Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Friday, September 19, 2014

Super 8 Memories

While cleaning out the garage the other day I came across a cache of my old 8mm home movies, many cans worth piled in a footlocker.  I grabbed several of them from the Canyonlands era, dug out my Bell & Howell Super 8 projector, and set up a mini-theatre down in the basement. Even though I had digitized most of these films several years back, there was something exciting about threading up the ol’ projector again, feeling the celluloid gliding through my fingers, and then flicking that little toggle switch that brought everything back to life.  The turning of the reels and the rhythmic clickety clack of the film flowing through the gate.  And that flickering image on a piece of white matte board I had hastily set up on the floor.

The first reel I chose was from early 1978 and documented my last several months as a ranger in the Needles District of Canyonlands.  There was the work-related footage, of course…the jeep patrols, ranger training, driving the big water truck, hanging out at the old trailer we called a visitor contact station.  But most of the scenes were of a more personal nature, documenting my day to day existence in such a wild and lonely place, my humble mobile home at the base of Squaw Butte, and the ups and downs of my romantic life.  It was a bitter sweet journey into the past.

There were scenes of Susan and I in our final days together backpacking beyond Lost Canyon.  There was Linda, the folksinger from New York, playing her guitar on the front porch of my trailer.  My friend Phil hiking over the Wooden Shoe Butte back when he was still ambulatory and healthy. And fresh-faced Mary Ann who hung out with me in those last few months, helped me pack up the house, and then moved with me to Northern California.  All there on the little screen, scratches and dust and all. We were all so young and vital and full of the self confidence one needs when living in such a harsh and powerful landscape.

Last week I attended a 50th birthday party for Canyonlands National Park in Moab…rubbed shoulders again with folks I had not seen in some cases for nearly 40 years.  And I think just about all of us at that extraordinary gathering felt like we were part of an amazing fraternity of folks who had shared something so intense, so life altering that we too at times felt as powerful as the place.  Times of extremely satisfying adventure punctuated by moments of stark terror.  The stories came pouring out about the midnight searches and rescues, the boats destroyed in Cataract Canyon, the jeeps stuck in quicksand, the high drama of hunting season….and the unmitigated joy of living with no phones, radios, television, mail delivery or convenient shopping.  Only the camaraderie of like minded individuals connected by a labyrinth of sandstone canyons, hard but meaningful work, and a deep and abiding love of the land we shared together.

Friday, July 25, 2014

My Time On Tomales Point

 When I moved out to Tomales Point in 1983 with infant daughter Alison and my then-wife Jeanne, the old Pierce Ranch was still being restored by the National Park Service.  The main house and the eighteen out buildings would materialize out of the ever present fog like ghostly apparitions, their exteriors grayer than the surrounding sky.  With the exception of the ranch house, only traces of the exterior whitewash remained on the remaining wooden structures which included two large barns, a creamery, bunkhouses, chicken coops, and a one room school house.  Other objects of interest included one rusted gas pump , a broken thresher, and several weathered porcelain bath tubs that had served as cattle troughs.  Our nearest neighbors were the Kehoes who operated a dairy ranch three miles away.

A line of gnarled cypress trees stood guard along the western edge of the ranch, many of their branches broken and hanging from recent storms.  On the eastern edge, a forest of eucalyptus funneled down slope to the shores of Tomales Bay.  Just behind the ranch is where eucalyptus and cypress mingled in an unkempt tangle of limbs, shredded bark and downed trees.  A cistern on a nearby hilltop provided the only source of fresh water. The paved road ended near the ranch providing access to McClures Beach.  For the most part, this was a wild and lonely outpost on the edge of the continent.

The main house had been largely restored and occupied for several years by a series of seasonal park rangers, mostly single males.  But the Park Service was looking for a more permanent and reliable resident to occupy the site to guard against vandalism or other nefarious activities that might be occurring seven or eight miles from the nearest ranger station.  So I volunteered even though it would mean a daily commute of eighteen miles to the Bear Valley headquarters where I worked.  I was trading my little apartment over the Olema Store for a 12-room, Victorian era farmhouse with a long and rugged history.

The ranch had weathered the 1906 earthquake with only minor damage, sited as it was on the hard granites of the Pacific Plate.  But for all its ruggedness, there was a sense of isolation and vulnerability, hunkering down against the winds in the swales and hummocks of Tomales Point, its foundations teetering on the narrow ridgeline.  The main house had been built in the 1860s with various alterations along the way.  Now its floors sagged and the damp air seeped in through the walls.  It was a large house for three small people to inhabit.  And without the daily hum and drum of cow milking and butter making, the ranch complex often took on the air of a ghost town.

