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.

Monday, August 3, 2015

A love letter to this juxtaposition of mountains and desert

Durango, I’m about to leave you now for a little while, and when I think about leaving I think about how much I love you, and how I don’t even really feel like I need to leave. That’s the key I think, live somewhere you love so much that when your travelling is done you couldn’t be happier to come back.

            It’s been tough love, as if you put me in a boxing ring with my dreams, and told me to get ready for a good fight. But you never told me, I just should have assumed: chasing dreams is hard work.

            I used to chase my dreams on the road, creating my own Kerouac-like triangle between Colorado, Mexico and California, and then I learned the type of dreams that I had in my heart would never be satisfied by the road alone, I needed a home. And I learned that my man Kerouac died by the bottle, and that was never a death I wanted to live. I couldn’t sit around and feel sorry for myself.

            Durango, I found you five years ago in the midst of an inner turmoil, at the same time when our country was going through a financial turmoil. I took the blind leap here, packed up everything I owned in a graffiti-ed red, white, and blue, car called The Freedom Mobile, which I estimated to be worth about five hundred dollars.

            Work was scarce when I first arrived, and I was told “no” to jobs you can usually slip into in mountain towns, because people are always leaving in mountain towns, and then I learned Durango is the mountain town where people stay, no matter how tough it is to make it here.

            But you gotta keep knocking on doors until someone says yes, and you gotta keep believing in your dreams, because your dreams are your keys to love, and all we really have is love. I took whatever odd jobs I could get; I shoveled horseshit, and watched over farms with mischievous sheep and roosters. I ate the eggs from chickens, and greens from the gardens I was the temporary landlord for. Finally, I found a gig that would work with my dreams to write and climb. Then I could start to appreciate you Durango, this juxtaposition of mountains and desert.

            Community, the common unity, happens with time. I remember telling the Animas River my dreams, and sharing my prayers with it. I remember the coincidence of my best friend Tim moving here, in his own inner turmoil with the bottle, of which he was finally able to free himself of. And that freed me as well, that someone could seem so hopelessly addicted and headed towards death, and then turn it around and build a wonderful life for himself in his new home of Durango. Then Tim introduced me to Andrew, a quiet genius handyman-mechanic, who has the rare combination of intelligence and humility.

We became great friends, and he worked on the “Freedom Mobile” when I was poor and had little money. Then we would play poker and I would meet Travis, my Southern gentlemen of a friend, who I could talk to for hours on end, because he’s got that right kind of Southern in him, that infinitely polite and engaging personality that makes you feel like you’ve got a friend for life, which you do.

            And through those poker games I found Jonathan again, I’d met him climbing in Las Vegas years before, but never saw him in Durango til late one winter night we met again at the poker table of all places. We became good friends and have climbed hundreds of days now together. I’d just lost a dear friend to an avalanche when we re-met. New friends helped with that pain.

            Still we pray to those same mountains that have taken away some of our loved ones. The passage of each year makes me feel more humble, and the more mountains I see makes me realize I’ll never see all the mountains. It’s taken five years just to get a glimpse of the mountains, canyons, rivers, valleys, and crags of this land.

            The mountains don’t change like we do. Everything happens so fast in the human life. I’ve heard life is a bitch, but time seems to be the bitch. Life is a beautiful woman, and beautiful women make beautiful babies, and it’s been a trip to watch my friends have families. Talk about hard work, and most of you do it with such grace.

            The vantage point of five years leaves a complete confidence in my decision to move here. When I made the decision though I was full of doubt and anxiety. The only way to know yourself though is to face those insecurities, and the only way to find yourself is to go there, wherever -there- may be.

             My writing mentor and former professor George Sibley, of Mountain Gazette fame, used to say have this saying about Crested Butte, “Someone is always arriving saying this is the greatest places they’ve ever found, and someone is always leaving saying the place is doomed.”
            I think you could say something similar about Durango. We’re constantly being mentioned in those bullshit Outside magazine type stories: “Top 5 Places to Move To Right Now” or “Top 5 Undiscovered Mountain Towns”. The truth is that our town is gritty, and we have our share of issues and problems, not unlike any other place. We are far from a utopia, as my man J.J. Anderson eloquently covered in his piece about our homelessness issue in his guest “La Vida” last week.

