Smoke Signals


“Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

— Bible, New Testament, Galacians 6:7


The system of cairns appeared out of nowhere in the middle of nowhere, with no discernible connection to anywhere else, as though they had been planted by a disoriented Johnny Cairnseed before last autumn’s record rainfall. This did not seem like prime cairn country and I could not for the life of me comprehend what inspired the guilty party to start schlepping rocks to pile atop one another in hopes of establishing a more-formalized route in a place that, since I began traipsing around these parts well nigh 38 years ago, has remained wonderfully wild, or at least wonderfully wild feeling. There were so many cairns, and they were so big, that it took me several visits in order to restore this lovely area to its natural condition. My civic duty sufficiently completed, I opted to wander around a bit atop a path-less and, now-cairn-less, mesa so beautiful and rugged it alone would be reason enough to call the beautiful and rugged place where I hang my hat home.

After an hour or so of pleasant destination-free zigzagging, my peripheral vision latched onto an out-of-place object stuck in the branches of a mature alligator juniper tree that was growing sideways out of a small cliff face. It was bright blue and about the size of a football. To access it, it would take a bit of the kind of effort that, in this, the ancestral homeland of Geronimo and his tough-as-nails Chiricahua Apache brethren, often results in scrapes, contusions and bruises to both the physiology and the ego. I limbo’d under a blown-down ponderosa pine with a wide array of protruding, pack-grabbing branch stubs. I shuffled over boulders that were strategically placed in such a way as to dissuade advance. I slalomed through a sea of fully mature agaves. I busted my way through outward-facing juniper branches that did not seem even slightly inclined to yield any sort of right-of-way. And, with floral remnants in my hair and minor wounds decorating my exposed shins and testifying to my focused stupidity, I finally arrived at the out-of-place object, which turned out to be, of all perplexing and incongruous things, a cylindrical, one-gallon Rubbermaid water cooler.

Now, how this cooler came to be resting in a tree branch way out here in the glorious back of beyond, I could not guess. Given the challenging access of its resting place, I deduced that it must have been tossed out the window of an airplane that had been passing overhead, which seemed highly unlikely on several levels, given that, from a cursory examination, the cooler looked to be structurally uncompromised. Whenever something appears out of place in Gila Country, one normally concludes that the forces of raging floodwaters have come bear. But, given the geomorphology of the proximate terrain, such a causal link would have defied the foundational laws of physics.

I held the polymer-based mystery in my hands, perplexed. I shook it gingerly and could hear and feel that it held loosely packed contents of some unknown sort. Then it dawned on me: Numerous times in a backcountry career that has spanned more than a few years and miles, I have come across supply caches left by hunters or survivalists or long-distance backpackers or folks who envisioned some future circumstance when and where they might find themselves in need of surreptitiously placed supplies, a la Seldom Seen Smith in “The Monkey Wrench Gang” when he was on the run from the law. It is an operational axiom of backcountry travel that is simultaneously unwritten and writ in stone that one does not disturb another’s cache. But this inexplicable vessel did not seem substantial enough to actually be a cache, at least in the traditional sense.

Perhaps it held the ashes of a passed-away compadre, a backpacking amigo or a beloved dog.

Perhaps it contained hidden drug money!

Or, better yet, hidden drugs!

Perhaps it contained a treasure map!

Or a bomb!

Or a bombshell!

Curiosity getting the better of me, I slowly unscrewed the top and found within the container a small notebook and several miscellaneous items: two cheap ballpoint pens, a couple books of matches, some buttons, a Mardi Gras bead necklace, some pennies, two spent CO2 cartridges and a few Band-Aids. The contents did not exactly lend illumination to the enigma I now held in my hands. Then I examined the notebook and only then came to realize that what I possessed was in fact something I had only ever heard about but had never witnessed in the flesh: a geocache. Give all the possibilities that had just seconds prior been swirling around in my head, this was a disappointment in the extreme.

For those of you who may not be acquainted with this form of outdoor-recreation, geocaching is game wherein participants place items that boast little in the way of monetary value — such as CDs, pages torn from comic books, gum-wrappers, postcards, whatever — within waterproof repositories — such as military ammunition boxes, Tupperware containers or bright blue gallon-sized Rubbermaid water coolers — which are subsequently hidden somewhere out in the boondocks. Descriptions, directions and/or actual GPS coordinates to the site are then posted on the various geocaching websites. Those inclined to participate in such a vacuous activity proceed to attempt to locate the geocache they are seeking. If they succeed, they sign the logbook that all geocaches contain, place an item in the cache, perhaps remove an item that will eventually find a new home in some geocache up the road (this is apparently called “hitchhiking”) and, I guess, scratch their nuts and pop a celebratory, self-congratulatory cerveza.

Though geocaching can trace its roots back to a 150-year-old game called “letterboxing,” which evolved (where else?) in the British Isles, it was birthed only in the year 2000, when the U.S. military released its stranglehold on the kind of detailed GPS technology we all now take for granted as we are trying to navigate our way along highways and trails by relying upon an electronic device rather than relying upon our own senses.

