The Great American Dirtbags

The Great American Dirtbags
The book that you can judge by its cover. $13.99 or cheaper on Amazon, or even better at your local bookstore.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Boulderites With Balloons

Vinitok in Crested Butte. photo courtesy of Eva Paul
This story is published in the La Vida Local column in today's Durango Telegraph

When our fearless and witty editor Missy Votel asked me to start contributing to this column a couple years ago, she basically said I could write about a wide range of topics. Missy also explained that in one particularly desperate moment with a deadline looming she wrote an anecdote that involved Sponge Bob Squarepants. That sealed the deal, because from previous experience with deadlines, I knew I would have my own desperate moment.

And, here I am, in a coffee shop in Boulder, with desperation in the air, just before deadline, trying to keep calm and focused, without getting too distracted by the electronic music, which seems to be the theme music for this town. If you haven’t heard of Boulder, it’s this magical place, very similar to Durango, except its bigger and the guys spend much more money on hair product, and people compete for who meditates or does yoga the most. A lot of folks seem to do things to create an image, not for inner growth and self-understanding. But, seriously, I do love parts of Boulder, it’s the land of beautiful people, and people watching here on Pearl Street, from where I’m writing is, world class. There’s a weirdo with a yo-yo, an intellectual with an out of place scarf on a rainy day, and a guy wearing a taekwondo outfit carrying rainbow colored balloons just walked in the door. Awesome.
This week’s story starts back at my place of employment, while chatting with my youngest co-worker, an energetic 15 year old guitar player, and a question he asked me, “What musical act, living or dead, from an era in history would you want to see live in concert?”

After a brief moments of contemplation I answered, “The Grateful Dead in the late sixties.” 

Sometimes you surprise yourself when you say something, because I hate hippies. That’s harsh. I don’t hate hippies, I just hate the smell of hippies who don’t shower. Truth is, deep down in the depths of my soul, I am part hippie.

The Dead. photo from Wikipedia
I discovered hippie culture as a teenager, and considered myself to be a hippie up until I moved out to Colorado and became a dirtbag. And I know for sure, given the opportunity, in the late fifties into the early sixties, I would have definitely aspired to be a beatnik. That would have been the best, tramping around the country when hitchhiking was safe and a new form of poetry and prose that still inspires us today was blossoming.

Though I certainly carried that scent, which bothers me so much now, a mixture of confusion, weed, and body odor, I’m glad I embraced an American counterculture. More people should. America is simply not weird enough. Boulder is definitely weird enough, but in most pockets of the United States way too many people are living out lives rooted in conformity.

Which brings us to another awesomely weird place: Crested Butte (CB). My former home has been getting a lot of attention lately, and the place once dubbed as “Colorado’s Last Great Ski Town” is certainly on the map. Many of my college friends who still live there report that instead of seeing a Porche every once in awhile on Elk Avenue, the main drag of town, they are seeing Lamborghinis and Maseratis. It’s an often-told tale in Colorado ski towns, and the once seemingly protected Crested Butte is fighting for its identity amidst a boom of popularity and influx of money.

Then the whole “Whatever” thing happened. If you haven’t heard, Bud Light recently filmed a commercial in CB, painting Elk Ave. blue, flying in 1,000 college aged students and a variety of musical acts ranging from Questlove to Vanilla Ice. (Contrary to what Allen Best reported in “Mountain Exchange”, Jay Z did not perform, though rumors were swirling across town and on social media that he and his lovely wife BeyoncĂ© were slated to make an appearance.) On top of this, the entire event was planned in secrecy without the Crested Butte public aware of the shenanigans about to unfold for the weekend.

