Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Teary Narrative

All you need is hugs 
“I almost started crying,” my friend Brittney told me after last weekend’s Raven Narratives storytelling event at the Durango Arts Center.

Shit, I cried tears during most of those stories, I thought to myself.

I’ll admit, I tend to cry a lot in certain situations. You could say I’m cry-y. That doesn’t read that well, but you get it, there are times when I just know I’m going to cry. Oftentimes it’s alone in my car listening to some epic Bob Dylan love song but it also happens in the form of stories, real stories. I rarely cry in the movies, but read me a touching true story, some poetry or a love song, and there I go.

This last weekend I cried a lot.

This was the first weekend this spring that I wasn’t in the desert or in Durango working. I had my friends Brian and Brittney in town so I vowed we would have a very Durango weekend. I just didn’t exactly know what that would entail.

Brian and I both love Seinfeld, so when he walked into my work on Friday and got in line to get some food, I immediately told him, “No soup for you!”

That night we stayed up until one in the morning watching Seinfeld, and then in the morning we headed over to my favorite breakfast joint, the College Drive CafĂ©. It was predictably tasty and the wait staff friendly. The day was off to a good start. Naturally, we headed over to the farmer’s market afterward, to see who we could see and pick up some fresh greens.

Then I got a text from Brittney’s husband Dave: Bunt got hurt kayaking and broke his femur in five spots. (For those who keep up on the FB or the paper, yes, he was that kayaker. The one who was rescued from Vallecito on Friday.)

Evan Bunt is a friend from a long time ago. I met him when he was a young crusher in his high school days up in Gunnison. He is a very Colorado kinda guy, a badass in so many outdoor activities it’s hard to put him into a category of what he is best at – whether it be skiing, biking, climbing or kayaking. He’s also one of the most polite, friendly human beings you’ll ever meet.

These kinds of messages delivering news of an accident are too routine for us lovers of outdoor sports. They are part of the deal. Going big in wild places usually provides us with the best days of our lives, but occasionally they deliver the worst days as well.

A broken femur is way better than a lost life though. I held thoughts of Evan close to my heart that day as we continued our tour of Durango. A mountain bike ride through Test Tracks, over to Horse Gulch, a quick stop into Ska, and a nice dinner led up to The Raven Narratives at the Arts Center.

I’d been excited about this ever since I first met the charming and passionate Sarah Syverson, who along with Tom Yoder created the storytelling event. It was made up of all local storytellers, and the theme for this series was “baggage.” Needless to say, it got deep. There were stories of love lost, parents lost, hearts found, identities rediscovered, addiction, bribery and even a tale of two lambs rescued on the side of a highway. To say I was impressed would be a major understatement. I cried a lot.

The following morning, Brittney rallied me to visit Evan in the hospital. He’d just had surgery, complete with a titanium rod. The minute we walked in, Evan looked at us, said our names and started crying. “Thank you, I love you guys,” he said.

We told him we loved him, too. His parents were there by his side. There was a deep feeling of intimacy, seeing our friend at his lowest. Yet, his spirit was strong; there was a feeling of power coming from his third eye, and his soul.

He told us what happened, he wasn’t even in his boat; he’d slipped off a cliff and landed on a rock in the water. His kayaking partner cared for him in the cold water for five hours until help arrived and got him out of there.

When he was done telling us his story, a nurse came in and performed a Reiki-like ceremony. She asked us to help, gently putting our hands on his leg and sending him healing energy. Sometimes, we forget how much we rely on the energy of our friends and family and how essential that support is.

When the nurse left, she put on a recording with some positive mantras, and we all sat there absorbing the words, and sending Evan healing energy. Then after a few rounds, Evan slowly moved up and turned it off. We talked a bit longer before the doctor came in and we learned of the milestones for the day: getting the catheter out, peeing on his own, and perhaps taking a shower. In a couple days, he’d be released. The mood seemed heavy, but Evan was optimistic.

Then, just as we were getting ready to leave, his buddy Dan and his family showed up. Right away Dan lightened the mood, “So … I hear you’re getting back into kayaking.”