The first geocache was placed in Oregon in 2000 by a man named Dave Ulmer, who now apparently holds Yoda-like status in the geocaching world. Since the first cache — which contained software, books, a little money, videos, food and a slingshot stashed in a half-buried plastic bucket — was established, logged and located, geocaching has expanded and spread like a particularly virulent case of crab lice. It has morphed to include numerous variations, such as virtual caches, geodashing and stratocaching, the latter of which actually involves airflight (making my original thesis regarding the Rubbermaid water cooler I now possess being dropped from a plane seem more plausible).

As well, numerous groups, such as,, Groundspeak and the Geological Society of America, have jumped into the geocaching game. There are locationless, webcam, Chirp, Wherigo and reverse caches. There is a geocaching-specific line of gear and clothing. There is a “Geocacher’s Creed” (more on this later). There have been deaths associated with attempts to find geocaches. There have been instances when bomb squads have been called when a geocache has been found in a public place. Various legislative and regulatory entities have addressed geocaching by passing laws prohibiting the placement of caches in public parks and in cemeteries.

It will surprise no one that, when geocaching first hit the outdoor media shortly after that first cache was placed in Oregon in 2000, I rolled my eyes. The late-’90s and early-aughts seemed like an especially ripe time for concocted forms of outdoor recreation.

In short chronological order, we had the birth of:

• Highpointing — the goal of achieving the high points within the boundaries of some artificial political or administrative construct, like Rocky Mountain National Park, a county or, in the case of the State Highpointers, the entire country.

• Orienting — a thankfully short-lived activity wherein participants would attempt to precisely follow a given compass bearing no matter what obstacles or environmentally fragile areas (and here I think mainly of cryptobiotic enclaves) might come between bullshit manufactured point-A and bullshit manufactured point-B.

• Creeking — another short-lived activity wherein adherents would follow a creek from mouth to source. The goal was to stay entirely within the creek — and here I mean actual boots or sandals in the water — the entire time. I have no personal experience with this particular scientific demographic, but when creekers were padding about with frigid tootsies, apoplectic limnologists were emerging en masse from wherever it is they normally hang out to vociferously condemn creeking, creekers and anyone who might have ever known a creeker. The furor regarding the potential negative environmental ramifications of creeking resulted in this “sport” dying an ignominious, and justified, death.

If forced to speculate a decade ago, I would have guessed that geocaching would have been a fast-passing trend, more like orienting and creeking than highpointing, which shows no signs of fading away.

I would have guessed wrong.

According to, the self-proclaimed “official global GPS cache hunt site,” there are now almost 2.4 million registered geocaches spread throughout the world, and as many as six million people scurrying around seeking those caches out.

And, I would learn in short order, there are, stunningly, a serious shitload of geocaches located in areas where I regularly tromp.

Which, at this point, is neither here nor there, because, right now, I am faced with something of a minor-league moral quandary: I am standing way back in the Gila National Forest holding what amounts to a piece of trash that was left in a place where trash ought not be left. Ordinarily, I would, without hesitation, tote that trash with me as I made my way back to civilization, where it would be unceremoniously tossed into an appropriate receptacle, a no-nonsense process that would likely be accompanied by an invective or two hurled toward whatever nameless person or persons it was who left the offending piece of rubbish in a tree branch back in the woods. But I did not. I returned the Rubbermaid water cooler to its perch. I suspected I would soon come back to take some remedial action, but in the meantime, I had some research to do. As well as some cogitation.

When I got home, I immediately began scouring the Internet for pertinent skinny relating to geocaching, an online hunting trip that eventually yielded most of the data presented in this screed. More than that, though, I much desired to try to hunt down the specific origins of the geocache I had just found. It was surprisingly easy to do.

On the website, I learned that the bright-blue plastic Rubbermaid one-gallon water cooler was placed in 2001 by two fellow Silver City residents I do not know (or at least I do not think I do), who I’m sure are very nice, sincere, well-meaning people. The geocache even had a proper name, which for obvious reasons I will not herein share. The website contained a fairly detailed set of directions, along with some GPS coordinates, along with what looked to be a code cipher of a species usually associated with a Cold War passing of national secrets. Here is an example: ybbx sbe n pnvea bs ebpx ba gur yrsg naq tb gb nabgure pnvea bs ebpx ng. Ordinarily, I would think such seeming gibberish would be a computer glitch or a mistake of some easily explainable sort. But the other geocache websites I visited contained similar cryptic letters.

The description of the geocache I had stumbled upon included a total of 42 logged visits from people who had attempted to locate the Rubbermaid water cooler. About half of the people had located the geocache and about half had not. The last person to have successfully located the bright-blue water cooler had done so scant days before I found it.

