Adventures from Back of Beyond

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Extreme Fourth of July in Telluride

Seems everything is extreme in Telluride.

The stunning landscape certainly is extreme. The town sits within a steep, glaciated box canyon, surrounded by the highest concentration of 13,000 and 14,000 foot peaks in the continental U.S. Waterfalls cascade into the canyon from basically every direction. The crystal clear San Miguel river courses through the bottom, adjoining the small, historic town.

The best part about Telluride to me, though, is the people. They also are, in their own way, extreme. In a good way.

Everything they do, collectively, is quality. Extreme quality. Also extreme character, edgy. Sort of an Aspen with a rough-hewn Hippie persona.

Last year we stumbled into the remarkable memorial for Captain Jack. This year, without knowing what we were getting into, we stumbled into Telluride's Fourth of July festivities.

That town really knows how to put on a Fourth of July celebration. Extreme.

Everything is organized, run by, and benefits the local volunteer fire department. Starts off at precisely 6:00 a.m., when the fireman blow up a stick of dynamite to wake everyone up. This is, as I understand it, a tradition that goes back a century, honoring the mining heritage of the town.

I was looking forward to hearing the blast echo and reverberate through the relatively narrow canyon, in the cool, quiet morning air. And sure enough, right at 6, ka-boom. However, that was followed, over the next 10 minutes or so, by at least another dozen or so blasts, with the last one being the largest. It's booms lingered awhile. I enjoyed every minute.

Then the parade rolls out at 11:00. We situated ourselves at the stately courthouse, located right in the middle of town, where the judges are. The parade entries stop and play or perform tricks for the judges at that point.

Quirky is a good description for the Telluride parade. Anyone can be in it. There were kids on bikes, kids in strollers. Dogs of all types. (Telluride is a very dog-friendly town).

One parade entry was an anti-women's lib group, protesting how the women's liberation movement had set back good old-fashioned male chivalry. These ladies missed having doors opened for them by gentlemen.

At one point a guy yelled out for the judges, "don't trust the government!" That was the sum total of his performance.

But the big finale of the parade absolutely blew us away. The Colorado Air National Guard flew 4 F-16 jets right over the town, and I mean low, well below the rims. The fighters screamed through town, right over Colorado Ave (the main street), the jet engine's incredible roar echoing off the canyon walls. Seconds later, faced with a near 90 degree 13,000+ foot mountain, the jets pulled straight up like a rocket ship and rolled. Awesome.

Like most everyone, we then headed to the Town Park, where the firemen put on a big bbq picnic lunch. Chicken, roast beef, corn on the cob, potato salad. All good.

Once it got pitch black dark, the firemen lit off thousands of fireworks, a good hour's worth. But these were unlike any fireworks I've experienced. It wasn't just the magnificent canyon location, nor just the massive reverberating booms echoing off the canyon walls.

It was the fact that the fireworks exploded directly overhead. Ashes and bits of cardboard shells rained down on us. It seemed we were almost inside the fireworks as they expanded over us in their bright multi-hued colors.

This was an extreme Fourth of July.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Once You're in, You're in

Joe's Stone Crab, a decades-old restaurant in Miami Beach, South Beach to be exact, is one of America's iconic restaurants. It's not just the claws (they don't serve the entire crab), which are served cold; it's the quality of all the other food. The delectable sides, the sauces, the desserts.

That, and the atmosphere. The place probably holds several hundred, and has a great raucous atmosphere. Loud and fun. On any given night the place is packed. It is probably the number one restaurant in the entire Miami area in which to see and be seen. For celebrities, politicians, and professional athletes, Joe's Stone Crab is a must.

And for us as first-time visitors, this restaurant was a definite must-see experience. I called about a week prior for reservations, and was told "no reservations" accepted at Joe's Stone Crab. Well, OK. We'd go on a Monday night. Not a real busy night in the restaurant world, right?

We arrived in South Beach in late afternoon, checked into the fine Betsy Hotel, where to our pleasant surprise, we found a nice bottle of champagne on ice, with two glasses, waiting on arrival.

We proceeded to drink that entire bottle up on their roof deck, overlooking Miami Beach and several huge cruise ships as they departed from the port of Miami to the open sea and their Caribbean destinations.

So, with half a bottle of champagne under my belt, we walked the mile or so to Joe's Stone Crab. By the time we arrived it was about 7:15 p.m., later than we'd liked. It was, we discovered, prime time.

People were milling about on the sidewalk, spilling out of the restaurant. A large bar and inner foyer waiting area were already packed to the gills with diners ahead of us waiting for a table.

Sharon proceeded to check us in. How long of a wait for a table?

"An hour to an hour-and-a-half," we were told. Ugh. No way would I wait that long.

So, on a champagne-fueled impulse, I got in line to talk to the hostess, really anyone I could find, to see what could be done. I had no idea what could be done, but I wanted to try something. Anything. I wasn't going to wait that long, and I definitely hadn't made it this far to not dine at the fabled Joe's Stone Crab.

I was several persons back in line, discouraged and hungry, when I happened to catch the eye of a man who appeared to be the head maitre d'.

I didn't know who he was, exactly. But he was impeccably attired in a tux, with a completely shaved head. He had the demeanor of someone in charge. He had a friendly face, the kind of face that just looked familiar to me, like he was someone I could be friends with.

A place this busy has lots of staff running around. I didn't know who this guy was, but of their staff I can tell you this : they were all men, and like many high end dinner restaurants, no women at all except for the hostess talking names. All were very professional, impeccably dressed, and went about their business efficiently.

So somehow, while standing in the hostess line, I happened to catch the eye of this guy. I tentatively smiled and held up two fingers, as if to inquire "table for two?"

To my utter amazement, he waved me over. I got out of line and walked to him.

He said, "wait here," and pointed to a spot on the floor near the entrance to the dining room.

I waited. Sharon wasn't around at this point, but soon returned. I told her what happened. She was amazed too. But, our maitre d' friend was nowhere to be found for a few minutes. I gave up, and got back into the hostess line.

Next thing I knew the maitre d' returned. We spotted each other and he again motioned me over. I got out of line again and walked to him.

This time he said, "wait here. I'm going to take care of you." Then he walked off again.

Sharon had witnessed all this, and there could be no confusing his intention this time. We were both incredulous. I was hoping he meant what we thought he meant. We waited a couple of minutes, and began thinking about the phrase "take care of you" and what that implies in a service profession.

There is no doubt what the phrase "take care of" means in a service profession. Yes, he'll take care of me, and I would then be obliged to take care of him. I'm thinking ka-ching ka-ching about now, but how much is cutting ahead 90 minutes in line worth? I started feeling a bit uneasy thinking about the appropriate amount. I had no idea.

The next thing I knew Sharon was walking into the dining room, loud and busy and raucous. I followed closely behind.

Everything was happening very quickly now. Our maitre d' friend passed us off to one of two assistants that actually seated people. As I walked past him, I tried to hand him a bill. He wouldn't accept it. He told me, "not now, afterwards."

Oh, my. The cost was going up by the minute.

As we walked into the huge dining area filled with busy tables, Sharon asked a question to the man seating us. I didn't hear the question, but I heard the answer:

"Once you're in, you're in." And he smiled at us.

I felt immensely relieved by that answer. I could relax, for now, and enjoy the dinner.