Sign in Crested Butte, photo from NBC. 
I suspect there were two reasons for this: first, “Whatever” was meant to be an exclusive event for participants who won the chance to get flown to CB in Bud Light’s own private planes, and second, the elected officials in CB wanted to secure the event before the community weighed in with their opinions. If you didn’t already know, CB is a feisty independent community and everyone has an opinion about everything. I see this as a good thing, an example of their activism: the small yet powerful community has been fighting off major mine companies for 30 plus years who want to mine the large molybdenum deposit which is located on Mt. Emmons (aka Red Lady) which overlooks town.

whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat? Lil Jon in Crested Butte. photo from
photo from Vanity Fair
I didn’t make it to “Whatever”, but I did visit CB a couple of weeks later for Vinitok, a local festival celebrating the fall harvest and the funkiness that is Crested Butte. Vinitok inspired the founding of Burning Man, and one look around on that weekend and its not hard to believe that were the case. Everyone dresses up in Pagan inspired costumes, with wooden garlands, and any other funky, earthy apparel they can get their hands on.

At the center of it all, on Saturday is a major procession through Elk Ave. where hundreds of people gather to “Burn The Grump”. The Grump represents what everyone wants to rid themselves of from the previous seasons, and the procession ends with a major bonfire in the middle of town, where people dance and have drum circles, and do awesome hippie things.

Whew! I managed to crank out a story, and hopefully at least one bit was entertaining to everyone, and you didn’t sense too much desperation. Now it’s time to plan some climbing on the psychedelic sandstone walls of Eldorado Canyon, here in Boulder.

Matt Sheftel leading pitch two of Captain Beyond, Mickey Mouse Wall, Eldo, Colorado. 
I realize in my “La Vida’s” I’ve been writing about everything except Durango lately. This travelling, while invigorating, will certainly have to mellow out as winter approaches and I start spending more time at home. And, that is a comforting thought as I envision a white blanket of snow, a cup of tea at my favorite coffee shop, and friendly faces in our genuine town, with just enough weirdness, hippies, and dirtbags to make my soul feel complete.

My two books are called: The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed. Click on the titles to view them on Amazon. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Home Sweet Home, eh?

            Canadians are nice, it rains a lot in the Cascades, and Idaho is quiet and quaint. I’d heard these things were true, but I had to see for myself.

Prusik Peak, Cascades, Washington
            I just returned home to Durango after a nice two-week tour to some places I’d never been to. British Columbia gave us her fruits of the most perfect granite climbs overlooking the ocean, friendly locals that showed us the way, and smiling, fit, beautiful women that seemed to be everywhere, but then drove us out with a rainstorm.

Dave Ahrens roping up for Prusik Peak, Cascades, Washington. 

Washington showed us the odd, German themed village of Leavenworth, and led us into a sublime and pristine alpine wilderness where we shouldered heavy packs and hiked miles and miles to climb on salt and pepper granite. City of Rocks in Idaho unveiled hundreds of granite domes, and showed us the California Trail, where immigrants moved west on wagons; for a minute my tiny little brain tried to grasp the monumental ways technology has altered our existences in just over 100 years.

            I am not a man of riches, yet by working hard at my night job and writing nearly every day I can afford to float across the West, burning up precious fossil fuels in search of what I am seeking. And what am I seeking? To find myself? No, I think I know who I am, or at least who I am not, by now. I am looking for stories, and I’m trying to get away from glowing rectangular screens for a couple weeks.

            At the end of the trip, inside my tent, curling up with my journal to write out a few contemplative thoughts, I could only think of one thing: my bed. My spacious, comfortable queen sized mattress, one I inherited from some friends who left the country; my first ever bed that sits off the ground on a frame and makes me feel like a grown man. Yes, that would be the prize for two weeks of sleeping on the ground inside a tent. Bed, sweet bed.

            And then more revelations came: the most important being that I never dread coming back to Durango, even while facing a 60 hour work week. In fact, of all the places I’ve seen I would rather live here than any of them, no matter how beautiful or exotic.

            To quote a recent New York Times “Opinionator” editorial piece by Costica Bradatan, “To live is to sink roots. Life is possible only to the extent that you find a place hospitable enough to receive you and allow you to settle down. What follows is a sort of symbiosis: just as you grow into the world, the world grows into you. Not only do you occupy a certain place, but that place, in turn, occupies you. Its culture shapes the way you see the world, its language informs the way you think, its customs structure you as a social being. Who you ultimately are is determined to an important degree by the vast web entanglements of “home”.”