There was also a gallery of photos of people who had succeeded in their quest. Everyone pictured looked like the kinds of folks I either drink with, hike with or regularly run into while I’m out and about on the trails of Gila Country. That is to say: Not as young as they used to be. Rattily attired, with nary a stitch of current Patagonia or The Northface attire procured from REI. Beat-up daypacks. Scuffed boots. One guy was sitting smoking a cigarette. Another guy was drinking a can of Budweiser. Superficially: Kindred spirits.

All told, I’m sitting there in front of the flickering computer screen thinking, “What the fuck, these people seem OK.” Ergo: What they are doing out in the woods by extension must be OK too. What’s wrong with me?

But one big thing caught my attention most while I was eyeballing the website: The geocache I had found was not where it had been originally placed! Its original home was under a rock overhang I have visited on numerous occasions. Someone had moved it a half-mile or so to the juniper branch I had chanced upon. Thus, I concluded, someone else had experienced the same moral quandary I was now facing. Or perhaps moving a geocache, but not moving it far, is some sort of geocaching humor. Or maybe there are antagonistic relationships between the various geocachers operating in the same area.

Either way, I clearly needed to revisit that bright-blue Rubbermaid one-gallon water cooler, where my choices would be: to return it to its rightful place under the rock overhang, to leave it where it lay in the juniper branch or to carry it out of the woods.

Since some bonehead had removed the aforementioned system of cairns, it took me longer than I would have expected to re-locate this wayward geocache. After a languid hour of meandering to and fro, I came to think that whoever had moved it from the rock overhang to the tree branch had come back to finish the job. But, eventually, its bright blueness became visible through the dense brush.

I had not formulated any sort of criteria upon which I would base my eventual decision regarding the geocache’s immediate fate. Perhaps if I just sat and held the Rubbermaid water cooler for a few minutes, some sort of heavy-duty message would percolate though its insulated shell and travel through my fingers and arms all the way up to my brainstem. Maybe the very land upon which I trod would speak to me and direct my mentally muddled self to the morally correct course of action. Maybe I should just smoke some hash and see if I even remembered why I was where I was.

When I first interfaced with this unattractive urn, I had paid only cursory attention to the words scribbled in the notebook it contained by people who were successful in their geocaching quest. This go-round, I opted to scrutinize those words carefully, in hopes that, by so doing, appropriate action would be forthcoming.

There were a total of 72 entries over the course of 13-plus years, with many of those entries covering more than one visitor. Since the space allotted for “remarks” was small, there were not many of the kinds of loquacious ruminations often found in registers located atop mountain summits. (Thank goodness for small favors.)

Here are a few of the entries:

• Just found out about geocaching yesterday, so this is my first find. Great fun, easy directions, beautiful location. Took deck of cards.

• Just came by for a second visit to this cache. On my way for a day of exploring the area.

• Visiting from California. Out for an adventure. Great fun!

• Tried to find this past May — unsuccessful. Great hike. Really used our GPS. Thanks.

• Tough hike. No trail for us. Had fun. Great adventure.

• I like it here. Totally quiet.

• Very hot. Forgot the water. Found plenty of cactus. How do we get out of here?

• I was here as a child and now as a child again.

• Took Buddha (for luck). Left baseball cap.

• Must have taken the hardest route to cache!

• Take a right where?

• What an ordeal!

OK, now how can anyone be so haughty as to find anything wrong with those entries, with the people who penned those entries or with the inspiration and impetus that brought those people to this undeniably special place?

There is no doubt that I tend to glance askance at contrived reasons for venturing forth into the great outdoors. When someone opts to unicycle to the top of a Colorado Fourteener, or when someone tries to set the record for running up and down Mount Elbert, or when someone uses one of those stupid goddamned devices that keeps track of how many vertical feet you ski in a day, I find myself rolling my eyes, shaking my head and wondering what the fuck ever happened to just walking through the woods light and unfettered. This is not to say that I believe the only acceptable modus operandi for backcountry forays consists primarily of sitting under a tree pondering Thoreau or Muir while searching frantically for deep metaphors regarding the lamentably short lives of caddis flies.

But, well, sometimes contrivedness gets a bit out of hand and, as a result, I feel that the Big Picture — the preservation of the backcountry and the resultant spiritual benefits for visiting the backcountry — are more and more getting lost in a sea of lists and experience-enhancing technology.

But when I have chatted with people about their quest to “bag” the highest peaks in every state or their desire see how many vertical feet they can ski in a day or their attempts to break the speed record to the Appalachian Trail, there will generally be positive-sounding commonalities. They will say things like, “It gives me a good excuse to travel to places I ordinarily would not visit.” Or: “Having attainable goals helps me focus on getting in shape.” Or: “I enjoy being part of a community that shares my passion. I’ve made a lot of good friends while [fill in the blank].”

Again: What could possibly be wrong with any of those perspectives?

Well, personally, I think they stifle the natural, and beneficial, predisposition mankind has toward goal-less wandering. I think they represent a herd mentality. And I think, in the end, that not everyone thinks like me — which, in most circumstances, is a reality I would argue that’s a blessing for both me and the rest of humanity.