We left with a logistically awkward but important hospital bed hug. I felt deeply moved by Evan’s spirit and humility. My day was changed for the better, and for the second time in as many days, I was moved to tears. But beyond that, I felt a connectedness to Evan, his parents, my friends and family – the realization we are nothing without the people in our lives who love us.

When I was younger and friends got get hurt, or even worse, killed, I contemplated if I would continue these risky activities. These days, I don’t go through that anymore. Everything in life has a certain risk to it, and we just have to accept that. I won’t quit adventuring in the wild, and I doubt Evan will either. Some of us just have it wired into who we are.

Later that day we went climbing. Even there, I realized the gift Evan had given me – to appreciate the moment and my surroundings. And, on the rock, at one point I closed my eyes and saw Evan’s face: positive, strong and encouraging. I felt his energy, and I hope he felt mine.

Then I thought about how powerful the weekend was, I thought it was just going to be a chill weekend at home, but through the tears that I cried I realized I’d seen things in a different light. And I feel closer than every to this community, and the people who also call it home.

This piece was originally published in today's Durango Telegraph. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Moth meets The Raven

It was a story of the wolf re-introduction to Yellowstone National Park that wholeheartedly confirmed Sarah Syverson’s notion that starting the Raven Narratives was a good idea. Syverson, who along with Tom Yoder, started the storytelling event earlier this year; this weekend they will host two performances on Friday and Saturday, in Cortez and Durango respectively.

            Syverson’s face becomes illuminated when she recalls Steve Underwood’s story from the inaugural Raven Narratives event about the wolves in Yellowstone. Underwood, who is currently the fire chief at Mesa Verde National Park, was part of the crew who facilitated the controversial reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone in the mid-nineties. It was so contentious they shipped the wolves in during the nighttime had a decoy vehicle to ploy angry ranchers who might try to disrupt the process. Later, as the wolves were transported into a truck they realized the alpha wolf had chewed through the bombproof cage, and had escaped.

            It’s these sort of stories Syverson and Yoder knew were out there in the residents of our Four Corners region, they just needed to provide a platform. Both longtime fans of The Moth, a storytelling event and podcast based out of New York City, the inspiration came a little closer to home when Yoder attended a Moth event at last year’s Telluride Mountainfilm. After that Yoder knew he wanted to start something and quickly turned to Syverson and together they created the Raven Narratives.

            The format is simple: a quarterly event, with eight people telling stories around ten minutes each, told without notes, and each time there’s a different them. This time the theme is baggage.

            Syverson, a playwright and director, who lives in Mancos, was more than pleased with the inaugural events, which were hosted at the Sunflower Theatre in Cortez and the Durango Arts Center here in town. “They were so powerful, I just can’t get over it,” she said.

            Syverson is also a huge fan of The Moth, but what she loves about the Raven Narratives is the local flavor and the fact that many of the stories are set in wild places, something that sets their event apart from The Moth. “There’s a different flavor in the stories set in wilderness versus urban environments,” she said. “There’s a beauty that comes along with our landscape that really translates well into stories.”

            Something both Yoder and Syverson recognize is the desire for an authentic, human story told in person. “This is a commonality that is in the DNA of the human being,” Yoder said. “It runs really deep, we have been telling stories in front of campfires for as long as humanity has existed.”

            Yoder himself will be one of eight storytellers this weekend, and he’s mentally preparing for the piece, which involves exposing some baggage from events that happened in his childhood. He wants to understand the process of telling the story so that he can help others with their own at events in the future. He also wants to embrace the sort of vulnerability he likes to see out of a good story, something not always found in the modern day-to-day existence. “That is where our commonality is as human beings,” he said. “But I’m also going through this oh-my-God moment that I’m about to put this story out there. It takes courage. The intimacy of this event is a big part of why it’s so appealing.”

            Even though the inaugural weekend was sold out, the Raven Narratives kept the same, intimate venues for the follow up. Keeping the crowd small and close is a big part of why it was so successful the first time around. “I don’t know if it would really work with hundreds and hundreds of people,” Yoder said.

            Each event is turned into a podcast available afterwards on iTunes, Soundcloud and other free media outlets. The radio station, KSJD out of Cortez, where Yoder works as a Program Director also provides essential resources. Ticket sales help offset some of the costs, but overall the Raven Narratives is a labor of love for our community. “The storytelling creates a true sense of connection for the community. That kind of thing is priceless.”