            Home. Even the most vagabond travelers inflicted with dire cases of wanderlust come to the realization that home is necessary. And, what a modern luxury we have to travel about (Canadian translation: abuut) and still call somewhere home.

            So with Durango, and the advent of the automobile and relatively cheap gasoline, we so often take for granted, I feel home extends all the way west until the majestic, alluring, simple, dry and dusty red rock desert two hours away. And why should it not be included as part of home, I spend as much time outdoors there as I do here in Durango. And after five days of working around the clock, a buddy and I hopped in my Subaru, turned off the cell phones and transported to the crimson land of rocks, wind, and the open sky.

            Indian Creek is known far and wide, but at the moment, the climbing tribe has yet to fully inhabit its confines, leaving it open and free for the “locals” who transport for the weekend from Salt Lake, Moab, Durango and other Colorado towns. On Sunday, we didn’t see a soul as we climbed the perfectly fractured cracks on Wingate sandstone.

            “Its like climbing in a painting,” we mused. Puffy clouds dotted the blue sky, the desert floor with a hint of green from a recent rain, and crimson cliffs as far as the eye can see. At home, in a work of art, simultaneously appreciating the ability to live so close and within this landscape, but also with the luxury of technology to flee it back to civilization. Home is more of a basecamp, than a place that you rarely leave. Even within a couple hours of Durango there’s more to see and experience than a lifetime will allow.

            I’m back in the middle of a workweek now, going through the motions of writing, working, and the modern day to day of earning a living (Durango style of holding down at least two jobs of course). What I live for is exploring the wild places, near, and far, and then hoping to squeeze some juice of meaning out of them. I think many of us in Durango live for that.

            And what a blessing that is, to know the time allotted in our lives will run out before the adventures do. To have the accessibility of wild places, and a small town filled with likeminded folk. A place where we can simultaneously be rooted, but find the inspiration to constantly grow and spread our breadth of experience and knowledge. 

This piece is published in today's Durango Telegraph

My two books are called: The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed. Click on the titles to view them on Amazon. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Marijuana and Mustaches

I am a man of words, not a man of science, but by carefully studying the faces and behavior of the people of Durango for the past four years there’s a 67% chance that you, good reader, either use marijuana, or you have a mustache. (With a 10% chance you both, have a mustache, and smoke weed.) Lucky you.

This is far above the national average, and the prevalence of marijuana and mustaches in this community has reached a level where it must be addressed, starting with the mustache.

In modern times there are only two types of people with mustaches: those born before January 1, 1969 and those born after that date. If you were born before that date, you are allowed to have a legitimate mustache, and after, well, your mustache, no how good it is, will never be taken seriously.

Someday down the road there may be a college course called “The Sociology of the Mustache” but for now we can only speculate how it went from being a legitimate way to groom your facial hair to a phenomenon of epic proportions. I’d be willing to bet my paycheck from this article that if you’re in a public setting in Durango you can turn your head and find some smug hipster looking mustache nearby. Be careful though, it may speak to you, “Look at me, dammit, I am a mustache, just imagine the fun we could have…”

Or, “Beware I am a young man with a moustache, and a soul patch, look at me finding myself, isn’t it incredible?”

Young men used to travel the world to find themselves, now with the smart phones and the internet they just simply grow a mustache and Instagram that shit…self found.

That’s not to say everyone below the age of 45 can’t pull it off, just most of you are not pulling it off. I can’t pull it off myself; I know that, my facial hair never made it past the initial stages of puberty. If I were a dog they would call me hairless. Alas, I will never know the joys of a mustache. Am I jealous of you, the select few who can pull off a beautiful bushy bulging mustache? Of course I’m jealous!

I have had the honor in judging several mustache competitions over the last few years. Each spring and fall out at Indian Creek, a climbing area in Utah, our group of friends manicure and prepare their finest ‘staches. One year, just before the event, we caught the Utah police, hiding in the bushes, spying on our get together. At first the reaction was anger. We had an epic dance party planned and wanted to get rowdy. And, if we were in Colorado we would have still done that, even with the police spying on us. However, in Utah, its best not to tempt the police, you never know what kind of laws the local Podunk cops have. I mean, was a mustache competition illegal in Utah? None of us knew, but we were willing to risk it as an act of civil disobedience. As it turned out no one was arrested for having a mustache. Luckily no one lit up one of those funny cigarettes everyone is smoking these days.

