Sunday, July 24, 2016

Wyoming Summertime

The Haystack, Wind Rivers, Wyoming. 

If you recall three months ago I wrote about a friends wedding down in Baja. Today, as I write this, creeping up on deadline, the groom from the wedding, Shaun and I are driving back Wyoming, having just emerged from the Wind River wilderness. My story is already late, and Shaun is signing papers for his new house in Gunnison in less than 24 hours. (Yeah, his wife is really cool for letting him go.) You could say we’re both cutting it close. And, yes, I am writing this from the back of my Subaru, while Shaun drives, and our homey Keith rides shotgun. We’ll see how this goes.

            I’ve fallen in love with Wyoming over the last week. We were up in Lander for the International Climbers Festival, promoting my books and zines, drinking as much beer as possible, and also climbing and recreating to the fullest. Lander is a charming little town, and possesses the kind of friendliness many Colorado mountain towns must have had before they got too busy, and disgusting second home mansions started getting built. Everyone in Lander wants to chit chat. At first you think they have an agenda, but they are just nice. A little niceness goes a long way.

            Lander is perfect for the climbing bum in the summer. There’s free camping, friendly faces, and endless rock. These days too, there are groups of women in the climbing world, a thrilling new development. In short, for the last week, there’s everything in the world I need in Lander, and it was a work trip!

             As the festival closed, and we woke up with hangovers from partying four days straight, we had about one full day to play before we bee-lined in back home. Keith and Shaun suggested that we blaze into the wilderness for a quick alpine climb. I’ve always wanted to see the Wind River Range, so naturally I obliged. Plus, I figured it would be good to sweat out some toxins before the 11 hour drive back home to Durango.

            I am not much of an alpine climber. I like being the mountains, but I don’t really care for rock climbing in the mountains. I like Yosemite style climbing, and most of all, I like the sandstone of the desert. I go with what speaks to me, and unlike my homey John Muir, the mountains do not call, and so I don’t go.

            Once in a blue moon my friends will suggest an idea and I’m stupid enough to accept it. Last time it was hiking in the Cascades for 17 miles just to climb two hundred feet of dangerous rock. I always feel like death and doom are one move away in the mountains. I can only hide my Midwest roots so much, at a certain point I cling to comfort and security.

            So, haggard and weary late Sunday evening we stumbled into the wilderness. Last minute stops before heading in included water treatment tablets and bug nets for our faces. Bug nets for our faces, I asked? You’ll see, they said.

            We hiked in at a brisk pace, and the week of intense socialization and partying faded into the peace and calm of the wilderness. Pine trees stood all abound, until we reached a series of alpine lakes and craggy granite faces. Small ripples appeared everywhere in the lakes, with fish jumping out of the water; happy hour in the mountains. We lamented the fact that we didn’t bring a fishing pole. It was good to be there. A full moon rose between two peaks. The stars came out and we went to bed.
            The shit show that is me in the mountains began in the morning. Sleep deprived and disoriented I stuffed instant oatmeal into my face, and wondered in my head how I would operate all day on this sugary junk of a breakfast. Soon we were standing below a thousand foot granite face called the Haystack, which from camp was more pointy than horizontal. It looked pretty, and the guidebook fully endorsed the route, calling it one of the best of its kind around. It wasn’t.

            We started the day by getting off-route on the very first pitch. Keith climbed up a hundred feet of loose, insecure rock in a dihedral before we realized we’d missed the correct start of the climb. He nervously climbed back down, risking big falls on less than ideal terrain. I’m sure his mind was brought back to a major fall he took on The Diamond on Long’s Peak years ago when he fell 70 feet, broke his wrist and punctured a lung, leading to a helicopter rescue. Soon we found the correct start to the climb, and Keith started up again.

            Quickly he passed the leading to me, and I managed to get off route. Soon, I found myself, falling out of a crack, the rope quickly catching my fall. I was safe, but I was rattled. I wanted off this damn rock, and we were only a hundred feet up. I passed the baton of leading to Shaun, who at the moment was the only one left with a positive attitude. Shaun quickly took the role of leader, launching off into the unknown, wanting nothing more than us to have a successful climb in the mountains.

            Soon, we saw an object flying through the sky. It was a shoe. One of Shaun’s hiking shoes had came unclipped from a carabiner and we watched it bounce off the rock and land on the ground next to a small patch of snow.

