Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Peter Pan Complex/Hammertime Love Letter to Durango

In between the time I write this and when it’s published, I’ll turn 35 years old. Also, my driver’s license expires, something I realized just before I was about to get out of town, and back to climbing in the desert.

As I was walking into the DMV I suddenly remembered what I’d done to my hair two days before: replicated my favorite 90s pop hero MC Hammer’s hairdo. The bottom layer of my hair has three distinct lines shaven into it, and the top is a white boy’s attempt at a flat top. Why did I do this? Well, each year for Thanksgiving my crew of friends unites in the desert to climb, party and feast, and of course as any proud Durangatang would, I show up in costume, and this year, well, let’s just say its going to be Hammertime.

Photo by Mike A Shaw
So, with this decision, I’ve extended my immaturity for the next ten years, sealed in my driver’s license photo, which is fitting because I get carded regularly, and most people when they ask are surprised by my age. And, I must say if I’m going to extend my Peter Pan complex into my mid-forties, there’s not a better place than Durango. Well, at least for someone who loves costumes.

Three years ago I moved to Durango on a whim, a yearning for a change of direction in life. I was becoming too serious, spending too much time in an office, and tired of the politics that accompany such lifestyles. I wanted to be broke again, to write like a broke writer does, to explore once and for all if I had what it took to become an artist, and not simply one who eats by the copy he writes. I’d yet to have a family to support, and been close enough to love to know that such things come into a person’s life along with love. If I was going to try, and really fly with it, it had to be then, or never. A writer must build his house of words over years, decades, a lifetime.

So here I am three years later, and, well, I’m writing. I haven’t written my masterpiece, though at moments its been sketched in a journal at a coffeeshop, or told through whispering sweet nothings to a ladyfriend at a dimly lit bar when both of us had just enough to drink. A dream is only a dream until it is told to a lover, then it has been born. It is up to the dreamer to keep it alive. It is up to the writer to not spend too much time drinking and dreaming, just enough. And the love holds it all together.

As part of my morning routine I always check the website of two newspapers: the Durango Herald, and the New York Times. I get the facts, but what I’m looking for is some soul, someone who has a way with words to tell me a story. Then, in the Times, I came across, “The Long Goodbye” an article documenting fifty years of writers saying so long to New York, usually leaving with dreams unfulfilled. It compared the romantic vision being a writer in the city, with the reality. And then I realized, the town I chose to live out my early thirty something writing dreams has not only fulfilled those dreams, but it has become home.

Home. A writer needs adventure, and just as much he needs a home. And, when did this transition occur? Was it in the early morning light, on the rocks, with my tribe of people, the climbers, all searching together for the same damn thing, that thing that transforms us where the rock and climber weave and dance. Was it through art, where people, faces from the town become names, friends, and we tell our stories to one another; the medium where I went from being “vanilla rooibos tea guy” to my name to the baristas at my favorite coffeeshop. The joy of discovery to learn that nearly every waitress is not merely a waitress, there is often an artist and a dream that lies beneath the apron.

This junction of mountain and desert, as I try to write about it now I’m getting too close, its time to get out in the fresh air, and experience it. Why this is home is beyond me. It was left up to the stars and the moons years ago, and I suppose I’m reuniting, instead of creating. The stars of the night have their answers, don’t they? Human will versus destiny, it has to be a flow and not a fight.

So am I Peter Pan, MC Hammer, or a portrait of an artist as a young man? A piece of each I assume, though I suspect for the next ten years my Colorado identification will scream “Stop…Hammertime”. I can only hope I’ll continue to get carded.  

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Naked In The Desert

While I was on the road recently I met an artist whose favorite muse was the naked body. I was intrigued, first, because she was a beautiful thirty-something woman, from Aspen of all places, but on a deeper level it made me ponder why. I’ve later thought about how writers get naked.

