Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Winter Requiem

              I dropped the visor on my old truck to block the annoying midwinter glare but I could still see the local mountains: brown from the bad winters and the trees, red from Bark Beetle invasion.  Damn, I thought, this used to be some kind of place with snow stacked thigh high on the side of the road and the evergreen lined slopes covered in snow, spotted sparsely with locals and tourists in the endless terrain and powder snow.  Not anymore.  ‘What a shame’ I thought, I’ve devoted my life to this ski-town and this lifestyle[1], only to have it fade away from the lack of foresight and courage, or because it was inconvenient.   Winter was changing, fading, dying.  Greed trumps fear most often, but in the end, they are the same release.
              The day before I had woken up early on a huge powder day to ski with my step-son at a high profile local resort in an adjacent canyon.  The crawling traffic jam started 20 miles from the hill indicating a 2-4 hour get, so I apologized and excused myself and turned around despite the boy’s devotion to me and good family powder skiing.  I went to our local hill to find my friends and it was a similar cluster with a full parking lot, long lift lines and over-crowded slopes, while half the mountain still remained closed, waiting for more snow, the ski patrol’s approval or the management’s corporate fiduciary duty to open.  Despite my local knowledge of the weather, the hill, and its operation, another simple powder day was ruined.  I felt disenchanted, disenfranchised and downtrodden with my metaphorical First World issues.
              They told me it would take fifty years for this ski-bum lifestyle to fade away with the new climate and changing vegetation but it had been less than 30 years.  Unfortunately, since we spent the first 25 years in denial, so it is difficult for us to adapt.  In the early days it used to snow two feet every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday night and we prayed for a break so we could rest our legs, weary from pushing long straight skis thru bottomless powder.  The latter-days were almost as good but not as reliable as slopes became more prosaic and predictable and we escaped into the back country.  They built new ski resorts and expanded the old ones into our side country despite the dwindling snowpack and the shrinking skier base.  Despite the rising expense, people still came and they still spent lots of money so our town kept growing, like a cancer, against all hope and reason, for a while.  Years ago, we hosted the Olympics and the ‘World Was Welcomed Here’.  Now, not so much so.  Various multinational ski companies took over after that, corporatized it, mechanized it and bled it dry before systematically taking the money and running. 
              Our mountain climate had gotten consistently warmer, despite the high elevation and prime mountain desert location at the top of the Colorado Plateau.  At first the ski seasons were shortened imperceptibly and incrementally, like boiling frogs.  Then it started to rain, first in March and October, then in November and February, and now in December and January.  A white Christmas is a thing of the past now and only possible with copious snowmaking, if it is cold enough.  As our carbon footprint grew, the town struggled and our property values plummeted.
              The trees started off with a tinge of red years ago that spread, slowly at first, and then much more quickly, until the hillsides were covered with ‘Dead Red’ Bark Beetle that killed all of the trees.  The sustained drought became the new normal and we didn’t have those long cold spells, below zero, that kept the beetles from decimating the forest.  There are places now where everywhere you look all you see is grey and red, in every direction.  Then came the fires that burnt fast and hot in all that standing dead and downed timber.  The trophy homes built in the wildland-urban interface without proper defendable space were threatened and several of them burnt to a crisp despite our best efforts.  Some of the wood was harvested but it was crap and only good for particle board and not really worth the trouble. 

They say that rain follows fire and it sure did around here, sparking mudslides and turbid stream flows that killed all the fish.  Related riparian species died out as well as the other indicator species such as the Pica and Potguts.   The bugs and bunnies as well as the mega-fauna, like the Moose and Lions, just up-and-left, voting with their feet.  We used-up all the available surface water and over-pumped the groundwater, lowering the water table and causing aquifer subsidence that forced us to go far and wide and import other people’s water to our basin.  Water flows towards money, weather doesn’t. 
This was a natural cycle, accelerated and exacerbated by man and ignored by the stewards of our lands, given dominion over all and responsibility for nothing.  As usual the poor suffere the most with mass migrations, famine, wars, pestilence and chaos.  What started as a First World inconvenience turned into a Third World disaster as we are encouraged to be sustainable, resilient and adaptable.  Whatever the hell that means.    Where have our winters gone.  What have we done with our planet.