            Shaun had motored us up the wall, past the point of retreat, we’d have to make it to the top. Shortly after I started leading again a storm started to roll in, thunderclouds building, and winds a whipping like they do in Wyoming. I wished I was anywhere in the world but on this stupid rock. This was not a climb worth risking dying for.

            The storm finally broke a little when we were on the summit, but only one lone clap of thunder. When we hiked off the summit and were back at camp the experience already seemed fun, but I announced to the team that I was officially retiring from alpine climbing. I’d stick to the crags around Durango, and the Moab desert.

            As we walked out amongst the pristine beauty of the wilderness, one of the finest things that the United States has to offer, I knew my retirement would only last a year or two, after all beauty always calls you back, and that call is a hard one not to pick up.

This piece was originally published in the Durango Telegraph on July 21st. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

You Can Call Me Lube

            She was my first love, and she slipped away. I know exactly when it was. You know those moments when everything is coming together; you see your life shaping up, creating that foundation where all that comes from here will be built upon from here. Then something happened, a downward spiral of sequential events. We went our separate ways; I went down to Durango and figured I’d never create with her again. It would be okay; poetry and I had a good run.

            When I lived in Gunnison, before I was anything I was a poet. It was the first kind of writing I enjoyed. It wrote itself. It was always for love, never for money. The open mic nights and poetry slams in Gunny were some of the best, most pure nights of expression in my life. Why is it I could say anything to anyone in poetry, even if I kept an armor around my heart the rest of the time. It was her freedom, her accepting, open nature that led me back time and time again. She helped me find myself.

            It was always a quirky love affair, one I was almost ashamed of, how much I liked her. She was weird, and never really cool. But who wants to be cool anyways? The cool kids from my high school seemed to peak right at 18 anyways, too soon to peak for sure. The “too soon” poetry always got me into trouble. At 21 I was the over eager poet, just dying to have a crush so I could write her poetry or make her a mixtape. It didn’t always go as planned, but when I found a girl who did like the poetry, well, yeah, that was the right one.

            When I moved down here to Durango I was surprised, even overwhelmed by how many writers there are here. I find connecting with writers to be an art of sorts. Many of us write because we express ourselves better in writing than we do in conversation. I mean I say stupid things all the time, but when I write something stupid I at least have the chance to go back and edit it. So connecting with other writers is an art in itself. We are a weird bunch.

            With all the writers around I figured it would only be a matter of time before I saw a flyer for a spoken word storytelling event or a poetry slam. When a couple years went by and I never heard about anything, I figured I’d just start something of my own. Then I realized how difficult that actually is. I teamed up with a couple people and had some false starts, and then got busy writing and publishing books. But the hunger was still there, and the void of not creating poetry was very much there.

            In the last couple months in Durango it all came together. First, with the “Raven Narratives”, the powerful and moving storytelling event that Tom Yoder and Sarah Syverson created, and then with last weekend’s “Be Heard” poetry slam that Ashley Merchant and the local United Way chapter put on. All that was missing from Durango for me, a place I’ve very much been falling in love with over the last five years, was coming alive.

            I also feel like spoken word poetry is coming of age again, even in the mainstream. The famous rapper, Kendrick Lamar, has a flair of spoken word that the hip-hop world has not seen in a long time, with a political activism that makes it even more poignant. Same goes for Beyoncé’s recent “Lemonade” film she made to accompany to her album of the same name. There’s so much spoken word poetry in there. And damn if Beyoncé isn’t becoming more and more of a true artist, revealing the depths of her soul in such an honest, raw way.

            Oh man, the week leading up to last Saturday’s poetry slam at the Durango Arts Center I had the butterflies one can only have with the matters of the heart. It had been many years since I’d performed something I’d memorized. That feeling, the process, what a trip. I’m always afraid I’m going to be on stage in the middle of the poem and my mind will go blank.

            So I practiced my poem every free moment I had to myself. It started to become a part of me. Even when I rode my bike over that evening I practiced it three times. At that point when you’re so wired into the words its just time to breathe, relax, try to enjoy the night.