We were seated at one of the best tables in the house. Sharon, a former food service professional in a high end jazz nightclub, knows the restaurant business inside and out, and knows a good table when she sees one.

The meal was excellent in every regard. We had the crab of course, but especially memorable was the key lime pie, the best we had in all our travels through the Sunshine State.

After we finished dining and paid our bill, Sharon stopped at the restroom. I waited outside and got my bill ready to fulfill my obligation.

Sharon returned and we started walking out. We happened to pass our matre d' friend enroute and I discretely put the bill in his hand. This time he took it.

I thanked him profusely for a great dining experience and for taking care of us. He thanked me in return and mentioned in parting, "it was great seeing you again."


We would later debate the meaning of that. Was it said reflexively, or had he mistaken me for someone else? Perhaps a certain celebrity I am said to resemble?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Check your premises: the Novels of Ayn Rand

Check your premises.

If you keep this in mind as you read Ayn Rand, you will get the most from her books. For anyone with the time and mental energy to wade through her two thick novels, expect a wild ride that challenges you on many levels. Some find Ms. Rand’s novels to be profoundly life-changing. At a minimum, expect a very thought-provoking experience.

After hearing so much from so many different sources about the growing interest in Ayn Rand and her books, after learning about the enduring popularity and respect people have for her ideas, I wanted to understand her philosophy, her system, her worldview. I had to find out for myself.

What I discovered was a brilliant thinker and writer, one with profound thoughts and opinions on what life should be like, a writer willing to express her beliefs on what is moral and what is corrupt, and what the proper role of government in society should be.

I also discovered a person that defies any sort of stereotype or pigeonholing into any convenient concept or recognized political category. She is neither conservative nor liberal. When you read Ms. Rand, be ready to check your premises for something completely different.

To understand Ayn Rand, I read in chronological order her two novels, The Fountainhead, published in 1943, and her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, released in 1957. I enjoyed both as very stimulating, thought-provoking books.

In particular, Atlas Shrugged is a rollicking adventure, full of unpredictable twists and turns. It includes elements of philosophy, logic, morality, science, economics, politics, sociology, science fiction, and fantasy. What an imaginative ride!

There is no question Ayn Rand was a very smart woman with a genuinely brilliant mind. I loved how she describes “clean, pure thought” almost like thoughts are as tangible as rays of the sun.

As a writer, Ms. Rand is not user-friendly in any way. She doesn’t make the reading experience easy. You’ve got to come to her. You’ve got to earn what she has to say. She’s in control the entire time. To find the valuable ideas, the kernels of what she’s saying, the reader’s got to make an extended effort to wade through a lot of what I consider extraneous information. It’s a worthwhile experience.

Ms. Rand writing style is often obtuse and dense. But once I got used to her style, I found her plot structure and arguments to be so compelling and brilliant that they kept me turning page after page.

Judging by her books – by both content and style – my take is that Ayn Rand must have been a huge outrageous narcissus. Her self-absorbed style often results in long tedious dissertations into the minutiae of inner workings of the mind. She indulges herself in her writing far beyond what’s necessary to make a point.

Her books are excessively long because of such tedious detail that doesn’t necessarily communicate effectively or add meaning. The excess detail in fact often needlessly bogs down the plot.

The Fountainhead is 752 pages. Atlas Shrugged is 1,168 pages long. You don’t meet the central character of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, until somewhere around page 700. Near the end of the book, Galt gives a 60+ page speech that takes him a Castro-like 3 straight hours without a break to deliver. I call it “the Narcissist Manifesto”.

Cutting out the excess verbiage I think could probably trim these books down to something like a concise 250-300 pages. The rest is something of a narcissistic and self-indulgent taking of the reader’s time and energy.

In particular, Ms. Rand is very good at articulating in fine detail inner mental feelings, the self-talk conversations her characters constantly have. She knows she’s good at these detailed descriptions, so she does it a lot. After reading a few of these tedious paragraphs I realized I was able to grasp the underlying meaning from the action and circumstances. These inner feelings were in effect implied by the context. I found the long dissertations to be redundant, and to some extent just extra and unnecessary words. Unwarranted. But Ms. Rand insists on them. She indulges herself in them. This was my first clue that I might be dealing with a raging, unrelenting, out of control narcissus.

One can speed-read through these tedious paragraphs, once one gets the hang of her writing style. However, there are two sections that one cannot skim – John Galt’s 60-page speech in Atlas Shrugged, and Howard Roark’s testimony at his trial in The Fountainhead. Rand uses these dissertations as the vehicles to drive home the elaborate points of her complex philosophies, and they are central to understanding her theses.

“Check your premises,” a theme which recurs throughout both books, is an apt description for what she’s trying to make you do with her novels. It is virtually impossible to guess the twists and turns of the plots, or especially to anticipate the complex personalities of the characters. They are, like Ms. Rand, very unique – and very into themselves. You are constantly challenged to check and recheck your underlying premises to understanding the actions of the characters.

Both books appear to be very well researched – the field of architecture in The Fountainhead, and railroads in Atlas Shrugged. Ms. Rand’s done her homework and this helps to give both novels verisimilitude, a sense of believability, which is much needed as a counterbalance to the caricature-like personalities she creates.

The Fountainhead revolves around a brilliant architect, Howard Roark, who refuses to compromise his ideals and style to be accepted, popular, or even to graduate from architecture school. Several contemptible characters recognize his inherent talent and ability, and feel threatened by it. She calls these people that fear him “second raters.” They try to bring him down, to defeat him; they do this to protect their own positions and mediocrity from looking excessively bad in comparison. This leads the uncompromising Roark almost to his own destitute destruction, but in the end he is vindicated and those who oppose him get their due. How Rand makes that happen I have to admit is satisfying.

Atlas Shrugged is more of an epic that revolves around 3 male heroes and one female heroine. All are productive masters of industry, high achievers, in one form or another – copper mining, steel-making, a brilliant mechanical engineer, a domineering railroad executive. Corrupt politicians limit their productivity, making it increasingly difficult to conduct profitable business. These masters of industry go on strike in protest, and without them society gradually crumbles. When complete chaos eventually reigns, John Galt emerges to lead the country from ruin to a new prosperous version of the United States based on economic freedom and the supreme right of individual achievement.

Ms. Rand projects herself into both novels as the heroine. In The Fountainhead she is Dominique Francon, the brilliant and beautiful daughter of an architect, spoiled, haughty, insolent, arrogant, untamed. She gets raped by Roark, after in effect asking for it – and decides she likes the experience. They develop a romance from there. Check your premises.

In Atlas Shrugged she is Dagny Taggart, the daughter of the founder of a trans-continental railroad. She is brilliant and capable, hard-working and competent in her job. She has not one, not two, but count ‘em 3 lovers in this book – all three of the book’s main heroes in fact. In the end it is the one and only John Galt who gets her. But enroute she has an affair with a married man (the steel magnate), this while she is the lover of the copper-mining tycoon. Several of her sexual encounters involve sado-masochism, complete with blood. This I found weird – check your premises – but it made for interesting reading if for no other reason than it was different from the usual.

Believability is important, because the most important points she tries to make in her novels resonate with society today, with business, politics, and how we live our lives currently. That is why, perhaps, her books continue to sell and why there is so much continued interest.

