorts to those retorts centered around the, “yeah, well, we all know he did it despite the verdict” argument. And so it went until the snow fell and ski season began and everyone’s attention moved on to more relevant and palpable High Country matters, like getting wood in and keeping the walk shoveled. If there is one thing you can say about life in the High Country, it’s that the cultural attention span lasts only until the next powder day.

The weird(est) part of the whole Simpson-visits-Summit-County saga (at least to me) was that people — locals and visitors alike — lined up to have their pictures taken with The Juice, and word had it that when he ventured into Downstairs at Eric’s in Breckenridge or Farley’s (now the Fifth Avenue Grill) in Frisco — two of his favorite imbiberies (and, coincidentally, two of my favorites also, though I have never personally run into Simpson) — he rarely had to pay for his own drinks. He was treated not like a probable double-murderer, but, rather, like the first man to ever rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single (14-game) season, like the man who won the Heisman Trophy in 1968, like the five-time Pro Bowl selection.

He was toasted, lauded and welcomed, much like John Elway, the legendary Denver Broncos quarterback who for a long time owned a home in Summit County.

I have trouble mentally sussing out whether the positive reception Simpson was always given in Summit County speaks highly or lowly of my mountain-dwelling brethren. This is, after all, a part of the country where past-life transgressions have often been overlooked in the name of survival-based immediacy. You know, innocent verdict to the contrary, this man might very well be a double murderer, but, still, I might need him to help pull my car out of a snow bank some blustery January night up on Hoosier Pass. Mountain Country has long required that slates be, at a minimum, polished up or, at a maximum, wiped flat-out clean. It is a place of new beginnings forged by a necessity born of wild remoteness.

While he was in Summit County, people reported that Simpson was the very definition of friendliness, decorum and humility. By all accounts (including his own), he blended in perfectly with the local culture by drinking often and heavily (straight Dewar’s White Label being his beverage-of-choice, according to Nicoletti). He also played golf almost every day while in the High Country. He apparently liked to hike. He was often quoted effusing about the beauty of nature and the power of the mountains.

Last July, O.J. and his long-time girlfriend Christie Prody once again visited Summit County, likely for one last relaxing vacation before Simpson’s next, some would cynically say predestined, interaction with the judicial system, the Nevada trial wherein he faced a whole slew of new and intriguing charges, including robbery with a deadly weapon, burglary with a firearm, first-degree kidnapping with use of a deadly weapon, coercion with use of a deadly weapon, conspiracy to commit robbery, conspiracy to commit kidnapping and conspiracy to commit a crime.

On July 25, Simpson and Prody signed up for a half-day rafting trip along a languid section of the Colorado River near Kremmling. The rafting company is owned by two of my closest Summit County chums, who, for obvious reasons, have asked that I use discretion while penning this piece. My friends showed me a copy of the liability waiver that Simpson and Prody had to sign, the same as mere mortals, before being allowed into the raft. It is hard to express the surreal feeling of handling this document, with its long list of potential risks, which included among many other components, a reminder to rafters that a river journey can result in “soft tissue damage” and “death.” Did he sense any irony when he read those words (if he even did read those mortality-based warnings)?

My friends said that Simpson was treated like any other client: With professionalism and with the safety of all involved being the paramount concern. The single biggest issue apparently was the fact that the once-lithe Juice had grown rotund enough that they had trouble fitting a PFD around his girth. That, and, well, he seemed a bit miffed that there weren’t any scheduled beverage stops along the way.

I have given more thought than the subject merits to the notion of one of this country’s most notorious characters sitting in a raft with a group of unsuspecting folks from Omaha and Ohio, floating down toward State Bridge. What thoughts go through this man’s head as he goes about the business of living in a society where he is ridiculed behind his back but still treated like a celebrity out in public? Does he regret his choices? Or does he smirk at the thought of having dodged one very serious bullet that was aimed directly at his head? And, more than that: What were the other paying customers thinking about sharing a raft with none other than O.J. Simpson, a man that many people believe has blood on his hands. Did that blood rub off on the paddles?

A very weird part of me is at least partially thankful that a flawed character like Simpson likes to spend time in the mountains, even though I wish he’d choose someplace farther away, like maybe Alaska (nothing against the Alaskans). For, even though I am one of those people who truly believe Simpson got away with murder, I also believe that the mountains are capable of transforming people by their very presence. I would have had trouble sitting next to Simpson in a raft. I would have fantasized about nudging his ample ass out of the boat in the middle of a rapid, though, in this case, there were no rapids. And, if he walked into Farley’s or Downstairs at Eric’s while I was there, I would leave and likely spit on my way out the door, except that I respect the owners of those two establishments too much to embarrass them in that way.

But people can be and often are reborn in Mountain Country. This we all know. Redemption and transformation happen in the shadow of tall peaks, redefinition has always been allowed at altitude, and there is such a thing as rebirth in the land of thin air. In a context as large as O.J. Simpson, that sentiment might be overly optimistic, bordering on blatantly naive. Even the mountains have their limits, as evidenced by the fact that, in October 2008, 13 years after he was acquitted of killing his wife and her friend in Los Angeles, Simpson was found guilty on all 12 counts he faced in Las Vegas. In December, he was sentenced to 33 years in prison, though he will be eligible for parole in a little more than nine years, at which time he will be 70. As he stares at the cold walls that will frame his life for at least a decade, where which way will his daydreams flow? Will he mentally hearken back to his roaring-crowd football-hero days at USC and with the Buffalo Bills? Or will his thoughts climb towards the distant Rockies, where he once hiked, played golf, rafted and imbibed beneath the lofty peaks of the place I called home for almost 20 years? A place where he was quoted as saying it was easy for him to relax.

My wife has no pity for Simpson. She feels he was born a criminal and, therefore, his fall from grace was as assured as the flow of the mighty Colorado River. And she is of course correct. The innate wiring of some people can’t be dissuaded, even by the power and glory of the high peaks. Life is neither that easy nor that predictable.

Smoke Signals

Muddy boots at a swanky Aspen soiree


Last winter, while temporarily living on both the literal and metaphoric fringes of Aspen, Colorado, I was — for no other reason than I possessed a business card containing the word “reporter” — invited to a swanky soiree held in the gilded heart of hyper-affluent unreality. This was not my place. These were not my people. (All photos taken while wandering haphazardly around Aspen with my uncoiffed New Mexico rescue dog.)



Part One

Overheard upon leaving the most-upscale men’s room it has ever been my pleasure to urinate in (I washed my hands twice just to extend the experience) (I also pocketed two high-quality washcloths from the large, folded stack next to the sink), located in the plushest hotel in one of the richest municipalities in the world: “Then tell the governor to go fuck himself!” — exclaimed via Bluetooth into a cell phone by a well-appointed middle-aged gentleman who exuded entitled confidence from every pore.

He was sitting in a hallway on a velvet sofa, legs crossed, wearing Italian-looking leather shoes so shiny I could see in them the reflection of a scruffy man befouling the thick carpet with muddy hiking boots.

I wondered for several minutes afterward to which governor the man was referring. I also wondered what the governor’s response would be. I further wondered about the person on the other end of the line, who just got ordered, probably by the person who signs his or her paycheck, to tell the governor to go fuck himself. Who among us would not give a nut to act upon such an order?




Part Two

The people gathered in the chandeliered room were among the richest of the rich. People at perfect ease casually dropping the first names of presidents to folks who did not seem overly impressed. People able to afford to donate without blinking unimaginably large swaths of land to the local preservation fund (the entity hosting this soiree) in one of the priciest real estate environments on the planet.

A tidy and trim woman of maybe 75 walks up to me and, apropos of nothing I could perceive, asks, “So, do you own a ranch nearby?” Once I clean up the stream of snot that shot from my nose like water from a high-pressure fire hose, I responded, “Lady, not only do I not own a ranch nearby, but I can barely afford to buy a beer in this town.”

Her head tilted off kilter a slight degree or two, and the expression on her face was like she had just noticed something mighty peculiar, but not necessarily threatening, out on the farthest reaches of her peripheral vision and was having a tough time processing the inexplicable sensory input — like maybe she had noticed an albino ballerina walking down the sidewalk leading a pygmy hippopotamus by a leash.

“Oh, you poor thing,” she said, lightly touching my forearm. “Let me buy you a beer.” “Lady, I appreciate the gesture, but the beverages at this shindig are complimentary, which is the main reason I am here.”

“Well, there you go, then,” she said, before disappearing back into the warm embrace of her socioeconomic kith and kin, leaving me to stand next to a tuxedo’d bartender from Chihuahua who literally giggled every time yet another bill was dropped into his wine-carafe tip jar.



Part Three

The cloakroom attendant — a very pretty young lady with a thick Slavic accent — in the private bar area of the stunningly high-priced hotel was reluctant to take my well-used jet-black Northface fleece jacket. Admittedly, my garment had seen better days. It was covered with enough blonde Lab-mix fur to knit a scarf. It smelled of smoke, sweat and spilled beer. It had a few mud splats that I probably ought to have scraped off before entering this highbrow establishment. There were several holes burned through by floating embers and popping seeds.