            The night kicked off on a somber note when the emcee for the evening, Ben Fisher, asked for a moment of silence for Orlando. That was followed by a poem that local high school student Amy Leonard performed, with her thoughts on the tragedy and what it means to be a gay American. I feel like I’ve become so numb to all the shootings in America; Amy made it all so real, and I thank her for that. That girl’s got some serious passion and talent.

            Being a first time event the poetry slam had a raw feeling that was so enjoyable. Many of the poets simply read their word in an open mic style, ranging from high school students to the charming older man who read a little vignette about Jackie Robinson.

            There were many missteps made by the emcee, and he graciously and hilariously all of them, charmingly. When he pulled my name out of the hat, Ben, said well that’s an interesting one, “Is there a Lube in the audience?”

            It was the perfect introduction. I felt my nervousness melt away as he said it again, “Lube, are you out there?”

            After telling Ben my name was actually Luke, I performed my poem without pause or panic, it was ingrained into my brain and nothing would stop me now. It’s a weird feeling though, the closest I’ve ever felt to an out of body experience. You practice something alone, over and over again, and now you’re anything but alone, there’s an audience and energy out there, and they are finally interacting with your words. Then in an instant you’re done. They clapped. They liked it.

            I was glad I went early in the round so I could just stop and enjoy everyone else’s poetry. There were so many moving poems; it’s even now a little mind bending to contemplate. It was such a fun night, and it made me feel more at home in Durango than ever before.

            Amy Leonard was the champion, and did she deserve it. Gretchen Groenke of Mancos was the runner up and she deserved it too. Both of these women motivated me to step up my game as a performer; they were so polished, poetic, and passionate.

            The night was capped off by some impromptu beat boxing from Ben, followed by a very moving dance performance from Natalie Benally from Dancing Earth, an interpretive piece aimed at creating awareness for the alarming high rates of sexual abuse that Native American women face.

            Afterwards, still riding the high I was over at Steamworks for a beer and a bite. As I was walking across the bar to go to the bathroom, a couple of women stopped me, and said, “Good job tonight, Lube!”

            So yeah, I guess now all my new poetry friends will be calling me Lube. Thanks a lot Ben! 

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

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Year of Vulnerability (a poem)

Did you know?

2016 is the year of vulnerability?
That no matter what
It's cool to be the real you
And the real me
That's vulnerability

No more: frontin-fakin-takin
from your real self
its time for feeling-loving-opening
To your real self

Cause we're fucking tired of
your Facebook self
your selfie self
your real self
is what we crave

Tell your selfie stick
It can suck my ----

Lick. That envelope
and write yourself a letter
tell yourself your heart wants better

I'll look at me.
And realize I ain't as cool
As I said I was last year
Or even that last beer

This year
I'll write with tears
I'll be unafraid
of my beating heart
Telling my brain to
Listen to that pain

The space between the heart and the brain
Imagine the possibility
Imagine the vulnerability

It aint 2004 no more though
Its 2016, all fresh and so clean

The cool you is the real you
You know that Andre 3000 you
the cool you is the real you
even if its the you who loves Ja Rule you

We all want to see it
Let that mutherfucker go
You can do it slow
or fast

Let that open hearted you
do some writing
or some poetry reciting
We wouldn't all be here tonight
if the possibility of real
wasn't so exciting
so inviting
so enlightening

We would all be at the mall
Or backs up against the wall
at a bar

Everyone wants that real you
That always says something true you
That walking with with swagger
of zero cool you

That you anyone can talk to

That vulnerable you

That's the you I want to be introduced to. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Teary Narrative

All you need is hugs 
“I almost started crying,” my friend Brittney told me after last weekend’s Raven Narratives storytelling event at the Durango Arts Center.

Shit, I cried tears during most of those stories, I thought to myself.

I’ll admit, I tend to cry a lot in certain situations. You could say I’m cry-y. That doesn’t read that well, but you get it, there are times when I just know I’m going to cry. Oftentimes it’s alone in my car listening to some epic Bob Dylan love song but it also happens in the form of stories, real stories. I rarely cry in the movies, but read me a touching true story, some poetry or a love song, and there I go.

This last weekend I cried a lot.

This was the first weekend this spring that I wasn’t in the desert or in Durango working. I had my friends Brian and Brittney in town so I vowed we would have a very Durango weekend. I just didn’t exactly know what that would entail.