In a nutshell the central axioms of her philosophy, which she calls Objectivism, are these:

1. Man is a heroic being who’s highest goals are to achieve happiness in his own selfish self-interest, and to be productive to the best of his ability.

2. No man is the keeper of his brother. No governmental, religious, or any other authority has the right to dictate that any man should sacrifice his own self-interest for the betterment of others. Such dictated sacrifice, according to Ms Rand, is immoral.

3. The fact that you exist is the only rationale you need to do whatever you think is best for you, whatever that may be. Compromise of your ideals, your life’s purpose, is irrational, equivalent to death. Logically, anything less than you being in charge of yourself is like trying to force a square peg in a round hole, like trying to say one plus one doesn’t equal two. “A is A” as a central concept is repeated throughout Galt’s epic speech.

By the way, Ms. Rand uses the term man exclusively to refer to all of humanity. She precedes equal opportunity.

Simplistically, considering the complexity of her ideas, only two types of characters populate her novels –heroes and villains, and nothing in between. The two types are extreme – either totally consumed with self-interested purpose and achievement and nothing else (good), or morally corrupt and utterly contemptible (bad). There is basically nothing in between.

There are no conflicted characters. This of course is unrealistic, because it just doesn’t happen with normal human beings – so it tends to cast a caricature-like pall around the characters.

There’s no middle ground between good and evil to confuse the reader, she makes the difference very clear. And she spares no contempt toward those who differ from her belief system.

This all good or all bad approach to characters creates on occasion an almost laughably superficial and naive plot. For instance in Atlas, one poorly developed character, Cuffy Teigs, takes over “Project X”, a top secret weapon that uses sound waves with the capacity to destroy on the magnitude of a nuclear bomb. At one point Teigs becomes so irrational and animated that he just starts pulling levers and flipping switches on the machine’s control panel, just to prove he has the authority to do it if he wants to. In the process he blows everything up within a 100 mile radius, including himself. I’ve checked my premises, and this just isn’t sufficiently plausible for a quality work of fiction.

Another insufficiently developed superficial character is the brief encounter with the social worker in Atlas, a woman portrayed as a nosy busybody, prying and making false assumptions about the Cheryl Taggart character (also poorly developed). The brief accusations against Cheryl by the social worker are the straws that break the camel’s back and sends poor Cheryl off to the East River to commit suicide.

I for one resented such an unflattering and unrealistic portrayal of social workers, perhaps because two are family members. These hard-working people deal with a lot of negativity to help make the world a better place for us all. They don’t deserve to be cast in such an inaccurate and negative light.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy is widely studied today as her books continue to sell in the millions. And as much value as she provides, as much as there is to be said for her views, there are also huge holes in her system, voids big enough to sail a battleship through.

For instance, she goes on for pages and pages justifying through reason and logic why altruism is immoral. She maintains no one should have to sacrifice for another, no one is anyone else’s keeper. Any system of government that forces this sort of altruism is corrupt and prevents those who receive help or aid from thinking and therefore helping themselves. This is a powerful argument against a government welfare system, and in particular socialism with its various entitlements.

However, there are definite limitations to this assertion. Consider a few years after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, in the mid 1960s, when many of America’s cities erupted in race riots with much suffering, death, and destruction. Significant political and social changes resulted from those race riots, changes that were needed at that time, changes that included such far-reaching social engineering policies as Affirmative Action in this country. Rand’s philosophical system has no provision for justifying any of that. Yet the social changes happened, the system worked with at least some degree of success, and it was the morally correct thing to do.

There is also no room in Rand’s philosophy for random acts of kindness, for the selfless act of giving for the betterment of mankind, the need many people feel to give of themselves anonymously. The only kind of altruism supported in Rand’s system is the kind where the giver does so to receive some sort of payback, to have some ego need satisfied by the act of giving, the sort of giving to get something back in return.

Further, there is absolutely no comprehension or awareness of environmental values shown anywhere in Rand’s philosophy. In fact she apparently feels some antipathy for environmentalists. At one point she says, through Dagny on page 280 of Atlas Shrugged, “how often we hear people complain about billboards” (ruining the views of the countryside, and) “...they’re the people I hate.”

Guess nobody told Ms. Rand that hate is ugly. Not that anyone could!

She also makes it a point to indirectly refer with disdain on more than one occasion to eastern philosophy, including Oriental and Indian cultures.

Yet another huge disconnect is Ms. Rand’s assertion that government has no moral right to interfere with business in any way, except to enforce laws. Yet in 2008 and 2009 we experienced how perfectly legal transactions like credit default swaps nearly brought about a complete collapse of the world’s financial system and its interlinked economies – and they might have been completely ruined if the U.S. and other governments around the world hadn’t intervened in a number of ways to stabilize the financial system. This form of constructive intervention has no place, no justification, and no explanation in Ms. Rand’s system. As she would’ve put it in Atlas Shrugged: it's a “blank out.”

One wonders how Ms. Rand’s self-indulgent ,narcissistic philosophy might have been seasoned and matured had she been a mother, had she felt first-hand the incomparably powerful bond of a mother for her child. Ms. Rand remained childless, and the beliefs she espoused certainly do seem consistent with one who has never had the awesome responsibility – one who has literally shed blood, sweat, and tears – involved with bringing up a human life, been responsible for the shaping of a human soul. I believe her worldview probably would have changed for the better and been more complete with this experience.

If Ms. Rand had been a mother, can you imagine her saying this, in response to a question by Alvin Toffler during an interview in March of 1964:

  • Toffler: According to your philosophy, work and achievement are the highest goals of life. Do you regard as immoral those who find greater fulfillment in the warmth of friendship and family ties?
  • RAND: If they place such things as friendship and family ties above their own productive work, yes, then they are immoral. Friendship, family life and human relationships are not primary in a man's life. A man who places others first, above his own creative work, is an emotional parasite; whereas, if he places his work first, there is no conflict between his work and his enjoyment of human relationships.

Rand’s extreme philosophy is an example of a completely circular system – meaning she invents terms and concepts to explain the terms and concepts she invents. She is true only to herself, in true narcissistic fashion.

It’s quite possible that Rand’s true belief system really wasn’t this far out; perhaps her real intent in portraying such extremism might have been only to provoke thought. And in doing this she certainly has been successful.

Overall, there is much to like and much to learn from reading Ayn Rand. The main points are, to me, these:

1. The USA has the best, most moral form of government and economic system ever devised by man anywhere, at any time in human history.

Ayn Rand appreciated the USA based on personal experience, having escaped from the Communist USSR in 1926, at the age of 21. Her father was a successful chemist and owned his own pharmacy, but her family’s property was confiscated “for the greater good” by the Communists. They lost everything. Her sympathy for free-market capitalism probably stems largely from this experience. She managed to get a travel visa to the U.S., stayed with relatives in Chicago for awhile, and never looked back. She changed her name from Alisa Rosenbaum, moved to Hollywood, and in that golden era of the movies in the 1920s managed to get a job as a screenwriter for the great Cecile B. DeMille, of all people. For a time she was the head of the costume department at RKO Pictures. Quite impressive for someone who didn’t even speak English when she got here.