Still, it was a remarkable home for nearly four years.  I could walk down to White’s Cove on the Tomales Bay side and watch pelicans diving into the shallows.  Collect fresh mussels at McClures Beach to barbeque or steam.  Hear the Great Horned Owls in the cypress forest, or the occasional bark of a sea lion in the early morning.  And in the fall the tule elk began the rut, the big bulls screeching in the fog, swinging their antlers through the scrub and pawing the earth.  In those magical moments, I could see deep into a primal past where the headlands held the ocean at bay and the bay fed its bounty into the ocean.  And life was inextricably linked with the ebb and flow of the tides.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Cool Reflections on a Hot Day

I spent my birthday this year as I have a number of other years…in a desert canyon surrounded by wildflowers, wind and stone.  I felt both humbled and assured by my ability to still be able to hike off trail, follow the animal signs, avoid other humans.  And No Thoroughfare Canyon, just on the edge of town, did not let me down.  Upon leaving the parking lot, I headed into a landscape covered in primrose blossoms whose normally subtle scent now hung heavy over the trail.  Soon after that, I left the maintained path behind for a more adventurous walk in the creek bed.  A coach whip snake slid quickly by and took shelter in a salt bush.  Whiptail lizards, now awakened and revived from their winter dormancy, scurried back and forth just ahead of me.  The air hummed and glowed in its late spring brilliance.

The dry creek bed soon turned moist, then muddy, then flowing with a trickle of cool, clear water.  The red Jurassic sandstone gave way to dark pre-Cambrian schists and granite.  The canyon narrowed, funneling me toward a large green pool of water fed by an ethereal cascade some ten feet above its surface.  One large cottonwood tree stood as a sentinel beside the pool, its leaves gently lilting in the breeze.  I stopped here and sat in a shady alcove where I could just look at the water, listen to the droplets breaking the surface, and watch the comings and goings of tiny critters.  I took off shoes and socks and waded partway into the pool, surprised at how cold it was.  A few minutes later I returned to my sitting spot to think about past birthdays and canyons.

Thirty seven years ago on birthday number 30 I did essentially the same thing.  Only then it was a very remote canyon far from any official trail, and I was living in a ranger residence not so far away in the heart of Canyonlands National Park.   At my secret spot, a small waterfall lightly poured over a limestone ledge on to a shelf of shiny stone where it scattered into several pools and puddles.  I too was on that ledge, stark naked in the sun, dividing my time between rescuing tadpoles stranded in the puddles, reading Robert Graves, and watching the humming diversity of life both in the deeper pools and in the hot dry air above.  I was a part of the eco-system that day, full of confidence, reverence and contentment. 

Thirty seven years have changed a few things.  I can no longer hike for miles into remote backcountry.  I will take off my shoes and socks but not the rest of my clothes.  I have lost some of the strength and stamina that I had back then.  But I have not lost the passion, or the reverence.  Give me a stretch of free flowing water in the middle of the desert and I will always feel a kind of magic in the miracle of it all.  The anomaly of cool springs bursting out of bare rock, unbridled under the sun.  The life that scoots, buzzes and thrives in that ephemeral riparian corridor.  And the pure music of drip drop and trickle through unbroken sand.

Monday, April 28, 2014

In Remembrance of Someone I Never Knew

I never really knew Bill Madlam in high school.  All I remember about him is that he always seemed to have a broad grin on his face as he moved through the otherwise faceless hordes in the halls.  I knew his name because I was on the yearbook staff and had been editor of the LANCE, our school newspaper, and therefore made it a habit to put names with faces.  So I knew a lot of people at Los Altos High School who had no idea who the hell I was.

Nevertheless, it saddened me to hear of Bill’s recent passing as I am always affected when I hear about the loss of one more individual from an extraordinary graduating class.  In retrospect, perhaps the times were more extraordinary than the class but there we were in 1965, all 400 of us, poised on the brink of huge social and political upheaval, the Vietnam War, the psychedelic age, the rise of civil rights, free speech, free love, and freedom in general to be who we wanted to be and go where we wanted to go.

We were down there on the sunny peninsula basking in our parents’ affluence, the warm embrace of a quaint and cozy suburban town, and the seemingly endless possibilities that lay before us.  Our generation was already making enough of an imprint to be named TIME Magazine’s Man of the Year the following year as they honored those of us “25 and Under.”  Yet there was an odd dynamic between those of us who could see that wild times lay ahead and those of us whose expectations were formed by television shows like Donna Reed and Leave it to Beaver.