Besides, who’s to say that the people who enjoy recording their vertical ski feet or chasing around geocaches do not spend plenty of time sitting under a tree pondering caddis fly lifespans? Judging from the entries in the notebook located within the geocache I found, there seems to be at least as much nature-based contemplation associated with their geocaching exploits as there is with me and my ne’er-do-well muchachos as we make our willy-nilly way across the great wilderness expanses that define our local horizons.

Besides, it’s not like geocachers are dumping plutonium into pristine rivers.

Everyone and their dog could enthusiastically take up geocaching tomorrow, and the resultant negative ramifications would be a bump on a gnat’s ass compared to the environmental disaster that is the downhill ski/resort/real-estate industry. As it is, geocaching ranks well below even the groomed cross-country-ski-area industry when it comes to adverse impacts. It less impactful than even bird-watching.

All things considered, I would certainly rather people take up geocaching than paintball or golf.

Sure, perhaps because of geocaching there are a few more warm bodies traipsing through territory I would much rather have all to myself, but, truth be told, only one time have I ever come across another soul in the area where I found that Rubbermaid geocache. It’s not as though the huddled masses are suddenly eschewing malls and descending into the woods in search of one-gallon water coolers that hold ballpoint pens and Mardi Gras necklaces. And, even if that were the case, it could well be argued that the world would therefore be much better off if such were actually the case. More people would come to love the outdoors. People would be less stressed. People would lose weight. And on and on.

Additionally, it’s my guess that a significant percentage of geocaches are placed in parks in urban Ohio rather than in the relatively untrammeled lands of the West. And, further, it’s my guess that most geocachers live in cities in the East and maybe even in foreign realms. So, again, the number of geocache participants claimed by notwithstanding, it’s highly unlikely that a tsunami of GPS-toters will be descending upon my blissfully unpeopled home turf anytime soon.

Still, I am old enough that I remember when mountain biking did not exist. Then, there were a few hippie-looking dudes pedaling through the backcountry on klunkers. Now, mountain bikers form the dominant trail demographic throughout the nation. I don’t think geocaching will ever approach mountain biking in popularity, mainly because there’s a palpable top end on potential gear sales, but, hey, in a world where more and more people measure skiing acumen via the number of vertical feet they descend in a day, you never know. In my time, I’ve seen some mystifying shit come down the trail. Nothing surprises me any more.

The logical underpinnings of my negative reaction to this one little piece of trash being left unattended out in the Gila National Forest were fast eroding and, consequently, the self-righteousness that is part and parcel of my personality was losing its customary inviolate center.

Then, in near desperation, I started reading some of the fine print in the little notebook that had so recently caused chinks in my sanctimonious psychic armor.

Numerous of the entries had lamented the lack of a trail to the geocache that had originally been placed under that overhang. One of the entrants wrote that he had started clearing a trail. And another wrote that he had started … placing a series of cairns to help people more comfortably access the geocache. Yes, the very system of cairns I had spent so much time returning to their natural state was birthed as a result of this geocache! Here my self-righteous sanctimoniousness regained its solid footing, much like how one recovers during a sparring match in Tae Kwon Do after your opponent has landed a strong but glancing kick to your midsection.

While I get having goals and looking for excuses to visit places you ordinarily wouldn’t, I do not get, and I never will get, the desire to modify the environment through which one passes — especially when that modification transpires in a place that, before your passing, was pretty much off the map. And even more so when that modification will result in more and more people following your footsteps.

We have precious few wild areas left. In my warped little world at least, wild trumps access, and wild trumps use, and it damned sure trumps games. Every time.

Count me among those who argue that we ought have less trails, less trail signs, less detailed maps of wilderness areas and damned sure less GPS coordinates and Google Earth images. Let people wander and get lost and maybe found and maybe not. Let them be surprised by abysses and rivers impossible to cross. I understand we are pretty much stuck with trails, trail signs, detailed maps of wilderness areas, GPS coordinates and Google Earth images for no other reason than those things are institutionalized components of The System.

Geocaching damned sure is not.

Though its worldwide numbers are substantial, relatively speaking, geocachers represent a negligible percentage of those inclined to wander through the woods. But, given the number of geocaches that apparently exist, if even a handful of people seeking those caches out (and there’s one in every bunch) opt to start building illegal and most likely poorly designed access trails and/or cairn systems, the impact could easily become disproportionate on numerous levels. Erstwhile-unvisited fragile areas might start seeing bootprints. Erosion will assuredly increase. Impacts on populations of animals that avoid human contact will increase. And, well, the sense of exploration, faux that it might be in these dark, over-civilized days, that comes hand in hand with wandering through what little trail-less land remains will be further diminished. We need more disorientation, not less.

The Geocacher’s Creed that I alluded to earlier states, among other activity-specific axioms:

• Obtain the best possible coordinates for your cache to reduce unwarranted wear on the area.

• Avoid leaving tracks to the cache.

• Leave the area as you found it or better (e.g. pick up litter).