[1] We didn’t invent this lifestyle but we perfected it.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Winter Reckoning

          The day bloomed bright and blue with the winter morning sun streaming in the southeast window of my aunt's farmhouse bedroom.  Sunrise is late this time of year in the great white north so I hopped from my bed and found the family downstairs already eating their breakfast.  The previous day’s storm had stopped and the sun was baking the surface of the snow-pack, simultaneously thawing and refreezing in the stiff north wind.  When my brother and I dressed in our wool sweaters and cotton dungarees and went out in mid-morning arctic chill there was a stiff crust on top of supportable wind-slab.  We found an aluminum toboggan in the barn and headed out towards the lower pasture.  ‘Be home for lunch’ is all our mother told us.  We were raised in the permissive Dr. Spock manner of the early 60’s where we were free and allowed to fail and fall on our faces.
              Without a thought or a care or even a short test run, we piled on the toboggan and headed down a long steep untrammeled hill towards the lowest corner of the pasture.  We immediately found ourselves accelerating on this frictionless plane and our initial joy swiftly turned to horror as we realized that we were completely out of control and continuing to accelerate at an exponential rate[1].  We rolled over a few undulations but naturally found the fall line that led to the lowest point on the property and began screaming for our lives.  We started punching and pulling comically on each other, for lack of anything better to do, but we knew we were doomed. 
              The sled flew over a short wall and we were airborne for several minutes before crashing down into the snow without the sled.  We rounded the last corner sliding on top of the crusty snow as the sled crashed into the lower fence and bent into a perfect ninety-degree angle.  We continued rolling on down a thin slew cut into the woods that allowed the horses to access the stream channel below in the summer.  ‘Stream Channel’ we thought in the back of our little minds, ‘oh poop’.  We piled down the hill and into the icy stream, feet first, and came to a reclining stop in the cold water.
              Having not developed a sufficient self-preservation instinct we laid there for what seemed like minutes until we felt the cold-water seep thru our cotton outer layers and attack our clammy skin.  Our initial shock turned to wild surprise as we got up and shook off like wet dogs in a bathtub.  We looked at each other with wide eyes that said ‘We are so screwed’ and we started to run for the house.  Unfortunately, our little bodies could not punch thru the crusty snow and for every one step up we took two steps back and wound up back in the stream.  My brother began to curse his pre-pubescent curses, ‘shoot, doody, damn, #2’ and I sat on the stream bank and began to cry.  ‘Mom and Dad will come and save us’, I thought, ‘they always do’.  But our parents were on a second cup of coffee and enjoying the quiet morning away from the rock-em, sock-em young boys that so dominated their young lives. 
              By grabbing small trees, rock out-crops and exposed brush we were able to eventually pull ourselves up to the lower pasture.  My brother was doing well but I started to shiver uncontrollably despite the effort of our monumental climb.  We sat down and collected ourselves.  If we had a cigarette we would have smoked it.  My brother busied himself collecting the toboggan from the fence and bending it back into a flat sled.  ‘Dad is gonna kill us,’ he noted as we looked at the broken sled.  ‘Get on’ he offered heroically as we looked up the interminable distance to the house.  He bravely tried pulling me up the hill but the bad physics was way beyond our comprehension and he kept sliding back and I kept falling off.  He was starting to shiver and freeze.  ‘Leave me and the sled and save yourself,’ I implored with faux courage and he started up the hill on his own, kicking footholds as he went.  ‘Send help,’ is what I forgot to add but it was implied and should have been understood by any moron. 
              I watched him trudge up, step by step, breathing cold smoke from his lips and resting frequently to look back.  He disappeared once or twice over the undulations but finally shrunk into a dot in the distance as he crested the hill.  I tried to follow but the footsteps were too big and I could not break my own.  He had a tenacity and indefatigability that I had not developed yet so I just sat down and cried.  ‘This is it’ I imagine now what I might have thought then, ‘done in right before my half birthday, in the prime of my youth.’  ‘I will never learn to drive a car or ride a bike, do long division or read, write a book or drink whiskey, love a dog or kiss a girl’.  I thought then of Patty O’Rourke, sitting pretty in the back of our kindergarten play group with her bowed blonde hair, her billowing, silky-white blouse and her pleated plaid, short-short catholic skirt.  ‘She will never know’.  ‘My parents will never see me grow up and play sports, do well in school, get a good job and a fine woman and have a family of my own to take on wild winter adventures.  And I will never get to go skiing again, ever, after mastering it all in only one day.  No more Thunder Bunny, no more Black Diamond slopes, no Olympic gold medals’.
              Seeing no help on the horizon, after what seemed like hours but was probably only 10 minutes, I began to get angry and to look around for something, anything, to get me out.  I slid over to the side fence of the pasture and found it made of 6-inch wire squares that I could hook my hands and feet into and pull myself up.  Six inches at a time, I pulled and pried my little frozen body up that fence, one miserable step at time.  I cried the entire time, with snot bubbles coming out of my nose and freezing down my chin.  I got mad, I got sad, I got glad from the hopeless feeling of abandonment by my brother and my parents and my blooming self-responsibility and accomplishment.  ‘Don’t they miss me; don’t they know where I am and how much trouble I am in’?  ‘Screw them, I don’t need them, I can do this by myself and when I do they are going think I am the bravest, strongest, gnarliest kid in the world.’  They will probably let me drink a beer and drive home’.
              Finally, after what seemed like an infinite amount of time in my delirious little brain, I pulled myself up to the back of the barn and saw the horses watch me take a drink from the running water in the horse trough as I had seen my older cousin do once on a dare.  I was famished, starving, thirsty and frozen but I noticed, with my new, expanded perspective, the tiny rainbows glistening off the snowflakes on the horse’s furry winter manes.  The grain in the barn wood jumped out at me in perfect brown, grey and black patterns.  The sun seemed to be setting behind wispy high clouds and dark green, foreboding conifer hills lined with the skeletons of dormant birch trees.  I began to notice the details and colors of a place I had never seen before, and appreciate the world, not as a mere boy, but as a young man.
              The house was still a few hundred yards away and my feet felt like frozen concrete blocks, but I took my time getting there on the narrow horse path, taking in my new perspective, self-awareness and confidence.  I powered through the back door undaunted, meeting my surprised family around the warm fire where my Dad greeted me with a ‘well hello Junior’ and helped me off with my coat and found me wet and frozen.  We both tried to put a brave face on it but when he couldn’t get my icy boots off my frozen feet, I broke down into the apron folds on my mother’s lap and cried like the little boy I really was.  ‘They would never know and could never understand’ I thought.  ‘That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’
              After a hot bath and hearty meal of grilled cheese, potato chips, a dill pickle and hot chocolate, I settled into an afternoon of blankets and slippers, dry long-johns and I even wore my cool new ski hat inside since my Irish[2] Dad always said, ‘If your feet are cold, put on your hat.’  The terror of my experience quickly began to fade as we laughed and joked about it.  My brother apologized for abandoning me and for forgetting to tell Dad where I was because he was trying to warm up.  ‘You are a jerk but It’s ok,’ I said and we reckoned that this experience would have killed any lesser men.  I punched him in the arm but he didn’t me punch back.   We have that day to share for the rest of our lives and it made us closer than any dumb Disney Land road trip or family campout could. 
              I began to see winter in a different light that weekend; something beautiful and fun but a force not to trifle with or minimize but to respect and revere.  Winter can please and entertain you but it can also test you.  It can measure your mettle and preparedness, your tenacity and your smarts, your patience and persistence, like a good friend or lover.  Spring is an exciting time of new beginning while summer is soft, lazy and languid. Fall is full of color, death and decay, nesting and preparation, but winter is wise, strong and beautiful, will love you and test you and envelop you with its white blanket beauty and keep you honest, strong and clean.  I began my mixed relationship with winter that weekend and even though we have had our ups and downs, we are still hanging together after all these years, and probably always will.