I regret that I was so wrapped up in myself back then and so concerned about social survival that I did not reach out a little more to embrace the diversity of our classmates.  To get to know someone like Bill Madlam who always seemed so friendly and upbeat in the mass of adolescent humanity that swirled around us each day.  It has been my pleasure since that time to have made contact with some of these folks as adults and reconnect with our commonalities.  And in some cases, celebrate the differences.

Most of us made it and we made it well.  But with the passing of Bill Madlam, the LAHS Class of 65 is diminished just that much more.  The optimism, the energy, the determination of a group of disparate people is affected by one less member.  As aging baby boomers, we will all press on.  We will still make our own way through an increasingly complex society with the grace that has carried us through these past 50 years.  But I will miss Bill Madlam, and Tom Lowery, and Sally Reynolds, and Jim McGregor and all those others who will not be able to complete the journey with us.  And in my own stumbling bumbling way, I will continue to carry the torch.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Elizabeth Reed and Me

Elizabeth Reed must have been one hell of a woman.  Not only did the Allman Brothers compose a 13-minute song in memory of her but she got me through a root canal process as well.  People make jokes about rather having a root canal than, say, watching FOX News for any length of time, or listening to a Barry Manilow record….but I wonder about that.  And I sort of put it to the test today.

The dentist office was only two blocks away so I walked to my scheduled appointment this morning under cloudy, late winter skies.  Into that brisk, enigmatic wind that blows down from the north this time of the year and forces you to pack a jacket with you even though the sun may be shining.  That was all a moot point anyway once I got inside the warm, glass-enclosed medical building.

Unlike the last time I had a root canal four years ago, I remembered this time to bring along my Ipod.   And my dental assistant Cassandra led me into a well-lighted room where I had a distant view of the snow-flecked Uncompahgre Plateau and the burgeoning mass of gray clouds coming into the Valley.  But I didn’t have that view for long as the chair was tilted back and the dribble bib applied.  As the hardware was being installed into my propped open jaws, I turned on the Ipod and held fast to it.

And as the noise of the drill escalated, so did the volume on the Ipod.  We started with Hard Work by John Handy, a breezy jazz number that lasted long enough to make me feel relatively comfortable under the circumstances. After John Handy came Huey Lewis with The Heart of Rock and Roll, a nice foot thumper.  I wasn’t going to think about any pain, only the music.  So I was delighted when the Allman Brothers announced from the stage of the Fillmore East that they were going to play In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.  I was immediately transported away from the sterile office.  No amount of pounding or probing was going to distract me from Duane Allman’s guitar riffs or Dicky Betts’ sinuous solos.

I thought about those old days at the old Fillmore off of Geary Street in San Francisco.  The anticipatory drives up from the Peninsula along the Bayshore Freeway.  Away from our safe suburban streets and into the concrete maze of downtown. Homing in on the music just a few blocks away.  Parking anywhere we could find a place in the heart of the black neighborhoods, and blithely heading for the dance hall entrance.  Bill Graham was usually hanging out in the lobby.  There were free apples.  Posters for next weeks concert.  And lots of smoke.

Then wandering into the hall itself and finding an appropriate spot on the floor in that mid-zone between the stage and the dancers.  The colored lights and film loops up on the wall. And that sweet, sweet smoke.  Four or five hours of hard driving music before being expelled into the street once again, trying to find the car for the long drive home.

This was a weekly ritual for a couple of years.  It only cost $3 to get into the Fillmore or Avalon back then.  I saw Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix on their first tours, when they were third on the bill.  Caught old timers like Chuck Berry and Howling Wolf.  Saw a new band, The Doors, up from L.A.  And reveled in our own local talent like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and Santana.

Santana is playing right now.  The Allman Brothers have left the stage and now Santana is doing Soul Sacrifice as the dentist makes his last few assaults to my jaw.  My oh-so-sore jaw.  But wouldn’t it have been so much worse without Elizabeth Reed and the memories of those youthful, na├»ve nights near the bay.  All these years later, Elizabeth lives on and I am grateful to her and the Allman Brothers and Santana and those artists who have infused my life with such magic and memory.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Duncan of the Desert