In my view, a geocache itself is litter. And, if the Geocachers’ Creed unambiguously states that leaving tracks and unwarranted wear on the area is a no-no, then surely the process of building a system of cairns to a cache is a violation that merits the death penalty.

According to, what I then decided to do is considered a crime. Verily, there’s an entire system of geocaches in another part of New Mexico that apparently was recently completely removed by a person or persons unknown. The man who established that system of heisted caches — which numbered more than a dozen — filed a complaint with the Forest Service, which is apparently actually investigating the case. The complainant contends that the geocaches are personal property, even though they are intentionally left unattended and without permit upon public lands. He contends that he ought to be compensated for the value of the geocaches and for the time spent placing those caches.

Well, this is not exactly the first time that I’ve stood proudly at odds with the legal system. That bright-blue Rubbermaid one-gallon water cooler now sits upon my desk, scant inches from where these words are being penned. It will soon be placed into the recycling bin, from where I hope it is resurrected into something useful, or at least benign. Its contents will be placed in my trashcan. And I will soon start eyeballing the appropriate geocaching websites with the idea of expanding my public-service horizons to include as many geocaches as I can locate and remove.

It’s good to have goals.

And this quest will give me an excuse to travel to places I would not otherwise visit.

Not sure I’ll make many friends. But you never know.





Smoke Signals

The Discovery (unabridged) – Mountain Gazette 183

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

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

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

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

— “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”

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

In other words: Very cool journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suddenly did not want to leave La Descubierta.

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

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

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

Smoke Signals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus, the Beer Math saga began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Inmate #106669.”

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

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

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

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

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

Smoke Signals

Scar Tissue (unabridged) – Mountain Gazette 179

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a tense moment.

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

And then things went dark as shit.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Smoke Signals

Deliverance (unabridged) – Mountain Gazette 178

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smoke Signals

Little Dog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smoke Signals

Bad Trip (unabridged) – Mountain Gazette 174

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?” Winona asked, innocent eyes wide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smoke Signals

Upwards – Mountain Gazette 172

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two things before I do just that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smoke Signals

Monsoonal – Mountain Gazette 171

It’s a strange and wonderful thing when the first few trickles of (hopefully) imminent monsoon season (like mountains, seemingly predictable weather patterns are well capable of displaying false summits) hit generally fairly parched Gila Country. That joyful climatic circumstance is exacerbated by the fact that those first welcome splats of precipitation follow what in the Southwest is known as the “Foresummer” — the hottest, driest, windiest (and, in the last couple weeks before the monsoons fully materialize, the muggiest) time of year.

I should mention straight off that, despite whatever stereotypical mental images those not familiar with Gila Country might have (all of which are completely inaccurate), when it rains here, it is truly something to behold, in both relative and absolute terms. My very first night in Silver City, back in July 1976, I was curious why the curbs in downtown are all like 45 feet high. That very night, I received an answer, as the heavens opened up and before I could even begin to ponder the notion of what to me at that time was a new concept called a “flash flood,” Bullard Street suddenly became the first Class-4 main drag I had ever seen. My eyes nearly popped out of their sockets as I witnessed scads of household appliances, herds of mooing livestock, uprooted cotton- woods, Ford pick-up trucks, women, children & wheelchair-bound old people and barrels of perfectly good whiskey all being swept down the street to their assured doom in full view of the entire town. (OK, that may be slightly hyperbolic.)

In all my years living in the Colorado High Country, only a few times did I ever witness a rainstorm that approaches the level of ferocity of the average downpour in Southwest New Mexico. In the High Country, you sit there thinking, as thunder’s reverberating all around you, how weird it is to be up as high as the womb of lightning. Because of the altitude, you get the feeling that you are a visitor to the realm of storms, and, therefore, whatever storm-related fate might befall you, you basically deserve it, like, if you weren’t living and/ or recreating up higher than people were ever meant to be, maybe you wouldn’t have gotten zapped. In these parts, the storms come down to street level, as through they are purposefully, almost carnivorously, stalking the good folk of our humble hamlet. I mean, here we are, sitting on our front porches, smoking a bowl and sipping a beer, when, out of the blue, here comes an Old-Testament-like monsoonal weather front, salivating, licking its chops, looking for an otherwise innocent drunk person to scare the living shit out of and maybe even kill. And here’s another difference between High Country monsoonal weather patterns and those found in Gila Country: In the mountains, storm fronts almost always arrive on the scene from the West; hereabouts, they literally come from all directions, and sometimes from several directions at once, just to keep us on our toes. (This would stem from our closeness to the Gulf of Mexico, the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean.) In Gila Country, storms are sneaky bastards, ready to ambush the unwary, which pretty much includes most of us most of the time. But, as my buddy Pedro is wont to say, “At least they are warm killer tempests” — which is true enough; here you can actually comfortably stand out in the rain and not die from hypothermia in a matter of minutes, a reality that does not in and of itself mitigate the “killer” component of Pedro’s observation.