[1] Newtons second derivative of acceleration, the change in the change
[2] The Irish usually consider it an insult if you leave your hat on in the house
Painting Credit - Lori Spragens

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Winter Retrospect

              I woke slowly, face down on the itchy burlap of the back compartment of the 59 VW Bug we rode in, the ‘way back’ as we called it in my family.  It was a small, crescent-shaped compartment, less than 2 feet wide, 3 feet deep and 4 feet long below the cold back window but above the warm engine of the small car.  It was a prized, cushy-cozy-comfortable, womb/tomb like place I fought my brother for, especially on long winter trips, and we claimed it and ‘called it’ hours or even days before the trips began.  My five and a-half year-old face was swollen red from the deep sleep of mindless-youth and imprinted with a waffle pattern from the burlap mesh as I poked my head over the back seat and asked my Mom, ‘are we there yet?’

              The small, black German car with a sporty red Naugahyde interior, probed its way down a snowy two-lane highway like an Olympic bobsled between high imposing snowbanks, somewhere in western Massachusetts.  In the early 1960s the new freeways were contemplated but not completed and the local roads were not effectively plowed or maintained, especially at night.  Heading north out of New York City was still an adventure into the wilderness and the great unknown.  From the cozy confines of suburban Long Island this was a big step out of our comfort zone, but we were a brave new modern family that made up with rugged resolve for what we lacked in real resources.  There was fear but we had courage.
              Dad drove slowly but steadily into the night as Mom death-gripped the dashboard handle with two hands and stared intensely into the night, looking for cars, deer or Big Foot on the edge of the highway.  ‘Turn your bright lights on Arty,’ she snipped nervously, looking down , on the gauges but he only quipped ‘Nancy, they are on’ as he pounded the floor button twice with his left boot to show her the vague difference.  Mom, a school teacher who was always teaching, fancied herself as the better driver, being a liberated, new-age woman of the 60’s, but Dad drove snowplows at his job in Public Works and he relished this kind of blind-braille driving and the imperceptible contrasts of white-on-white as we almost floated down the road. 
              My seven-year-old brother and nemesis Mark was asleep in the back seat under a pile of blankets and coats, stretched out the full length of the small seat, until I snapped him in the ear with my little finger.  ‘Maaaaa’ he moaned instinctively to no one listening in the dark.  Our baby sister Mary was at grandma’s house, safe, warm and dry but too young for this winter adventure. 
              The cramped car smelled like Old Spice, McDonalds and wet wool, and the side windows were iced up but translucent.  The 56-horse-power air-cooled engine did not have much oomph and the little heat it gave off was directed to the window defroster, but the engine was in the back over the drive wheels and we plowed on relentlessly through the night. 
‘Almost there Ginty, can you hold it’, Dad asked optimistically as we passed the striped concrete retaining wall that indicated our turn on to a snow-packed dirt road.  ‘Maybe,’ I said semi-courageously as we bounced and jostled onto the rural road.  It became even darker as we headed up the hill making random left and right turns on smaller roads based on my mother’s instructions and intuition.  We finally pulled up in front of a small dumpy farm house with peeling yellow paint and several non-descript outbuildings behind it with a small sign over the barn in the distance that announced alliteratively, ‘Herman Harris Horse Hotel’. 
            Dad hopped out and banged on the front door in the driving snow.  A barefooted man answered, clothed only in his waffle long johns, with a large pot belly and an unshaven face.  Herman Harris was a local here in Northern Massachusetts, born and raised in this house, and he had just finished his daily multi-tasking schedule of; driving the school bus and snow plow, feeding horses and shearing sheep, fixing snow-mobiles and harvesting maple syrup, chopping wood and poaching deer.  It was an increasingly specialized world in the 60’s but Herman hadn’t gotten the memo yet.
            Scratching himself quizzically in the doorway, backlit by the changing light of a black-and-white TV in a living room cluttered with cheap beer cans and dirty dishes, Herman tried to figure out who this stranger was and what we wanted.  ‘The key, the key – to The Farm up the hill,’ I overheard my Dad shout several times as he stomped his cold feet, until an actual light bulb of recognition went on over the Herman’s head and he invited my Dad in heartily while he searched for the key.  Herman dwarfed my Dad when he put his arm around him to lead him inside.  Dad is not a small man by any means, but Herman enveloped him and we wondered if he would ever return.  After an interminable delay, Dad finally came out and vigorously shook Herman’s large gnarled hand several times, thanking him profusely, and ran back to the car.
         Dad had no key but only the hope and a prayer that one would be cleverly hidden under the Welcome mat.  He dropped the parking brake excitedly and gunned the VW up the hill to a quick hairpin turn and up a final steep stretch to a ghost-white house that emerged slowly from the snowy mist.  The lights were on but no one was home.  Dad kept it floored until we crested the sill of the unplowed driveway, rammed into a snow bank and crunched to a stop.  We had arrived.
            The Farm, as our family called it, was a regal 100-year-old Colonial farm house with barns and breezeways, mud rooms and garages, that my uncle had bought in the late forties, for a song and a prayer - we imagined.  It was very rough for the first few decades with a stream-fed cistern water supply, a leach field in the lower pasture and an actual ice-box to keep food fresh.