            We got problems, even 99 of them, but there’s something about this place that makes me feel like it’s the perfect place for an artist, for someone who thrives on creativity. There’s so much inspiration and beauty here in makes me wish I had an outlet for it - I with I could sing, I wish I could dance, I wish I could sit by the mountains and paint their beauty. I’m not a religious man, but I am spiritual, and I know for sure we all are given certain gifts. I don’t know if writing is a gift, or if you just have to work hard at it, I just know it’s the only outlet I have to share with my community, and I know there’s no other place in the world I’d rather by than Durango to spend my days typing away in my cave with the hopes I might create something that means something to someone. And there’s no other place I’d rather go to a coffeeshop and try to get work done when I’m tired of my home office, but then get distracted by my dear friend, Jennaye, who likes analyzing weird human traits as much as I do.

            I’m giddy right now as I finish this, I’ve saved enough to take some time off to visit a chunk of heaven in Squamish in British Columbia, where the granite meets the sea, and I can live out of a tent for a couple weeks, and wish life was always that satisfying and simple. Or, it will rain and I’ll be dreaming about Durango, and the upcoming Indian Creek season. You never know, but if you don’t go, you really never know.

This article is published in today's Durango Telegraph (August 6th, 2015)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Haircut Story

Since this one is about love (or at least the search for it) I wanted to say how genuinely happy I am that everyone in the United States is now able to marry whomever they love. I’ve always appreciated that lyric from the song "What the World Needs Now is Love" by ’70s diva Dionne Warwick: “We don’t need another mountain, there are mountains and hillsides enough to climb ... What the world needs now, is love, sweet love.” 

In a world where homosexual people are discriminated against, I know the journey is not over. But it’s a big step in the right direction. In a day and age where there seems to be a tragedy nearly every day, it’s good to get some uplifting news that will lead to positive social change. 

Love is a hard thing to find, and to find a person you want to spend the rest of your life with, that’s even harder. As a single guy who is 36, I can attest to that. But, as I’m approaching 40 and have a little more salt and pepper in my hair, I’ve got an advantage: I’m entering my Clooney years, baby! 

The only problem is, I don’t look anything like George Clooney. I only have a dash of salt, and I don’t have the hair. I always rock a buzz cut, which makes me look more like a college bro than a mature heartthrob.

And, believe it or not, this buzz cut led to one of the longest relationships I've ever had with a woman. Take the 14-month period when I dated three women consecutively, all with the same name. 
To protect the innocent, let's say the name was Lynn. The first Lynn was a sweet city girl, who had just started climbing. We met in said city and dated for a little while. But we realized during a weekend winter getaway in Moab that the magic just wasn’t there. We talked about it and ended our brief little fling, no hard feelings. 

Shortly after, I got a haircut. Let me preface that by saying I’m not picky about who cuts my hair or where it's cut  – just as long as it's done right and it's done cheaply. So, I had been going to this place that cuts hair for cheap, and the same woman cut my hair every time. I’ve always found this to be a very interesting relationship. In what other close setting with a stranger is small talk so important? At the dentist, they are all up in your grill. At the doctor, you are so uncomfortable sitting on that white paper that you don’t really want to talk. But at the hairdresser, small talk defines the experience. 

Now this woman seemed to be one of those people that had given up on her dreams. She had kids when she was young; and maybe she didn’t even have dreams. I just got the feeling she was disappointed by life. So I think once she found out I was an outdoorsperson who travelled all over, she started vicariously living through my trips. That formed a bond and eventually, she started asking about my love life. Like, do you have a girlfriend? 

I told her yes, but by the next haircut, I had found another girlfriend, the second Lynn. I told my hairdresser about No. 2 while she carefully buzzed my head, which I appreciated. I mean, when you’re getting your hair cut at the cheapest place in town, some people are downright rough with the buzz cut. I’ve walked out of some cuts apologizing to my head.

So, she’s gently buzzing my head, #2 clippers style, and I’m telling her about this woman I’m falling for, “Oh yeah, she’s a climber and a writer just like me.”

“Wow, that’s incredible,” the hairdresser says, “to find someone with such similar interests." 