You know what I’m talking about. Weed. Cannabis. Dope. Herb. Mary Jane. Izm. Reefer. Bud. Chronic. The Kind. In Utah they will fine you over a thousand dollars and make you pee into a cup for a year for the stuff, in Colorado, they practically hand it out on the street corner. (Seriously, last summer a duo in Durango were busted for doing exactly that.)

Like the mustache, the code of ethics and behavior for marijuana is out of control. When there was just medical marijuana people behaved themselves. Now, with the recreational use legalized, people are going ape-shit. Hats, stickers, t-shirts, buttons; it’s as if marijuana just won the World Series.

Last weekend, while attending the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, a middle-aged woman, who was promoting a product I had no interest in, approached me rather forcefully. I tried to avoid eye contact, but she had me. “Oh you’re from Colorado,” she said after looking at my media badge. “I was just there for the Cannabis Cup. Smoked a bong with Chong from Cheech and Chong, now I can cross that off the bucket list.”

People used to be reticent about their marijuana use, especially in Utah, now I’ve got women the age of my Mother bragging about how their bucket list is getting baked with Cheech and Chong.

But seriously it is pretty sweet that marijuana is legal, even if retail marijuana is so expensive only tourists from surrounding states can afford it. And a word of advice for those Baby Boomers who want to start partaking their way to a Rocky Mountain High, it’s like Woodstock, don’t eat the brown acid. What I mean by that is, don’t eat the whole cookie. As a matter of fact, if you’re new to the weed game, or coming back after a major hiatus, start small. Learn to understand the system of milligrams.

Eat a tiny bite of the cookie, and then wait. If you are not seeing colors and smurfs eat a little bit more until you do. And, then stop. You can never eat too little of a weed cookie, but you can eat too much. Then you’ll end up in the hospital, like you did when you ate that brown acid at Woodstock, and no one wants to tell that story to the friends and family back home. You’ll have a hard enough time explaining that new mustache.

This piece is also published in this week's Durango Telegraph. 

My two books are called: The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed. Click on the titles to view them on Amazon. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Little Pink Houses

There’s no place like home, and after three years living here Durango really feels like home. I’m grateful to the community of Durango for that. I realized this after two back-to-back trips in the only other places I have called home: Normal, Illinois and Crested Butte, Colorado.

Yes, I’m from a town called Normal. It really says it all. A typical American middle sized Midwestern town that John Mellencamp could have sung about. Little pink houses. Surrounded by cornfields, cows, and soybeans. Malls, plenty of malls. A college. Frats and Sororities. All types of people, colors, ethnicities, and income brackets. The rich live on one side of town, and the poor on the other. The middle class lies in between. State Farm insurance has their headquarters there.

I had to get out. A fine place to be raised, but if you’re restless and yearning to see wild places, well, you must go. So I went. You know the story, man goes west. Finds himself. Blah, blah, blah. Now, I find myself again when I return to Normal.

The passage of time will make you hold things close to your heart that you once took for granted. I recall my teenage days of being angsty, angry, confused, and depressed. I remember telling my parents I hated them more than once. “Every teenager is a shooting star,” writer Doug Robinson once penned.

My mother recently retired from her job as a middle school principal so I went home for the party. I’m proud of her, and she already seems more relaxed. Her job was incredibly stressful. She deserves a good party.

I am not nostalgic about the landscape of my Motherland, but rather the people, my family. The landscape bores me, makes me long for diversity. It’s as if no one can think creatively about how to use land. Corn. More corn. Throw some soybeans in there, and cows. That’s about it. The Midwest has some of the most fertile soil in the United States, and all they do is spray pesticide on it and grow GMO corn, soybeans and raise hormone filled cattle.

But I still find ways to appreciate this landscape. Every morning I write, as Grandma reads the newspaper, Mom prepares for the party, Dad is at work, always working hard, my brother reads the paper too and catches up on sports. Like myself, my sister in law works on her laptop; she’s a wedding dress designer in New York City. And then when I’m done writing I run with my brother.

