Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Get Off the Pot

When is America going to grow up as far as marijuana is concerned? It seems like we’ve been running around and around this issue since the 1960s. What happened to all that talk of legalization back in 1967? Here it is over 40 years later with lots more evidence to support that path and we are still arguing about it. There are still people out there whose reference point for smoking pot is the movie Reefer Madness, that great exploitation scare film from the 1930s. It must have worked because it seems we are no closer now then we were back then. Except, of course, medical marijuana. And even that is facing a state by state battle. While you can access medical marijuana here in Colorado, it is still a federal crime to possess it!

So let’s look at the scary after effects as related by yours truly. My first real high from grass came on a geology class field course back in 1967. It was the spring equinox and our bus group was camped in what was then a group campground (now a picnic area for Weeping Rock) in the heart of Zion Canyon, Utah. My new friend Duncan, an ex-biker, had a little matchbox full of weed and a small pipe to go with it. While the rest of the class sat around that evening’s campfire singing Kumbaya, Duncan and I were off on the fringes “getting nice”.

I wasn’t sure it would take but, in no time at all, I was laughing hysterically at Duncan’s imitation of Bela Lugosi singing So You Want to Be a Rock n Roll Star, the then hit by the Byrds. I thought it was funnier n’ hell, a good indication that I was not in my right mind. Later that evening, I got hung up at staring at nearly full moon rising over the Great White Throne. I knew then that a) I would have to return to the southwest, and b) I couldn’t wait to get home and get high with a little help from my friends.

In any case, time passed. I spent the next four years getting high very often. I joined the park service in 1971 and became a “fed” and the smoking issues began to slowly fade away with only intermittent use into the 80s. Since then I have gotten married (twice), become a father (twice), bought six houses in four different states, became a park manager, served as the director of a board, held several other positions of moderate responsibility, and retired with a comfortable salary. The after effects of all that pot smoking have certainly been insidious indeed.

Of course, it all boils down to personal responsibility and addictive personalities. Same as tobacco or alcohol. Meanwhile the US guvmint continues to pour millions of dollars a year into curbing the marijuana trade. Fellas, can we redirect that money somewhere else where it might do some more good? Like child welfare or helping homeless animals? Or paying down our national debt? Convert all those narcs to park rangers and let them get out and smell the real grass. It just might mellow them out a bit and sharpen their perspective.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Pulps

When I lived in Redding, California in the early 90s, I frequented Cal’s, a used bookstore ensconced in an old warehouse south of town on old Highway 99. Old Cal had pretty much retired from the business and left as his charge a young, hip fellow named Steve to more-or-less run the place. The cavernous building held thousands of books and ephemera, most of it organized and shelved from floor to ceiling. Also included were bins of old vinyl, comic books, and an herbal store in the back....a rather eclectic and hip little establishment.

There was also a large loft where dozens of boxes of uncatalogued titles were strewn about. Due to safety issues with the loft, they were largely unavailable to the public. But one quiet Sunday morning I showed up early, and Steve allowed me to climb the wooden ladder and hang out in the loft for awhile as long as I kept a low profile. That was pretty easy that morning as no one else was in the shop. Steve had the Grateful Dead playing on the sound system while I scurried up the ladder into no-man’s land.

What awaited me there was a wonderful world of pulp. Hundreds of paperbacks from the 1940s and 50s. Dell, Avon, Popular Library, Bantam, Ace, Pocket endless array of racy covers and lurid texts. As I sat amid the piles of paper, I was transported back to another time and place, smelling the musty odors and feeling the tactile old paper beneath my fingers. In no time at all, I had loaded up with several dozen titles which I bought for $2 a piece.

Not long after that, when I got a hold of a price guide, I found out just how valuable some of those titles had become, and thus a great and rewarding hobby was born. I learned about how some of the paperbacks were valuable because of the cover art; others because of the authors which might include the more well-known pulp writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ellery Queen. But also the cult favorites like Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis and Jim Thompson.

