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, February 3, 2016

Passing The Torch

Let me start off by saying how much I enjoyed last week’s “La Vida” by Burt Baldwin in the Durango Telegraph. When my editor, Missy wrote me saying that there was a guest contributor that wanted to write about his old friend, Ed Abbey, and requesting my usual contribution could be delayed a week I was more than happy to oblige. I consider myself a student of Abbey’s, and to picture him hanging out downtown, for a book presentation at Maria’s, followed by a couple beers a local bar brings him into my life in a very real way.

            I was too young to meet Abbey in the flesh, but I know his soul, because of Desert Solitaire. That book, oh that book, well, you could fall in love with the desert without ever having visited the place. If you’ve spent any time there in the Moab red rock desert, and it speaks to you (it doesn’t speak to everyone) well, Desert Solitaire, confirms all those notions of beauty, and it motivates the reader, if she or he is able, to fight for those places, and protect those places from the very real evil forces that want to develop it, or take the land away from the public.

            In my college days, up in Gunnison, I was spoon fed Abbey, and took semesters off, living in a tent and content with living in nature. These were back in the post 9-11, George W Bush days. I considered Bush, The Second Most Evil Person In The World, right after Osama Bin Laden. He was evil because he was dumb and powerful, and he had so much ignoramus gusto.

            His misquote of the “fool me once” aphorism, which was recently brought back to life from the rapper J.Cole by sampling it on his 2014 Forest Hills album, summed it all up, he was the stupidest person alive and he was the leader of the free world.

I hated Bush. So, me, living in a tent with nearly nothing to my name, saw the world in a very black and white way. I wrote editorials nearly every week about politics, and got in fights with the other conservative writers who were backing Bush and his vision for revenge.

            After I graduated college I realized the world is more full of grey than black and white. That solider going to the war, well, he’s just a guy with a job and a family to provide for, and the coal miner just over the hills, same thing, just another person trying to provide and put food on the table.

             So, post-college, twelve years now, and I haven’t really known where to put my energies to fight the good fight. I try to write for everyone, not just those I share the same spiritual and political beliefs with. I am the child of a mom who usually leans Democratic and a dad that leans Republican. Yet, my parents get along better than any other couple I’ve ever met. Perhaps, what I learned in all my fighting and arguing is that I’d rather find a common ground with people than focus on where we disagree. And, where is the place for that in modern America?

            Something is happening now that makes me want to get involved again, and not just be the happy medium guy, but to actually fight the good fight against greed and evil. It’s death. Those environmental leaders, born of the social movements in the late 1960s are dying. People like Doug Tompkins, the founder of The North Face, who spent the majority of the last phase of his life protecting wild lands down in Patagonia, who passed away last December. The last quote of his in the New York Times article written about his life particularly spoke to me, “We want to do something good, but you’ve got to be very naïve and out to lunch to think certain sectors of society are not going to put up resistance. If you’re not willing to take the political heat, then you shouldn’t get into the game of land conservation.”

            When I was in college and angry at this troubled world and our leaders I thought my passion would help lead me to getting involved in environmental and social change. Now that I’m older I realize that money and power are two other essential elements; Tompkins, and his peer Yvon Chouinard, founder of the clothing company Patagonia, have been able to make significant contributions to the environmental movement because they have the money to put behind it. Guys, who once lived with little money, in the dirt and on the rock walls, became millionaires, and their deep connection to nature inspired them to give back.

            Last week, late at night, I was thinking about Tompkins and Chouinard, and feeling something, I’m not sure what, but some obligation to follow in their footsteps. I wrote out my thoughts and concerns to my friend Stacy Bare, a climber and veteran, who works for the Sierra Club. Bare is getting to be a bit of celebrity in the outdoor world, he recently did a trip with Alex Honnold to Angola, with a film crew from Vice Sports, built solar panels and of course, did some climbing. This was the first of his travels for adventure to countries where he served in the military, or in the case of Angola, cleared land mines. The project is called “Make Adventure Not War”. (I should add Honnold’s passion for activism and his Foundation are just as impressive as his free solo climbing.)