Brian and I both love Seinfeld, so when he walked into my work on Friday and got in line to get some food, I immediately told him, “No soup for you!”

That night we stayed up until one in the morning watching Seinfeld, and then in the morning we headed over to my favorite breakfast joint, the College Drive Café. It was predictably tasty and the wait staff friendly. The day was off to a good start. Naturally, we headed over to the farmer’s market afterward, to see who we could see and pick up some fresh greens.

Then I got a text from Brittney’s husband Dave: Bunt got hurt kayaking and broke his femur in five spots. (For those who keep up on the FB or the paper, yes, he was that kayaker. The one who was rescued from Vallecito on Friday.)

Evan Bunt is a friend from a long time ago. I met him when he was a young crusher in his high school days up in Gunnison. He is a very Colorado kinda guy, a badass in so many outdoor activities it’s hard to put him into a category of what he is best at – whether it be skiing, biking, climbing or kayaking. He’s also one of the most polite, friendly human beings you’ll ever meet.

These kinds of messages delivering news of an accident are too routine for us lovers of outdoor sports. They are part of the deal. Going big in wild places usually provides us with the best days of our lives, but occasionally they deliver the worst days as well.

A broken femur is way better than a lost life though. I held thoughts of Evan close to my heart that day as we continued our tour of Durango. A mountain bike ride through Test Tracks, over to Horse Gulch, a quick stop into Ska, and a nice dinner led up to The Raven Narratives at the Arts Center.

I’d been excited about this ever since I first met the charming and passionate Sarah Syverson, who along with Tom Yoder created the storytelling event. It was made up of all local storytellers, and the theme for this series was “baggage.” Needless to say, it got deep. There were stories of love lost, parents lost, hearts found, identities rediscovered, addiction, bribery and even a tale of two lambs rescued on the side of a highway. To say I was impressed would be a major understatement. I cried a lot.

The following morning, Brittney rallied me to visit Evan in the hospital. He’d just had surgery, complete with a titanium rod. The minute we walked in, Evan looked at us, said our names and started crying. “Thank you, I love you guys,” he said.

We told him we loved him, too. His parents were there by his side. There was a deep feeling of intimacy, seeing our friend at his lowest. Yet, his spirit was strong; there was a feeling of power coming from his third eye, and his soul.

He told us what happened, he wasn’t even in his boat; he’d slipped off a cliff and landed on a rock in the water. His kayaking partner cared for him in the cold water for five hours until help arrived and got him out of there.

When he was done telling us his story, a nurse came in and performed a Reiki-like ceremony. She asked us to help, gently putting our hands on his leg and sending him healing energy. Sometimes, we forget how much we rely on the energy of our friends and family and how essential that support is.

When the nurse left, she put on a recording with some positive mantras, and we all sat there absorbing the words, and sending Evan healing energy. Then after a few rounds, Evan slowly moved up and turned it off. We talked a bit longer before the doctor came in and we learned of the milestones for the day: getting the catheter out, peeing on his own, and perhaps taking a shower. In a couple days, he’d be released. The mood seemed heavy, but Evan was optimistic.

Then, just as we were getting ready to leave, his buddy Dan and his family showed up. Right away Dan lightened the mood, “So … I hear you’re getting back into kayaking.”

We left with a logistically awkward but important hospital bed hug. I felt deeply moved by Evan’s spirit and humility. My day was changed for the better, and for the second time in as many days, I was moved to tears. But beyond that, I felt a connectedness to Evan, his parents, my friends and family – the realization we are nothing without the people in our lives who love us.

When I was younger and friends got get hurt, or even worse, killed, I contemplated if I would continue these risky activities. These days, I don’t go through that anymore. Everything in life has a certain risk to it, and we just have to accept that. I won’t quit adventuring in the wild, and I doubt Evan will either. Some of us just have it wired into who we are.

Later that day we went climbing. Even there, I realized the gift Evan had given me – to appreciate the moment and my surroundings. And, on the rock, at one point I closed my eyes and saw Evan’s face: positive, strong and encouraging. I felt his energy, and I hope he felt mine.

Then I thought about how powerful the weekend was, I thought it was just going to be a chill weekend at home, but through the tears that I cried I realized I’d seen things in a different light. And I feel closer than every to this community, and the people who also call it home.