Apparently some one else got a hold of that price guide as well because when I returned to Cal’s some months later, the pulp titles had been all sorted, shelved and were priced appropriately. Some one had figured it out. Since that time however, I have acquired well over a thousand titles through yard sales, online auction sites, library sales. And I still get a good deal once in awhile. And I still get a thrill out of a really great find. I cannot really explain the appeal of these aged books that originally sold for 25 cents and were never meant to be sophisticated entertainment. But they capture an era and a feeling for the pop culture of the time. And they are little works of art in themselves.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bridging the Years

My first encounter with the Dewey Bridge was just before Christmas of 1974. As a young park ranger, I had moved to the Needles District of Canyonlands just two months earlier. Awed and slightly intimidated by the remoteness, I quickly adapted to the 160 mile round-trip drive to and from Moab, Utah to buy groceries, pickup mail, make phone calls, and mingle with humanity a bit. At that time, the Atlas Uranium Mill was in the process of shutting down and Moab was a depressed area. People were actually moving away and the population hovered around 4,000.

Services were limited. No liquor, of course (this was still a Mormon town). No book stores, clothing stores, record stores. There was a small Sears Catalog store across the street from the post office where I once ordered a Super 8 film projector so that I could show old movies back in the District. Most everyone I knew said that to do any real shopping, I’d have to go to Grand Junction, Colorado, another 100 miles up the road.

And the best way to do that was to take Utah Highway 128, the River Road. When I discovered the River Road, I discovered a road into my soul. Back then it was a narrow, partially paved ledge that meandered along the banks of the Colorado River, flanked by high red walls of Wingate sandstone, breaking out occasionally into small valleys like the Professor Valley where Fisher Towers, Castle Rock and other stone monoliths stood guard along the edges.

Much of the road was still unpaved including the stream crossings at Onion Creek and Professor Creek where one simply splashed on through. And then, of course, about 28 miles east of Moab, there was the Dewey Bridge, a solid little wooden structure at a sharp bend in the road where a sign warned it was a one-way crossing. It was a narrow bridge even for my little 1973 Datsun pickup. But what an adventure for a boy from the bay area.

For four years I bonded with the River Road and always had a special sense of anticipation at crossing the Dewey Bridge. In 1985 a modern concrete bridge was constructed but the historic Dewey Bridge remained as a footbridge and a palpable reminder of a not-so-distant frontier past. When I returned to the area in 2001, I quickly re-established my relationship with the River Road and the old bridge.

In the spring of 2008, a young boy playing with matches downstream ignited the dry tamarisk along the river bank and the fire rapidly spread upstream where it took out the old bridge, leaving nothing but dangling cables and supports. There is talk of rebuilding it someday but it won’t be the same. Losing the bridge was like losing an old friend.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Under the Influence of the Confluence

The meeting of two rivers is not unlike that magical afterglow when two lovers have conjoined for the first time. On the surface all is mostly placid and calm while beneath the surface the currents roil and intermingle. The two rivers become one as they move downstream. They collectively carry the silt, the sand, the shoreline momentoes with them as they glide along. Together now they will experience calm spots and stretches of rough water.

I currently live in a town whose name celebrates the confluence of two great western rivers, the Gunnison and the Grand (now called the Colorado). Grand Junction was so named in 1881. Yet that very confluence is difficult to find anymore, merging as it does in the heart of a forgotten industrial area, below dilapidated private lots. There is no trail to the site. No overlook. You might be able to catch a glimpse of it from the old railroad bridge. But it is not an advertised destination...

...Unlike the confluence farther downstream where the Colorado and Green Rivers meet in the heart of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. For four years of my life, in the late 1970s, I had the privilege of living just a few miles from the spot, in an enclave of National Park Service trailers in the Needles District of Canyonlands. I saw the Confluence often, at least several dozen times a year when I would patrol the back side of Elephant Hill through terrain of the roughest and most beautiful kind.

The Confluence was a major park destination because first-time visitors had different expectations about what they might see out there, thinking that they would gaze down into a gorge and see a wild, frothing mist arising from the collision of two mighty, churning waterways. Their expectations would grow as they endured the rugged, 4-wheel drive and the final half mile hike to the brink where they would be confronted with........sublime silence, solitude and space.

One thousand feet below them, in the midst of an austere landscape of layered rocks and eroded landforms, were the seemingly still, sinuous ribbons of the two great rivers, the redder Colorado flowing in from the northeast and meeting the pea-soup green Green curving down from the northwest. Depending on the time of year, the stronger and larger Colorado would capture the colors of the Green and subdue them quickly, continuing its muddy red flow to the south.

In spite of the lack of frothing drama below, visitors were seldom disappointed. After all, there they were at one of the loneliest overlooks on the continent in a landscape the human mind could barely conceive of, looking down....and up...and around. And experiencing maybe for the first time that sublime silence, solitude and space.