            A couple days before his new baby girl, Wilder, was born into the world, he wrote me these words in an email, “In a way the torch doesn't get passed does it? We just have to pick it up when others fall and charge ahead. My friend and I were talking about that when it came to the passing of Doug Tompkins, and you wonder, how do we replace those guys?”

            As all these thoughts were swirling around my brain something happened: Republican Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah, released his Utah Public Lands Initiative (PLI). In short, the proposal directs a lot of interest to energy development, grazing, and motorized sports, without taking into account the incredible climbing and recreation resources in the area. What that means for lovers of the red rock desert is that viewsheds could be impacted by development, motorized use would take precedence over human-powered activities, and it would be a challenge to get Land and Water Conservation funding to improve trails or conserve additional places. There’s no surprise that conservation and recreation groups, including the Access Fund, American Alpine Club, and Outdoor Alliance are rallying to fight the initiative.

            And what is the answer of where to place energy to fight this terrible proposal? Part of it is legitimizing the recreational benefits of the land by writing the White House, and the Center for Environmental Equality and expressing how important these areas are. There are other, better ideas of how to use the land, like the Inter-Tribal Bear’s Ears National Monument proposal, that President Obama could potentially designate before he leaves office. (However, the current draft is not exactly specific on the policies of climbing and other recreational activities on the land.) Additionally the Bureau of Land Management is working on their own strategy of how to manage this land, with their Master Leasing Plan (MLP) that they put together every 25 years. One thing is for sure, change in the way our red rock desert we recreationists love so much is managed, is feeling inevitable. 

            Like always, there’s more to the story but alas I’m out of space, and now all that swirls in my head is how Abbey closed Desert Solitaire, “The desert will still be here in the spring. And then comes another thought. When I return will I be the same? Will anything ever be quite the same again? If I return.”

This piece was originally published in the Durango Telegraph

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Adult Party Hour

There’s no denying the hands of time. Regardless of your own personal beliefs of where we go after this life, we are all on a crash collision course to meet our makers in a precious number of years, and no one’s getting out alive.

Keith Brett kicking off an "adult party hour" in Indian Creek. Photo: Braden Gunem

             With each passing birthday this reality hits me a little bit more, and this one, turning 37 a couple weeks ago, really felt big. There was just something about that number; I couldn’t get it out of my head. It didn’t feel old, I don’t feel old, in fact I feel better at 37 than I did when I was 21. Probably because when I was 21 I partied too much and didn’t take care of myself. And, maybe I just feel better now because I restrict most of my partying to the “adult party hour”.

            I didn’t start doing this on purpose. Just a couple years ago it wasn’t that odd for me to stay out until two or three in the morning, stumbling in and out of a local dive bar in the wee hours of the night, and waking up with a hangover that would define the day.

            At some point in our lives you just have to stop behavior that isn’t serving you anymore, I think an old yoga teacher of mine told me that, and sort of naturally my days of partying into the wee hours of the night for no real reason have faded. However, I still like to party. I like to have a beer or three on occasion, and hit the peace pipe now and again. Thus, “adult party hour” was born.

            Every other week or so I start a text thread with my friend Jennaye. (Yes, Jennaye of Durango Telegraph fame.) It goes something like this:

Happy Hour drink?


The usual


            So we meet at the usual spot, and one of us is always late because neither of us are ever anywhere exactly on time. We understand one another on the level that we aren’t reliably punctual and thus we forgive each other. Understanding and forgiveness are good bases for any friendship, and we are good friends. In fact Jennaye is my best female plutonic friend in Durango (bfff?) and we always have good conversation. She’s able to cater to my never-ending ADD tendencies while I deal with her social awkwardness when external people enter the conversation. We’re also both single, and dating, which of course provide an endless well of things to talk about. She called me the “Jerry Seinfeld of Durango” recently, referring to my endless particularities with life and women, which was pretty much the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.

            If you’ve never met Jennaye she is charmingly awkward, not the kind of get me the hell away from this person awkward. The kind of person that could insult you two seconds after meeting you, but you still like. For example at my recent birthday party, which of course started at six o’clock and ended at ten o’clock, she met my new roommate for the first time, and promptly blurted out, “Hi, new girl!”