But, at the same time, the instant that first drop of rain impacts long-desiccated terra firma, the entire area becomes verdancy incarnate. Everything inclined to turn green does that, in about 15 minutes, in a National Geographic-special, time-lapse-photography sorta way. Cactus-covered hillsides suddenly look like postcards from Ireland. Riparian zones become so lush that they bear more re- semblance to Central America than the image most folks have of southern New Mexico. And crickets and frogs spring to life and add their vocalizations to a natural symphony that also includes cicadas the size of house cats and the tweetings of the 200-some-odd bird species that call Gila Country home.

As I was lying there in bed the first night after the monsoon rains came this year, listening, through no choice of my own, to the millions of chirping crickets and croaking frogs that were apparently now living not only in my yard, but right under my bedroom window, I could not help but be impressed with every aspect of Nature that has somehow found a way to adapt to harsh environ- mental circumstances. I wondered how all these critters manage to survive the nine or 10 months of the year when local precipitation is anything but guaranteed.

By the second night, I was thinking that, in addition to playing their part in the symphony of life, the millions of chirping crickets and croaking frogs now living directly under my bedroom window were also helping to drown out the usual nocturnal auditory emissions that define life in any New Mexico town: revving choppers, emergency vehicle sirens, firecrackers, gunfire, barking curs and loud rap music emanating from low-riders with faulty exhaust systems.

By the third night, though, I found myself lying there trying to figure out a way to get those aforementioned millions of chirping crickets and croaking frogs to SHUT THE HELL UP so I could get at least a little bit of shut-eye. I found myself thinking, in between mentally concocting several dozen sure-fire methods for torturing crickets and frogs, that I would happily trade straight up the otherwise splendid components and results of monsoon season for a world sans chirping and croaking, even if that meant watching Gila Country wither away to a degree of Sahara-like dryness that it came to serve as a poster child for both desertification and Global Warming. Fecundity, be damned! The pox on the admirable adaptability of Nature! Screw Nature!

One of the main ecological features of a place that experiences true monsoonal weather patterns is that just about every creature — from pond slime pretty much up my degenerate drinking buddies — has to fit the entire procreative process into a single season, before things start to dry out again and everyone just finds a cool, dark corner to occupy for the next three seasons. Ergo: Since the chirpings and croakings of the crickets and frogs are unabashed mating calls (yes, I watch The Discovery Channel), those particular creatures, of course, have little choice but to chirp and croak their fool heads off, no matter that yours truly is trying mightily to sleep off his latest beer-related indiscretions. Even though I often find myself this time of year perusing the web for products like “Crickets Be Gone!” and “Frogs Away!” I fully understand their situation, having bellowed out a mating call or two in my time, as well. Though I often find myself pondering the admittedly very un-environmentalist concept of eradicating every one of those chirping and croaking little buggers within earshot of my bed, I at least grok the notion of begging for sex. Thus, I make no effort to act upon my species-specific genocidal fantasies.

Toward first light, just as the crickets and frogs were handing the Fayhee-irritation baton over to the cicadas and birds, my sleep-deprived, delirious mind began to drift toward, as it often does, the subject of zoolinguistics (thanks to my buddy Stephen Buhner for straight-faced laying that word on me, as I was drinking beer and wondering aloud what on earth one calls the study of non-human verbal communication). I got to thinking about what it is those crickets and frogs are actually saying when they chirp and croak. OK, we know, as I said before, that they are “mating calls.” And we know, or at least I think we know, that it’s mainly the guy crickets and frogs doing the calling, a grim reality that has made its way clear to the top of the evolutionary ladder, to the very watering holes I visit. But what would their outwardly monotonous chirpings and croakings translate to, say, in a mountain-town bar? To the human ear, those chirpings and croakings seem to be the very definition of repetition — the exact same noise over (midnight, unable to fall asleep) and over (2 a.m., still wide awake) and over (4 a.m., thinking again of hunting down a 55-gallon barrel of “Crickets Be Gone!), ad infinitum (fuck it, time to get up).

By and large, those chirpings and croakings are either mono or bi-syllabic. So, as far as my 3 a.m. somnolent lizard brain thought process can tell, those male crickets and frogs are either saying, “Snatch,” or else, when they add in that romantic, albeit unvaried, second syllable, they might be saying “Snatch, please!” Or “Snatch, now!” Or perhaps, within those one or two lower-life-form syllables, there might be enough in the way of inflection that, to the ear of a potentially receptive female cricket or frog, the repetitive chirpings and croakings amount to, “Hey, baby, I’ve got the biggest sausage in all of Fayhee’s yard!”

But, perhaps, the human ear is simply unatuned to what’s really being said. Perhaps those crickets and frogs are reciting lyrical love poems in Cricket-ese and Indo-Frog that would rival a Shakespearean sonnet. Maybe what horny female crickets and frogs hear are not simple chirpings and croakings (“Snatch, now!”), but, rather, a cricket or frog Frank Sinatra crooning “Strangers in the Night.”

