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.  

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.”

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Drop Watermelons, Not Bombs

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Hunter S. Thompson made a life and a living off that concept. I was thinking about this just after an incident I had recently at the South City Market parking lot, when a man started cursing at me and hurling watermelons in my direction. I was in such a good mood he didn’t offend me, in fact, inside I was thanking him, he was giving me material.

            I would have been upset with a ten-pound watermelon hurled in my direction, followed by a series of expletives, but I was in a good mood. Late springtime in Durango is my favorite time of year, I was walking on the clouds at that moment.

            Late last month I published my second book, and in the last couple weeks I’ve embarked out into the world to peddle my pages. When my first book was published I compared it to loosing my virginity. And the second one, how does that feel? Well, maybe that I’m just getting better at it, refining my repertoire a little bit, you know taking my time to do it properly, and hitting the right spots.

            I learned a lot on my first book tour, I had several very successful events, and a couple that fell flat on their faces. If you hold an event and no one shows up, well, that is not an event. That’s just sad.

            So, for my first-ever out of state book event, over in neighboring Utah, I teamed up with a fellow writer, climber, and Iraq war veteran, Stacy Bare to present at the Black Diamond Store in Salt Lake City.

            I often feel like a travelling salesmen as a self-published writer. Every bookstore I pass on the road I stop in and give my pitch. I’m not much of a salesman, and when I get rejected it stings, but I’ve learned to appreciate the process. One other valuable lesson: kill ‘em with kindness. I’ve had some shop owners be in a bad mood one day, and not interested, and the next time I come in and follow up they buy some books. And, if the books start selling you’re in there for life; readers cast their votes in bookstores, and to have strangers read my books means they are rooting for me to succeed.

            I do my salesmen thing in Moab, stocking up the stores that carry my work, and swinging by Milt’s for the obligatory burger, fries and strawberry shake. I soak in the nostalgia of this classic piece of Americana, and then it’s off to Salt Lake.

            The title of our presentation is called, “Climb, Die or Go To Jail”. Both Stacy and myself credit climbing with saving our lives. It saved both of us from drugs, depression and even suicide. To listen to Stacy present gives me goose bumps. He fought for our country in Iraq. He came back and was wrought with guilt and depression. He got heavily into alcohol and cocaine, and was on the brink of suicide. And, then someone took him climbing, and he saw a path of healing unfold, a path he is still on to this day.

Stacy Bare flexing in Iraq.
            He is an American hero, who was awarded a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq. In his presentation he talks about war, “The enemy frustratingly looks a lot like you do. He has two legs, two arms, a head and neck. It makes the act of violence, or watching the acts of violence, a bit more difficult to stomach.”

            And he talks about coming back from war, “For the record, showing pictures of eagles in front of the American flag, playing Lee Greenwood’s greatest hits, or buying free shots for every kid you see with a short hair cut in an airport bar, does not translate into an effective welcome home.”

            On the stage Stacy is an open book, he speaks the truth and his sense of humor and spirit prevail over the sadness. He inspires me to speak my truth, and open up my own pain so that others can learn from it.

            The next day Stacy has cleared his schedule to climb. We swap stories of life like people do. He tells me how he proposed to his wife. “I did it right here at this stoplight,” he explains. “I was so excited I couldn’t wait. The light was red and I just looked over and said will you marry me? She said yes, and we skied the entire day. It was awesome.”

            He tells me of a Shaman he is seeing to help heal the wounds of war and life. He’s sober now, entirely off drugs and alcohol. He is a beaming light of life. Oh, and did I mention he is 6’8” and 250 pounds?

            Even though Stacy is built more like a professional football player than a climber, he loves it. I mean the stoke of climbing flows through his veins. To belay him, I tie myself off to a tree with the rope. If I didn’t I would fly up in the air every time he fell. We climb the day away in the granite refuge of Little Cottonwood Canyon, and make plans for big trips in the future, like outdoor people always do.

            I retrace the road, leading back home. The day is perfect in Durango, everything seems to be blooming, the river is alive with boaters, and everyone is out and about. I go over to a friend’s birthday party, have a drink in a dimly lit bar with some great conversation, and decide it’s time to call it a night. I take a glance at my watch and the grocery store is still open. Perfect.
            I do my shopping, and head out of the store towards my bike, and begin to unlock it. And then I see the guy. He’s stumbling and cursing, and I think to myself, ‘This is going to be interesting’. He throws some non-descript item into the parking lot and then heads for the giant bin of watermelons. He hurls one into the lot, and it smashes into a hundred pieces. Then he sees me, and yells, “F*** you”, in a way only a blacked out drunk person can.

            Then he picks up a watermelon and hurls it at me. I swerve like a kid in dodge ball and it misses me. Too drunk to even recognize what he’s done, I leave him out there and go into the store to alert the employees what’s going on out in the parking lot. After a minute of explanation, we go out to the parking lot. Like a vapor, he is gone. There was nothing but remnants of shattered watermelons. I was hoping to help the guy out, for some people on a bad night a jail cell is probably the best place they could end up. But, alas, he was gone, and I peddled on into the warm, luscious, spring night. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Technocamping With A Manhattanite

Annunaki, 5.11+, Optimator Wall, photo by Braden Gunem
“So what’s the showering situation like out there?” my brother asked.