I left on this road trip not wanting to leave. I was on a roll. I was in the zone writing, and working a bunch at my night job. Saving my pennies, something I’ve never been too good at. But, I’d planned to do some book readings, and hoped to squeeze in some climbing too. It was too late to bail. So off I went, out of my comfort zone of home, onto the road.

I was rolling solo but there’s this buddy of mine that always comes with, my ego. This jabbering monkey is always whispering sweet nothings of how great I am, or breaking down and telling me I’ll never make it. Both are voices of delusion.

My first presentation in Fort Collins was a bust. Four people showed up. I read from my book anyways, trying to hide my disappointment. I’d driven eight hours that day and only ended up selling one book.

The next day was windy and cold and I drove down to Golden to meet my friend Alexis for breakfast. A brilliant and talented artist who recently relocated to the Front Range from Durango, Alexis moved there just before the big flood hit. The flood caused all sorts of complications for her living situation, and now just a couple months after moving into a new place, she already had to relocate. She told her story as a metaphor; she had a positive attitude, the struggle being the blessing.

I was frustrated and flustered, cities always make me flustered. Already I wanted to be back home. In that diner there was a part of home, a true friend, willing to bend her ear, and tell me the words I needed to hear to continue living the dream. “Someday you’ll look back and miss these days,” she said.

With a cup of warm tea my heart and spirit warmed up and I hustled the streets of Golden and Boulder, going into gearshops and selling a few books and zines. The dream alive for another day, then it was back on the road.

The road ultimately led to the red rock desert, where my dreams are always reborn. When success eludes me, love fails, or I’m searching for answers the desert provides. I’ve been on a six-month hiatus without much difficult climbing, a result of an injured finger. During this time there’s been more questions than answers, accidents in our climbing community resulting in some serious injuries, I watched a dead body get plucked off El Capitan in Yosemite, and had another friend die in a climbing accident. Wondering, will I continue on this path?

Castle Valley answers. Perfect towers up to four hundred feet tall, castles made of sand, some divine force that sculpted something so perfect I can’t help but be drawn towards them. I join my climbing partner there and we lay out camp. Home.

My mood changes, and I think differently. I’m no longer concerned with money, progress or success; I am in the desert to reconcile with climbing. My energy to climb builds until I can’t contain it, then every fiber of my being is engaged in the fight. I dress my body for the battle. Pants, a long sleeve shirt, taped hands and hardware to protect the crack. My climbing partner smokes cigarettes. I hate cigarettes. It’s like the old west, something raw, exposed in the elements of the desert, seeing what surfaces.

I can’t back down from the battle. I squeeze my body into the crack, inching upwards for progress. Then it swallows me, I sink down in fear. What the fuck am I doing? If I fall here its all over… I get it together and continue to inch up. Finally, I reach the top of the pitch. I look down to my knot and the rope is nearly sliced in half. Despair. My partner joins me on the ledge. We bail, the rest of the climb will wait for another day, month or year. Then the ropes get stuck after we rappel. We must return the following day.

We return, against our own will, but for the better good of our souls. One point in the climb involves a true leap of faith. Chimney-ing between two walls of the rock, it widens. There must be a commitment to step across the void to some half-inch edges. Complete and utter focus and surrender. We succeed, on the top, the summit, the red rock towers lead into snow capped mountains, into the blue sky.

That feeling is back. Mastery over the doubt that is always creeping up. Adrenaline. Feeling I’ve fought another day and emerged victorious.

We go into Moab. The land of warm beer. Perhaps Colorado should liberate Utah from its Mormon Stronghold and absurd laws. I love the desert, but the Mormon culture that surrounds it freaks me out. Time to drive back towards that “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign, and be home again.

First I return to the Front Range again for another presentation. It’s in Longmont, I traverse the interstate back to where my travels began. Not a single person shows up for the presentation. I manage to sell one book to a guy who climbed once. He tells me his story, and describes a glorious peanut butter and jelly sandwich, with legs dangling above the void. Sounds about right.