            For this event there’s a lineup of eight local storytellers, some of whom are likely going through the emotions of feeling vulnerable, excited, nervous and eager to tell their stories. Yoder is very ready to tell his story to the world, and is comforted that the crowd will be his neighbors and community members. “I’m pretty nervous, but I know after I get through it, there’s going to be this weight that will be lifted. Stories want to be told, and have lives of their own. Once a story is told its relieved. A lot of us carry around stories we are scared to tell. But there’s a transformative power to storytelling.”

            Syverson herself couldn’t be more excited about the weekend, “This is my favorite medium of live performance. These simple acts get to the core of what we really care about as a community.”

            She also encourages everyone in the community who is interested to consider telling a story, “everyone has a story to tell and sometimes those who don’t think they are storytellers are the best ones”.

This piece was originally published in today's Durango Telegraph. 

My new memoir, American Climber, is now available. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

I HEART The Firebrand

George Sibley just wrote me an email and he's working on a piece about Firebrand Delicatessen for the Gunnison Country Times. He asked me to write a couple paragraphs on what the place means to me...I couldn't do it, but this is what I wrote: 

What does the Firebrand mean to me in a couple paragraphs? That’s like asking Bob Dylan to write about what Woody Guthrie meant to him in a couple paragraphs, but I’ll try to keep in concise.

When I think about the Firebrand I go back to the year of 2001 when I was living in a tent out at Hartmans. I sure was a rough and raw character; I was a full on hippie who was almost always unshowered and unshaven. Like a hobo with a purpose to climb. This was when I got into writing for the first time, and I would literally go to The Firebrand and write poetry on napkins. Sometimes I would transcribe these onto a computer to send off to the college newspaper, others are forever lost in the ether.

A person like myself could have been written off as a vagabond cheapskate but at The Firebrand Heidi Magnus took a liking to me, and started offering pleasantries, like the simple act of giving me a reusable tea container and trusting I would not throw it away.

I loved the “feel” of The Firebrand, the Polaroid pictures on the wall, and the sense of community in this very Gunny gathering place. In a way it was a home more than anything I had in those vagabond days. Hartmans could get lonely all out there by myself, but I knew I always had The Firebrand whenever I didn’t want to be alone anymore.

As the years went by and I become more of a writer I would journal in notebooks instead of on napkins. I loved being at The Firebrand and writing. I would inevitably run into someone I knew there, and have to put the pen down eventually, but that was part of the magic of The Firebrand. And, it was a time period when we weren’t always consumed by our phones. I love the fact that there’s still no WiFi there, hell the place doesn’t even accept a damn credit card.

I grew up but there was always that constant of Heidi and Kate. Sure, the employees always changed, such is the nature of the restaurant industry, but always Heidi was up front and Kate was in the back. I always liked it best when it was slow because I got to have a quality conversation with Heidi as I ordered my meal.

The Firebrand hosted musical events and poetry a lot too over the years. Man, I loved that poetry community in Gunnison. Tell me poetry is dead and I’ll tell you its alive in Gunnison, Colorado. My favorite era was just after I moved away from Gunnison for the 11th time. I’d scored a writing gig at the college, and had returned to Gunny, my home, forever. There were some amazing poets, and a couple of them worked at The Firebrand, Jake Danna and Evan Bennett, being the two I remember. They were the new generation and kept the torch of poetry alive. It was an amazing era.

By then I was wearing a collared shirt and slacks, and hardly resembled the guy who was living out of a tent at Hartmans. But you know what nothing ever changed of how Heidi and Kate treated me. It was always an acceptance rooted in love, no matter what I looked like, or how much money I had in my pocket. When I started up a zine they offered to sell it, and proudly displayed it on the front counter. Now, eight years after that, my zines still get front space on that counter!

Eventually I realized I wasn’t cut out for the 9-5 life, and right around that time I had a relationship end. I’d taken my life in Gunny as far as it could go, and I needed a fresh start in a new place to reinvent myself as a writer. I had a farewell breakfast at The Firebrand, and then I was gone, off to Durango, where I still live.