Life around here revolves around the lake my parents live on. It’s a burst of refreshment from the muggy, humid air that makes you sweat the minute you walk outside. Each day we take a pontoon ride. The rich people’s houses look like something out of the Great Gatsby. One section of the lake is still forest. We float slowly, taking it all in, the serenity of a midday boat ride. And then, “look a bald eagle”. Whoa. Something wild. Hope. The eagle shows off its wingspan as it flies higher in the sky; till only its trademark white head is visible.

Mom’s party is a blast. I visit with people I haven’t seen in years. I’m a novelty in these parts, the only one from Colorado, and I gladly oblige in tales of mountain living. Everyone wants to know about legal weed. I think they hear more about it on the national news than I do following our local media.

The house is filled with kids throughout the weekend. Cousins with kids. Friends with kids. The trippy part: At 35 I’m older than every single one of the parents with small children. Back home, everyone is all grown up.  Maybe I should grow up too, I ponder.

My visit to Crested Butte the following weekend was a perfect contrast. My buddy Tim and I arrived just in time for the Fourth of July parade, which is among the best, if not the best, in Colorado. Everyone dressed in red, white, and blue, except for the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory crew, there are sixty of them only wearing skunk cabbage skirts. And then there’s KBUT, the local radio station, and their Soul Train float, filled with afros and glitter. My friend is running the whole gig and puts us to work at the beer tent: slinging t-shirts and selling drinks.

 Here, most of my friends are not growing up. Maybe on paper they are, but their living situation says otherwise. They live in a house that feels like a commune. Couch surfers every night. Dogs everywhere, escaping the house, and out onto the streets. People argue about eating each other’s food. The living room table is full of incense, jars of weed and old climbing magazines. Some of my friends are having “summer flings”, mid-thirties and all that matters is the summer, the moment, having a good time. It’s like I’m 22 for the weekend. Awesome.

The day after the Fourth of July I deliver a presentation at the local bookstore. I’ve done this a couple years in a row now. The audience is usually comprised entirely of my friends. I plan on reading stories that involve the usual repertoire of my old school stories: sex, drugs, and rock climbing. 

I walk in late and everything is different than I expected it to be. There are people I don’t know. Not only that but there’s women I don’t know, waiting to hear me speak. Beautiful women. And, there’s kids. Wait, who let these kids in here? I retool my reading material, and keep things PG. It’s my most successful presentation ever, and my writing dreams are kept alive.

The next day is the Farmer’s Market. Vibrant, organic food, arts and crafts, hippie girls singing bluegrass. Independent and local, two necessary ingredients to keep the flavor and spirit of the West alive. Midday I want to go bouldering, but it rains. So I head over to the new coffeeshop and bakery. It’s a small, organic, craft based joint. I love it. There’s a garden out back and a zine library. I think the hope for America comes in the form of this new small batch, craft movement sweeping the country.

I want to stay in Crested Butte forever. Well, at least through the summer. But it’s time to go back, back to work, back home to Durango. The more I travel, the more I realize its good to have a home, especially because the road goes on forever, and the party never ends.

This piece was originally published in the Durango Telegraph.

My two books are called: The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed. Click on the titles to view them on Amazon. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Born To Run

Al Smith III running up Cascade Creek.

“Do you think I need to wear a shirt?” I asked my running partner.

            “No way dude its 85 degrees and sunny,” Jonathan replied.

            He was right, we should have started this run hours ago, and I already felt woozy just getting out of the car and putting on sunscreen. So I threw my t-shirt in the Subaru, and we headed up Animas Mountain for our run.

Forty minutes later, on the top of our beloved Animas, storm clouds rolled in over the La Plata Mountains. On the descent thunder erupted and a vicious hailstorm ensued, pelting our exposed bodies feeling like getting constantly poked by needles. All we could do was laugh, insanely, continue on and endure the abuse.

“I’m really glad I didn’t bring that t-shirt,” I snarkily remarked to Jonathan when we arrived back at the trailhead.