“There’s no success like failure, and failures no success at all,” Dylan said it best. The things that made me feel good are not measurable in the context of society. Thinking that pouring my heart and soul into words to become successful is simply delusional. Success and money won’t make me happy. Give me more struggle, aching muscles, and glorious, meaningless victories. Let me stand naked with my words, knowing I’m crafting my art because I love it, and for no other reason. And, when it’s time, take me back to the desert. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Rollerblade Guy and Other Awesome Randomness

The older you get, the more you realize how precious life is, and the more you appreciate the little things. And sometimes the universe just throws you a little gift, a little nugget that makes you say, “Yes, today is a good day to be alive.”

            This is exactly what happened the other day. I don’t know if I was down in the dumps or not, or if it was one of those days I was just being mechanical, going through the motions, but I needed a lift, a boost.  

It was a cool autumn day and I was walking through the Fort Lewis College campus, over to their library to drop off a couple of my books that they’d purchased. I was dressed like most people were on a brisk fall day, wearing pants and a light jacket.

All of the sudden a rollerblader, daintily clad in nothing but short shorts and sun tan oil comes out of nowhere, and speeds by the crowd. Wow! Thank you universe, I said to myself. That was the pick me up I needed, I haven’t seen anyone that stoked on rollerblading since I was a teenager.

            Why are human beings so weird? I really don’t know, but I do like to make fun of them. It’s a pastime, and if making fun of people is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
            Lately I’ve been working out at the gym. I’ve had some overuse injuries from climbing, and haven’t been able to do it, and obsess over it as much as I normally do, so I’m switching it up. My friend showed me a workout routine of hers, and it keeps the blood flowing, and makes me feel good.

            Gyms are funny places, a mix of folks trying to maintain the fitness they have, those trying to shed a few pounds, retired folks keeping at it, and then you have the gym guys. Some rarely ever smile. They are very serious.

            My favorite part about the gym guys is not the extreme exertion, the yelling and grunting with they pump their iron, it is the strut, sometimes accompanied by a very unique kind of heavy breathing. First, they lift the weight. While everyone else is doing a mild workout, keeping the background noise to a minimum, out of nowhere there is this noise. It sounds like a mixture of someone giving birth and reaching a masochistic form of orgasm. While, I’m putting a 15 pound weight in the air that barely effects my breathing, these guys are going for it!

They lift the weight, and then comes the strut. It’s led by the chest, with them looking in every direction with their short necks to show, I am the alpha male in this place.

Then the breathing, is he struggling to breathe, I wonder? Because the only other creature I’ve heard breathe like this is hog I took care of on a farm one time. Should I call help, grab someone’s inhaler and hand it to him? No, he appears to be fine, this is just his thing. And, now after many trips to the gym, it’s all just part of the experience.

            I used to be one of those people that was threatened by muscle men. I’m an averaged sized guy, with only slightly bulging forearms from years of climbing, something that might be as silly as weight lifting. But, later in life, I’m not threatened; I respect anyone who has passion. That’s what’s missing from modern life, passion! On a daily basis I see so many people who don’t have it. That “same shit, different day” mentality. This is it, this is all we have, it’s going to be gone soon, seize the day, the moment, but I digress.

            Okay so by now I’ve pissed some readers off, you’re a rollerblader, or a weightlifter and I’m exaggerating and playing on stereotypes. Maybe you’re a weighlifter who rollerblades to the gym? That would be siiiiiiiiick. Can you please call me and let me know so we can workout together? But, now for balanced journalism, I need to turn the tables on myself.

            I’m one of those “gluten-free” people. It took me a while to realize it because I was too busy making fun of the gluten free craze. Then, shit, I realized I am in fact, sensitive to gluten. It makes weird things happen in my stomach, and I fart in my sleep, which is no good.

Now, all of the sudden I have to ask weird questions in restaurants, and I feel like one of those people that orders triple soy, non-fat, pumpkins spice lattes. I’ve worked in the service industry off and on since I was 16, and the last thing I ever want to be is a problem customer. But there I am, asking if they have gluten free bread, or if I can get my salad without croutons.