As you can probably predict, things didn’t work out with the second Lynn. We broke up, and it was a sad breakup. I was three weeks out and went to get a haircut. One of the worst parts of a breakup is constantly having to tell everyone you’ve broken up. So by now, I’m over it. Of course my hairdresser is going through her repertoire of topics and inevitably comes to, “How is your girlfriend, Lynn?” 

I tell a white lie. “Oh, she’s doing great” and quickly change the subject. 

A few months later, and what do you know? I start chatting with a beautiful woman I’d seen around town and finally get around to formal introductions. When she tells me her name is Lynn, my head spins. Whatever the universe is telling me, I should probably listen. Maybe this is The One? 

You see where this is going. And, I’m not proud of it, but traits from the second Lynn and the third Lynn were blended together for the hairdresser into a potpourri of a woman. “Wow, she’s a climber and a skier and a runner. And, she’s a writer and a teacher and a scientist, you better hold onto this one.”

At this point, the third Lynn and I were on about our fifth or sixth date. We had plans to hit up the hot springs that night, when she suggests a change in venue: West African dance lessons. 

Not wanting to seem boring, I agree. “Just so you know, it’s mostly women,” she cautions. “But I think you’ll have a good time.”

"Mostly women" turns into myself, one other hippie guy who I’m pretty sure is there to meet hippy chicks, and 50 other women! And the dancing is sexual, heavily involving booty shaking and hip thrusting. The instructor, who is visiting from West Africa, is a short little, joyous man, and I realize just how culturally different West African and Colorado are. 

So I’m trying to hang tough and not get trampled by 50 women as we go through a conga line. Talk about out of your comfort zone. After the date I couldn’t wait to get out of there. “I can’t believe you stayed,” Lynn No. 3 said.

Needless to say, it didn’t work out with the third Lynn. And when the time came around for my hair to get a trim, I prepared to tell the hairdresser the news that I’d broken up with two women I’d melded into one. But, she was gone. She quit the gig, and I don’t know where she went. And my next haircut felt like I was in a headlock being poked by aliens in the head. It was by some woman named Marge, who very much frightened me.

I longed for my old hairdresser and to this day, wonder what became of her. I can only hope that, after months of chasing someone else's dreams, she finally decided to follow her own.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Katrina Blair's Wild Wisdom of Weeds

Katrina Blair’s audience is growing like a weed. The longtime Durango resident’s new book, “The Wild Wisdom of Weeds”, which was just published in November, has already sold out her first print run, and is on its second printing. Thanks to a heightened interest in the subject, and a favorable review in the New York Times, Blair exceeded even her publisher’s expectations by selling out 4,000 books in just a couple months.

Blair completing a walkabout, en route to Telluride, Colorado. 

            Blair, who is the purveyor of the local Turtle Lake Refuge, has spent much of her adult life advocating the benefits of weeds, as well as fighting against the use of pesticides and herbicides to eradicate said plants.

            This book, her second, highlights 13 weeds that can be used for food and medicine. Among those plants are: dandelion, lambsquarter, mallow, plantain and thistle. All the plants listed in the book grow on each of the seven continents. Blair remarks that she, “fell in love with these plants all over again during the writing of the book,” and she even had ten day period during the research where she ate nothing but those 13 plants.

            Blair notes that she considers herself more of an opportunist than a vegan or vegetarian, but feels best when she eats a local food diet. “The more we refine food the more the vitality goes down,” she says. “I thrive on fresh, wild, local food, which gives me a high level of clarity and energy.”

            Blair was raised to be resilient. Her father, Rob Blair, now a retired Geology professor from Fort Lewis College, taught her to ski, hike, and climb. Her mother, Pat Blair, who started Durango Natural Foods, imparted an appreciation for plants and nutrition. “My Dad opened the wild, and my Mom opened the doors to health,” Blair says.

            She was camping in the Tetons before she learned to walk, and started climbing at the age of 10 at X-Rock, a local crag on the north edge of town. She spent her high school years in New Zealand, while her father worked on a sabbatical, and learned to appreciate the value of travel and understanding other cultures.