I thought about telling the attendant about some of the places the jacket had been. To establish garment provenance by relating a story or two — like using the coat for a pillow while sleeping on the ground on the rim of the Rio Grande del Norte. Then there was that unfortunate dog-barf incident. But I thought better of it. (Her loss.)

The Slavic cloakroom attendant could not have recoiled any more intensely when I proffered my jacket had I handed her a used condom. She took my garment between the very last molecules of her forefinger and thumb, and placed it on a rack otherwise dominated by mink and sable, which are apparently back in karmic vogue.

When it was time to leave some wobbly hours later, I had to ask a couple of nearby fashionably bedecked ladies how much it was customary to tip a coat-check lady, this being my virginal experience with such a civilized enterprise. I hoped against faint hope that the answer was not going to be something like “$500.” They looked at me like they were wondering how a panhandler managed to gain access to the gilded premises in which they were comfortably ensconced and reposed.

“A dollar,” one replied after regaining her social equilibrium, which, in my mind, took a bit longer to attain that it ought to have. It was only later that I realized my fly — which, given that I was standing and they were sitting, hovered scant feet in front of their wide eyes — was completely unzipped.

Still oblivious to my open-fly situation, I handed the Slavic lady two bucks after she retrieved my jacket, which she, again, carried like it was both toxic and contagious. Sadly, one of the crumpled bills did not successfully make the leap from my hand to hers and flitted like a wounded butterfly down to the thick carpet. From the expression on the face of the Slavic lady — who likely held a PhD in biochemistry back in Moldova or Belarus — I could tell she thought I had dropped the legal tender on purpose, to further humiliate her newfound station in life.

Mortified, I leaned over to retrieve the bill at the exact instant that she leaned over to retrieve the bill and — THUMP!!! — our noggins collided hard enough that I saw lightning bolts. As I, while rubbing the knot that had instantaneously sprouted from my forehead, uttered the most heartfelt apologies ever to sprung forth from my lips, she stood up, with nary a flinch, and returned to the cloakroom.

I proudly put my jacket on and, after leaving the stunningly high-priced hotel, I walked through the darkness past row after row of showroom-shiny Range Rovers and Mercedes G-Glass SUVs to my filthy old 4Runner, in which was found the rescue dog whose blonde fur covered my coat and whose yak was intertwined into its fabric like DNA strands and who slept by my side on the ground on the rim of the Rio Grande del Norte. That dog reacted happily when I gave her a handful of cheese cubes heisted from the buffet back inside the chandeliered room in which the swanky soiree was held. Then she fell asleep, perfectly content with the circumstances in which she dwells.



Smoke Signals

Quickish sand


Act 1

Over the course of about a tenth of a second that was defined by high adrenaline, after having jumped off a small rock ledge while hiking down a saturated arroyo I have been visiting of late, I had this mental conversation with myself (think of Tom Hanks’ maintaining discourse with Wilson while stranded on that island in “Cast Away”) (except that I had once again neglected to bring with me a volleyball) (and I wasn’t stranded on an island):

Wilson (sporting an expression that would be considered passive were it not for the fact that his entire face consists of a bloody hand print): “   ?”

Tom Hanks: “Yes, I know there’s quicksand in these parts!”

Wilson (whose countenance does not fully reflect what would likely be growing exasperation, were he not a volleyball): “   ?”

Tom Hanks: “Of course I know, after last week’s heavy rain, that these are optimal circumstances for the development of pockets of quicksand in a sandy arroyo!”

Wilson (whose unflinching stare is getting kinda creepy): “   ?”

Tom Hanks: “YES! I know what to do if you find yourself mired in quicksand!”

Wilson (whose legitimate concern is reflected by his palm-frond bouffant being tousled by the otherwise pleasant tropical breeze): “   ?”

Tom Hanks: “I read it in a book, that’s how!”

Wilson (whose eyes do seem to be rolling if you view them from just the right angle): “   ?”

Tom Hanks (with faux incredulity): “I checked it out of the library!”

Wilson (befuddled): “   ?”

Tom Hanks: “I KNOW there’s no library on this island! It was long before I met you!”


Then my feet hit solid ground and I walked on, having only sunk in about Achilles-tendon deep.


Wilson (smirking): “   ?”

Tom Hanks: “Don’t worry … I won’t jump into potential soft spots any more! Jeez! You must think I’m an idiot! Besides, the actual danger posed by quicksand is highly overrated and overwhelmingly misstated.”




Act 2

Not two minutes later, my dog Casey, walking, as is her habit, ahead of me, jumped off a different rock ledge — one she has launched from numerous times before — onto what appeared to be nothing more than flood-swirled mud lining the bottom of the arroyo.

Before I could react enough to utter a frantic, “Oh, shit!” Casey was pretty much gone. The only visible physical components were the tip of her nose and the tip of her tail.

Thankfully, she bound out of her predicament so finger-snap quick that the wet dirt did not even have time to adhere to her fur. She shook and ran off, barely breaking stride.

Had the pocket been six inches deeper, I would not have known how far down it went, for nothing of my dog would have remained evident. I would have had to take a leap of faith in hopes of extricating my submerged canine companion.


Once I ascertained there was little risk, I tried to coax Casey back into the mire from which she had just effortlessly escaped, for the sake of photographically recording the circumstances for posterity. She was less than enthusiastic. I articulated the misconceptions regarding quicksand in hopes that she would see things my way. She did not. By the time she reached the spot-in-question, the viscosity had stabilized, so she did not once more sink, much to my disappointment.

We passed by this same area on the way out. She gave it a wide berth, lest her pet human’s knowledge of the properties of quicksand were inaccurate.


Smoke Signals

The devil incarnate

Author’s note: Since March 2016, I have been working on a long-and-winding memoir titled, “Back East: A Topophobic Road Trip Down Memory Lane,” which deals with a two-month journey I took to reconnect with the places of my youth, mainly Frankfort, Kentucky; Plattsburgh, New York; and Gloucester, Virginia. This is the first time in a long writing career that I have birthed a book via pencil. I then utilize a Dragon voice-recognition software program to translate those scribbled words into pixels, which takes a lot of time, though it is time well spent, as, since I like for my writing to resemble, as much as possible, the way I speak, this tedious technique allows me to add vocal-ish inflection to transcriptive communication. As it stands, I have finished four of six sections, totaling between 150,000 and 200,000 words. When completed, “Back East” will likely contain between 350,000 and 400,000 words. I have pulled myself off this project for a month, at the behest of my literary agent, to work on a formal book proposal centered around my recently completed quest to hike every day for a solid year with my dog, Casey, who was also with me on my “Back East” journey. I hope to be done with the first draft of  “Back East” by the end of December. This snippet, which is not yet polished into final form, comes from a week I spent in Plattsburgh, where I lived for my first 12 years.



Scene of the crime: Bailey Avenue Elementary School .


“Angels of fire
I’m here on the outside
This evil within
Has got me addicted”

— “Angels of Fire,” the Jezabels


I drove with Casey to Bailey Avenue Elementary school, which I attended first and second grades while still living on Plattsburgh Air Force Base, and again in the fourth grade, after the only world we knew was shattered, after we were unceremoniously punted out into civilian life following the drowning death at age 32 of my stepfather, a captain who had served as a navigator on a B-52 during the darkest days of the Cold War.

Since it was a Saturday, the school was locked tight. Fortunately, there is a dog park located right next door. While Casey cavorted with the North Woods canine crowd (pleasantly heavy on scruffy, goofy mutts adopted from the local pound), I was able to sniff the musty/sweet air that often wafts down Memory Lane. From where I sat, I could see the windows lining the very room where I came to understand that, from my self-absorbed perspective, mandatory formal education was less a road to enlightenment than it was a particularly cruel and ironic form of incarceration.

My first-grade teacher was a strict though pleasant lady of maybe 40 named Mrs. Pfeiffer, who somehow managed to teach my recalcitrant, ADHD self the rudiments of reading, a skill I did not come to appreciate, much less cultivate, until I was old enough to legally drink. Consequently, to this day, I am a poor reader.

The one classmate I remember was a pretty blonde named Janice Gustafson, who, over the course of the next several years, became one of my best friends. Janice, who had never stepped foot on the base before meeting me, was a townie raised by a single mom in a partially disintegrating abode that also housed a drooling grandparent or two and a sibling with clear behavioral issues. It was a domestic environment as marginal as my own, though different in its specific makeup.

Janice was what we called in those insensitive cultural days a “tomboy.” She could run through the woods with admirable reckless abandon, but she did not have a destructive, criminal bone in her body, usually a prerequisite for membership in my wayward social circle. She didn’t exactly overlook my inclinations toward arson, vandalism, thievery, criminal mischief and trespass, but she wanted no part of any activity that could result in disappointing her already-haggard mother. It was just not in her nature.

When I was with Janice, we played tackle football, pretended we were rock stars by lip-syncing songs by the Beatles (“A Hard Day’s Night”) and the Stones (“As Tears Go By” and “19th Nervous Breakdown”) and skipping stones across the stagnant pond located at the bottom of a nearby abandoned quarry that I walked by twice a day on my pedestrian way to and from school. Janice and I once launched a hastily constructed raft onto that pond, but it promptly sank on its maiden voyage. We laughed about that for months.

