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 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:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

G & E, The Nice Guys of Hip-Hop

Sometimes the nice guys do finish first. Such is the case with The Grouch and Eligh, a hip-hop duo twenty years in the making, who will be performing at the Animas City Theatre on Tuesday, December 9th.

The Grouch and Eligh are touring in support of their new triple album, “The Tortoise and The Crow”, which is comprised of a solo album by each rapper, and a collaborative album. All in all there are 51 songs, making it one of the most prolific hip-hop projects in the history of the genre.

The project was inspired by one of the most famous rap albums of all time, Speakerboxx/The Love Below by Outkast, released in 2003. “Both of us are huge Outkast fans, and we thought how cool it would have been if they had done a third album together, as a collaboration,” The Grouch said. 

Thus, The Tortoise and The Crow was born. The tortoise refers to The Grouch’s style, slow and calculated, and the crow refers to Eligh’s style, choppy, fast and abstract. “We compliment each other so well, because we’re opposites,” Eligh said. “It’s better than hearing two (rappers) with the same style. We are water and earth.

While their styles are different, content wise, their paths intersect dramatically. Both are introspective and have the souls of poets. They rap about spirituality, yoga, eating healthy, realizing mistakes they have made in the past, relationships, and trying to live in the moment. In short, The Grouch and Eligh destroy the traditional mold that hip-hop is all about violence, misogyny and drugs and alcohol.

“I rap about what is real,” The Grouch said. “I’m out trying to be the best person I can be, and pushing for a more positive life.”

The Grouch, who is married and has a daughter, often raps about his family, and put together a fitting tribute to his newly born daughter on the 2006 track called, “10 fingers, 10 toes, 10 pounds, 10 ounces”. However, as his name suggests, The Grouch wasn’t always happy.

“I grew up in Oakland, California and didn’t have much.” The Grouch said. “There was a lot of frustration. I would be riding the bus cause I couldn’t afford a car, and people would be stealing from me on the bus. ”

The Grouch went to high school with Hieroglyphics and Souls of Mischief, two hip-hop groups that went on to be relatively well known. “We knew we could do something similar,” he said. “But where they had record deals, we did something else with our limited resources. It did make us say “wow” when they were on TV on programs like Rap City.”

The two met at a mutual friends party in 1995, and began making music together shortly after that. In addition to Outkast, the two share early influences like A Tribe Called Quest, another group known for wise lyrics. “For certain rappers it was always important for them to be smart in their raps,” The Grouch said. “To us it’s called droppin’ science or kickin’ jewels.”

“Back in the nineties we had to hustle so much harder then,” Eligh said.

The Grouch, who actually started out producing music before he was a rapper, said the approach was completely different back then. “Everything was a stepping stone,” he said. “Make it (the music) in your house, sell it on the street and get the reaction. First, it was dubbing your own cassettes and making album covers at Kinko’s. Eventually we got more fine tuned and then the opportunities came.”

Last week the tour, dubbed, “How The Grouch Stole Christmas” kicked off in Santa Cruz, California. They are by accompanied by DJ Abilities and The Cunninlynguists. (If the triple album wasn’t enough, they just released a seven song EP with Cunninlynguists titled “WinterFire”. It is available for free on the Bandcamp website.)

The Grouch and Eligh, both note their favorite element of travelling is being on stage and interacting with the audience, many who are half their age. “The road is hard on me, it’s tiring, and stressful,” Eligh said. “But performing, that is the best part, I wish I could just teleport to each show. Come on teleport inventor, hurry up!”

The Grouch and Eligh also shared that Colorado is home to one of their highest, most energetic and faithful fan bases. “It’s always more challenging with the altitude to perform in Colorado,” Eligh said. “But the adrenaline from all the love we get in Colorado drives us, because the people support us more than most. They love us, and we love them, it’s a love affair.”

The Grouch described the feeling of being onstage as one of pure transcendence, “I love when I’m onstage and I am no longer thinking, I’m living purely in the moment. It’s a flow of energy, like a channeling from a place of God knows where. Sometimes Eligh will start a sentence, and I’ll finish it, with no prior rehearsal. That’s my favorite part.”

For more information on the tour visit: Tickets for the show can be purchased at Animas City Theatre. 

This story is published in today's Durango Telegraph.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Boulderites With Balloons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Home Sweet Home, eh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece is published in today's Durango Telegraph

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