I get to the Firebrand a handful of times a year. It’s still the same as much as anything else can be the same. The thing that changes in Gunny, a place where things don’t seem to change as quickly as they do anywhere else, is there’s just a little more grey hair on my peers, and certainly within my own hair.

But you know what, the feeling, walking in that door, is as if I could just grab a napkin and start writing some poetry, and I would have cup of hot tea and a breakfast special and everything would be right in my world. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Those Who Wait - Shaun and Amy

I talk too much. I know I do, and I know its something I try to work on, but its one of those faults I’ve kind of just accepted. If I have something to say I’m going to say it. But about six months ago I received a phone call that left me without a single word to say.

Myself (right) and the lucky couple.
            Shaun and Amy got engaged at the end of the last summer. He told me he was going to propose to her in the wee hours of a late night after partying in Salt Lake City. They’d been together so long I was hardly surprised. You know that feeling. It’s more of an “its about time” sort of feeling, than “oh my God I can’t believe it”. Of course I acted excited—I mean I was excited, I just wasn’t surprised.

            What happened next did surprise me. They called me this winter, with both of them on the line, which I thought was a little weird. Then they asked me a question I thought no one would ever ask me, “Will you marry us?”


            A long silence. Followed by an, “of course I will” and then an internal panic of sorts. Am I really qualified to marry someone? Why me? Why did they ask me? I just said yes, but is it too late to back out? I hung up the phone after some slightly awkward matter-of-fact conversation, and then began to process.
             I love love and I love stories, and of course I love love stories. Shaun and Amy’s is my absolute favorite. In 1999 in Gunnison at Western State the two were assigned to live in the very same dorm building. They had the same group of friends. They both loved the outdoors and did the same activities. Shaun claims they even made out one drunken night. Amy refuses to acknowledge that ever happened. Shaun was a hippy and had a pony tail. Amy wasn’t into hippy guys, or pony tails. So, they never dated.

            In their post collegiate days they both travelled extensively through Central America. Their paths hardly crossed even they both visited some of the same countries. Eventually Amy bought a house in Gunnison and opened up a hostel there. Shaun took an event-planning job in New York City. They both seemed destined for separate lives in two places that could not be more opposite than one another.

            Then Shaun got tired of the big city life. He wanted to return to the mountains. So, he did. Amy was there. And Shaun no longer had a pony tail. They started spending some time together, but everyone wrote it off as old friends hanging out—after all they’d known each other for ten years and never kissed (according to Amy). Even Amy wasn’t aware that this man could be the one of her dreams. She went so far as setting Shaun up with one of her girlfriends. Then Amy’s Mom got involved. She suggested to Amy that maybe she should go out on a date with Shaun. So she did. And Amy’s Mom was there. They watched a movie.

            Then, in classic mountain town fashion Shaun left on a month like bicycle tour of the West coast. But, this time he kept Amy close to his heart. He asked her if she wanted to go to Thailand with “a group of friends” after the trip was over. She said yes.

            When it came down to it the “group of friends” were nowhere to be found. They were headed to Thailand—alone—on a second date, with a foundation of ten years of friendship. Amy was in charge of booking the room. Ever sweet and innocent, she still wasn’t sure what Shaun’s intentions were. I mean the guy was playing it slow. She arranged for a room with two twin beds.

            That night Shaun and Amy drank every drop of liquor in the hotel mini-fridge. You can fill in the blanks for yourself from there, but its safe to say, from that point on they never got a room with two twin beds ever again.

            I told this story during the ceremony, which was held on the beach in a small town north of Cabo in Baja, Mexico. Their wedding was completely unconventional, I stood barefoot on the sand as I married them. People told stories about them as part of the ceremony. I don’t think you’re supposed to cry when you officiate a wedding, but I tell you I cried like a baby. It was hardly nerve racking, it was a beautiful moment in life, to be so close to two people who are in love and want to spend the rest of their lives together. The feeling was one of those feelings where you’re like this, this is what matters in life, and everything else is just secondary.

            Then they wed, and we partied.

This piece was originally published in today's Durango Telegraph. 

My new memoir, American Climber, is now available.

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