Given her ethnic background, Janice and I tried, via a tattered phrasebook, to learn Swedish, but only got as far as (and here I rely upon poor memory combined with poor phoneticization): “Rerk in tah un cigaret.” “Don’t smoke a cigarette.” We considered ourselves borderline bilingual. Our classmates were mighty impressed as we wandered around, saying“Rerk in tah un cigaret” over and over. This is what passed for cosmopolitan in the North Woods.

In later years, we learned to ski together at a small rope-tow area called Beartown.

I recollect my second-grade year a bit better. The teacher was Mrs. Mathis, the first person who ever encouraged me to try transferring my untethered inclination to gab incessantly onto paper, probably in faint hope of getting me to occasionally quit running my mouth. She did not negatively judge the results of my newfound attraction to penning stories, or, if she did, she kept those judgments to herself. She was one of the few teachers — and here I’m talking about all the way through college — who inspired my transcriptive endeavors. While in Mrs. Mathis’ second-grade class, I wrote my first book, the title of which escapes me, though the basic plot does not: It was centered around a noble young man who found himself misunderstood by a world of dim-witted adults who did not appreciate his many obvious talents, which caused him to devise a plan to rid the world of everyone over 20. There were ray guns and malevolent aliens who considered the protagonist to be an enlightened being worthy of worship. Mrs. Mathis graciously annotated the work with the words, “very imaginative.” I suspect she followed her succinct review with a call to the school guidance counselor.

It was from Mrs. Mathis, who wore short skirts and had really nice legs, that we learned about the assassination of President Kennedy. Everyone cried, though we were too immature to accurately process the information and its implications. I, personally, did not really understand what a president was. But, as a result of that national tragedy, we got a few days off school, so all was not lost. During that short period of national mourning, I saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV.

Mrs. Mathis left Plattsburgh shortly thereafter, moving to Florida because her husband had been transferred to a different base. The whole class cried once again, which in turn made Mrs. Mathis cry. Thereafter, we were taught by a series of temporary teachers who did not make a lasting impression.

Early on during the school year, an enticing combination of fiscal and criminal opportunity knocked so loudly, it could not be ignored. Before recess, which took place in late morning, those students who bought lunch in the cafeteria — which covered the majority of the 30 or so pupils in Mrs. Mathis’ class — placed their lunch money — I believe it was 25 or 30 cents — on the upper right-hand corner of their desks, so the school secretary, a perpetually morose middle-aged woman named Mrs. Marcy, could come around and collect the cash. As far as efficient monetary retrieval and accounting methodologies go, this one was inexplicably ill conceived. I’m proud to report that I played a prominent role in the school administration opting to scrap that procedure in favor of one that was even more stupid.

For a week or two, I scrutinized this system, trying to come up with a plan. It wasn’t hard. What I decided to do was, when recess was called and the other students hemorrhaged out of the room at breakneck speed — Mrs. Mathis trying and failing to herd the group into a semblance of orderliness — I would linger — sometimes under the highly unlikely guise of putting the finishing touches on a particularly vexing arithmetic problem, sometimes pretending to use the restroom, sometimes simply lagging behind. I would then make the rounds, picking up a nickel here, a dime there, never the full amount, never the same desks on consecutive days. Then I would stroll out to the playground with my pockets jingling and an innocent song on my lips.

Lucrative though this crime spree might have been (all things being relative), there was no way on earth I was going to pull it off over the long haul. I should have taken week- or month-long hiatuses designed to defuse suspicion. But my greed got the best of me, as it always did.

Initially, the shortfalls were written off by way of speculating that a given student, whose lunch money was inexplicably missing a dime, had simply miscalculated. Maybe this other student had lost an errant nickel while walking to school. Or maybe he or she had stopped by a grocery store to purchase a pack of gum and didn’t want to admit to spending money specifically earmarked for the midday repast. There was even speculation that perhaps Mrs. Marcy had messed up. The thought that there was a thief among us apparently was never seriously considered.

Inevitably, some light bulbs began to illuminate the thought processes of the resident grown-ups, who consequently organized a primitive surveillance operation, wherein Mrs. Marcy would hide in the classroom utility closet with the door ajar, while Mrs. Mathis peeked through the windows from the playground. It took a couple days, but, eventually, I was caught red-handed. Damn! I likely could have evolved into a successful criminal — the kind profiled on contemporary shows like “The Defenders” and “The Saint” — except for the bad habit of always getting caught! I routinely spent far too much time planning my various escapades and not enough time formulating the means by which I could avoid apprehension. Were I a bank robber, I would have neglected to check the gas gauge on the getaway car. That’s a definite shortcoming when you’re an aspiring felon.

I was summarily perp-walked to the principal’s office and my mom was called and apprised of the latest transgression committed by her eldest child. Mom then showed once again that she missed her vocational calling; she should have been employed by the military in some sort of psychological warfare capacity. After hearing the charges against me read in full, she patted me gently on the head, assured the principal she would take care of the problem and told me to expect a nice surprise when I arrived home from school later that afternoon. I was sent back to class, where I was once again shunned by every other student, except Janice Gustafson, who always stuck with me, no matter what form my anti-social behavior took, because that behavior was never pointed in her direction. I believe she must have seen a kernel of good somewhere deep down in a sea of muck and mire. Or maybe she was attracted to bad boys.

I spent the next few hours shitting my pants in expectation of a beating I would surely receive the instant I arrived back at our drab military residence. Based upon considerable experience, I assumed mom would be awaiting my return with fire in her eye, wielding the dreaded cane — her weapon of choice for many years. (I still, more than half-a-century later, bear a scar delivered by the cane on the back of my left hand.)

Unexpectedly, she was sitting calmly at the Formica kitchen table, which had upon it a paper grocery bag that contained what appeared to be a medium-sized box. She calmly commanded me to sit across from her. Unfortunately for my mental well being, this confrontation took place two weeks prior to Halloween.

Every Halloween since I passed my short-lived “Have-Gun-Will-Travel/Paladin” phase, I had dressed in a flimsy store-bought devil costume. Cheesy, yes, but it fit my persona and my spirit like a glove. I loved sliding into the bright red onesie adorned with sparkles that looked when I strode past the base’s dim street lights like glittering flame. I loved the contrived anonymity of the cheap plastic mask, adorned with protruding horns, with eye slits just barely big enough to see through. Dressing up as the devil was one of the highlights of my year, ranking up with the annual TV broadcast of “The Wizard of Oz.”

That joy was about to be snatched away by my evil mom.

She told me, as punishment for my lunch-money larceny, that, not only would I not be dressing up as the devil, but — she drew this part out while patting the paper bag on the table — she had decided it would do me good to travel through the neighborhood begging for candy dressed up as an … angel! My mom had purchased a goddamned angel costume, which included — I was told by this cold-hearted woman — a little wand, a set of wings and, worst of all, a halo! My heart sank as I conjured up an image of “Glinda,” the “Good Witch of the South,” who, I understand, was not technically an angel, but that’s what came to me at that tense moment.

My heart sank as I tossed dignity out the door by unabashedly prostrating myself. “I know I shouldn’t have stolen all their lunch money,” I pleaded, “and I promise to never do it again. I know I need to be punished severely, but please, beat me within an inch of my worthless life! Ground me forever! Put me to bed every night without dinner! Restrict my access to Saturday morning cartoons! Cut my ears off! Do all those things simultaneously, but, please, do not force me to go out trick-or-treating as an angel!”

I always sucked at abject groveling.


My worst nightmare.

Mom smiled cruelly, picked up the bag and sent me to my room, where I considered jumping out the second-story window rather than risking the indignity of being seen in public on the holiest of holidays dressed as an angel.

As I fretted over the course of the longest fortnight in recorded history, I entertained the thought of foregoing Halloween altogether rather than suffer the humiliation that would surely descend upon me if my chums saw me wearing a halo and wings. Mom milked this rare opportunity to emotionally scar her son clear down to the marrow. Every day, she would add to my ever-growing angst by saying something like, “Maybe some of the neighborhood girls will let you go trick-or-treating with them.” Or: “You’ll probably get more candy dressed as an angel.” And: “I’m hoping that being an angel will rub off on your behavior. Maybe you should go out as an angel every year!”

She kept the angel costume — still in its box, which was hidden in the brown paper bag — prominently displayed on the uppermost shelf of the dining-room buffet, directly above her prized Hummel collection. I hated those fucking Hummels — little boys wearing knee socks while reading or playing the violin and little girls snuggling with lambs or sitting in a well-trimmed tree while holding a basket — but they were mom’s most-prized possessions. She knew I would not risk assured capital punishment by climbing atop the buffet to dispose of that costume. If even one Hummel was displaced by so much as a millimeter, mom would know. Those Hummels served as knee-socked, basket-bearing guards. I wanted to dismember every one of then, then pour gas on them, then set them ablaze!