            Good news is there are options for us. But they are tiny. A gluten free sandwich can usually fit in the palm of your hands. And when you order gluten free bread, they are smug and say, “You know it’s really small, right?” Yes, I know, I say shamefully and then eat my mini-size sandwich and feel inferior.

            Luckily there’s gluten free beer too. Sure its like $11.69 a six-pack for no justified reason, but it’s beer, and like Ben Franklin once said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”. So apparently God still loves gluten free beer lovers as well.  

            While I’m addressing my own shortcomings, let me drop some knowledge I learned the hard way: showering is awesome! When I was 20, I used to be a hardcore hippie-dirtbag and only showered when I wasn’t really high. Which was like once a week. And I gained a reputation for it with the ladies. My friends that were girls talked about it amongst themselves, something I learned many years later after I changed my ways.

            I know, you’re in college and you moved to Colorado and you smoke weed 24-7 and you have a hemp necklace. That’s great. But why not hop in the shower every day? It feels so good, and you can even get some of that Dr. Bronners soap, fair-trade certified, which will make you feel even better. If there’s one modern technology that is accessible and underutilized by hippies and dirtbags everywhere it is the shower. Just try it.

            Gosh, I feel like I’m just getting started. There are so many other things I wanted to address: sagging with skinny jeans, stocking caps in summer, and the overuse of the word “like”. But, um, like, I’m running out of time and words and I need to get to the gym. Now, where are my rollerblades? 

Monday, September 9, 2013

K-Bone and The End of a Journal

I am finishing a journal today, one that has recorded some of my deepest thoughts at times, and at others, just a place to vent. I think I'm going to take this blog down soon as well, and replace it with a new site. Many of the stories that originally were published here are going to end up in my next book, The Great American Dirtbags, slated for release later this year.

The last thing I'm writing about in the journal is the passing of my friend Kevin Volkening aka "K-Bone". He died in a climbing accident in Clark's Fork, Wyoming on August 30th. I found out about his passing while mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed, and was shocked. I'd just hung out with him weeks before at the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, and met his wife, Marge.

Death is a difficult thing to write about, and I'm making sure I write down some of my brief memories of Kevin; he was a kind man, a light, the kind of person you would point to as the example of a great climber.

Here's the words I got on paper: A Legend Passes On

Additionally, here are a few articles I've found online that I'd like to share and a couple photos I took of him while hanging last month at Outdoor Retailer, featuring his great spirit wolf shirts, that he would wear every Friday.

In Loving Memory of Kevin Volkening on Black Diamond's website

Lewiston Tribute Obituary

Article from Rock and Ice

Kevin's blog, A Vertical Life, In A Horizontal World

(L-R) Shaun, Kevin and Marge.

K-Bone's "spirit shirt" 


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Freedom Photographers in Afghanistan

Alexandria Bombach travelled to Kabul, Afghanistan last year, and says she’s never experienced more hospitality. Bombach, a 27 year-old filmmaker and former Durango resident, went to Afghanistan in search of stories to tell, and came back with a gem: the blossoming, and endangered art of photography in the war torn country.

Bombach shooting in Afghanistan. photo by Mo Scarpelli
Now she’s trying to return to the country, with a Kickstarter campaign to fund, “Frame by Frame” her first feature film project, with another adventurous female cinematographer Mo Scarpelli.       

Bombach credits her time in Durango for her sense of adventure, and career in film. A 2008 graduate of Fort Lewis College, she started making videos late in her collegiate career and worked as an intern at Osprey Packs, over in Cortez, where she was introduced to the outdoor industry. Shortly after she founded the production company Red Reel films, which will produce “Frame by Frame”. In 2011 Bombach hit the road with her popular short film “23 Feet”, about people who live simply in order to follow their outdoor pursuits. She’s been on the road ever since.

“After I left Durango I was never in the same place for more than three days that year,” Bombach says. “I lived out of an Airstream trailer for a while, and now I just live out of my suitcase.”