            When my aunt insisted that they move the family out of gentrified suburbia to the country for a few years of ‘perspective’, my uncle had The Farm fixed up with modern conveniences such as a cozy white-oak library, a wine cellar, a washer and dryer and a good heater.   It was all done with such style and class that complimented the historic house so well that we couldn’t wait for our each invitation to visit.  To us it represented an escape from suburbia to a rural life that we never knew and a gateway to the New England wilderness of Emerson and Thoreau[1] The subtleties and luxuries of this place were not lost on my five-year-old sensibilities.  I loved it. 
            We dug out the door mat, found the key underneath and let ourselves in.  It was freezing cold out, not the Long Island dreary-damp, build a droopy-dirty-snowman kind of cold, but a dangerous artic clean-clear cold with a biting wind that put it well below zero.  Mom found the thermostat and turned the heat on while Dad and I went down some spooky stairs to check the water.  The cistern was flowing and ice free but my Dad plucked a dead mouse off the surface and threw in some chlorine while he winked at my astonishment and said ‘Don’t tell your mother.’  We came upstairs laughing and helped unpack food and tons of frozen luggage that emerged from the front boot of the VW like clowns from a circus car.  We waited for Dad to take us upstairs because there was that scary picture of an emaciated woman with bug eyes over the steep stairs.   We found our new separate bedrooms to share and my brother and I bounced on the beds with delight as we unpacked our plaid flannel pajamas. 
            After a snack and a story, we went to bed but not to sleep as we heard the large maple tree howling in the wind and scraping the window with an errant branch.  Every hour or so a snowplow would scream up or down the hill next to the house and it sounded like it was going to take the living-room wing off during its next pass.  The house was full of creaks and groans that we imagined were benign spirits in the night, or at least secretly hoped so. 
            We woke at first light to a blinding blizzard outside, the smell of fresh coffee and bacon cooking downstairs, the sound of my Dad tinker-fixing something in the library and my Mom singing along with Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’, the only record in the house.  I jumped up and put on my waffle-white cotton long johns, dungarees and red, white and blue scratchy-wool Olympic ski sweater with matching hats that my Mom had knitted for my brother and I for Christmas for when we learned how to ski.  Today was the day. 
             After breakfast we drove down to a local Ma-and-Pa ski hill on the Deerfield River called Thunder Mountain that made up in quintessential New England beauty for what it lacked in size and sophistication.  There were incredible vistas in every direction but snow-making hoses and lift cables were scattered in the snow in the foreground.   After endless delays sizing rental skis[2] tying our boots and adjusting our cable bindings, we were ready to shred.   Mom applied some yucky waxy Chap Stick lipstick[3] to our lips and they sent us ski school.  My brother and I skied down to the Thunder Bunny hill, unsure at first but fully competent after 100 yards. ‘I got this’ I thought as we were introduced to our ski instructor, Pierre Hiver, from Montreal.  Peter Winters.
              I didn’t need lessons but this guy was so handsome and slick and had such a cool French accent that I thought I’d humor him for a while.  He taught us left and right turns, Pizza and French fry, how not to get killed on a rope tow and we were off.  I had a bomber-proof snowplow in no time that I employed at high speeds for the next five years.  I didn’t want to parallel yet and that Stem-Christy turn was just plain silly.  The weather was howling and we were sopping wet but we didn’t notice until it was time for lunch and hot cocoa.                                                      
          In the afternoon I skied with my family and they gave us horse blankets to keep us warm on the slow lifts.  My Mom and brother eventually went in for more mocha but my Dad and I braved the storm all afternoon while he continually shivered and asked me if I was warm enough.  I don’t know if he was staying out there for me or I for him but we were having a great time.  The chair lift usually hit me in between my shoulder blades so Dad had to lift and stuff me into the chair.  At one point he dangled from the chair precariously just to fix my loosened binding on a hanging ski.  This is true love, I thought.
              By the end of the day we were wet, cold and exhausted as we piled into the cold bug to head back up the hill to The Farm.  The gas pedal was frozen down so my brother had to crawl behind the shifter and pull it up repeatedly when my Dad told him to as we negotiated the hills and the hair pin turns.  Back in the warm house we lit a fire and danced around in our long underwear, just like Herman Harris, as the cold outdoor winter scene in the large kitchen window turned to a dark reflection of the warm, raucous family meal at the long kitchen table. 
              We ate ravenously, joshing and telling stories, bonding closer than we had ever been in the humdrum, everyday Massapequa life that seemed so far away.  Not long after dinner we went to bed early and slept the sleep of those who had just been reborn.  I dreamt of Pizza and French Fries, hot chocolate and snow, endless snow.  I had no idea that winter was so fun and so wild and that it led to activities and adventures that were so invigorating and liberating.  I was so glad that my family had made the herculean effort to introduce us to this new season, sport, experience and lifestyle, that I swore on the spot, I would embrace for my entire life. 