By Halloween morning, I was about to puke. The day’s festivities were set to commence at Bailey Avenue Elementary with a parade up and down the halls, during which the students proudly displayed their costumes. As I forlornly prepared myself for school, mom very theatrically pulled the goddamned angel costume down. She then theatrically removed it from the bag and placed it before my dejected self. By that point — zero hour, as it were — I had actually grown stoic, like a Viking warrior before pillaging a village — at the notion of trick-or-treating dressed as an extremely unlikely member of the heavenly host.

The concept of an avenging angel was several significant notches below my intellectual pay grade at that point in my young life, but that is essentially what I decided I would be. If I was going to be an angel, I would be something straight out of the Book of Revelation, which I had heard about the one and only time I’d been cajoled by a neighbor kid to join him and his family on a Sunday-morning visit to a house of worship called something like the “The Church of Perpetual Trembling Fear.”

While it might come as a surprise, I generally viewed Halloween as a night off from my budding career as a professional hoodlum. While the amateur juveniles were breaking loose with bush-league forms of vandalism like toilet-papering shrubbery and egging cars, I was all business, trying with the focus of a Wall Street hedge fund manager to increase my sucrose-thick portfolio. It was my sole goal to get my trick-or-treat bag as full as humanly possible over the course of a four- or five-hour window of opportunity.

We had contests between local kids, wherein, at the end of the night, we would compare the numbers of pieces of candy we had procured. Though it was often difficult to accurately judge the relative value of the individual components of a bag — do 10 Hershey’s Kisses equal one full-sized Snicker’s bar? — such concerns played second fiddle to the joy of barely being able to carry a bag fully laden with sugary wealth all the way home. There were 364 other nights available for more traditional bedlam. But in the lead-up to me being unleashed as a messenger of God, I had decided to forego my usual acquisitive consciousness and focus totally on wreaking Old-Testament-like angelic pandemonium throughout the base. Windows would be shattered. Tires slashed. Lawn decorations destroyed. The bags of younger trick-or-treaters stolen and scattered. Songs would be sung about my exploits!

As mom continued her slow-motion opening of the box, out of the corner of an eye that was livid with barely suppressed rage, I saw a flash of red. No angel costume I had ever seen contained so much of as a glimmer of that bright satanic shade. When the costume was fully unfurled, I saw, to my utter astonishment, that my mom held not the raiment of an angel, but, rather, that of the Prince of Darkness! The box even contained a trident with hard plastic tips sharp enough to pierce skin if properly thrust! I tried not to shriek with joy. Mom laid upon me a standard parental bullshit lecture about changing her mind at the very last minute (I learned to lie from my mom) because she felt confident I was sincerely remorseful and, if I crossed my heart and hoped to die that I would never ever under any circumstances, no matter how tempting, steal lunch money from my classmates again, I would be allowed to don the duds of the evil one. I swore. I double swore.



Now that’s more like it!

The annual parade of costumes up and down the halls of Bailey Avenue Elementary School was generally a somewhat staid affair that culminated with the awarding by the faculty of some inexpensive prizes — wax candy fake teeth seemed popular, as did golf-ball-sized red-hot Jawbreakers — for best costumes in each class.

Self-conscious youngsters were marched single file, one class at a time, past the other students. There were astronauts, nurses, race car drivers, monsters and, yes, angels. But, in the three years I attended Bailey Avenue Elementary School, there was only ever one devil, a perplexing reality likely blamed on the fact that the far northern reaches of New York State, a stone’s throw from French-speaking Canada, were heavily Catholic.

For about the first nine steps of Mrs. Mathis’ second-grade class procession, I remained as stoic as the rest of my peers. But I could not contain my excitement about having been resurrected as Satan. Ever the showoff, I began to taunt the kindergarten and first-grade students lining the hall, pretending to jab them with my trident, telling them they had better be on the lookout, lest I come and snatch them away and take them to a dark and unforgiving place, a candy-free zone, where the only sustenance was bread and water. (I dared not actually use the word “hell.”)

After initial shocked reactions, several of the other costumed kids went into character.

A soldier yelled, “Charge!” and started strafing the hallway with his fake rifle, spitting impressively accurate machine-gun noises from his pursed lips. A cowboy pulled out his six-shooter cap gun and pointed it at an Indian, who whooped and returned fire with a fake bow-and-arrow. Smoke from the caps filled the air. A pirate started swinging a cutlass in the general direction of a baseball player, who was carrying a bat. They ended up having a mismatched sword fight. In a prescient example of what America would one day become, a cop pulled out a set of plastic handcuffs and tried to take a nearby doctor into custody. The medical practitioner admirably resisted arrest and, when the police officer started pressing the issue, yelling, “you have to come with me!”, the doctor doinked him on the forehead with a rubber knee-reflex-testing hammer. The cop grabbed his unblemished noggin as though it had been split open with an ax. He started bawling and ran as fast as his stubby legs could carry him to the office, in front of which stood poor Mrs. Marcy, who, judging from her facial expression, was thinking something like “only three more years of this shit, and I can retire.”

It wasn’t long before the Halloween anarchy had spread throughout the school. It took a solid half-hour before the teachers and staff restored order. It was glorious!

At least 10 kids, including yours truly, ended up being reprimanded by the principal — who, to his credit, could scarcely contain his laughter — for our unprecedented unruliness, which resulted in nothing more serious than a few split lips, a bloody nose or two, one shiner, a couple of ripped costumes and several mildly traumatized first-graders.

I remained on my best behavior that evening, focusing fastidiously on the process of obtaining as much candy as possible. It turned out to be my best haul ever. I wanted to prove to my mom that, when it came to pure, unadulterated avarice, no one could beat the devil.

As a result of my thievery, the means by which lunch money was collected at Bailey Avenue Elementary School was modified. Under the new system, the entire student body was lined up before lunch in the gym, which was adjacent the cafeteria. Mrs. Marcy, who understandably came to hate my guts, would walk down the line collecting everyone’s money in her bare hands. After the first dozen or so members of a student body that numbered in the hundreds deposited their coins, she had to cup her mitts to accommodate all the pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters that were laid on her. And woe be unto the hapless student who needed change. By the end of the line, this obviously unimaginative woman would find herself bearing a mound of coinage so large she could scarcely muster the physical strength to carry it. As she shuffled back to her lair, she often left a trail of lucre, like breadcrumbs, behind her.

For the rest the school year, I wondered why Mrs. Marcy didn’t carry with her a bag or box into which she could deposit all that lunch money. I mean, if a second-grader could come up with what, when you get right down to it, was pretty much a caveman-level solution to a predictably recurring problem, why on earth could the school secretary not concoct a strategy for rectifying her daily dose of fiscal frustration?

I eventually offered my services as her assistant lunch-money toter. The suggestion shocked poor Mrs. Marcy so badly, she twitched and dropped all the coins in her possession. Shiny pieces of metal rolled off in every direction. She stood, face down, and sighed.

“Let me help you with that, Mrs. Marcy,” I said.

And I did.

I piled Casey, exhausted from her time in the Plattsburgh dog park, back into my 4Runner and drove to a nearby imbibery named Meron’s, a name indelibly etched into my consciousness, for this was where my deceased stepfather used to drink with his fellow flyboys, a frequent recreational diversion that generally earned the considerable wrath of my mom. For the few years the young navigator was in my life, the word “Meron’s” was synonymous with “impending domestic violence.”

A wall calendar above the expensive liquor section informed me that Halloween was a mere month away. I had been on the road long enough, I was starting to lose track of time.

From the barstool, I could look out a large picture window and see the since-renovated house where once dwelled Janice Gustafson, who moved to Connecticut before my family — which, by that time, had a new stepfather — left the North Woods for points south during the middle of my fifth-grade year. Janice, who generally avoided the limelight, usually dressed up for Halloween as something low-key, homemade and obviously scrounged from available material. One year, she was a generic hobo. The next, a generic lumberjack. I rose a mug to her memory, and to the memory of the young navigator who died well before his time, and to the memory of Mrs. Mathis, and even to poor Mrs. Marcy.

Then I started wondering where an old man could get his hands on a cheap devil costume.


Smoke Signals

The Dark Shadow descends, or: Downhill skiing Kentucky’s Bluegrass Country

Author’s note: Since March 2016, I have been working on a long-and-winding memoir titled, “Back East: A Topophobic Road Trip Down Memory Lane,” which deals with a two-month journey I took to reconnect with the places of my youth, mainly Frankfort, Kentucky; Plattsburgh, New York; and Gloucester, Virginia. This is the first time in a long writing career that I have birthed a book via pencil. I then utilize a Dragon voice-recognition software program to translate those scribbled words into pixels, which takes a lot of time, though it is time well spent, as, since I like for my writing to resemble, as much as possible, the way I speak, this tedious technique allows me to add vocal-ish inflection to transcriptive communication. As it stands, I have finished four of six sections, totaling between 150,000 and 200,000 words. When completed, “Back East” will likely contain between 350,000 and 400,000 words. I have pulled myself off this project for a month, at the behest of my literary agent, to work on a formal book proposal centered around my recently completed quest to hike every day for a solid year with my dog, Casey, who was also with me on my “Back East” journey. I hope to be done with the first draft of  “Back East” by the end of December. This snippet, which is not yet polished into final form, marks the first time I have exposed a segment of “Back East” to public scrutiny. 