            Clint was visiting from New York City and we were headed towards Indian Creek, his first time to the red rock desert of Utah. I informed him he wouldn’t be showering for a few days.

            “I’ve never gone three days without showering,” Clint replied. “It will be a new record.”

            I’m relieved my brother is okay with the lack of access to showering, and then I fill him in on more of the standard practices of desert camping.

            Two days in he’s enjoying the time in the desert as much as I am, but it’s new to him, so maybe he’s enjoying it even more.  I’m reveling in the fact that there’s no access to email out here, technocamping, it’s called as I recently learned on Urban Dictionary; getting away from technology for a while.
            So we technocamp, and climb, and don’t shower for a couple days, and the sun in shining and life is simple and perfect like it always is when the sky is blue and the desert is green. Aside from a late night incident when a random dude from Jackson Hole doused our fire with a bottle of gasoline, sending flames directly in our faces, everything is going fine.

On our third day, our last in the desert, we decide to climb the South Six Shooter, a tower. It’s also my friend Chad’s birthday, the big 30. Two other friends tag along as well, a professional photographer and another climbing buddy who has never climbed a tower. “I want to drink beers on the summit,” Chad declared.

Chad rapping off the South Six Shooter
            I don’t usually drink beer on the top of a rock tower, but when I do it is with Chad. It’s a weird tradition he started a few years back, and it’s actually quite enjoyable. Beer tastes better on top of a rock, who would have known? Though the last time we did it Chad’s dog decided to take off, and it got lost for three days in the desert. We decide we’ll keep a better eye on the dog this time.

            Chad has seen a lot in his 30 years, he’s a veteran who got his leg blown off in Iraq. You don’t meet too many climbers who are missing a leg, but Chad seems to get by just fine. He’s got a foot designed specifically for climbing, and an attitude of improvisation. He faces many unique challenges in climbing, one of which is: don’t drop your foot.

            After navigating our vehicles through some minor four-wheel driving we arrived at the trailhead. Some Europeans show up just after us and check out the scene. You can always tell Euro climbers apart from Americans. With this group it’s the large man who is wearing nothing but purple underwear and smoking a cigarette. The group mumbles some comment to us, and then takes off in the rental car. Too crowded, they must have been thinking.

            So with that, the entire group: six people and two dogs start hiking up the trail. We stop often to hoist the dogs up in sections they can’t climb. Braden, the photographer, is always stopping, trying to get that perfect angle for that perfect photo. Like Chad, Braden possesses an internal creativity for improvisation to get what he needs. Once, to get the right lighting in a photo he suggested we light a mini-Molotov cocktail and hang it outside of my car. We did, and he got the photo. It was awesome.

            At a large flat area just before the talus cone up to the tower we leave the dogs with Chad’s girlfriend, who is more psyched to chill than climb. Then the five of us march up the talus cone to the tower.

            We devise a system for our party of five to climb on two ropes. We progress up the tower nicely. I’m leading and feel the responsibilities of a guide. Plus, my brother’s life is in my hands, and if anything happens to him there are two women who might kill me: his wife and our mother.

            I vicariously experience the tower through his movements and expressions, the thrutching the rational fear that accompanies climbing. I’m perfectly at home in this environment, but to him it’s the complete opposite of his everyday life in New York City.

            Soon we hear another party behind us, yelling and cracking jokes like most climbers do. And it sounds like a large group, maybe four people. Chad’s dream for a beer drinking party on the summit may be larger than he imagined.

            We arrive on the summit, with a view fit for a king on a Monday. Tips of several mountain ranges emerge, with more towers and canyons of red rock in every direction. The beer does taste better. I am enjoying myself, but I’m also in guide mode, and responsible for my brother’s life. I stop drinking after a few celebratory sips.

            The party behind us finally catches up, and we coordinate plans to slowly wind down the celebration so they can enjoy the summit themselves. The leader of the group even agrees to build an anchor for my brother as I lower him from the summit to a ledge, strangers helping strangers.

Yours truly hucking the ropes. Photo by Braden Gunem
            I rappel down to my brother, double check his safety and then start chatting with the nearby party. Two of them have reached the top now, and we are sharing a ledge with the other two. I find out they are from Jackson Hole. And then it hits me: the leader of the party is the same guy who threw the bottle of gasoline in our fire two nights before!

            My other friends rappel down from the summit, and I share this information with them. Back on the ground, we talk about the incident some more, “You know that guy was really reckless with that gasoline, we should mess with him.”

            Without further comment Braden grabs three large rocks and gently stuffs them inside the largest pack, the one we assume to be his because he has all the gear. And, with that gesture, we quickly sneak away down the trail, back to the car, and then back to Durango, for some much needed showers. 

This article was published in last week's Durango Telegraph.