[1] Who’s first edition books graced the library shelves for evening consumption  
[2] An extended arms height over our heads.
[3] That still gives me waxy smell and taste-sensory flash backs today.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Go West Young Man

The road rose gradually heading west towards a three dimensional vanishing point , as it does in all good western discovery stories.  It was night so we could not see the mountains floating like clouds on the horizon, but we could feel them.  The road was still straight but the vertical curve to the west steepened imperceptibly at first but ultimately exponentially.  Indiana and Illinois were flat as pancakes.  Iowa introduced some rolling hills as the lush natural vegetation faded away.  In Nebraska the undulations increased in amplitude and period as the surrounding population receded and we had to slow down to miss the cows grazing lazily on the Interstate.  By Wyoming we were definitely going up.

We were three young men, escaping the maddening traffic of New York, the inferno of Brooklyn or the crowded ash-tray beaches of Long Island.  We were recent east coast, yuppie college grads making the awkward transition into real life and we had everything we needed.  We were heading west for sun, snow and adventure, for a year or two or for the rest of our lives.  We didn’t know what we wanted but we knew what we didn’t want and we left that in our rear view mirror. 

The old rickety Country Squire station wagon we drove  was chaotically packed full of all our possessions; one large quadraphonic Stereo with an eight track tape deck, three sets of skis boots and poles, three relatively small suitcases full of clothes, three down jackets, a cooler full of empty beer cans and week old groceries, one laundry basket full of toys –a football, basketball, Frisbee, ice skates, hiking boots, one bike tire, a lacrosse stick, a very large brassier and a cowboy hat.   

We broke down in a blizzard between Cheyenne and Laramie and spent a few bleak days waiting for the plow and a part and decided, then and there, between living in Jackson Hole or Park City.  Jackson was gnarly but Utah had jobs.  We stayed left on the freeway at all three opportunities to head north.  That convenient, almost unconscious choice of the road more traveled would set the stage for the next forty years of our lives. How many other pioneers’ fate has been decided, for better or worse, by a casual decision, lack of ambition, or a minor misfortune? 