The house in which I lived during my sixth- and seventh-grade years, next to which now lies the state headquarters of the Kentucky National Guard. During my tenure, there was a house on that site.

On the other side of the imposing Kentucky National Guard facility that now stands next to the house in which we lived during my sixth- and seventh-grade years lies an unassuming side street leading from the north into a well-tended subdivision called Westgate, which consists of the smallest single-story brick ranch-style houses I have ever seen. It’s as though Westgate was conceived back in the Eisenhower era by a development company owned and operated by Hobbits both geographically and temporally misplaced.

During those rare occasions when it snowed in Frankfort, I made extra cash shoveling driveways in this subdivision — at a quarter pop. Decent money in those days. I was one of the few kids south of the Ohio River who had access to a genuine snow shovel, which we inexplicably brought with us when we moved from the Adirondacks and, having apprenticed in the North Woods, my technique was the envy of my flailing competitors.

Another side street — Spring Hill Drive — accessed Westgate from the east. Spring Hill Drive consisted of one long gradient heading downward into the heart of Westgate, which consisted of about 70 or 80 houses on postage-stamp-sized lots, all of which were, and continue to be, meticulously manicured. It was upon Spring Hill Drive that I downhill skied for what turned out to be the last time until I moved to the Colorado High Country many years later.

A snowstorm of what locals considered monumental proportions — about eight inches — hit Frankfort in mid-January, pretty much closing Kentucky’s capital city down. Smelling economic opportunity, I raced over to Westgate, shovel in hand. After having cleared a few driveways, I noticed that Spring Hill Drive sported a captivating coat of untrammeled snow cover. No footprints, no paw prints, no tire tracks. Virgin territory. A light bulb illuminated. I ran home, pulled out my old skis, poles and boots, returned to Westgate and ascended Spring Hill Drive on foot, followed by a line of curious pre-pubescent onlookers who had never seen such a perplexing array of recreational equipage, downhill skiing not being a common activity in the heart of the Bluegrass Country.

I removed my sodden sneakers, tried to slide my feet into the old leather, lace-up boots, purchased brand new when I was 10, and found them to then be a bit on the snug side. I had grown substantially, though, from my perspective, imperceptibly, in the two years we had been on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon Line. Nonetheless — with an audience gathered around me — I could not back out because of something as trivial as tootsie discomfort. I crammed my hooves into footwear that at one time was as much a part of my life as was my skin, attached that footwear to the primitive bindings which adorned all downhill skis in those days and turned to face Spring Hill.



Spring Hill Drive. It used to be longer, higher and steeper. My blood might still be visible.

This was not the first time I stood looking down from the apex of this particular section of steep pavement. The prior summer, many of the same kids who were watching me lean into my early-generation Head steel-edged skis conspired with me to construct a gravity-powered vehicle that might charitably be called a cross between “The Road Warrior” and a last-place finisher in a Soap Box Derby competition taking place in an Appalachian town ravaged by the Oxycontin epidemic. Our claptrap conveyance was constructed with salvaged and stolen parts, offered minimal maneuverability and zilch in the way of built-in braking power.

A gaggle of classmates whose names, like mine, did not often appear on the honor roll happily hammered and sawed for several focused days. We adorned the vehicle, which we proudly named the “Dark Shadow” — more or less after a campy vampire-based television show popular at the time — with a mostly decomposed eight-point deer skull we found out in the woods, which we spray-painted bright red and placed on a bowsprit designed to look like a medieval battering ram. Not surprisingly, we painted the rest of the Dark Shadow jet black.

When completed, the craft could hold seven of us if we sardined ourselves in. Steering was achieved via two pieces of rope attached to the front axle like reins to an English bridle. At the rear sat, bobsled style, our breakman, a corpulent kid named David Springfield, whose only means of slowing our forward progress consisted of a piece of 2×4 he could drag along the pavement in the almost certain event things started going sideways.

I was drafted — probably by myself — to pilot the appropriately named Dark Shadow on its maiden voyage into the very imminent hereafter.

We pulled the Dark Shadow up Spring Hill, aligned it and took our positions. We decided it would be a good idea for David Springfield to give us a running push in case a 200-pound wooden vehicle filled with another couple hundred pounds of soon-to-be-deceased morons barreling down a quarter-mile of a six-percent grade would not provide sufficient opportunity for momentum-based mayhem. With a 1-2-3 chant — which never got past two, because David Springfield lost his tenuous grip on our stern — we took off and achieved instantaneous Mach 3 with our despondent breakman standing at the top of the hill forlornly holding his 2×4 stub, leaving us with no chance whatsoever of surviving this madness unscathed.

Our acceleration toward terminal velocity was astounding. By the time we got halfway down the hill, G-forces were pulling our cheeks back. The Dark Shadow was beginning to shake badly, as though its front wheels, salvaged from a utility trailer we found unattended at the edge of a nearby tobacco field, were simultaneously out of balance, out of alignment and ready to disembark. Behind me, a friend named Hank Senn, whose stubby arms were by then hugging my midsection very tightly, assessed the situation. “We’re … going … too… fast!” Hank exclaimed, his glaringly obvious words mostly lost to the Doppler Effect. And he was right, but there was little that could be done, given that our pitiful excuse for a breakman was still standing 100 or so yards in our wake.

I was trying really hard to maintain my composure and concentration, but it was clear that a monumental mishap was rapidly forthcoming. I decided the most-prudent course of action was to ditch the Dark Shadow. I yanked hard on one of my reins and all six of us spilled out onto the blacktop, like a handful of jacks being tossed across a tile floor. We all landed palms and elbows first. Then we rolled and tumbled amidst a combination of anguished screams and liberally hurled invectives. Limbs, torsos, joints, digits, jaws and craniums were being abraded beyond recognition by the rough surface of the asphalt. When the dust settled, but still before shell-shocked grown-ups began arriving on the scene with towels, scowls, bandages and ample quantities of incredulous castigation, we lay in a writhing, abraded and contused jumble along the lower course of Spring Hill Drive.

While eyeballing the road rash covering most of my body, I explained to my dazed and confused compadres that I had a choice between the certainty of a severe but survivable crash or the extreme likelihood of something far more catastrophic as we gained additional speed toward the bottom. It was an interesting study in behavioral inclination, one that I still all these years later recognize as being part and parcel of my psyche. Better to be assuredly maimed than possibly killed.

As our various injuries were being tended by adults wanting to know whose boneheaded idea this whole undertaking was, the more concussed of my shipmates agreed with my logic, while others felt the prudent course of action would have been to remain steady in hopes of a safe landing, while still others felt we probably ought not have pointed our deer-skull-and-battering-ram-adorned bow down Spring Hill in the first place.

“We could have just pushed the Dark Shadow around on the flat parts and had plenty of fun,” one kid, an unrepentant milquetoast, wailed as swaths of iodine-soaked bandages were being placed atop compromised flesh that would remain oozing and gruesome for weeks.

Several of my Dark Shadow crewmates were told in no uncertain terms by their pissed-off parents that they were no longer allowed to associate with me.

As for the Dark Shadow, it was totaled. Pieces of what had so recently been a fairly functional piece of misapplied engineering were strewn all over the wreck site — with the exception of one wheel that had continued unobstructed all the way to the bottom of Spring Hill, where its journey was not interrupted until it bounced across Cold Stream Drive and bowled over one of those lawn ornaments that looks like a beaming African-American midget dressed in bright-red jockey attire holding a lantern. The stray wheel beheaded the poor jockey and slammed violently into the screen door of a house owned by an old couple with a surly reputation, before bouncing off and coming to a final rest in a flower garden. Numerous petunias were killed as a result. The old couple, both members of which over the course of the next few minutes lived up to their reputation, were not pleased and demanded that someone reimburse them for the damages. They were staring straight at me as they uttered those words.

Even as the corporeal carnage was still being scraped from the street, an overzealous parent demanded that we all pitch in to remove the scattered corpse of the Dark Shadow from Spring Hill Drive, and, while we were doing so, one adult observed, almost casually, “Hey, those wheels look just like the ones on my utility trailer parked over yonder … ” His eyes squinted suspiciously.

And here I was, once again, perched atop Spring Hill, though, this time, on skis. Many of the same kids either involved in or witness to what became known far and wide as “the Dark Shadow incident” stood watching. Some of those kids were involuntarily rubbing the scarred remnants of lesions only recently healed. I asked Hank Senn to give me a shove. All it took was a nudge and I was speeding down the hill, riding boots so small my toes were scrunched up under my feet and skis that were scraping pavement as much as they were sliding upon snow, trying with all my might to avoid an encore presentation of the previous summer’s debacle. I was steeled with unshakeable resolve, relying upon muscle memory that was ingrained from my past life in the Adirondacks, back in a time when I was considered an up-and-coming talent on the slopes of Beartown Ski Area.