2. She internalizes, understands and in her philosophy reflects the beliefs and attitudes expressed by the founding fathers of this country, including such central values as freedom, rationality, reason, and enlightenment

Ms. Rand loved the U.S. in a way that reflected the vision and values of the founding fathers of this country. In Atlas Shrugged she depicted a dystopian time in the U.S., where reason is no longer supported, one is expected to unthinkingly sacrifice for the good of the State, personal profit is bad, and the country is run by corrupt bureaucrats. All of this sounds like a warning to not go down the path of the USSR, a failing system that she experienced first hand.

It would be a mistake to categorize her positions as either liberal or conservative, as she rejected both points of view. She was an American, and at her best, she reflected a patriotic American outlook.

3. Capitalism is the best and only moral economic system in the world. Profit is good. Free trade is good. The process of making the most money you can, earning money from people who willingly pay you for your best efforts to produce, this system is the most moral economic system ever devised, because it enables and rewards individual achievement, bringing out the best in people.

It is very difficult to pigeonhole Ayn Rand. She wasn’t left or right. She rejected all sorts of political and philosophical groups, and viewed with disdain conservatives, liberals, and libertarians alike.

Liberals disliked her because of her anti-socialist, anti-humanitarian views, and her disdain for altruism; conservatives disliked her atheism and rejection of traditional governmental authority.

Libertarians like to claim Rand as one of their most important influences, but Rand rejected Libertarianism as a political movement.

Ayn Rand was unique in a complete world of her own creation, a world where she was the absolute authority. She created a total philosophical system tailored to herself and her worldview, centered around the importance of the individual and rational self-interest. From her writings and especially her novels, she developed a loyal following. For these people, many of whom were profoundly influenced by her, Ms. Rand was the ultimate expert in all matters; no one else could speak about these concepts like she could.

She was the boss in a world of ideas she created. In the end, it might be most accurate to say that, in classic narcissistic form, Ayn Rand was true only to herself.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


"Come quick with the binoculars!"

When Sharon says that, I know to come a'runnin. She's spotted something good.

Sure enough, there off a couple of hundred yards, out in the forest, was a large beautiful coyote. Just sitting and watching.

Our dog Happy was barking and cautiously approaching, doing her job as a watchdog, and the coyote just sat and watched, holding his ground and biding his time. Soon, within a minute or so, the coyote was joined by a second big one, also with a healthy long winter coat.

This was all very unusual, since it was in broad daylight. I figured we might be looking at the alpha male and alpha female from one of the many coyote packs that live around here.

Something similar had happened before, about 12 years ago, just after we'd moved out to the forestlands of Back of Beyond.

It was early one morning, and again it was the ever-alert Sharon who first spotted it. She shouted "Oh my God come take a look at this!", and I knew it was something big.

Outside, only about 50 feet away from our house was a large coyote, slowly stalking toward our female lab, Roxie. She was barking her head off, trying to hold her ground, as the big coyote steadily approached.

We now know what coyotes do to domesticated animals around here. Both to small dogs and cats of all kinds. They are an easy snack. We often see signs posted for missing dogs or cats around here. The dogs are always a small breed. Cats have basically no chance. Sad when the owners don't know any better, but the coyotes around here are just too smart, too wily, and know how to hunt together.

As the coyote steadily approached Roxie I got alarmed. I needed to do something, and wanted to try and scare it off for good. So in one sudden spurt, I opened the back door and jumped atop a small stoop on the porch, waving my arms wildly and shouted "get outta here" at the top of my lungs.

It scared the crap out of the coyote. Off it ran, with Roxie immediately in hot pursuit. As the coyote took off, I spotted what I didn't see at first -- a second coyote, also running. These two would've taken out our female for sure if I hadn't intervened. I figured these were the alpha male and female of the pack, bold enough to hunt in broad daylight.

So we now were in a similar situation, with the big coyote moving slowly toward Happy. I noticed his lips curl upward, baring his fangs in a wild animal snarl. Not a friendly gesture.

This time I was too far away to make much of an impact by jumping and shouting, so I figured it was time to deploy Billy. He'd take care of business.

Billy is our big male lab. Roxie's son. He's massive, over 90 pounds. Born and raised right here in this house. Lived here every day of his whole life, except for the two nights he spent in jail.

Billy likes to cruise, and so we normally keep him inside during daylight hours. He seems to stay put once it gets dark. But twice he's been picked up by the dog catcher, and twice I've had to bail him out from the pound.

Billy is absolutely fearless around here. In his mind he knows he's the top dog, no doubt about it. I don't think he can even conceive of himself as anything else. He's a product of a loving family, had his mother around for the first 10 years of his life to nurture and protect him. Never been confined to a fenced yard. Has enjoyed at least two walks a day, every day, for his entire life.

He displays an easy, loose confidence, an assuredness of his rightful place at the very top of the food chain out here. Nothing scares him.

Even though he's top dog in his mind, he's also exceptionally good natured. Got all the normal qualities of a lab -- patient, amazingly patient. He can wait hours practically motionless if he knows he's going on a walk. We can see why labs are chosen as seeing-eye dogs. Loyal. Friendly. But also stubborn, incredibly stubborn if he wants to be, though as he's aged it's less of an issue.

Once, while walking in the forest several years ago, I'm fairly certain he cornered a mountain lion. I only saw a glimpse of it, a large tawny-colored animal with a long tail, fleeing rapidly as Billy gave chase.

He and his mother would commonly wreak havoc on the coyote packs around here. If a pack happened to pass too closely at night, we'd hear both dogs go off huffing and puffing around the forest rapidly, fearlessly chasing off whatever they could find. I'm fairly certain his mom, Roxie, taught him how to do this. She was a great hunter as well. We couldn't see them chasing coyotes, but we could hear them. They worked well together, having great fun doing it, no doubt.

What a great life for a dog.

Anyway, this big coyote was stalking our new dog Happy.

We found Happy on Craigslist. I sometimes call her "Ava", short for Avatar, because she's like that super-athletic 10-foot tall race that lives on Pandora in the movie. She just towers over Billy, but probably weighs 20 pounds less. Even though she's taller and much younger, Billy knows he's still top dog in the family.

Billy's getting older now, and walks with a noticeable limp if the weather's cold, at least until he gets warmed up. I called him over, fully confident of what he'd do next.

Sure enough, when I let him out he immediately recognized what was happening. I don't know if it was by sight or smell or the kinds of barks coming from Happy, but he sauntered over directly toward the coyotes with no hesitation whatsoever. He didn't run, just took a supremely confident steady pace that apparently communicated effectively to the coyotes.

The big male coyote spotted Billy first. Watching for just a moment, he figured it was time to skedaddle. This big boy may have been chased more than once by Billy and remembered. Off he went, closely followed by the alpha female, and then we saw Happy barking and chasing close behind as they ran.

There's no way those coyotes could outrun superdog Happy with her long legs, but as they crested over a hill I was sure Happy wouldn't get too close for comfort. Billy only got out far enough to sniff around and pee on some spots where he could smell them.

Soon, within a few minutes, all dogs were back safely. Until the next fun encounter.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Amazing Encounter at Crystal Rapids

Crystal Rapids is nasty. We spent four unplanned nervous days at the head of those rapids during a month long winter river trip through the Grand Canyon in December of 1984.