In western Wyoming, at first light, the Uinta Mountains revealed themselves, like a blushing bride.  We were so taken by the site of the snowcapped mountains that we failed to notice our speed or the cop hiding in the divider monitoring it.  Pulling over quickly while stashing beers and bongs, we found our shoes and socks so we could address the local law officer at his car window instead of at our smelly one, a move that would get you shot where we came from.  We tried explaining our oblivious wonder at the spectacular mountains but the officer laconically replied ‘Yep, we like them… 130 dollars please’ -  which we paid with all our cash on the spot and we were on our destitute way. 

On the last long ear popping drop from the Colorado plateau to the smoky Basin Range valley of The Great Salt Lake, we slipped under a blanket of hazy pollution.  We smelt something else burning and realized it wasn’t just the inversion, it was our asbestos brakes.  Maybe Neutral was not the best gear to ascend these long grades into the valley of the Saints, our new western home, but what did we know. 

The well planned, ecumenical streets of Salt Lake City spread out before us in every direction, converging in a multi-dimensional parallax.  With less than a million people sprawling across the valley, it was not quite a real city yet in our eyes because there was no there, there.  It seemed like the suburban Long Island we had escaped, with mountains.  The sepia colored, smoky skies were a surprising disappointment because we could not see the mountains we came west to live in.  We knew, however, that above Salt Lake City, in Park City, the sun was shining, the slopes were uncrowded and the mountains were covered deep in snow.  That is where we would go to live. 

So this was our conscious escape from the overly ambitious middlemen millionaires of the east, the boring industrial agriculture of the mid-west, the over blown, Mork and Mindy, Rocky Mountain High grooviness of Colorado and the conspicuous consumption of California.  Utah was off the radar, out of the box, ecclesiastically edgy in the shadow of the Temple, so we redefined ourselves one more time under the protection of the Zion Curtain.  Montana was too cold, Arizona too hot, Wyoming too bleak, California too crowded and Colorado too cool.  Utah was just right.  We were home. 

We could hardly imagine that both of these small cities in this backwater state would be redeveloped soon and obtain a critical mass, that the world would be welcome here for a major Film Festival and the Olympics, putting them on the map and making this place the center of winter activities and an international destination resort.  The population here would double in no time bringing with it diversity and depth, definition and character and we would help with this transition.  We would cultivate lifelong friends and fortunes, homes and families, and we would develop a rich, recreational lifestyle that would be the envy of our friends and the rest of the nation.  We would perfect this lifestyle and make this place our own.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Born in the Summer of his Twenty Second Year

A week after purchasing a used Honda 350 with a Doonesbury style opened face Green Bay Packer helmet, he strapped his framed Jansport backpack to the Sissy Bar and headed south to the canyon country.  Freezing his way out of the mountains he warmed on the Main Street of Mormon Land.  After stalling at a green light he overheated, kick starting the bike frantically 100 times before remembering to take it out of gear and release the clutch.  He was still learning.

His initial test ride the week before ended ignominiously when he drove the bike carefully around the neighborhood and then back into the rear wall of the seller’s garage.  He had never ridden a motorcycle before but he’d be damned if he’d admit that to the seller, an old friend and mentor who was helping him discover the freedom of the wild, wild west.   ‘I’ll take it’ was all he could muster while writhing in pain and laughter on the floor of the garage.   The best $150 he ever spent.   

Now he streamed south in a tee shirt and shorts between rock cliffs and tight canyons, into wide open, big sky country.  Intoxicated with the scenery and the sunshine, the freedom and the speed, he felt like John Wayne riding his handsome steed into Monument or Death Valley or the romanticized moto trip TV show of his youth called Then Came Bronson.  Either way he was fulfilling his fantasy and living the dream, filling his ‘bucket list’ before they were even invented and before he was even 23.

Heading towards the Needles District of Canyonlands he took the first right turn and thirty miles later found himself on the BLM Needles District Overlook where he could look out and see his intended campsite 2000 feet below him, straight down.  Doubling back he was burning daylight and most of his remaining gasoline. 

As he approached the lower Needles turnoff he slowed cautiously and a strap from his pack caught up in his back sprocket which locked the wheel up completely and sent him into a violent skid.  With all his might he resisted flying over the handle bars and maintained control of the skidding bike until, mercifully, his backpack frame blew apart from the force, releasing all of its contents and, thankfully, the back wheel.  

Limping to a halt on the wind swept shoulder, he surveyed the situation.  His clothes and cook set, food and tent were strewn all over the highway.  He looked back to see his sleeping bag sitting in the middle of the road as a steaming eighteen wheeler ran over it and shredded it into a nylon-down parachute floating above the highway.  He had to laugh.

He cobbled together what was left of his gear and repaired the motorcycle.  He then took the correct turn towards the Needles District campground, humbled and contrite.  ‘I am not John Wayne or Bronson from the movies,’ he thought ‘or even Rojo my imaginary Indian friend,  I’m just another dufus western wannabee.’  Forgetting his near empty gas tank he rode the straight, fast road west towards the setting sun and the canyons, gaining speed and confidence as he went. 