(My friend Julie thinks that the crickets and frogs are saying nothing more than “Wake up!” — and, since she is a card-carrying Earth Goddess-type, she probably speaks several dialects of both Cricket-ese and Indo-Frog. )

Thing is, it’s my guess that each species has its own vocal equivalent of a cricket’s chirping for nookie or a frog’s contention that he has the biggest sausage in the entire yard. Bull elks bugle, cats yowl and middle-class white guys on cruises grunt loudly while try- ing to dance the limbo after seven margaritas. And, once your mind starts wandering in that direction (that would be at 4:17 a.m.), there’s no way on earth to apply the brakes.

Though many young people might con- sider this some sort of urban legend, thirty years ago, guys in bars actually did ask women, by way of an opening conversational salvo (“chirp”), what their sign was. (Best response I ever heard to that lame interrogative (and I stress this was not pointed in my direction specifically, though it’s my guess it was pointed to all males of the species in general) was, “Stop.” I’d like to imagine that cricket and frog females exercise similar discretion, that they don’t fall for any ol’ chirp or croak.) I remember sitting in a now-defunct Colorado High Country imbibery, listening to the comely barkeep, who told me that, for the ninth time that very evening, some young buck newbie said to her, “We ought to go skiing sometime.” (“Croak.”) “Don’t these assholes have the ability to come up with anything better than that?” she fumed, leading me to believe that the problem was not that these guys were trying to pick her up, but, rather, that they were using stale lines. “Uh, we ought to go, uh, hiking sometime!” I responded (I thought wittily!), to no avail. (I considered mentioning something about having the biggest sausage in the yard, but, for once, was waylaid by some very uncharacteristic discretion that somehow percolated its way to my usually very uninhibited vocal chords.)

There’s a certain mountain bar that I’ve been in, shall we say, more than once. But almost all of my more-than-once visits have occurred during happy hour time; rarely have I been in that bar after 10 p.m., when the crowd becomes decidedly less ancient. Well, one night, I happened to be in the bar much later than usual, and I pointed my ears toward the various attempts at croaking and chirping on the part of the young males. The main syllables I discerned were, “Dude” (a particularly weird choice of chirp when pointed towards a female) and a “Beavis and Butthead”-type snicker, a flaccid “heh heh” that followed whatever the previous sentence was.

“My mother was just in a car crash.” “Heh heh.” And, since many of these young men were seemingly having far better luck at drawing the attention of the proximate females than most of my more loquacious happy-hour- drinking chums, I came to understand that, when it comes to attracting members of the opposite sex who are in their prime breeding years, maybe mono- and bi-syllables are indeed where it’s at.

For all I know, chirping frogs and croaking crickets — wait! it’s the other way around! — might get laid more than all my mountain amigos combined, which, now that I think about it, is nothing really to hang your evolutionary hat on. “But, do they ever find true love? Do they maintain lifelong relationships?” my now very drunk buddy Pedro asked when I bounced all this silliness off him.

“I don’t think that’s what crickets and frogs are really looking for,” I responded, like I’m the goddamned Dr. Phil of rutting and in-heat insects and amphibians. “Well, maybe the older crickets and frogs,” I added.

“Yeah, but, by that time, it’s the female frogs and crickets who are doing the chirping and croaking,” Pedro (three times divorced, I should point out) said, as I looked around the bar and noticed that the only female (probably for miles) left inside the bar was the well-worn bartender, and she definitely looked liked, if she never heard another chirp or croak the rest of her life, that would be just fine with her. (Pedro had shortly before chased off the last two female customers with a real successful chirp: “If you want to buy me a drink, I’ll let you.”) “And all the older male crickets and frogs are now wondering if it was all worth it, if they ought to have just kept their mouths shut in the first place,” Pedro sighed, to his mostly empty glass.

Hours later, as I lay there in bed, bombarded by the chirpings and croakings of a million aroused crickets and frogs, with the latest batch of monsoonal storm clouds gat ering over Gila Country, I thought to myself,

“Get it while you can, boys, for soon you will find yourself drinking at happy hour instead of pulling all-nighters!”

Chirp!!!! Croak ……. Heh heh.

Smoke Signals

Proper Name – unabridged – Mountain Gazette 143

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.
— Reed, Henry, “Naming of Parts.”

It was one thing to walk into the Sluice Box Drinking Emporium and see someone sitting there in the murkiness reading a book. And it was another thing to realize that the book-in-question was not 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 bottle 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 knew that Milt was not foraging for baby names for the usual reasons most people do; he was, rather, looking for something a bit closer to home. I was one of the few people who knew that Milt was nor Milt’s given name. Some indeterminate numbers of years prior, for reasons no one knew (it is very impolite to ask after such matters, 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 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 to 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 (it’s real name) well enough to plow snow, which is how he has made his living forever. That it had been an extremely snowy, and therefore potentially profitable, winter did not help matters any of the psychological. Milt had to borrow money to make rent a few times. After the guffaws about the nature of his accident dissipated, we all realized that 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 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. For the next half-hour, Milt stared into this beer mug, and it was obvious at that point that he no longer knew just exactly who 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 that miffed-ness (in very kind and perceptive terms, I should add). Which is fine and dandy, but I had to take a forced march down memory lane just to remember who she was. After some mental sluice-boxing, her identity dawned on me. The confusion was not caused by synapses that don’t fire as predictably as they once did; rather, it stemmed from the fact that this wonderful woman had changed her given name since I last saw her.