Formerly a nondescript rapid, Crystal was transformed after a huge spring flood in the late 1960s. Enormous boulders were washed by flash-flooding Crystal Creek, a major tributary from the North Rim, into the Colorado River. There these big rocks basically remain today, clogging and constricting the river into a giant nasty rapid with big waves and dangerous boat-eating holes. Unfortunately today, the Colorado River, now harnessed by Glen Canyon Dam 100 or so miles upstream, no longer has the irresistible force of spring floods to move these big immovable rocks through and out of the way.

We were stuck there, unable to proceed. One of our boats, a 12-foot fiberglass dory rowed by Brad Jones, had sprung a leak. We had to try to patch it, right at the head of Crystal Rapids.

We discovered the leak a bit upstream, near Hermit Rapids. Brad's boat, a tipsy 2-person craft, was questionable to begin with. And on this cold-weather expedition, now with this leak to contend with ... well let's just say there were more than a few of us who wanted to scuttle her right then and there.

We didn't. Larry Kane came up with a plan to try to patch her, using a fiberglass repair kit we had brought. Turns out applying the patch was easy, but properly curing the fiberglass at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in the cold gloom of December would take days of applied heat. We turned the little boat upside down on the beach, and set a lit Coleman lantern inside the hull. The lantern, besides giving off light, gives off a lot of heat. We left it burning continuously for several days to try and cure the patch.

As a result, we had this depressing little unplanned layover for several days at the head of nasty Crystal Rapids.

Because Crystal is one of those rapids you worry about from the beginning of the trip, most of us wanted to just run it and be on our way. Instead, we were allowed the time and luxury of what turned out to be basically a 4-day scout. We could take our time observing every nook and cranny of that rapid, analyzing every wave, every hole, every obstacle. We could do this multiple times, if we wanted, playing over and over how we'd run it.

That little exercise got boring. We wanted to move on, but couldn't. We had to wait for Brad's boat.

To pass the time, I would take little hikes, excursions from our base camp on the north side of the river. I'd walk a ways up Crystal Creek. I'd check out the banks of the Colorado River, both up and downstream.

Something amazing happened, something I'll never forget, on one of those hikes just downstream of the rapid.

I was by myself just watching the river flow, pondering the big beauty of the Grand Canyon, when I happened to notice a group of 3 hikers on the other side of the river, the South Rim side. This was a major event, to see other people, in that we would encounter basically no one else on this month long trip. Plus in this spot we were in a very remote part of the Canyon.

These 3 were backpackers, apparently out for an extended trip. In December, the North Rim is snowbound and closed; it would be highly unlikely to encounter anyone on the side of the river we were on. But roads on the South Rim remain open and provides access to a number of trailheads. These 3 backpackers must've been very experienced and on some sort of long loop, because they were very far removed from any established trailhead.

I watched them, fascinated. What a break from our normal routine. In this group there were two women and one man. They began to set up camp as I watched from my spot on the other side of the 300 foot wide river. The roar of the rapids was so loud there was absolutely no way we could hear each other, even shouting at the top of our lungs.

As I watched, the two women walked down to the river, directly opposite from me. They noticed me watching them.

I waved.

They waved back.

That was exciting. These were the first other persons I'd seen in several weeks now in the Canyon, other than those in our group. They were a welcome sight.

What happened next was completely unexpected. The women, to my complete and utter surprise, began taking their clothes off. My jaw dropped in disbelief. They had to have known they were putting on quite a show in front of me.

The girls bathed in the river. Stark naked of course. It was quick because the water was cold, but they didn't seem to care. And they didn't care that it was in full view of me, and only me.

So near, yet so far. These two naked ladies might as well have been on the moon, as far as I was concerned, because they were so unreachable to me on the other side of the river.

Still, this was an amazing distraction to an otherwise boring layover.

On the end of the third day, Brad's boat repair was done, and we finally launched the following morning.

Every boat but one made it through mighty Crystal Rapids unscathed with no problem whatsoever. No wonder -- we had every inch of that rapid scouted and knew exactly how to cheat it (run to the right) for the easiest ride.

The one that didn't? Brad's tipsy dory.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Reversal of Fortune

When my passport was stolen in Europe, my world caved in.

I was 21 years old, traveling solo over a several month period with a backpack on my back. While staying in a youth hostel in Innsbruck, Austria, I made the mistake of leaving my passport -- and all my critical travel documents, including my return flight ticket home and Eurail pass – in the pocket of my jacket. Someone watched me leave them there when I set the jacket down on my bunk to take a shower.

When I returned not more than 5 minutes later, they were gone.

I didn’t know what to do. Without a passport, you can’t cross a border. Without a Eurail pass I wasn’t going anywhere. Without a return flight, I wasn’t going home.

I had carefully budgeted for this trip, and certainly didn’t have enough money to replace the Eurail pass or flight home, both big ticket items.

I was crushed.

I went to the hostel office and asked them to make an announcement over their p.a. system to please turn in the passport if anyone found it. I knew it wouldn’t do any good. It didn’t. But I didn’t know what else to do.

That evening I looked around, suspiciously eyeing everyone in the hostel. Everyone was a suspect. But I had no leads, could do nothing. I felt helpless and lost.

I spent a restless, worried night in that hostel. At least they didn’t get my wallet which had my other ID, or my money. What little money I had left, anyway.

My first order of business was to try and get the passport replaced. Later I’d deal with the return flight and Eurail pass, if I could.

Innsbruck didn’t have an American consulate or embassy office capable of replacing a passport. I’d have to go to Vienna for that.

So I began planning. First, I couldn’t even find Vienna on the map. I searched and searched. There was “Wien”, the capital, but no Vienna. Only later did I discover that Wien and Vienna were one and the same. That time wasted only added to my growing frustration at my own stupidity.

Still, Vienna was too far away and in the wrong direction from where I wanted to go. I wanted to go to Switzerland.

I’d heard of Switzerland’s famous neutrality, security, and efficiency. I’d never been there before, but it seemed to be a clean and welcoming place. This is where I wanted to go and try to get my stuff replaced, and Zurich – which did have an American consulate office capable of replacing a passport – was much closer to Innsbruck than Vienna.

But I had no Eurail pass. What to do? I decided to try hitchhiking.

I stood outside that dismal youth hostel with my thumb out, along a very busy boulevard with several lanes of traffic in both directions, for many discouraging hours. Car after car passed me. It was very depressing, but I didn’t know what else to do.

Finally, a little blue VW bug stopped. I got in.

Inside, a pleasant smiling young man was driving, and he fortunately spoke some English. I spoke some German, but not very well. We conversed mostly in English.

Turns out he was a medical student going to school in Vienna, and headed to his parent's home in a far western Austria. The fact that he was a med student was yet another instance of a recurring theme in my life, a theme of a certain group of people – in this case doctors, medical students, sons and daughters of doctors – playing an important and meaningful role in my life.

There’s another recurring theme in my life, a different group of people, but that’s another story.

I told this young medical student that my passport and other travel documents were stolen from me in the youth hostel, and I wanted to go to Switzerland to try and get them replaced. He listened patiently. And after hearing my wretched story, this man felt absolutely awful. He felt bad that here was a young American traveler, an innocent visitor to his country, and something so bad had happened, an unfortunate incident that reflected very poorly on his country.

He understood my predicament, and he was compassionate. This man decided to help me.