While working on a series of short films about movers and shakers of social and environmental change called MoveShake, she came across some rough footage of the streets of Kabul. A light bulb went off: she wanted to make a film in Afghanistan. “We as (civilian) Americans only see the perception of the country through one media lens,” she explains. “Mo Scarpelli and I wanted to go down there and make a character driven film.”

Although she was nervous and didn’t know what she would find Bombach booked a flight to Afghanistan and found her characters within the community of photojournalists. Photography was banned in the country from 1996 to 2001, while Afghanistan was under the rule of the Taliban. Now, it is everywhere in Kabul. However with the planned troop withdrawal at the end of 2014, accompanied with inevitable withdrawal of the international media, it is uncertain what will happen, and if the Taliban might regain control of the country and the media.

 “The situation in Afghanistan changes everyday,” Bombach says. “A lot of Afghans say it’s going to be fine after 2014, but there’s also been a huge reliance on the Western media for jobs. People that help the Western media are seen as possible targets for the Taliban. No one really knows what is going to happen.”

The uncertainty is all part of the process, according to Bombach. “We knew we would focus on a character driven film, and we knew we wanted to tell a human story, not a media driven story.”

In “Frame by Frame” they are focusing on four Afghan photographers, among them Najibullah Musater, a man in his fifties, who illegally shot photography while the Taliban was still in power. “He is this person who is just like our Dad, a great wonderful human being.”

Other characters include Farzana Wahidy, one of the only female Afghan photojournalists, and Massoud Hossaini, a Pulitzer Prize winner.

While filming in Kabul and the surrounding areas Bombach dressed in the traditional clothing of the region: wearing a scarf over her head, and a long dress. She described the area as wonderful, with a strong sense of hospitality. “Everywhere we went people were inviting us in for a cup of tea,” she shares.

Still, she felt the reality of violence that is still prevalent in Afghanistan. While shooting footage in a mosque in Kabul during Eid (their holiday similar to our Christmas) a suicide bomber attacked another mosque in the country where 40 people died. “That was an eye opener, it was only the second day we were there,” Bombach shares. “But with filmmaking I have to keep my eyes on the prize. There’s a quote from journalist, Sebastian Junger, ‘the only time you are afraid is when you don’t have something to do,’ that holds true for me.”

After returning to the United States, Bombach and Scarpelli realized they needed more footage to give “Frame by Frame” justice. They turned to Kickstarter, a fundraising website, that offers various rewards to backers, based on the donations they make to the project. Contributions can be as little as one dollar. They set a goal of $40,000, which must be met by Thursday, August 29th. The outpouring of support has been more than encouraging so far.

 “It takes a community to make a film,” she says. “Kickstarter is great to reach that community, and interact. In addition to donations we’ve had people contact us to provide music and other services.”

If all goes as planned Bombach and Scarpelli will travel back to Afghanistan for five weeks later this year. “The support from Kickstarter will allow us to get back there and film,” Bombach explains. “All the money will go to production costs, it’s a really expensive place to film.”

While the story evolves and changes, Bombach’s goal remains the same. “If this film changes one person’s mind for the better about Afghanistan, then it will be all worth it.”

To watch the trailer for “Frame by Frame” and support the Kickstarter campaign visit:

This story appears in today's Durango Telegraph. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Bromance

Just The Four of Us, The Bromance

This article appears in today's Durango Telegraph. 

          Romance is an essential part of life, the story of the world revolves around it, and many great men have fallen to their knees for a beautiful woman, and vice versa. Love makes us strong and it makes us weak. Thus, there are thousands of novels about it, and even an entire genre, The Romance Novel. I want to take it one step further, and introduce The Bromance Novel.  

            As I’m writing this, the computer program is underlining bromance, not recognizing the term. Silly computer. It’s okay though Microsoft Word, bromance is a relatively new concept, and I forgive you.