That marked the third time in the past few months I have heard from or about people I once knew who no longer go 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 names from whatever their names before that were. This can get confusing.

The West, of course, has always been Ground Zero for redefinition of self. People have long come here from parts East and Midwest with the idea of leaving their old selves way, way far behind on the trash heap of the personal past. For some people, self-renaming seems to me a perfectly rational part of that sort of skin-shedding. 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: My dad, he slurred, if he ever had a son, would name him after his best bud, and vice-versa. To this day, it stuns me that dear old dad actually not only remembered, but lived up to, his end of the deal. And, thus, I got a first name that not only have I hated since birth, but that has never fit me. And I suspect I am not the only one among us who looks at his driver’s license and wonders aloud what on earth his 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 of whom 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 remained nameless. 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?” 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. Man, I wonder how that kid turned out. Probably just fine. That, or he’s now a goth snowboarder or, worse, a accountant with a house in the ’burbs.

Up until the seventh grade, I went by my given 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 long prison sentence in the making. When I hear people talk about what trouble-makers they were as children — toilet-papering trees and horking 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 that time eventually went to prison … for murder. I was in constant hot water with law enforcement, school administrators, parents and neighbors. I was suspended for entire academic year … in the fifth grade.

My parents rationally decided that something monster big had to change. They decided we had to move, a decision for which I will be eternally grateful. As we were moving, I came to a decision that was remarkably enlightened, given who and what I was: When we arrived in Virginia, 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 miffed that I had dunked his best friend’s name). And 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. But we had moved 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 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.

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 over-indulgence 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 a saint (or a CPA) and opted to re-define himself downward.

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 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.

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 and a Gandalf. 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 changed their name to things like Moonbeam who changed their names back to things like Stuart when Reagan was President. But, it seems like perhaps there is a self-renaming resurgence afoot.

The West has also 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 fact 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 Crested Butte, 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 a wanted man ever since he jumped bail on a drug smuggling indictment. Bannister had been charged in 1973 with smuggling 26 pounds of cocaine after U.S. Customs agents seized from the trunk of his car four hand-carved wooden statues sent from Bolivia to Bannister in Taos, New Mexico. 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 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 time, no one in this once-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 bike shop in the entire country. 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 from society, Bannister had been unable to make it through his life on the lam without having a Social Security number, which he had stolen from a Pennsylvania man who, coincidentally or not, owned a bicycle shop. As a result of a routine credit check in spring 2008, the man came to suspect that someone else was using his credit card number. The Pennsylvania man filed a complaint, and an agent with the Social Security Administration 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 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, then asked his friend to drive away so that he couldn’t tell police which way Bannister had literally pedaled off into the sunset, destination known only to him.

When agents from the U.S. Marshal’s Office arrived in Crested Butte the 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. 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, if he was only acting like he was 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 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 looking around 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. 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 and the importance of names and the power of names. If memory serves, each of her characters sported given names, the names by which they were referred to and their secret names, which were only known to their closest friends, 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 Paul Atriedes did not become his true destined self (read: crazy-assed drug-addicted conqueror of the known universe) until he adopted the name pubic Muad’Dib and, simultaneously, had bestowed upon him by his Freman clan the secret name Usul, which gave him his considerable power.


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 give themselves a name and build and match a character to that name, even if for only a short while, is on the Appalachian Trail, where “trail handles” are commonplace. I had not thought about that for many years. But I ran into a lady I knew shortly after I finished hiking the AT. I had foolishly tried to take my trail handle with me out of the woods and out of its context and back into civilization. “You still Jumpin’ Jack Flash?” she had asked. I wasn’t, but I was still trying to be, and it took two full years to get that shit sorted out.

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 the shit with Big Del. When I returned to the bar section, Milt was gone. None of us have seen or heard from him since, and that was four months ago. We learned later that the weasel he had hit on the chin had 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 a name that would stick to Milt and not run off. Milt had left 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 and a new condo pod will replace it. I walked by just as they were towing Bud Girl off. It was then that I remembered that, when Milt walked out of the Sluice Box for possibly the very last time, Arlo Gurthrie’s version od “City of New Orleans” was playing. The A-section now made sense, and I knew where to look for my old friend if ever the inclination pointed me in the direction of the Crescent City.

Postscript: A few weeks ago, we all learned that the ski area, which had recently purchased the building in which the Sluice was located, had decided not to renew their lease. After 30 years, the Sluice was to be closed down and rebirthed, with a new name. In a press release, the ski area said that, with the exception of a new name, “nothing would change at the Sluice Box.”

With a new name, everything changes. Everything.