            Perhaps her most formative and legendary experiences have happened in the form of what she calls a walkabout. Blair simply hikes for days, feeding herself on the food she forages. August is typically the best month, and she boasts that in one day, while hiking to Silverton she foraged 19 different kinds of berries. She’s always had a mystical connection to the land, with plants in particular. “As a kid floating on Haviland Lake (located between Durango and Silverton) I felt drawn to the plants on the edge of the lake, and they seemed to say to me, you’re going to live with us now.”

            And she has. Her most well known walkabouts are the annual week long pilgrimages she makes to Telluride for the Mushroom Festival, where she conducts educational workshops. She lives entirely on the plants and berries she forages, and is so confident in her skills she doesn’t even bother to bring a backup stove. Blair notes that the first three days she is typically lethargic. Then something happens, once the detoxing period is over, her energy reaches an all time high. “By the time I arrive to Telluride I’m riding a high, it’s as good as I feel at any point in the year. It’s like a cleanse.”

            During the walkabouts Blair also touches base with her roots as an explorer of the mountains. “I have this deep, profound, trust in nature,” she shares. “While I’m in these precarious situations I don’t have the luxury to have fear. I trust in myself and my intuition.”

            As a kid her only household rule was: be true to yourself. In all her experiences with edible plants she’s only eaten something poisonous once, a twin berry, that is only considered mildly harmful; the effects were only minimal and she recovered quickly.

            As one could expect the book is full of detailed wisdom and creativity. Blair calls it “heavy”, containing more than 350 pages of information and a complete array of photographs, featuring herself, the plants and many members of the Durango community and Turtle Lake family. Recipes range from Hollyhock strawberry baskets to a Clover Flower Apple Pie to Plantain Breakfast Porridge.

            In “The Wild Wisdom of Weeds” Blair also features her battle to discontinue the use of herbicides in Durango’s city parks. She believes that as a community Durango can lead the way for other communities to discontinue the use of herbicides, which she feels are harmful to those who visit the parks. She says that, “changing anything is challenging, but as we remove those herbicides it does increase our quality of life” and adds that she is “grateful that there has been some success in Durango, and that the City Manager and the Parks and Recreation departments have been a supporter to make this happen.”

             Blair also notes that moving towards eating these 13 plants should be a methodical one, “The integration should be small and slow. Wild food is so potent, starting with your morning green smoothie is a good idea for entry.”

            She attributes her success with the book to the growing environmental awareness of the United States. “The ground is prime. There’s so much awareness right now. It’s a small, yet perfect solution to start using these resources.”

Blair's book: The Wild Wisdom of Weeds. 

This piece was originally published in the Durango Telegraph

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

College Me and The Circle of Life

I awoke in the Indian Creek desert to the sound of a crying baby. I tossed and turned over in the back of my Subaru – it’s always a good morning when I wake up in the back of my car – and sat there basking in a new sort of nostalgia. The tribe is growing.
Modern Day    
            Our tribe, those who believe and know our outdoor experiences define who we are and shape our existences, is constantly ebbing and flowing. New friends, kindred spirits, are essential to recreation, but with Persephone, the crying baby, well, she is truly the first in my circle of friends to be brought this closely into the climbing world.

            Sure, I have other friends who have kids, but most of them procreate and then seem to disappear off the face of the earth. They move to places like Denver, Oklahoma, and Texas; and then they become “the friends I talk to once a year on the phone”. There’s no fault in that, raising children is hard work, and I understand why many of my friends have left Colorado mountain towns for steady paychecks and domestication in the flatlands.

            But Persie, her parents have stayed put, for now anyways, in Gunnison, and are still dedicated to climbing and skiing, and all that comes with that lifestyle. This little sweetheart, she puts a tear in my eye and a smile on my face just thinking about her. So, to say the least, I didn’t mind her crying that cold late November morning. I couldn’t have been happier to have her there.

            In college, when I knew everything, I proclaimed to my parents that I was never having kids. I was sure of it. “There’s already too many people on this planet,” I told them. “Overpopulation is the number one environmental problem, so why should I contribute to that?”

            When I shared this bit of information with a ladyfriend of mine in college she replied, “You’re going to be a lonely old man.”

            I replied with silence.

            I know I’m a failure in the eyes of College Me. Everything was about the outdoors and the environment, and my professors seemed to plead to me, it is up to you to do something. I thought our generation was going to save the planet, and I thought I would be able to curb my consumption and carbon footprint. I envisioned myself driving a car that ran on hemp oil or hydrogen or something, living somewhere in a yurt where I raised and grew my own food, and writing ferociously like Edward Abbey, taking down the machine one sentence at a time.