            I apologized on behalf of Jennaye (she was definitely getting her “adult party hour” on) but my roommate still liked her. Recently Jennaye wrote this hilarious essay about dating, which I constantly bug her about publishing, but as of yet she hasn’t. Here’s a little excerpt:

            I’m learning quickly, and over time, that it’s pretty impossible to make conversation and banter with that drunk guy at the bar. You also can’t really get to know a person with your own beer goggles on. Sparks usually don’t fly waiting in line at the post office, the bank, or waiting for the stop light to turn green. In fact, I, and seemingly others are usually at their worst in these situations proving that waiting in lines suck, patience is outdated, honking and waving is weird, and flipping the bird will not get you a date. Or, in this fine town, sometimes you meet a cute boy by way of their best friend—your former boyfriend. Other times it’s through a great conversation leading to him casually letting you know he’s taken. “Yeah, and my girlfriend likes puppies, too!” F***in puppies.”
            Hanging out with Jennaye basically ensures this sort of witty banter, and of course if she gets disillusioned with being single I give her a pep talk that all good friends should always give. And then I’ll tell her some story like the one about my last girlfriend who was 23 and told me she thought I was too old because she wanted to have kids someday and when she did want to have kids I would be old, and she didn’t want to have her partner be some old guy, which was pretty brutal, and all I could think about was how much older Jay Z is than Beyoncé, and that seems to be working out just fine, but of course I’m no Jay Z. Then Jennaye will make fun of me for thinking I could date a 23 year old, and maybe we’ll order another round if we’re really feeling it, but the likelihood is that we’ll order some food because Happy Hour is ending and bedtime is just a few hours away.

            They say nothing good ever happens after two in the morning. Of course, that’s not true, but like any good saying there’s a lot of truth in it. For me, I’d just rather feel good in the morning, than feel good late at night. Besides the conversation at “adult happy hour” is much better than trying to yell into someone’s ear late night at a dive bar.

             I’m sure our regular “adult party hours” will cease to happen as regularly as they do now, Jennaye will get a boyfriend and I’ll get a girlfriend, and conversation topic of being single will dry up, and we’ll spend our happy hours with our significant others. It’s also untrue to say I don’t stay out late anymore, its just I don’t stay out late for no real reason. I might make it to midnight on New Year’s Eve, I usually do, but you can be damn sure just after the clock strikes midnight I’ll be ghosting out of the party to my warm bed, with the goal of starting off the new year only mildly hungover.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Five (years) On It

“Do you think Durango is the final stop for you?” my co-worker turned friend, Peyton asked me.

            She was telling me about her plans to move up to the Front Range after she graduated college, and wondered what I would be doing after she left.

            “I think so,” I said. “Durango is perfect for me.”

            “I’m nervous about the move,” she said.

            “All great things in life should make you at least a little nervous,” I gently suggested.

            Recently the machine that is Facebook reminded me it was exactly five years ago that I moved here to Durango. It showed me the jalopy I packed full of every possession I owned, and I could practically taste the fear. I was 32 and after ten years in the little icebox that is Gunnison, Colorado, I needed a new start. Problem was I was terrified of starting over.

            I remember when I moved here I knew I had a limited amount of time of grocery store anonymity, and other things that come along with small mountain town living. I liked that for a second - in Gunnison everyone knows everyone and it can be confining at times, especially in the dating world - but after a while of flirting with Durango as a place to live I knew I wanted to become a member of this community.

            Durango was tough at first. I moved here just after the economic crash and work was scarce. I’d spent years honing my writing skills and was hoping to quickly find a good paying gig. When that didn’t happen I went back to my other profession of working in the food industry, and started a publishing business on the side.

            When I first moved here I had all the time in the world to do whatever I wanted. I had a couple bucks saved from my old 9-5 and a plush housesitting gig up in Durango West 2. I used to run along the Animas River almost every day. One day I picked a spot just past the Main Ave. Bridge and sat there and meditated on what I really wanted out of life. The river was especially peaceful and lush there with trees gently overhanging over the green water. It came to me - all I wanted was to build my life with love in this little town where the mountains meet the desert, perhaps until I die. Day after day I would stop at that spot and reflect on my vision.