Soon he asked if I was hungry. Lord knows I hadn’t eaten a decent sit down meal in many weeks, on the tight budget that I was. He decided to stop for something to eat, and I remember that meal vividly.

We stopped at a nice restaurant in a stone building. He ordered, in German. First the wine came. Half a glass and I already was feeling better. Maybe things would work out. Then came a half chicken, baked, with potato and vegetable. Food hadn't tasted this good to me in a long time. He paid the bill, refusing any money from me.

It was amazing how much better I felt after a decent meal.

We continued on to the rural western part of Austria, his home. We discussed how I would get across the border without a passport. I hadn’t really given that much thought. I had no idea.

He came up with a plan. This was a rural part of the country without a lot of traffic, and he knew some of the border guards personally, from traveling regularly to Switzerland. He would tell the guards that I was his cousin visiting from the States, and we were just going across to buy cigarettes. Apparently Switzerland taxes them less than Austria, and many people make quick trips over just for this. I was to smile and keep my mouth shut.

When we got to the border, that’s exactly what I did, and that's exactly what happened. He showed his ID, told the story, and we were waved right on through.

My med student friend dropped me off a couple of miles down the road, out of sight of the border. He then returned back to Austria by a different route. But not before giving me the name and phone number of his friend in Italy that I was to look up later. This man was an angel.

So far so good. Now at least I was in Switzerland. My savior drove off, and I again stood on the side of the road and stuck out my thumb.

I knew my luck had significantly changed when within just a few minutes a beautiful young woman in an expensive new Mercedes sedan stopped to pick me up.

I got in, and off we went. As a 21 year old kid, I was amazed at the circumstances. Within just a few hours, I went from the depths of despair to literally sitting in the lap of luxury. Quite a turnaround.

The Swiss woman took me right into Zurich, to an excellent, clean, modern, and cheap youth hostel. Dropped me off right at the door. This would turn out to be one of the very best youth hostels I would stay in anywhere I traveled over a six month period in Europe, in any country. The place even had hair dryers in the spotlessly clean bathrooms.

As it turned out, I was able to get my passport replaced quickly at the American consulate. I showed the officer my social security card and draft card still in my wallet, irrefutable identification. Once I produced passport photos, he issued a new replacement "Z" (for Zurich) numbered passport on the spot. I still have that expired passport today.

The Air Canada office in Zurich reissued my return flight ticket home. At the suggestion of my father before I left home, I fortunately had written down my ticket number on a little scrap of paper I kept separately in my wallet. That was a huge break.

I was unable to get the Eurail pass replaced. But in the youth hostel I met another American who was going home and still had a few weeks left on a StudentRail pass. He let me have it, and I used it to travel to several more countries before it expired.

I even found a paying job in Zurich, dropping off phone books at residences and businesses.

Coming from the depths of a collapsed world, this was a definite reversal of fortune.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Great Sage Plain

Stretching along an arc of southeastern Utah into southwestern Colorado, the Great Sage Plain contains the highest concentration of archaeological resources in North America.

The high, arid plateau is dominated by sage – intoxicatingly fragrant – the same stuff writer Zane Grey described most famously in his book Riders of the Purple Sage. The plain lies between the Abajo Mountains in southeastern Utah and the San Juans in southwestern Colorado, mostly at an elevation ranging from about 5,500 feet to 6,500 feet above sea level.

In the dry southwest, this is a relatively high biohabitat, but where precipitation – mostly from winter and summer storms – is sufficient to support dry farming. This was where prehistoric Native Americans could successfully grow corn, beans, squash, and cotton. This is where a prehistoric culture thrived, until these people mysteriously abandoned the region by about 1300 A.D.

These Ancestral Puebloans, as they're known today, constructed elaborate villages along the edges of the Great Sage Plain, including beautifully constructed masonry towers guarding their precious seeps and springs, the location of the fresh water that sustained them and was lifeblood of their villages. Using blocks of the ubiquitous sandstone found in the area, these prehistoric Indians were master masons.

The Great Sage Plain was our destination in late September and early October.

Cross Canyon

Cross Canyon is one of many deep canyons cut into the edge of the Great Sage Plain. Along its walls are literally hundreds of archaeological sites, including cliff dwellings and panels of rock art.

In two days of exploring Cross Canyon, we saw not a single other person. Cross Canyon appears to be a vast, quiet, and empty place – until you stop, walk around, and take a closer look.

Without too much difficulty, we located Indian ruins – cliff dwellings – with intact masonry walls. Centuries old mud used for mortar, preserved in the relatively dry climate, still held fast blocks of sandstone. We found petroglyphs, especially incised spirals, carved centuries ago into cliff faces. At least one spiral looked like it could have been a solar calendar.

Broken pieces of pottery, at least 800 years old if not older, abounded. Much of these broken ceramics were shards of plain corrugated grey ware, for everyday use. But many others were beautifully decorated black on white pieces with carefully painted symmetrical designs. Elsewhere we found many lithics, flakes of arrowhead chippings.

People were here, no doubt. They still are.

At one point we encountered a flowing artesian well. A stream of cool clear water, dozens of gallons a minute at least, flowed out from a simple standpipe into a series of two open bathtub-shaped tanks. Cattle drinkers.

There were no visible pumps, generators, or electrical lines anywhere around. This well appeared to be not much more than a mere pipe stuck into the ground, through which lots of water gushed out.

At the outflow from the tanks a lush pure stand of green watercress grew. Beyond that stood tall reeds and willows. This was a welcome oasis in an otherwise dry and dusty canyon in an arid region.

We checked out the well cautiously. The water was pure and sweet-tasting. Dunking our heads into the tanks, we found it exceptionally refreshing.

Further up the canyon, we found a mysterious cross, a crude wooden cross, and a few rocks. It looked like a shallow grave. Could this possibly be the spot where the remains of the notorious Jason McVean were found?

Cross Canyon was the last refuge, the point of a last stand, for a group of 3 anti-government survivalist-types in May of 1998. For reasons that are unknown still today, Jason McVean, Monte Pilon, and Robert Mason hijacked a water truck not far from here. In their escape, in which they fired more than 500 rounds from a variety of weapons, they killed a Cortez cop. In so doing, they set off one of the largest manhunts in the history of the Southwest.

Within about a year, the bodies of Pilon and Mason were found near Cross Canyon, apparent suicides. The fate of McVean remained a mystery for another 10 years or so, until June of 2007, when a cowboy riding range through this very canyon discovered his remains.

Lone Cone

At the eastern edge of the Great Sage Plain rise the magnificent San Juan mountains of Colorado. Here like clockwork in late September and early October vast stands of aspens put on a spectacular show of color.

We drove a back road between Lone Cone and the high peaks of the Lizard Head wilderness. In terms of color change, we hit it just right.

Along Lone Cone’s beautifully symmetrical flanks, pure stands of aspens grew in a belt from roughly 7,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. At this time, near the peak of color change, from a distance the aspens resembled soft yellow fur growing on the side of the mountain.

The aspens were interspersed with solid stands of shorter growing gambel oak, which in contrast to the yellow aspens, produced a deep rich red color change. In the distance stood the highest sculpted peaks of the San Juans near Telluride and Silverton, well above timberline. After an early season storm, they were dusted white with a light patina of snow. The overall visual effect was stunning.