Just as I allowed myself to think that this descent of Spring Hill would end in a satisfyingly upright position, with zero in the way of medical trauma, the unthinkable happened. In the Confederacy, when it snows, even a little bit, the thought of driving is considered borderline insane. Generally, people who speak with a drawl wisely sit at home watching NASCAR and consuming bowls of grits until the white stuff melts. Which is good, because they wallow in absolute kinesthetic ignorance when it comes to the physics associated with movement atop terrestrial accumulations of frozen atmospheric water vapor. And this was, by regional standards, the storm of the decade. Nary an automobile was stirring. The unplowed roads were unsullied by internal combustion. But — par for my personal course — as I was fast approaching the very yard in which the diminutive beheaded lawn ornament yet stood — its charcoal-black noggin, visible above the snow line, re-attached via some manner of weather-resistant adherent — a domestic stationwagon the size of a battleship was swerving its way toward the intersection of Spring Hill and Cold Stream drives. Which was cause for concern, sure, but I felt I could maneuver enough to avoid impacting the one goddamned car in the entire goddamned state of goddamned Kentucky that was out and about on this snowy goddamned morning.

Then, of all the circumstances to interject their utter statistical improbability into my rapidly accelerating here and now, the stationwagon-in-question opted to turn onto Spring Hill Drive, setting up what clearly and quickly loomed as an unavoidable head-on collision with the substantial spawn of the pre-Arab-oil-embargo American automobile industry. It is accurate to observe that, of all the things the driver of this behemoth vehicle did not expect to encounter, it was a seventh-grader speeding down a hill in the opposite direction on skis. The facial expression of the driver — a dad-aged-looking guy wearing an Elmer Fudd headpiece — communicated unambiguous befuddlement. View-pods splayed. Jaw agape. Head tilted to one side. Mouth wrenched into a frozen expression of “what the hell?” Upon eyeballing the fast-approaching apparition, the driver did the exact worst thing he could have done: He tried to swerve out of the way, which only caused his mammoth stationwagon to start fishtailing up the slippery hill. As a result, my impact-avoidance calculations were further complicated by a moving target.


My previous calm comportment was definitely disrupted. I felt my control wavering. But I did not repeat my Dark Shadow behavior. Neither did I maintain a near-perfect track down Spring Hill Drive. I started fishtailing, too. So, at that point, we had 3,000 pounds of steel zigzagging its way uphill and maybe 120 pounds of kid zigzagging his way down. Just before I splatted onto the grate of the stationwagon like a large grasshopper, I pulled hard to the left and, without intention, found myself proceeding along the lip of the street performing a move that in ski ballet circles is known as a Reuel Christie, wherein one ski rises up from behind, shooting skyward as high as hip flexion will allow, while the other ski remains bound tenuously to terra firma. My poles were also raised high, like I was signaling a touchdown. It is important to note that I had never previously performed a Reuel Christie and had no idea what a Reuel Christie was, having never heard of one or seen one executed. It just happened spontaneously. As we passed in what seemed like slow motion, the snotty noses of numerous wide-eyed children were pressed to the side windows. In that fleeting moment — mere millimeters separating my very shriveled testicles from a protruding door handle — I hoped they all became inspired by the extemporaneous physiological manifestation of my desperation to follow whatever idiotic athletic aspirations they might have harbored. Bull riding, maybe. Or cliff diving.

That I did not cartwheel the rest of the way down Spring Hill is testament to the enduring power of adrenaline.



This is what a Reuel Christie is supposed to look like. This Wikipedia Commons photo was not taken in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Once I was out of danger, I regained my balance and came to something resembling a dignified hockey stop in the exact yard where, the previous summer, one of the Dark Shadow’s stolen wheels had beheaded an innocent lawn decoration. Verily, my front ski came within a whisker of impacting that same jockey, which seemed to wince at my approach and breathe a sigh of relief when I came to rest.

As I was hyperventilating, absolutely stunned that things had turned out so well, I heard the loudest horn this side of a Scottish lighthouse blaring behind me. I turned to see the very same stationwagon that had almost killed me 30 seconds prior careening backwards down Spring Hill, sliding directly to the spot where I stood, its engine revving well above redline and its rear wheels spinning ineffectually. It had failed to successfully negotiate its ascent of snow-covered Spring Hill Drive. The slickness of the road, combined with tires not exactly designed for Arctic conditions, combined with a driver who ought not be allowed to so much as touch his car keys between October and April, all had conspired to thwart the vehicle’s uphill progress. Frickin’ physics, biting me on the ass yet again. By the time it crossed Cold Spring Drive, the stationwagon was yawing its way across every available ordinal component of the “X” axis.

It is hard for the body to manufacture a second dose of adrenaline on such short notice. I tried to sprint to safety, but my feet were still locked in unwaxed skis that were doing nothing more than shuffling back and forth like I was in a gym on one of those stupid NordicTrack exercise machines. I was making no headway whatsoever. Then, frantically, I double-poled out of the way as the car slid to a stop an arm’s length from the front door of the house occupied by that same surly old couple. The back bumper missed me by the slimmest of margins. It did not, however, miss the midget lawn ornament, which yet again bore the indirect brunt of my misguided leisure pursuits. In addition to, sadly, having its body crushed, it once more found itself beheaded. I mean, what are the chances? If that unfortunate statuette bore so much as a scintilla of sentience, I’m sure it was thinking — its disembodied noodle lying face down in the snow — “People, please move me to a different spot!”

Much in the way of resultant yelling, name-calling and threats of legal action ensued between the driver, his wife and the surly old couple that owned the now-demolished midget jockey. It wasn’t long before all index fingers were pointed directly at me. And I’m off to the side thinking, “Son of a bitch, all I wanted to do was ski down Spring Hill Drive.” For the millionth time, my mom and stepdad got a phone call from someone blaming me for something. This marked one of the few times when I could honestly argue innocence. Not that it mattered. I was in the parental doghouse, where I more or less permanently resided during my entire two-and-a-half-year tenure in Frankfort, Kentucky.

I walked home and put my skis — one of the last palpable remnants of my previous life in the Adirondacks — away in a cobwebby corner of the basement. I don’t know what happened to them. Maybe they got left behind when we moved from Frankfort to the marsh country of eastern Virginia the next summer. Whatever the fate of those skis, it became apparent that, through no fault of my own, I was then a Southerner. Might as well get used to saying, “y’all.” At least until I was old enough to cut the chains.

My dog Casey and I walked over to Westgate subdivision after having visited the house — now a real estate office — in which our family lived when I was in the sixth and seventh grades. We ambled up Spring Hill Drive. It seemed topographically benign, like maybe it had been graded down in the intervening decades. Then again, I have lived for 40 years in the heart of the Mountain Time Zone and carry with me a very well defined perspective toward the concept of vertical terrain.

The house at the bottom of Spring Hill, where the surly couple dwelled, is still there, but the yard is free of any tasteless ornaments. During my week-long stay in Frankfort, I was tempted to purchase a lawn jockey — I’m certain they are still available in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Country — and place it in the yard in the dead of night, hoping that, when the sun rose, it would leave behind a very distinct dark shadow.



Something like this.


Smoke Signals

Proper names



This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

— Henry Reed, “Naming of Parts”

It was disorienting in the extreme to walk into the Sluice Box Drinking Emporium and see someone sitting in the interior murkiness reading a book other than Gary Regan’s “Bartenders’ Bible,” a Sluice staple mainly used for academic research purposes on those rare occasions when a tourist offers to buy one of the regulars a drink (the regular wanting, of course, to take advantage of the offer by ordering up something fancier than the normal draw of PBR). The fact that it was my buddy Milt holding the tome (and right-side-up, at that!) caused my personal earth to tilt off its axis just a bit. When I tentatively ventured close enough to identify the obviously very lost title, my eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. It was “The Complete Book of Baby Names,” by Lesley Bolton. “Uh, Milt, queried I, “didn’t the court-ordered vasectomy hold?” He grunted a bit, placed the book, which was open to the “A” section (meaning Milt had not progressed very far) (Adolph sprang off the page for some weird reason) onto the bar and looked me directly in the eye in a way that he had not done since four years ago, when he asked me if I would be the best man at his divorce from his third wife, June. “Pard,” said Milt, “it’s time for a big change.”

At that exact moment, I understood that Milt was not foraging for baby names for the usual reasons most people do; he was, rather, looking for something less easy to fully grasp. I was one of the few people who knew that Milt was not Milt’s given name. Some indeterminate numbers of years prior, for reasons no one was privy to (it is very impolite to ask after such matters in these remote, altitudinous parts, even with one of your best amigos), Milt had engaged in some nomenclatural revisionist history. He did inform me one fine day that his favorite poem was “Paradise Lost,” which, given the fast-growing resort-area setting for our multi-year friendship, was appropriate. One day, while walking alongside a once-lovely stand of aspens that had recently been mowed down to make room for a subdivision called, of all things, “Aspen Grove,” it dawned on me from where the name Milt had come.