   Duncan had the weed and we had Duncan, in a manner of speaking.  Clay and I met him by the cottonwood tree just south of the big bonfire where the rest of our group was singing and laughing after a long day on the road.  A waning crescent smiled above the Great White Throne.  The dark cliffs of Zion Canyon imposed a crooked horizon against the star spattered sky.  It was the spring equinox before the Summer of Love.
    I didn’t know Clay or Duncan very well.  We were fellow travelers in a geology field course on a charter bus that had left the Peninsula only four days earlier.  Clay was a short, straight looking dude, as collegiate looking as they come.  But Duncan looked dangerous with his leather biker vest, pompadour hair, and neatly trimmed beard.  Somewhere between the Grand Canyon and St. George, Utah, he let it be known to the two of us that he had a small amount of grass with him and was all too willing to share it once opportunity knocked.
    I was more than ready for it.  My earlier attempts at getting high were a failure.  Only a week before Stan and Jim had driven me up into the Los Altos Hills under cover of darkness where the three of us huddled in Stan’s little VW bug, and I was given a lesson in inhaling.  The pipe was passed around with its little ball of glowing hash, and I hacked and coughed and tried to keep it all down.  Soon enough the guys got the uncontrollable giggles and I tried to play along until Jim said, “You’re not high!”   And he was right.
    But now I was getting a second chance on a significant day in a spectacular setting, still reeling from the immense influence of the southwestern landscape.  Before last week, I had only seen pictures of it.  But now I could say that I had hiked all the way to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, walked on red earth, smelled the burro shit along the trail, built a bonfire by the Colorado River where the guys went native crazy long into the night, and been overwhelmed by the weight of all that sky and sandstone pressing against me. 
    Duncan hunched over his little matchbox full of dope and carefully extracted a few pinches, putting them into a crude clay pipe.  “Let the games begin!” I thought as he passed it around, and this time I inhaled but did not cough.  The cool March air enfolded us as the smoke curled up and over and blended with the bonfire smoke and the singing students just a hundred yards away.
    Within minutes the deed was done, the campfire circle breaking up as budding geologists slipped into their respective sleeping bags strewn all around the group campsite.  I lay in my bag and waited.  Looking up at the stars.  And looking.  And looking.  And feeling myself floating over canyon walls.  And realizing that I had at last achieved euphoria.  Hung up on the moon and the silhouetted matrix of tree canopy and the smell of clean earth.
    Duncan was riffing nearby, singing “Do You Wanna Be a Rock n Roll Star” in a Bela Lugosi voice.  And I thought it was the funniest damn thing I had ever heard.  I was convulsed with laughter, snorting and shaking to catch my breath.  The night was alive with sound and color and clarity.  The big sky over southwestern Utah was smiling down too, as if it was digging Duncan as much as I was.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Just Sayin....

Some random thoughts to ring in the New Year….

When will the residents of the western slope of Colorado (and the west in general) begin to realize that extractive industries will never create a stable economy?  Instead of the constant grousing about government regulation, environmentalists, unscrupulous mine owners, and fluctuating prices, they need only look back to the long history of boom or bust cycles throughout the west to see the repeating pattern..  After all, we are talking about a finite resource here.  It‘s gonna run out, folks!  Yet every time a community falls prey to the exodus of some big oil company, they cannot understand why and the blame game begins.

    Recently a man in Colorado Springs accidentally shot and killed his 14-year old step daughter who was sneaking back home at 4am.  He said he thought she was a burglar.  Two more victims of Americans’ obsession with guns.  The girl is an obvious victim.  The step dad is also a victim--- of a culture of paranoia, right wing talk radio, and fear mongering in general.  So what did his loaded gun get him?  A dead child.  A really high price to pay for not being burgled.

    Mesa County, Colorado has steadfastly refused to hop on the legalized marijuana bandwagon by not authorizing any retail pot establishments and banning most of the medical marijuana businesses.  I predict this holier-than-thou attitude will change quickly once they see the business and tax revenues pouring into Denver, Glenwood Springs and other Colorado communities where weed is legally sold.  Big money will trump all unrealized fears of a cannabis-crazed populace.

    Colorado continues to be a state of anomalies.  We legalized pot but we’re stuck with tea-bagger representatives like Scott Tipton and Doug Lamborn.  We tightened up gun restrictions then watched while some of the politicians responsible were recalled by the gun lobby.  Not to mention the random shootings that keep happening in places like Aurora and Columbine.  We have the liberal burg of Boulder just up the freeway from Colorado Springs, home of Focus On the Family and other uber conservative groups.

    And the Front Range communities keep looking for ways to divert more water from the Colorado River, a river already so over-allocated and endangered that it no longer flows to the sea, in order to continue the pattern of rampant growth.  No one ever steps forward to say, “can we slow down a little?”

    And why is it that one still cannot walk into a grocery store and buy wine or liquor?

    Just sayin….