In the failing light he failed to see the hairpin turn dropping off the edge and hit it going way to fast.  He leaned into the turn for all he was worth but at the last minute his baloney skin tires gave way and skidded out.  As the bike went down and slid down the road to the shoulder he luckily and instinctively pulled out his bottom leg and rode the gas tank down into the ditch.  No harm, no foul.  

At dusk he limped dejectedly into camp, on nothing but fumes, to rendezvous with old friends and outdoor compatriots.  He later would drain all the cook stoves in camp to get enough gas to get out, but not right away, that could wait.  ‘Buttface’ they greeted him familiarly, ‘you don’t look too good’ they said with purposeful understatement.

Within minutes he had a dented, but undaunted, can of Dinty More Stew brewing on the fire and he passed around a plastic bottle of cheap Bourbon, already exaggerating the story of his adventures, trials and tribulations.  They all howled with laughter, and he did too, like it was some adventure far in the past, not one that he was still bleeding and shaking from. 

He sat back around the fire with his friends, staring up at the silhouettes of the surrounding red rock cliffs and the already emerging, amazing stars.  He felt at home.  He was willing, almost able, scrappy and adventurous.  Once again he was bent but not broken, all the more wiser and experienced, with the eyes of one who revels in just being born.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Did you ever notice that:

When you are on a big road trip and you pass something cool, that you should have stopped for, you regret it instantly, but you don't turn back.  I initially obsess but I eventually figure that we will just have to come back that way again and remember to stop, no matter how remote it is. That is why I've been everywhere, twice.

On a recent slow road trip up the west coast my wife and I came sailing into Big Sur in our big old pickup truck and passed a library-museum-book store-hipster coffee house celebrating Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, some of the main reasons we love Big Sur. Maybe we didn't stop because we saw this place on a blind curve and didn't have time to process it or slow, or we had stopped several times before this.  

We had just stopped for several hours at the cool Russian Fort Ross from 1812 where the Russians settled the central coast to grow food for their Alaska outposts.  They had more cannons than the Spanish-Mexicans, so they were invited to stay as long as they liked.  Walking around the old fort, with a precocious 12 year old girl in costume dress for a guide, transported us back to a slower more deliberate time.

We had been stopping everywhere that day, me being the new me, with our time having the new tempo of the retired leisure lower class. In fact, he road was so tight and curvy that, after several days,  my left arm hurt so much from driving that I was forced to steer with my inferior right arm, forgoing shifting, climate and radio controls.  We had seen elephant seals fighting for mates, whales and dolphins, otters and osprey as well as ocean overlooks and the classic coastal bridge views.  We often stopped for a pic-nic and a hike, a smoke and a snooze.  

We were only making 100-200 miles a day, hardly enough for a gas stop every few days but enough to make us tired and the dog sick. It was a great tempo in the large and lumbering pickup truck, as opposed to our last trip up this coast in our Mini Cooper.  That trip was fast and furious and fun in a different way, with no stops or much scenery.  Sometimes it's the trip, sometimes it's the destination, sometimes it's the scenery. 

So for some reason we blew by the writer’s museum in Big Sur and had a pastry and coffee in this groovy cafĂ©.  We found out the camping and hiking in the Redwoods and on the beaches were still closed due to the big fire that summer.   So we headed down to Carmel, Pebble Beach and Monterey where we had a rude reintroduction to civilization and traffic after having hunkered down on the forgotten California central coast for past month.  

After a nice B&B and a tour of the Monterey peninsula and the incredible aquarium we were content again with where we were and where we were going but in the back of my mind I kept thinking of the writer’s museum we missed.  Shoulda, woulda, coulda - my optimizational obsession, my engineers curse kicked in like it always does.  So we will have to go back again, next time.  

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Water Bison

In 1803, our third President, Thomas Jefferson, bought nearly 1 million square miles of land in the Western United States from the struggling French leader Napoleon for the amazingly cheap price of 3 cents per acre.  (An Acre is roughly the size of a football field.)  A good deal.

The next year Jefferson, who also wrote the Declaration of Independence and had a cool round house in Virginia, sent his friends, Captains Lewis and Clark, out to explore these new lands with a bunch of soldiers, a black slave, a young Indian woman named Sacajawea, and a few small boats.  They pulled these boats all the way up the Missouri River, thousands of miles, to the Continental Divide and then rode down the western slope rivers to the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean.  Amazing.

They found many astounding things in the west like the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, Grizzly Bears and lots of Mosquitos but the most amazing thing they found were the ‘Buffaloe’  – as they called them, almost 100 million Buffalo.  With giant herds, as large as some eastern states, that would take several days to pass by, these giant prehistoric animals stretched out as far as the eye could see. 

These weren’t Buffalo, but actually American Bison (Bison Bison, so good they named it twice, officially in Latin).  Buffalo didn’t live in North America, they lived in Africa as the fierce Water Buffalo.  Lewis and Clark didn’t know that but we still call them Buffalo today, and they don’t seem to mind.  All Lewis and Clark knew was that the Bison had lots of meat that tasted good and supplied their soldiers with nutrition and blankets, clothes and tents for much of their epic trip. 