It had been a long, hard winter for Milt. He had broken his ankle pretty badly in November, of all things, getting his foot hung up in the lower rungs of a barstool while attempting a dignified dismount at last call. His recovery had gone more slowly than expected, a circumstance that resulted in negative fiscal impacts, since, with a big cast, he could not navigate his truck, Bud Girl, well enough to plow snow, which is how he made his living forever. That it had been an extremely snowy, and therefore potentially profitable, winter did not help matters on the psychological front. Milt had to borrow money to make rent a few times. After the guffaws about the nature of his accident dissipated, we all realized the light had gone out of Milt’s eyes. One night, this sleazy little weasel who had been hanging out at the Sluice for a few weeks, said to Milt after asking what happened to his ankle, “Hell, if’d been me, I would have sued the bar owners for a million dollars for having a poorly designed barstool.” Not only did no one laugh, but Milt, almost family to the bar owners, stood up, placed his full weight on that bad ankle and proceeded to take a full-wind-up swing at that sleazy little weasel, but, given his limited mobility, he only made cursory contact with the guy’s pointy little chin. “I’m not you, asshole!” Milt bellowed, sans mirth, as the gent fled post haste. For the next half-hour, Milt stared into this beer mug, and it was obvious at that point he no longer knew just exactly who or what he was.


A couple weeks back, I received an email from an old friend I had not heard from or about in quarter-century. She was a bit miffed about something-or-another I had written and wanted to express her displeasure via an internet communiqué. Which is fine and dandy, but I had to take a forced march down memory lane just to remember who she was. After cranking up my rusty mental centrifuge, the lightbulb of recognition finally lit up. My confusion was not caused by synapses that don’t fire as predictably or accurately as they once did; rather, it stemmed from the fact that this wonderful woman had changed her name (once again) since I last saw her.

That marked the third time in the prior few months I had caught news of compadres who no longer went by the name they went by the whole time I knew them. The friend who emailed me at least said I was perfectly welcome to refer to her by her previous name; the other two people apparently will not even acknowledge their erstwhile appellations, which, if memory serves, were already new from whatever their names before that were.

This can get confusing.

But it’s OK.

I mean, it’s not as though any of us had any choice whatsoever in the matter of our own naming. My first name was the ill-considered result of a drunken-buddy agreement between my dad and his then-best friend, a man who dropped off the family radar shortly thereafter: My dad apparently slurred words to the effect that, if he ever had a son, he would name him after his best bud, and his bud slurred vice-versa. To this day, it stuns me that dear old dad not only remembered, but lived up to, his end of the deal. And, thus, I got a first name that I hated since birth, a name that has never “fit me” (whatever that means). And I suspect I am not the only one who looks at his or her driver’s license and wonders aloud what on earth his or her parents were thinking. It’s not just a matter of bad names; it’s also a matter of names that are not right. I once knew a couple, both members of which had renamed themselves somewhere along the line (I believe it was Rosebud and Piñon, with, weirdly enough, Rosebud being the man), who had a child, and they did not name that child. Month after month, this child was called nothing more than “he.” The explanation was they did not want to lay something as important on their offspring as name without getting to know the little bugger first. It didn’t dawn on me till years later to wonder about what appeared on the kid’s birth certificate. “Nameless”? “No Name”? “Blank?” “John Doe?” For all I know, they still haven’t named him, or, if they did, they just said the hell with it and went with Bob or Joe. Man, I wonder how that kid turned out. Probably just fine. That, or he’s now a green-haired goth snowboarder with pierced eyeballs or, worse, a clean-cut accountant with a split-level house in the ’burbs.

Up until the seventh grade, I went by my official first name, and I never once felt comfortable in my own skin. Perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not (and I know how melodramatic this sounds), I was a felon-in-training. When I hear people talk about what troublemakers they were as children — disrupting classes with spitballs and toilet-papering trees and stealing candy bars and such —  I snicker. I was a criminal whose various specialties included, but were not limited to, burglary, assault, thievery, arson and general “Clockwork-Orange”-like recreational mayhem. The first time I visited the back of a police car, I was six. Two of my closest friends during the sixth and seventh grades eventually went to prison … for murder. I was in constant hot water with law enforcement, school administrators, parents and neighbors. I was suspended for egregious misbehavior for entire academic year … in elementary school.

My justifiably perpetually pissed and distraught mother and stepfather rationally decided that something monster-big had to change. They decided we had to move to a completely different state, a decision for which I will be eternally grateful. As we were heading east in a U-Haul truck, I came to a decision that was remarkably enlightened for such a borderline psychopath: When we arrived in the mosquito-ingested swamps of eastern Virginia — my stepfather’s home turf — I would no longer go by my first name. It was then that I became John (and later M. John, mostly to keep some semblance of peace with my father, who was understandably angry that I had summarily jettisoned his best friend’s name).

It was then than my life metamorphosed. This is not say that I instantly became a saint, but it is to say that I stopped being a criminal. Did the name-changing decision have anything to do with me being able to pull that life change off? Maybe not. But maybe. It could have simply been the change of scenery resulting from the move to Virginia. But we had moved a couple times before, and my old droogie self had always followed me wherever we went. When I finally detached myself from the name I should never have had bestowed upon me in the first place, it did not. I had finally out-witted my dim-witted self by essentially changing the rules of the game. A personal-transformation Kobayashi Maru.

I told that story to a young writer one time. He scoffed and said that such premeditated personality transformations are not possible, that maybe all I had done when I moved to Virginia and began going by my middle name was to subvert the real me well enough that I only appeared to be reborn. And maybe he was right. You watch movies like “A History of Violence,” and you wonder about such things.



Milt’s small intimations to me over the years indicated that, when he changed his name, everything else also changed in his life, though, given his surly demeanor, tendency to regularly over-indulge in everything he indulges in and three divorces (that I know of), I kind of wonder what life was like before he changed. Maybe he was an altar boy who opted to re-define himself downward.

Back in the ’70s, lots of people in these parts opted to punt their old names in favor of such sun-shiny hippie-ish sobriquets as Cinnamon and Apple Blossom. I have known a Sweet Medicine, an Uncle River, a Feather, a Two Crow, an Elk Heart, a Windsong, a Gandalf and numerous variations on Wolf. But the renaming of self, along with the naming of cars and domiciles, seemingly died out, or at least lost momentum, during the sober darkness of the ’80s. I even knew a few people who had previously changed their name to things like Moonbeam, who went back to things like Stuart and Bernice when Reagan was President. But, it seems like perhaps there is a self-renaming resurgence afoot.

The West has always been Ground Zero for all manner of renamings: aliases, AKAs, descriptive nicknames, noms de guerre and noms de plume. Part of that, of course, stems from the undeniable reality that this is a part of the country that has long attracted ne’er-do-wells whose legal circumstances required some identity modifications. Butch Cassidy as not born Butch Cassidy.

The most-famous recent example of such nomenclatural modification transpired in the idyllic ski town Crested Butte, Colorado, where a man named Neil Murdoch lived for 30 years. Then, one day, seemingly out of the blue, the feds descended upon Crested Butte looking for a man named Richard Gordon Bannister, who had been wanted ever since he jumped bail in 1973. U.S. Customs agents had seized from the trunk of his car four hand-carved wooden statues sent from Bolivia to Bannister in Taos, New Mexico. In the hollowed-out core of those statues was found 26 pounds of cocaine. He was freed on $20,000 bond, and that was the last time members of the judicial system saw him again until 2001, when he was finally arrested back in Taos using yet another alias, Grafton Mailer.

Bannister, who had already served time in the 1960s after a drug conviction in Pennsylvania, first arrived in Crested Butte in 1974. At that juncture, no one in this funky mountain hamlet so much as batted an eye when yet another dropout from the real world showed up somewhat lacking in a plausible life-history story.

Unlike many people who would have hidden in the shadows for the rest of their natural lives, Bannister, who was 34 at the time, quickly became a big, boisterous part of Crested Butte’s social geology. He played a pivotal role in giving birth to an entire new sport: mountain biking. In the mid-1970s, he started attaching cannibalized parts to battered Schwinn frames and test-driving them on trails around town. Before he knew it, he’d become a fat-tire forefather. His shop, Bicycles Etcetera, is now generally considered to have been the second mountain-bike-oriented shop in the entire world. In 1982, Murdoch helped launch Crested Butte’s annual Fat Tire Bike Week, now one of the largest mountain-bike festivals in the country. He was even inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame.

After 24 years, however, Bannister’s charade began to unravel. Showing once again how it is almost impossible to completely drop out of society, Bannister had been unable to make it through his life on the lam without having a Social Security number. so, he stole one from a man who, coincidentally or not, owned a bicycle shop in Pennsylvania. As a result of a routine credit check in spring 2008, the man came to suspect someone else was using his Social Security number. The Pennsylvania man contacted the Social Security Administration and an agent hunted the number down and drove to Crested Butte, where he interviewed Bannister at the local police department. Bannister was fingerprinted, photographed and then released, at least partially because the local police chief vociferously vouched for him.

When the Social Security Administration agent returned to Denver, he ran Bannister’s fingerprints, and — voila! — he got a hit on the outstanding warrant issued after Bannister jumped bail in 1973. Bannister knew that his cover was blown. He handed his keys to his roommate and bid her adios, saying she would never see him again. He had a friend drive him to the Four Corners Monument with only his trusty mountain bike and a small stash of clothing. He then asked his friend to drive away so that he couldn’t tell police which way Bannister had pedaled off into the metaphoric sunset, destination known only to him.