At one point we noticed a large dark bird soaring. It was being harassed, dive bombed, by a smaller bird.

Using binoculars, I tried to identify the big bird. The mostly dark body and separate feathers outstretched like fingers at the wing tips identified this bird as a golden eagle. Golden eagles are a rare bird not commonly found in the southwest, but apparently are quite at home in this magnificent high country.

As I watched through the binoculars, suddenly the smaller bird swooped in. It was some type of hawk or falcon. It would repeatedly dive bomb the eagle from above.

To protect itself, the eagle at the last second would fold in one wing and turn its body upside down so the razor sharp talons were pointed skyward at the diving smaller bird. There'd be last second swerve by both, a near miss, then the eagle would unfold its wing, turn upright, and continue soaring on, all the while without flapping at all. A superb flyer.

Then the next next dive bombing run would come, and the process would be repeated. This continued several times. Eventually the eagle decided it’d had enough and flew off, dropping in elevation, and appearing slow and lumbering compared to the much smaller and more maneuverable hawk.

Ismay's Trading Post

"Walter Ismay" is how the old man introduced himself to me.

Smoking a cigarette, he looked like he was in at least his 80s. A laconic man, he avoided direct eye contact,. As the owner of this trading post, he was used to a lifetime of talking to Navajos, where long periods of silence and few words may be considered thoughtful and respectful, and direct eye contact may be considered threatening.

Ismay’s Trading Post is located right on the Colorado-Utah line, which is literally the eastern edge of the sprawling Navajo Reservation.

At first I was amazed his trading post was even open. It looked abandoned, not much more than a junk yard. The building was an old adobe structure so decrepit that the walls were literally falling apart. But “open” is what the sign read, so I walked in.

Cobwebs and dust filled the interior. The shelves were sparse. Mr. Ismay sold only a few items, mostly pop and candy to Navajos who'd drive in from just down the road.

We talked a bit about Indian ruins. He gave short direct answers to my questions. I asked him if he ever got out to explore the nearby canyons.

"I've been all over these canyons" he told me. And no doubt he knew them like the back of his wrinkled hand. He described in particular one large ruin not far away, and gave us directions.

On my way out, I noticed a bag of peaches, a white lunch size bag. It was at least 4 or 5 pounds of fruit. They looked home grown. I asked how much.

"A buck."

I got out my wallet and produced a dollar bill.

No tax.

Friday, September 11, 2009

In the Zone

Volleyball is a big part of my life, even out here in the hinterlands of Back of Beyond.

I learned to play the competitive skill version of the sport on the beaches and gymnasiums of Southern California. Although I lacked the benefits of training under a true coach, I learned the game by playing, by doing it. And I love volleyball for what it is -- a highly skilled sport involving athleticism, strategy, the fun of competition, and camaraderie of team.

Here in Back of Beyond, I was involved in organizing the first local volleyball league, and watched that league grow up and produce more teams with increasingly better players.

Our team, which my good friend Brian and I co-captained, invariably had the same core of players. Not just good players, but also positive people that we liked and who loved the sport like we did. We all got along well.

As the years went by, our stiffest competition came from a team sponsored by a timeshare company, Sunterra. Like us, they were ultra-competitive, and hated to lose. But one key difference was they'd start sniping at one another if they weren't doing well; we'd never do that.

Sunterra was a good team, with good skilled players. We could beat them, but we had to be at the top of our game. I credit them for helping us to raise the level of our game. One tournament in particular illustrates this.

Sunterra and our team were consistently the two best teams in the league. In this particular post-league tournament, which was double elimination, we wasted one of our losses early on by being defeated by a much lesser team. It happens. We weren't focused.

But we came back and defeated everyone else to reach the finals against Sunterra. Because it was double elimination, if we lost even one game we were out. So the way it worked out, we had to beat them in three consecutive games, and they came into the finals brimming with confidence. Perhaps overconfident.

In the first game, Sunterra chose to sit Rico, their best player. That was a bit presumptuous we thought. Lack of respect.

We beat them.

In the second game, Sunterra put Rico on the floor with their best players to finish us off.

We beat them again.

By this time we had momentum. Volleyball is a game of momentum, and with two reasonably matched teams, the momentum usually switches back and forth several times.

But we grabbed the momentum in that first game and never gave it up. They couldn't get it back no matter what they tried. Our team got into a zone. All of us together, and it was sweet.

A zone is a mental state, a mind-set of clarity; it's also a physical state of moving, of flowing freely and naturally. It is wonderful. Most often you hear about basketball players getting into a zone, where they just can't miss shot after shot. Somehow in this match all of us found the zone together, and to share that as a team is just indescribable. Must be experienced to be appreciated.

I clearly remember the final game of that tournament. It was close to 11 p.m., we had played for several hours straight. We all had to work the next day. I should have been tired after having played that long -- but I was not. I was, in fact, gaining strength and focus as the evening wore on. It came easily, effortlessly.

In the zone.

This final game, winner take all, would be shortened because it was the third of the set. I at first thought it would go to 11 points.

I rotated into serving position at 10, and was determined to finish them off. With me serving, this was our strongest line-up. Brian was at front row left, Linda in the middle setting, and Scott at front right. Shelly and Gayle were in the back row with me. This was formidable. I knew we could roll off some points.

For me, being in the zone meant no second guessing. I could confidently and precisely place hard serves where I wanted them. A tough serve in volleyball is key -- it reduces the chances of your opponent's getting a good pass and set, which then increases your chances for a block or an easy return.

I served a point at 10, and started celebrating. I thought it was over.

It was not. Somehow, Tim, the referee, determined the game should go to 15. So back to the service line I went, still as determined as ever.

We rolled off 3 more points. They couldn't stop us. We had the momentum and they couldn't get it back. It was excellent.

Now it was game point, with me still serving. I looked down as I bounced the ball a few times for rhythm, then took a quick glance up at their positioning. I quickly looked back down so as to not telegraph what I'd do with the serve.

With that one quick glance I noticed something significant. Their captain, the dislikable Patty of all persons, a decent but not great player, playing the far left corner, was standing too close in by a step or two. Out of position. Why?

Was she anticipating the possibility of a short serve? Patty and Sunterra had played us long enough to learn some of my tricks. Normally I served flat hard knuckling and floating serves, precisely placed. Sometimes the ball would really float and they were hard to pick up.

But every once in awhile I'd work in a deceptive little short serve. The serving motion looked just the same and it appeared like another hard one, but at the last second I'd pull the plug and arch one gently over the net. I could get my short serves to drop like a rock within a couple feet of the net. It would fool people so bad sometimes they'd just flail out at the last second in a vain attempt to reach it, and wind up flat on the floor, a couple of feet short of the ball. They looked foolish. It was embarrassing.

I think Patty, playing in a step or two, was anticipating a short serve. They were getting nailed on everything else, and she figured "no way, not on game point is he going to make me look like a fool with that little short serve of his". So she stepped in a little.

Duly noted.

I cranked a flat hard knuckler precisely into her deep far corner. If she would've let it go I'm sure it would have been an ace. But she stiffly shuffled back a couple of quick steps, and barely got behind it.

Her pass could have, probably should have, been called a throw, a mishandled ball. But Tim let it go.

The pass floated up behind her, out of bounds. Their center row back player had to retrieve it, and they barely got the ball back over the net on their third hit.