This piece was originally published in today's Durango Telegraph. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Moth meets The Raven

It was a story of the wolf re-introduction to Yellowstone National Park that wholeheartedly confirmed Sarah Syverson’s notion that starting the Raven Narratives was a good idea. Syverson, who along with Tom Yoder, started the storytelling event earlier this year; this weekend they will host two performances on Friday and Saturday, in Cortez and Durango respectively.

            Syverson’s face becomes illuminated when she recalls Steve Underwood’s story from the inaugural Raven Narratives event about the wolves in Yellowstone. Underwood, who is currently the fire chief at Mesa Verde National Park, was part of the crew who facilitated the controversial reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone in the mid-nineties. It was so contentious they shipped the wolves in during the nighttime had a decoy vehicle to ploy angry ranchers who might try to disrupt the process. Later, as the wolves were transported into a truck they realized the alpha wolf had chewed through the bombproof cage, and had escaped.

            It’s these sort of stories Syverson and Yoder knew were out there in the residents of our Four Corners region, they just needed to provide a platform. Both longtime fans of The Moth, a storytelling event and podcast based out of New York City, the inspiration came a little closer to home when Yoder attended a Moth event at last year’s Telluride Mountainfilm. After that Yoder knew he wanted to start something and quickly turned to Syverson and together they created the Raven Narratives.

            The format is simple: a quarterly event, with eight people telling stories around ten minutes each, told without notes, and each time there’s a different them. This time the theme is baggage.

            Syverson, a playwright and director, who lives in Mancos, was more than pleased with the inaugural events, which were hosted at the Sunflower Theatre in Cortez and the Durango Arts Center here in town. “They were so powerful, I just can’t get over it,” she said.

            Syverson is also a huge fan of The Moth, but what she loves about the Raven Narratives is the local flavor and the fact that many of the stories are set in wild places, something that sets their event apart from The Moth. “There’s a different flavor in the stories set in wilderness versus urban environments,” she said. “There’s a beauty that comes along with our landscape that really translates well into stories.”

            Something both Yoder and Syverson recognize is the desire for an authentic, human story told in person. “This is a commonality that is in the DNA of the human being,” Yoder said. “It runs really deep, we have been telling stories in front of campfires for as long as humanity has existed.”

            Yoder himself will be one of eight storytellers this weekend, and he’s mentally preparing for the piece, which involves exposing some baggage from events that happened in his childhood. He wants to understand the process of telling the story so that he can help others with their own at events in the future. He also wants to embrace the sort of vulnerability he likes to see out of a good story, something not always found in the modern day-to-day existence. “That is where our commonality is as human beings,” he said. “But I’m also going through this oh-my-God moment that I’m about to put this story out there. It takes courage. The intimacy of this event is a big part of why it’s so appealing.”

            Even though the inaugural weekend was sold out, the Raven Narratives kept the same, intimate venues for the follow up. Keeping the crowd small and close is a big part of why it was so successful the first time around. “I don’t know if it would really work with hundreds and hundreds of people,” Yoder said.

            Each event is turned into a podcast available afterwards on iTunes, Soundcloud and other free media outlets. The radio station, KSJD out of Cortez, where Yoder works as a Program Director also provides essential resources. Ticket sales help offset some of the costs, but overall the Raven Narratives is a labor of love for our community. “The storytelling creates a true sense of connection for the community. That kind of thing is priceless.”

            For this event there’s a lineup of eight local storytellers, some of whom are likely going through the emotions of feeling vulnerable, excited, nervous and eager to tell their stories. Yoder is very ready to tell his story to the world, and is comforted that the crowd will be his neighbors and community members. “I’m pretty nervous, but I know after I get through it, there’s going to be this weight that will be lifted. Stories want to be told, and have lives of their own. Once a story is told its relieved. A lot of us carry around stories we are scared to tell. But there’s a transformative power to storytelling.”

            Syverson herself couldn’t be more excited about the weekend, “This is my favorite medium of live performance. These simple acts get to the core of what we really care about as a community.”

            She also encourages everyone in the community who is interested to consider telling a story, “everyone has a story to tell and sometimes those who don’t think they are storytellers are the best ones”.

This piece was originally published in today's Durango Telegraph. 

My new memoir, American Climber, is now available.