The Captains also noticed that the Native Americans that lived out west, and had for a very long time, depended on the Bison, or Tatanka as they called them, for food and shelter, clothing and hats, jewelry and tools.  They used every part of Tatanka and wasted none of it.  In fact they depended on the Tatanka for so much that it was a sacred animal that they worshiped and revered above all other animals, since their lives were so intimately intertwined.   They lived in harmony with the Bison and followed the great herds for all that they supplied.  Their lives were in balance with the great herds.

The Bison were perfectly suited to live on the Great Plains with thick hair and hides that could withstand temperatures from 120 above to 50 below zero.  They could move snow with their giant heads and forage grass all year long and sustain their big strong bodies everywhere they roamed.  They ate and then fertilized and aerated the grasses of the Great Plains and they could protect themselves and their offspring from wolves and bears and any other predator, except for one, man.

As white settlers followed Lewis and Clark out west, they discovered these seemingly endless herds and began to hunt them for food and for fun, for their horns and their tongues.  They hunted them almost to extinction to help them control the Native Americans by eliminating their main food source and natural resource.  Soon almost all the bison were gone.  I say almost, and it is a good thing, because extinction is forever.

The settlers still needed to eat when the bison were gone, so they imported fancy cows from Europe but realized they were ill suited to the weather and the feed of the Great Plains.  They could not forage in the snow and had to be fed in the winter.  In one great blizzard of 1898, half of them died from the wind and the snow and the cold.  But the Bison were gone and the white men were hungry so they kept importing and growing and feeding their fancy cows. 

The farmers had to grow hay and alfalfa and grass in the summer for the cows to eat in the winter.  They would let the cows roam the open plains and the mountains in the summer and then bring them back to the farm to protect and feed them in the winter. Then the farmers realized that the Great Plains west of St Louis did not get enough rain to grow grass naturally so they had to dig canals from the rivers to irrigate their fields so they could grow feed for their cows.  They diverted and plumbed the rivers to flow to their fields for feed and dried up many rivers doing it, killing the fish and the riparian plants and animals that depend on the rivers to live.  Things were starting to get out of whack.

This continued this for almost 100 years with great herds of cows filling up and dominating the lands and the rivers of the western United States.  Then in the after World War II things got worse.  Men had perfected how to build dams on rivers to save the snow melt and natural flow to use in the summer.  They also learned how to put pumps into underground water wells and pump water up from deep within the earth.  This made it easier for them to grow even more grass and feed even more cows but this heavy production took its toll on the Great Plains. 

When you fly over the Great Plains today you can see giant circles and squares of green crops with sprinklers watering the crops and a well in the middle pumping water from a dam or a river or from an underground river.  These underground rivers are called aquifers.  These aquifers are like big sponges that are filled up with water from rain and snow or from lakes and rivers, some that flowed millions of years ago. 

One of the biggest aquifers is named the Ogallala Aquifer named after the town in Nebraska, that was named after the Ogallala Sioux Indians.  This aquifer stretches from The Dakotas to Texas and from Colorado to Iowa.  It is huge and holds enough water to cover 2 billion acres  (or football fields – remember) with a foot of water.  But it is not endless.

The water in this aquifer was put there 5 million years ago from runoff from an ancestral mountain range, before the Rocky Mountains.  This aquifer now supplies a lot of water to a lot of farms and cities.  They are pulling water out of it faster and faster to the point that it is dropping like a rock and may someday dry up.  That might be in 5 years or it might be in 50 years, depending on how much is there and how much we take out, but if it dries up it could take 6000 years to replenish. Unfortunately when the big sponge dries out it compresses and collapses and then loses its ability to hold water so it might not ever refill.  That would be catastrophic to the animals and people who live on the Great Plains.

So if and when the Ogallala aquifer dries up and there is no water to pump to grow grass to feed cows, the cows will have to go away.  Then, the only animal perfectly suitable to the Great Plains, who is totally in harmony with the environment and the water, will move back in to take their place: the American Bison.  The Bison will rise again triumphantly and return to the Great Plains where they belong.  The Water Bison that is.

A herd the size of the original American Bison herd could produce enough meat to supply every man, woman and child in the United States today with a quarter pound Bison burger, every day, forever, and still maintain the great herd.  This Bison herd was a perfectly sustainable food source that we squandered once but can resurrect and recover again. 

Many of our natural resources are jeopardized like this; Bison and water, trees and grass, land and lakes, rivers and streams, coal and oil, air and climate.  They are underestimated and underappreciated and are squandered before we know what we are doing or what we had.   The American Bison is a symbol of our American bounty, our need and our greed and our short sighted solutions with respect to the natural world.  At the same time the Bison is a symbol of a sustainable future solution, where we live within our ways and means, the natural supply and demand and the limits of our resources where we actually Need Less.   Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.