            Slowly the anxiety of starting over started to fade. Grocery store conversations started happening. I became friends with some of the baristas where I holed up and wrote and read for hours on end, like the answers to dreams are in stories (they are). I remember the feverish week when I read “Love In the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and my heart travelled a thousand miles all while sitting there drinking coffee.

            Fortunately the economy did bounce back and these days I’ve got more work than I have time. My leisure days of being a stranger and losing myself in books in coffeeshops for hours on end are gone. Each and every minute seems valuable and precious these days. Daydreaming has to lead to action, after all dreams are realized with work.

            Work, dreams, and the landscape we live within are all nice things, essential to the modern person, but I think what has made me love Durango the most in the community, transient as it can be. The modern world is full of illusionary connections, like we’ll immediately fall in love with someone we meet on Tinder, or we think we know what our friends’ lives are like based on their Instagram photos. Starting over in your thirties is hard, and the fact that I truly feel like I have a real community of friends in five short years here in Durango says something really powerful about this place.

            So this brings us back to my friend Peyton. We started work together the same week three and a half years ago. She was 20 and just started at Fort Lewis. At first she seemed very shy, but over the years we got to know one another; working in a busy restaurant kind of guarantees you’ll get to know your co-workers, and you gravitate to those people you get along with best.

            After a couple years we ended up living on the same street, and in the summer we would both ride our bikes to work. We jokingly formed a bike gang, and during those summer nights riding home we would tell each other about our lives (mostly our love lives). It was like the conversations I had in my mind with the Animas River, but with my friend. Saying a dream aloud keeps the dream alive.

            Summer nights always pass by don’t they, and life moves on. Peyton moved to a different apartment, and right around that time she started dating someone. Now they are planning to move to the Front Range together. When she told me that it really hit me how fast life is flying by. Just yesterday it seemed like I was the new kid on the block in Durango, and now I’m seeing good friends move away to follow their dreams.

            When I first heard the news of Peyton and her boyfriend leaving (he is a good friend and co-worker of mine as well) I lamented that they would no longer be in my day-to-day life here in Durango. More than anything though I think we should want our friends and family to be happy and follow their own dreams. My dreams took me to Durango, and I was scared as shit that they would never come true. You know what though, they did, and my life is more balanced and happy than it was before. Friends come and go, but really they are always with you.

            And since its Thanksgiving, I’ll end the piece by saying this: to the people of Durango I’m thankful for you.

This piece was published in the Thanksgiving issue of the Durango Telegraph. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Dirtbag in The Big Apple

As a writer it’s impossible not to have a literary, even romantic notion of New York City. Jack Kerouac called it, “the place where paper America is born.” He was my first writing guy. I would say hero, but Kerouac’s life was too sad for him to be a hero to anyone. (Like many great writers before him he relied a little too much on drugs and alcohol, and died a young death.) He simply had the prose that made me fall in love with the written, printed word, so much that I decided one day I would become a writer myself.

            So now I write. I write to you. What a strange job it is to be a creative writer, especially writing columns like this one. The Telegraph gives you these words for free, and asks for nothing in return. I try my hardest, once a month, to entertain you with a short story. In turn I get a modest check - enough for a trip to the desert.

The brevity might be easy for the modern blogger, but it’s a challenge for me to keep it to a thousand words for a piece, I like to go long; if this is the era of short attentions spans, thinking beauty can be summed up in the caption of an Instagram post, I’m old school, like Kerouac waxing for thousands and thousands of words, trying to put into words that magical feeling life sometimes provides, and finding meaning even when it doesn’t.

            I’ve seen a little magic in New York City, but when I was there last week, I was not looking for a muse, I was just on book tour, and visiting my brother, Clint and sister in law, Kelly, who recently moved from Manhattan to the suburbs just over in New Jersey.

I’ve been traveling and doing presentations for a couple years now. Sometimes I get an eager audience, a packed house that will pay attention to every word in a story. Other times attendance is sparse, especially when the host doesn’t promote the reading properly. The difference is striking, when people show up I’m energized and confident, when they don’t I feel defeated. I believe in my dream though, and I’m willing to follow it wherever it may lead me. Plus, I don’t drown my sorrow in booze or let my highs and lows get too extreme.