When agents from the U.S. Marshal’s Office arrived in Crested Butte the very next day, they had missed Bannister by less than an hour. He had managed to disappear again. Bannister’s next nomenclatural self-redefinition lasted only a couple of years, during which time he hid in plain sight in Taos — another haven for societal drop-outs — the very town in which the original warrant for his arrest had been issued. Acting on a tip from a suspicious local business owner, federal agents arrested Bannister-Murdoch-Mailer in 2001. He was sentenced to nine years in prison, to be followed by three years of probation.

The people in Crested Butte justifiably reacted weirdly to the Bannister saga. Most folks defended him. An ex-mayor was quoted as saying, “Neil Murdoch had a spotless record for a quarter century. Yeah, he made some big mistakes. But this is one of those rare cases where a criminal has rehabilitated himself.” Bannister was presented in absentia with a lifetime achievement award in acting by the Crested Butte Town Theater for playing the role of Murdoch for 24 years.

I have long wanted to ask Bannister if, during all those years in Crested Butte, if he actually became Murdoch, or if he remained Bannister with a different name, if, as his lifetime achievement award from the town theater would indicate, he was only pretending to be a character named Murdoch. It’s my guess that Richard Bannister was a man long dead, and by the time Mailer was busted in Taos, Bannister had been buried twice.

How long does it take those in witness protection to respond to their new names the same way they responded to their old names? When I decided in the seventh grade that, from then on, I would go by my middle name, it took me more than a year to reflexively answer to John. Now, when I find myself in the presence of those few people left who still call me by my first name, I find myself reacting with bewilderment when they address me, because, in actuality, they are not addressing me. I don’t care what that young writer said: It’s not just that I no longer go by that name. It’s that, as a result, I am no longer the same person I was before I became John, then M. John. Names are important. They have big-time juju.

All this might sound a tad foo-foo. But it is a theme that has been well explored by noted writers. Ursula La Guin, in her “Earthsea Trilogy,” which many people consider on par (at least) with Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” spent considerable verbiage on the subject of names. Each of her characters sported given names, the names by which they were referred to and their secret names, the latter of which were only known to their closest confidants, because, Le Guin wrote, those who know your secret name have power over you.

This was a theme well explored in Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” where the main character, Paul Atriedes, did not become his true destined self (read: crazy-assed, drug-addicted, bloodthirsty, revenge-fueled conqueror of the known universe) until he adopted the name public Muad’Dib and, simultaneously, had bestowed upon him by his Freman clan the secret name Usul, which gave him his considerable might.



My mother told me a few years before her death that it had been her desire to name me Ian, which is a Gaelic version of John. I mentally wore that name for a while and it fit like a glove. How can such a thing be? I looked on the internet to see how hard it is to legally change your name. It’s bothersome, but doable, so long as you’re not trying to evade the law or some sort of debt situation. It’s my guess that Milt had never legally changed his name to match that of the man who penned “Paradise Lost.”


The closest situation I know of where people can just bestow upon themselves a new name of their choosing and build and match a character to that name is on the Appalachian Trail, where “trail handles” are commonplace. Things like “Dimples,” “Firefly” and “Bearclaw.” My trail handle was, in full, “Jumpin’ Jack, the Hallucinogenic Hiker,” which was usually shortened to “Jumpin’ Jack.” I had not thought about that for decades. But a couple years ago, I ran into a lady I dated right after I finished hiking the Appalachian Trail in 1980. During that time, I had foolishly tried to take my trail handle and, by extension, my trail persona, with me out of the woods and out of its context and back into civilization, even using it for a while as a byline in my college paper. It was a disaster. “You still Jumpin’ Jack?” my ex-flame asked my now-grizzled and grey-haired self. “No,” I understated. “But I sure wish I was.” She smiled semi-coyly and walked away with nary another word.


One of my biggest problems with the people who are now moving to the Mountain Time Zone is that they are not thinking in terms of re-creation and rebirth the way they used to. They come here and resolutely try to remain who they were, most times with just enough success to fuck things up all around them. Maybe we should rename ourselves every time we move. Anyone who either can’t or won’t take that leap is sent back to where their old name still has meaning.


I left Milt to his baby-name research and went into the back room to shoot pool with Big Del. When I returned to the bar section, Milt was gone. Just like that. None of us have seen or heard from him since. We learned later that the sleazy little weasel he had hit on the chin had pressed charges and initiated a lawsuit. So Milt was now a fugitive from justice. Probably not for the first time. Probably not for the last time.

Milt had left “The Complete Book of Baby Names” on the bar with a beer-stained coaster marking the A-section, like he was leaving us all some sort of hint. For many weeks after he left, I looked through Adam and Arthur and Abraham, trying to pick one that would stick to Milt. Milt had left his truck Bud Girl parked in front of the old cabin he had rented for 11 years. That cabin was recently sold, and word on the street is that it will soon be torn down to make room for yet another soulless new condo complex. I walked by just as they were towing Bud Girl off. It was then that I remembered, when Milt walked out of the Sluice Box for possibly the very last time, Arlo Gurthrie’s version of Kris Kristofferson’s “City of New Orleans” was playing. The A-section now made sense, and I knew where to look for my old friend if ever inclination pointed me in the direction of the Crescent City. Which it won’t, because, were I to run into his lumbering self down in the Quarter or the Ninth Ward, I would likely no longer recognize the man I drank with all those blustery nights up in the Colorado High Country, for he would no longer be Milt.

Milt is dead and buried somewhere out in a gator-infested bayou.


Postscript: A few weeks ago, we all learned that the ski area had purchased the building in which the Sluice Box Drinking Emporium was located. After 30 years, the Sluice was to be closed down, renovated and rebirthed. In a press release, the ski area said, with the exception of a new name, “nothing would change at the Sluice Box.”

Typical marketing dogshit penned by word whores lacking so much as an iota of heart.

With a new name, everything changes. Everything.


Smoke Signals

Finally finishing the Arizona Trail



In 1997, I became one of the first people to hike the entire Arizona Trail. I started at the Utah/Arizona border and, over the course of the next two months, made my way toward the trail’s southern terminus on the Mexican border. It was one of the toughest of my long-distance hikes, because, back then, only about half the Arizona Trail actually existed. The other half consisted of mixing and matching various disconnected paths and dirt roads and, often, cross-country bushwhacking with map, compass and the very first generation of hand-held GPS, which seemed specifically designed to perplex rather than to orient. When I finally limped my bruised and battered self out of the rugged Miller Peak Wilderness down to Montezuma Pass — literally within sight of Mexico — I was told the last mile was closed for at least a week because they were blasting new trail in. I could hear explosions in the distance. So, after more than 800 miles of skin-ripping perambulation, I was stopped dead in my tracks a mere mile from the end of the hike. This was a frustrating turn of events.



I vowed to one day return and finish that last mile, though, as I learned last week, it was actually 1.7 miles each way. I arrived late enough in the day that I hesitated. After dark, this becomes the operational territory of the Dread Minions of the Night: Border Patrol, which had a bank of floodlights set up right at the trailhead. I dashed as quickly as I could toward the border, made it in 35 minutes, ogled at the beauty of Sonora, lamented the fact that, right then, thousands of desperate people were furtively slinking their way northward through cactus and ocotillo, took a few quick photos of my ugly mug in front the saggy barbed-wire fence that separates our two great nations, pondered for the millionth time the perplexing vicissitudes of border-based politics and dashed back to my 4Runner, arriving just as the Dread Minions of the Night were emerging from their burrows. Then I drove 45 minutes to a skanky watering hole to celebrate the fact that, after 19 years, I had finally completed the Arizona Trail. No one in the bar had ever heard of the Arizona Trail. Put things in proper perspective.



Smoke Signals

Rough going


The trail herein pictured was improved all to hell last summer. The bulk of its rocks were removed. Its grade made more benign. Erosion-control structures were installed at appropriate intervals. I was disappointed in the extreme. I have always been attracted to trails that are rocky, bumpy, unkempt and otherwise “bad.” On a purely selfish level, I know your average person, even your average hiker, is going to seek out more polished pathways — meaning there will be fewer people tromping upon these delightfully unmaintained trails. And those who are willing to risk fractures and sprains in the name of seeing what’s around the next bend will either be fellow devotees of challenging backcountry perambulation, or at least those willing to negotiate difficulty if that’s what it takes to access wherever the ragged trail goes. Of course, every once in a while, there will be an accidental traveler, one who did not know before the fact what roughness lay ahead. Sometimes those people will be scowling, growling things like, “This trail needs to be fixed,” as though it is a dog in need of immediate neutering. More often than not, though, they will be smiling, glad for the chance to experience something at least approximating real adventure in these faux/contrived-adventure times. Making backcountry-based social observations is not why I am attracted to rough trails, though. Hiking by itself does not necessarily make one tough, in the sense that, say, going through Marine basic training makes one tough. But, under the right circumstances, it can make one tough-er. Rugged trails test and enhance balance, proprioception, concentration, endurance, dedication and desire. Of course, there’s always the chance of fucking up your ankle or knee. That’s part of the package. Maybe even the best part. The big “maybe.” I think this is yet another example of where moving through the woods serves as a living, breathing analogy that can be transferred back to civilization. Strength rarely comes from well-coiffed tracks.