            Bromances are beautiful because you can have many of them at the same time. No one is going to get jealous. You could start a bromance on the trail, at the bar, or even on the street. It’s a connection thing: the recognition that you are a dude and so am I, as pure as the kid looking for someone to play with in the neighborhood. We men are simple creatures, and unlike a romance, your potential partner in bromance isn’t likely to analyze you to no end upon meeting. He just wants a buddy, and you can never have too many buddies.

            A couple weeks ago, fresh off of a breakup with my last girlfriend, I was in need of some serious bro time. Fortunately, three of my best buds were in need of the same. It was Tim’s birthday, and a Sunday, which is the day we try to set aside to go running for our unofficial and nonexclusive Sunday Running Club. An unusual morning rainstorm was ensuing, but instead of bailing we rallied and headed up to the mountains.

            We packed up my Subaru and drove towards Engineer Mountain, our objective for the day. Tim was turning 37, and he wanted to commemorate the day with athletic feats, plus a multitude of high-fives, which I’ll get into here shortly. Long gone are the days of binge drinking to celebrate birthdays, we prefer endorphins.

            I swear my car already started to smell the minute four dudes packed into it. We’d yet to break a sweat, but somehow an air of dude overcame the entire confines of the Subaru. On the drive up, we chat about our relationships, and offer advice. Most are on the prowl, while I’m reeling from a breakup. My homies hear me out, and I appreciate them for that. The bromance meter is ticking up.

            The rain continues to pour. We could bail, but the bromance level would dip down, so we throw on some rain jackets, strap up our running shoes, put our man pants on and start jogging up.

            The rain alternates between drizzle and downpour, yet we march on. We speak in the language of bromance: shouting, laughing and farting. An hour into the run and we are close to the summit. Two weeks ago we were shut down by bad weather, and it happens again. It was not our day for the Mighty Engineer Mountain. Jonathan has summit fever but we talk some sense into him. “It’s not a time for heroics up here buddy,” Al says, persuading him to go down by sweet-talking him into getting some grub at our favorite breakfast joint.

            Back in my car we are muddy and sweaty, and the stench of my car already equals a weeklong road trip. Ewwww…downfalls of the bromance. We beeline it straight to breakfast, and get our name in for the expected twenty minute wait. While loitering in the parking lot, we decide to do pushups. Tim cranks out 37, and then high-fives us. Only 34 more high-fives to go.

            We take a siesta at Jonathan’s, watching the latest climbing movies, cultivating some man-crushes. “Alex Honnold, so hot right now,” Al says. Honnold is the star of the climbing world right now. He climbs stuff without a rope that we can’t even do with a rope. His National Geographic cover shot, and an appearance on “60 Minutes” has solidified a level of stardom that no rock climber before him has attained. We also watch a film about Himalayan alpine climbing, where they smoke cigarettes at night in a portaledge (a hanging tent used for climbing) to curb their hunger. Bromance taken too far, if you ask me. We encourage Tim as he cranks out 37 pull-ups and 37 sit-ups.

            It was time to complete the high-five challenge. Off to City Market, and we spread the stoke of bromance. Tim approaches strangers for high-fives, and every single one smiles and obliges. What a town! With his 37th high-five of the day the mission is complete. What do we do now? Go rock climbing of course. The rain has subsided and there’s nothing more bromantical than a multi-sport day.

            After dangling on overhanging limestone during a slight drizzle, we are spent, and retire downtown for dinner. Tim’s birthday challenge is complete, and Jonathan says he feels like he just had a weekend getaway in his own town. The beauty of Durango baby!

            We all go our respective ways, you can’t take the bromance home with you, but you can take home the memories. Socks, shoes, and all sort of disgusting remains get left in my car, and I spend a week airing it out and trying to find the proper owners of said filth.

There are downfalls of the bromance for sure, which reminds me that these days of bromantical bliss won’t last forever. I’ll find romance again, which will take time away from these sweet nothings of bromance. And, maybe someday when I’m older, hopefully as a writer-househusband who takes care of the cat, dog and houseplants, I’ll record more of these moments into a best selling bromance novel.

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