            And where am I at? Ten years out of college and my Subaru is gulping down cheap gas like there’s no tomorrow. My phone does really cool things, I buy most of my food at the grocery store, and my energy comes from all traditional sources that are contributing to climate change. At least weed is legal though, College Me has got to be stoked about that!

I don’t have kids, but not for environmental reasons; that notion has long faded, my belief now is that the outdoor minded/liberal arts educated folks are the ones that should be procreating. Saving the planet. Impossible. Saving yourself and changing your ways. Difficult, not impossible though.

            The one thing I am proud of is knowing and appreciating the moment. Lose a friend to an avalanche, a motorcycle wreck, or a climbing accident and the truth is revealed: your time here is precious and you are just one-minute part of a complex world. Have you done something you’re proud of? Are you doing at least one thing to put your life in the right direction? Is there someone still around that you really love? Yeah, you may not have grown up to be who you wanted, but is there something that still gives you hope? Then that’s what you live for. At least that’s what I live for. Hope. Friends. Love. The moment.

            I don’t have kids simply because I haven’t met my life partner yet, with a huge dash of good luck, and proper usage of birth control. I know most women want kids, and I know there’s nothing I love more than women, so College Me loses in this argument. Seeing the changes that happen in women from their early twenties to late twenties has been eye opening as well; that biological clock thing they tell you about that never seems real until you witness it first hand.

            I think most single people who are grown adults have that one who got away. Or, maybe more than one. I can fondly reflect on a few. The other day on the phone I was talking with a former lover who I once thought was The One Who Got Away. Eventually I realized she wasn’t, but she is still somehow I highly respect and try to stay in touch with. She is also about to deliver her first baby. Educated, passionate, beautiful, and environmentally minded, I know she’s going to be a great mother.

            Our conversation wasn’t overly profound. It revolved around, what so and so is doing, and how our careers are going, but I noticed she was eerily calm and centered. When we dated and she was in her mid-twenties she was certain she didn’t want a child, but as she grew older, and fell in love again, she realized for sure, she did want a kid. And, so she is.

            As our conversation grew to a close she said something that stuck with me. “You know, for most of our lives we’re preparing to arrive. We’re kind of always in that process of arriving at something.”

            Last week I ventured out to Indian Creek to that same campground where we spent Thanksgiving; I was supposed to meet a friend but I couldn’t find her. The campground, which was full over the Thanksgiving holiday, was quiet, with not a single person in sight. I couldn’t bear to stay, it was just too silent, and it would have been weird to stay there all by myself.

So, I turned my Subaru around and headed back to Durango, looking forward to days in the future in the desert, surrounded by friends, and little ones running around; a picture of the future College Me could have never imagined; one more beautiful than I ever could have dreamed.

This piece is published in today's Durango Telegraph. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Heroes in our Dope City of Hip-Hop and Yoga

The author (left) and The Grouch.
So much of life is perspective. Some people are a downer, even to talk to for five minutes; the ones you turn your head from and avoid in the grocery store, those who are convinced that life is a bore, and everything is doomed. Then there are those people who you seek out, who lift you up, who achieve their own potential and radiate positive energy that is incredibly infectious; the lights of the world.

When I moved down to Durango I was in danger of becoming the former of those people I just described. In part, because I achieved a goal: I was a paid writer with a 9-5 that had all the benefits we Americans want with our jobs. This achievement trained me well as a writer, but I was selling my talent, the stories I wrote were scripted, public relations material written in a voice that was not my own. I desperately wanted to achieve my potential in writing, and I was learning its not a one way road, there would be many twists and turns.

The Durango Telegraph was my first writing gig in this fine town, and it has been good to me, starting with my very first story. I was assigned to write about a Paradox Sports event at the Ouray Ice Park dubbed, at the time, “Gimps On Ice”. It was a punchy name to describe an ice climbing festival for disabled and primarily amputee climbers. The inspiration meter was off the hook during this event, and I met many people that weekend who remain dear friends. Ice climbing is crazy enough, but to experience twenty plus people climbing ice who were missing arms and legs, well, there was a certain level of enthusiasm that infected every cell of my being; a sign from the heavens I was on the right path. Yes, this would be a good gig.