            I got into running because I had to. I needed it. I have an addictive personality, and only escaped living the life of a drug addict because I moved from Illinois to Colorado, and found activities that released the endorphins and adrenaline into my body. I’ll stand by this statement until the day I die: exercise is better than any drug.

            I remember in high school when I was a hippie kid who smoked pot and cigarettes 24/7 I despised running. When we were forced to do the mile in gym class I nearly died, pushed to the point of dry heaves, side aches, and a general hatred for the activity.

             I finally got into trail running five years ago when I moved back to Gunnison full time and was forced to endure the brutally cold winters. It sounds counterintuitive, I know, go skiing most people would say, but I don’t ski. I’m as much as a threat to myself on skis as I would be putting a needle in my arm. Some people are made to go with gravity, and some are made to fight it. And, the others, well I cannot speak for them. To me inactivity of the body is a death sentence.

            Anyways, for a few years after graduating from college I managed a transient lifestyle, I’d skip out on the epic, six-month Gunnison Valley winters, and return for the perfect summers. Then I got a job, a serious, year round, nine to five desk job, doing public relations writing. I flipped the switch from dirtbag to professional. Ripped t-shirts and ragged jeans to collared shirts and slacks. Ah, the roles we play in life. And, for a time I loved it.

            It started with lunch break runs; even though it was cold, it was sunny. I ran on snow and the Vitamin D soaked into my soul. I returned to my desk happy and full of endorphins.

            I couldn’t have picked a better time to get into trail running. It was around the time when Born To Run by Christopher McDougall was published. The pages in that book turned themselves, and the only place my mind travelled while reading it were to my local trails. It was an understatement to say that I was inspired. My stoke for running was on fire.

            It didn’t hurt that my backyard was Hartman Rocks, thirty square miles of rolling sagebrush and granite boulders, with snowcapped mountains in the distance. When it rained the diving smell of sage penetrated the soul, a spiritual, peaceful refuge.

            Every runner has an ideal distance for a perfect workout. When you first getting into trail running the excitement is high because you’re finding that distance. That day when you run farther than you ever have before can be a great feeling. Or, you can bonk and feel like shit. Trail running is always a balance between loving running and hating it. I found my ideal maximum distance to be around 17 miles. To run a 100-mile race, like many mountain folk do, would probably make me hate running forever.

            Reading the last pages of Born To Run, which covers the Tarahumara Indians and the Leadville 100 running race, among other topics, was sad, I wanted it to keep going, forever. Fortunately the type of characters that were in the book lived in my town. I had two friends, Tim Parr and Duncan Callahan that have won the Leadville 100. One of my co-workers, Elva Dryer, was an Olympic runner. The best part was they didn’t have the egos that they could have had because they were some of the best runners in the world. When we talked running the passion was shared.

            I think that’s what I love the most about the running community in Colorado; it’s a communal, shared experience. There’s no gear that makes you stand out as more important than someone else. The person, who is trying to better him or herself through running, can share the trail with the best runner in the world. The many races that happen throughout the spring, summer and fall in our region are a testament to everything that is good about the human race. Aid stations can offer a drink and food, or they can offer a shot of stoke. A few kind words at the right time can offer mountains of inspiration to continue on the journey.

            Eventually I got tired of a 9-5 desk job and those cold Gunnison winters, and moved down here to Durango. The running here is just as good as it is up there in God’s country. The shared passion is here, and I’m getting excited to train for the Durango Double in October.

            I continue to experience mishaps, episodes of bonking, and general suffering on the trails. Last fall my brother and I got lost in a haze of fog coming off Engineer Mountain, and spent six hours struggling down a drainage, only to emerge in Cascade Canyon. Then there are the days where you start in the sunshine and end up getting nailed by hail, while thunder erupts behind you, begging you to run faster.

            Most days, when I’m hydrated, well rested, and warmed up, running turns into bliss. That endorphin high, where with one foot in front of the other, a flow is felt, and there’s something meditational and healthy about the experience. And, perhaps, Bruce Springsteen said it best, “Tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”

My two books are called: The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed. Click on the titles to view them on Amazon.