            We started the trip off by driving to New Paltz, a quaint little village on the edge of the most famous climbing area in the East Coast: The Gunks. We were accompanied by Lizzy, their tiny little adorable dog, a greyhound-chihuahua mix. Usually I don’t like little dogs, especially the ‘yipper’ ones who bark at everything, stuck in their Napoleon complexes and afraid of the world. This dog, that they rescued from a shelter, is different. She rarely barks, and is cute and sweet as could be. Even her incessant licking is endearing.

            She’s also tough, and smart. Clint once lost her in Central Park, about a mile from their apartment complex. He panicked, a tiny little 12-pound dog lost amongst the hustle and bustle of New York. An hour went by and he couldn’t find her. She could be anywhere he thought, in the massive expanse of Central Park, or lost on the busy streets of Manhattan. This was their beloved dog and she could be gone, forever.

            While Clint was frantically looking for Lizzy, she decided that she wanted to return home, and she did, running through Central Park crisscrossing Manhattan traffic to the apartment, somehow finding someone to let her in, and climbing up six flights of stairs to their doorstop. Oh, the places you’ll go Lizzy!

            So the place we’re going, The Gunks, is well loved and appreciated and the small village of New Paltz is picturesque. Plus, our timing is perfect; the leaves on the trees have cascaded into an epic variety of yellow, red, and orange. The air is crisp, and the nostalgic fall unfolding. Forget climbing, all I want to do is drink pumpkin beer, huddle up by a fire, and listen to Frank Sinatra.

            After a little bit of climbing, some leaf peeping, and a couple pumpkin beers we roll into downtown for my presentation at the local gear shop, Rock and Snow. There’s a packed house, and the vibe is high. I show the premier a Beatnik inspired short climbing film I’ve been working on, and it’s well received. To be so warmly welcomed so far away from home feels all warm and fuzzy.

            The next day we drive through horrendous traffic back to Jersey, and I get a taste of that aggressive driving they are well known for. Luckily, Clint and Kelly live close to a train station, so our commutes into the city our less dramatic than wondering if I’ll die at the hand of some agro-Jersey motorist.

            It’s nice to have some chill time with my brother; life stretches us apart in this modern world, doesn’t it? We walk around some parks, go shopping for Halloween costumes, and get a drink at a well-lighted place. That night we plan to see if we can get into the Comedy Cellar, the famous comedy joint in Manhattan. I’d been there years before, with the whole family: mom, dad, grandma, aunt, and even some cousins. Now, I come from a conservative, Midwestern family and the material on a Saturday night at ‘The Cellar’ is profane to say the least. The famous comedian Louis C.K. happened to be on stage that night, and while he ranted about the grooming of pubic hair, amongst other things, I tried to block it out of my head that my dear grandmother was sitting right next to me.

            You never know who is going to show up at this club, after all its New York City, and I’m secretly hoping maybe like I’ll get to see Dave Chappelle or Jerry Seinfeld. This night, however, we’re waiting standby behind thirty other people, and we don’t even get in.

             Our backup plan turns into a delicious sushi dinner. Later I learn from Clint and Kelly that you can openly drink on the train ride back home. That sure beats fighting traffic!

            The next day I have a presentation at a climbing gym in Brooklyn. Clint and I walk the streets beforehand, and stroll through a park. I’ve heard so much about Brooklyn, my favorite musicians hail from there, and in my opinion the hip-hop that came out of Brooklyn in the 1990s is the best rap that has ever been created. As they say, Brooklyn goes hard!

            I get a modest turnout at the presentation, and a warm reception. Another success. Later, I learned that Jay Z and Beyoncé were playing just a few blocks away at the Barclay’s Center. While I usually would have lamented missing two incredible artists and being so close, arena shows aren’t exactly my thing.

            The next day was a marathon travel day, flying back to Albuquerque, and then driving back here. I did get to catch the sunset in New Mexico, a pink and orange cascade that just seemed to keep going with me, as the Subaru drove into the sky, back home in time for a few more weeks of this nostalgic, stunning autumn.

This article is published in today's Durango Telegraph.