This was game point to remember.

Brian, normally the quiet kid from Minnesota, almost shouted (something he never did), "that's it!"

It was a statement of finality. He knew after a long night, this was it. I think it was also his way of calling for the ball, something else the big guy in his own quiet way never did.

Our setter, Linda, had an uncanny way of reading the defense and knowing which players were on, and would pick and choose her spots to set.

She set Brian. A high tight set near the outside antenna. They had two blockers up, but little room to maneuver since it was so tight to the end.

Brian went up and expertly hit it down and off the block. It went out of bounds.

Point. Game. Match. Tournament.

Afterwards, we went to my house where I just happened to have a couple of cases of beer. We drank most of it in celebration, even though it was nearing midnight and we all had to work the next day. We wanted to keep the focus, the team spirit. We wanted to stay in the zone, together, as long as possible.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Big Snowball Fight

I attended grade school at Stewart School on the campus of the University of Utah.

Going to elementary school at a major public university was a blast. Just being on the same campus with the big kids was special.

The University administration packed Stewart with their best teachers, and let their student teachers learn under them. On us. We learned the new math before it was new. Used "teaching machines" way before personal computers were invented. Our P.E. teacher, even in primary school, had a Ph.D. We started French in the third grade. Our music teacher taught us superb, intricate multi-part harmonies to classic American songs. I still remember them today.

And on campus, we had no borders, no lines, no restrictions. At recess, we could flat-out go wherever we wanted.

So, during the snowy winters at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains, sometimes big snowball fights would develop and spread out on campus during recess. This was a guy thing. The girls pretty much stayed inside on snowy days. One big snowball fight in particular, during fourth grade, was remarkable.

In a team snowball fight, one of the very best targets to aim for is the neck. That's because you have good chance of getting the cold and wet snow uncomfortably down into your target's shirt. Maybe make him have to go in early. A desirable shot we all went for.

On this particular day, one of my classmates, let's call him Ron, apparently had one too many snowballs down the neck into his shirt. And it got to him. Right in the middle of the action he stopped and loudly proclaimed to everyone on both sides, "No more snowballs to the neck! If I get one more, that's it!"

That sort of bothered me. Ron was one of the bigger boys, and quite capable of taking care of himself. I mean after all, what's fair is fair, and who was he to just make up this rule and impose it on everyone.

I was standing way out in what might be called left field at the time. Just on a whim, right after he proclaimed no more to the neck, while everyone was quiet and just watching this outburst, I launched a large one at him.

I remember having to arc it real high because I was so far away. I couldn't reach him on a more or less straight trajectory.

I let it fly and watched. The snowball seemed to stay up in the air a long time. Then it hit.

A direct hit, right exactly on little Ronnie's neck. A lucky shot. Everybody was watching Ron, and everybody saw this perfect hit.

Ron exploded. His whole body shook. This was the straw that apparently broke the camel's back. Ron flipped out.

I don't remember exactly what happened next, because I took off. And I had a big head start. I don't know if Ron ever knew who launched that little missile, but I knew he wouldn't catch me.

What I did see out of the corner of my eye was Paul, the toughest kid in class at that time (not the biggest, just generally acknowledged as the toughest), take Ron down as he went ballistic. Tackled him. After that I was long gone.

Ron was late getting back to class after that recess. He was muddy and disheveled, hair messed up. I remember he had some dirt smudged on his upper lip, resembling ever so slightly a small version of Adolph Hitler.

He apologized for being late. I observed quietly, said nothing. Then our teacher, Mrs. Hagerman, took Ron to the office. He didn't come back at all to class that day.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Captain Jack and the Real Telluride

I hadn’t planned on attending the memorial service for Captain Jack. But that’s the way it worked out.

While out and about on a beautiful Saturday in Telluride, I ran into a guy named Rico on the San Miguel River trail. We struck up a conversation. I learned Rico was a long time local, one of the original hippies that moved into this mountain town in the late ‘60s and early 70s.

We talked about hiking the spectacular and easily accessible backcountry. We talked about how the hippies took over Telluride in the 70s and helped develop the town into the international destination it is today. How they carefully cultivated the reputation as sort of the bad Aspen.

I asked Rico where he was headed, and he told me to the memorial for Captain Jack.

I didn't know Captain Jack at all. Had never heard of him. But I would soon find out he was a local legend and icon in Telluride.

Standing about 6’ 3”, he was smooth and clean as a cue ball up top, but wore his hair long on the sides and back. His most remarkable feature was a snow white beard that extended down to his belly. Trim and athletic, he was well liked and friendly with all.

Jack was a classic ski bum. He was also an adventurer, world-traveler, teacher, hang-glider, mountain-biker, and as I now understand, an all-around good guy that was much beloved in the Telluride community. He died at age 64 while mountain biking. Hit by a truck, he died instantly.

Locals poured into the town park as we arrived. I was struck by the consistent look of many of these people – toned, well-proportioned, muscular – men and women who moved with the loose smooth confident flow of an athlete. These were ski bums like Jack, his friends, confident and agile with their bodies.

Others looked like hippies, some old, some young. Many were businessmen and women. That busy Saturday during peak summer season, many of the stores on Main St. were closed, so the proprietors and employees could attend Jack’s service.

These people were the soul of Telluride, the real Telluride. These were the locals who live here year ‘round. These were the people who gathered to say goodbye, to mourn, to honor the memory of Captain Jack.

Watching as an observer, as as someone who didn’t know Jack at all, I was absolutely blown away by the service.

It started with military honors, as Captain Jack was an army vet. A four-volley rifle salute was followed by the careful folding of the flag. Next came the playing of taps by a uniformed soldier.

I have never heard taps played better. Or longer. Each note was drawn out, full of sadness and melancholy and sweet beauty. It was a surreal listening experience.

My attention was then drawn skyward by the crowd. A small Cessna-type plane was flying overhead, and I heard someone say “there he goes.”

A single paraglider jumped out of the plane and with expert precision skillfully glided down to earth in a series of descending loops. Colorful purple smoke streamed behind the ‘chute as he looped down. Contrasted against the bright white clouds and deep blue mountain sky, the effect was stunning. Right at the end of his descent he pulled up with the smooth fluidity of a bird, and just stepped gently onto the ground directly behind the speaker’s podium, with perfect balance and grace. Unbelievable.

That spectacle was followed by 4 hang gliders crossing overhead in a precise diamond formation. They performed a version of the “missing man” salute, the touching tribute created by pilots to honor one of their own. I watched as the lead glider continued on a straight overhead course while each of the 3 other gliders on the corners looped to the ground in a series of controlled descending circles. Each glider landed precisely on the field behind the service.

The speakers came next. One by one, Jack's friends and family described him as a “good man”, one who cared about his town, was friendly with everyone, and well respected as a skier, athlete, and community icon.

Later I realized how carefully this entire memorial service was planned and executed. You might say choreographed, and with precision. This wasn’t just any memorial service. This wasn’t just anyone who was being memorialized. This was Captain Jack, a local legend. And this was the mountain town of Telluride, an internationally renowned skiing and sport mecca living up to its adventurous reputation, saying goodbye in its own unique and spectacular way.

Odd as it may seem, we couldn't have found a better way to experience the real Telluride.