Four years later the Telegraph handed me another little nugget: I got to interview The Grouch and Eligh (G&E), two underground kings of hip-hop who played at the Animas City Theatre last week. I’ve always loved The Grouch, his simple, articulate, philosophical style is a refreshing breath of air in an often lack-of-talent saturated genre of music (search YouTube for Young Thug or 2 Chainz, huge stars in the rap world right now, and you’ll see what I mean). When I learned I would get to do a phone interview with him I got nervous. I mean how often do you get to talk to one of your heroes on the phone?

I first heard about The Grouch, through a collaborative album he did with Zion I, called “Heroes in the City of Dope”. He rapped about yoga, world travel, eating well, earning your living as an independent artist, exercise, his wife, and his newborn child. It was uplifting, poetic music, and I played the record, over and over again. Inspiration times a million.

So when I called up The Grouch two weeks ago for the phone interview I was giddy, like I was calling a beautiful woman for the first time. Should I call him by his real name? Or do I say, “Is The Grouch there?” Does that sound weird? Stop having weird thoughts, dude, just be cool. You can do this.

For the first minute of our conversation I fumbled with my words, while I tried to tell him how much of a fan I was. He was humble and appreciative, and I took a couple deep breaths, while I regained my composure. During the interview he explained his history with hip-hop, and how he was a longtime independent artist who used to dub his own tapes, and make CD covers at Kinko’s. The Grouch also explained, while growing up in the early 1990s, the golden age of hip-hop, just before the art was hijacked by gangsters and big business, that it was important for a rapper to be smart, or in the words of the culture: droppin’ science and kickin’ jewels.

The Grouch was patient, friendly, and more than willing to speak to a reporter from a small town independent paper, like yours truly. After the conversation I was charged with energy. They say never meet your heroes, but when you get to talk to a guy like The Grouch you realize, some heroes you should absolutely meet.

Then came the day of the show. When I woke up that morning, I was ready to be disappointed. I’d been listening to The Grouch and Eligh’s new triple album, The Tortoise and The Crow, and was in love with it, my favorite new music of the year, hands down. Their style and abilities have only been growing over the years, and musically and artistically these guys are peaking. To hope that their live show could equal such brilliance would be ludacris (cultural pun intended).

We tried to time our arrival so that we would miss some of the opening acts. The culture of hip-hop has a strange phenomenon that there has to be so many opening acts that the main act doesn’t even go on stage until 12:30 in the morning. At 12:30 I’m usually in my REM cycle, dreaming about kittens and nude beaches. (Separately, of course.)

Talking to my friends I went to show with I was blown away that they all had to work the next day. Work? After staying up until 3:00 in the morning? Shit, I cleared my schedule for the next two days, just so I could recover. At 36, a night on the town is a sure recipe that the next day is spent drinking Emergency’s, watching Netflix, holding my aching head while saying to myself, “Why, momma, why, did I go out last night?!?”

In short, the show was a disappointment, but only in the sense that I wanted G&E to keep playing for another two hours. Their show was just over an hour, almost the same length as the opening act, another phenomenon in hip-hop I’ll never understand. And while the opening act did the usual Colorado, “So who here loves to smoke weed?” thing like 10 times, G&E were classy. They played their down to earth songs, and the vibe ranged from party whompy music to the soulful hip-hop vibe they are known for. To top that off, I got to give The Grouch a handshake and a hug, and he even obliged for a photo.

Three days later and finally recovered, I got to check out The Living Yoga Project. I love yoga as much as hip-hop, and this all-local performance absolutely blew my mind, and left me inspired. The combination of yoga, dance, music, and dare I say a dash of breakdancing, carried me from smiles to tears. I was blown away by the turnout, nearly packing the theatre at the Smiley Building, especially considering they had two additional performances that weekend. Like G&E I could have watched these folks perform for another hour or two.

With such an awesome experience from these two events right here at home, I was reminded of an old truth in art, leave the audience wanting more. Always leave them wanting more. 

This story is published in today's Durango Telegraph. You can follow Mehall on Twitter at: