Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Thanks for the Memories

You reach a certain age and each revisiting of a favorite place becomes precious -- because it might be your last.

We are in such a place. The red rock and canyon-pocked splendor of southeastern Utah deserves better than the state government that would enable its desecration. But then, all the special places in these United States deserve better than the political whores who allow them to be raped and pillaged.

Enjoy them while you can.

Green River. We overnighted there last night, in the same campground that was base camp for our first trip through Twenty-Nine-Mile canyon, whose collection of native American rock art has been called the world's finest outdoor art gallery. We ritually partook of the locally-grown melons without which no visit to Green River is complete. We remembered setting out from here for our first visit to the then-newly created Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument. Far out on Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Saxon, our canine companion then, turned Dance Hall Rock into his personal playground. Green River. S'long, old friend;if we never meet again, thanks for the memories.

Moab. My older brother Bob said, "If you are permitted only one national park in your lifetime, make sure it's Arches."  Amen. We pitched a tent in a park in Moab and rose before sunrise to photograph the wonders of Arches.  How proudly we introduced others -- Dave, Gene, Vicky, Joyce -- to the place that inspired Ed Abbey's finest work, "Desert Solitaire." Oh, the hikes we had in younger years in the LaSals and the desert surrounding Arches! What vicarious joy we took from David's conquest of the toughest slick rock mountain bike trail in this Lycra hard-body Mecca! Early on the loop he hooked up with three college kids from Texas. Already in his 50s, he led them to the crest of every climb. "You've been doing this for a while, haven't you?" one of the youngsters said. "How old are you?" Dave replied. Twice the size of the town where we first camped for Arches, Moab today has added sky diving and hot air ballooning and ATV adventures, zip lining, Hummer touring, paragliding; luxury resorts and glitz and zesty nightlife. We forgive you, you old tart.  And thanks for the memories.

From Monticello, just down Highway 191, we discovered Windwhistle campground, where we staged the west's greatest slumgullion breakfast for a hungry gaggle of fellow adventurers, then walked like Spiderman up the steep wall of a slickrock butte. We consumed our first Utah red trout in a cafe there, and shared tall tales of discovery with drivers in a Jeep rally. We read Newspaper Rock and ventured to the very edge of a wilderness high in the Canyon Rims overlooking Canyonlands National Park, merely the second-best one of all. This was The Last Adventure for Sandy, the cocker spaniel who allowed us to share fine trails with him East and West, North and South.

Blanding. At Edge of the Cedars museum we met the artist who was attempting to reproduce every piece of native art destroyed by the flooding of Glen Canyon to create Lake Powell. A noble spirit, he. From our tent in a meadow high up in the nearby Abajos, Sandy ventured out to make friends with a trio of cowboys, rounding up cattle to be taken down to their winter pasturage in the valley. A local cafe on another visit introduced us to Utah-brewed Polygamy Porter ("Why settle for just one?"). Farewell, Blanding, good-bye Monticello. If we never pass your way again, thanks for the memories.

Ah, Bluff. All three of our beloved dogs have camped with us in Butler Wash in the shadow of the great southwestern landmark called Comb Ridge. Aided by a newfangled gadget called GPS we traversed back-country slickrock to find our very own Anasazi ruin.  Others, of course, had found it before us, and one had taken a flat rock and made a kind of altar on which subsequent visitors placed found treasures -- potsherds and arrow tips: veneration to the spirits of the old ones who allowed us to visit their dwellings. We climbed to Cedar Mesa; we hiked around Natural Bridges; we explored the banks of the San Juan and its Gooseneck meanders.  Mexican Hat. Valley of the Gods. Monument Valley. The Sand Island petroglyphs. The old Mormon Trail. How reluctantly we leave you this time, Bluff. Thanks for the memories.

Remember the sunrise concert by the native American flute player on the remote trail in the Canyon Rims? The guitar -pickin' singer at Cowboy Blues? I wonder what became of the fine cook who tried to make a go of it serving continental cuisine on the corner of the back road to Cortez? Did we really lose a trailer hitch on the impassable last three miles of Hole-in-the-Rock road? How many times have we set up in the great high campsite overlooking the river valley to the east, the Straight Cliffs to the west?  So sorry we couldn't revisit the nearly life-sized shamans etched in the cliff side at Sego Canyon. How regally the pronghorn brushed past Saxon and me as if we were just another sagebrush on the high prairie! A pox on the asshole from California who (untruthfully) boasted of killing half a dozen rattlesnakes on Sunrise Rock trail. Was Rooster Rock the best campsite ever?

Brandi, the Rhodesian ridgeback who is the incumbent Trail Dog, welcomed the return to a desert environment after enduring the rainy mountain forests and strange critter-smells of the north.  On the way down to Bluff through the red rock cliffs, he became agitated.  Perhaps he remembered guiding us (me with a brand new metal hip) across the vast slickrock slope to the very foot of Comb Ridge.  More likely, he caught the scent of a nearby deer-crossing. "Turn me loose," he seemed to say, "and I'll hunt down our supper."

Never mind, mate. The Navajo Twins restaurant on the edge of town still serves a right good chile relleno. You can eat on the patio in good weather. But it's the rainy season here and they were predicting flash floods in some parts of the San Juan Valley.

Remember the time it rained all the way from Green River to Chinle?

Leave nothing but footprints. Take nothing but memories.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

This Train Ain't Bound for Glory

Ferguson, Mo., is not the last stop on this line.

Maybe there is no last stop in deeply racist Amerika. I shared a Pulitzer Prize with the rest of the Detroit Free Press news staff for reporting on the riot in which 43 black citizens died while their city burned around them. Things would get better, we thought while tallying the terrible costs of this civil distress.  This was half a century ago. "Things" are not better.

A wise and respected friend remembers his teen and young adult years in his parents' ranch-style house in then all-white Ferguson.  It was half a block from the intersection of Lang Drive and West Florissant Ave. where, just a few days ago, the Ferguson police used military force -- tanks, tear gas -- to suppress a crowd exercising its First Amendment rights. They were protesting the death of an unarmed black Ferguson teen-ager fatally shot be a white Ferguson police officer even as the kid threw up his hands and pleaded for his life.

Ferguson, my friend recalls, was lily white when he lived there. Today it is two-thirds black.  Three of the 53 members of of its militarized police force are black.  There is something terribly wrong with this ratio. My friend,  who is in daily contact with St. Louisians familiar with the benighted suburb, says they describe the Ferguson police as "brutish, stupid and unlucky." They blundered into a McDonald's in their riot gear and racist zeal and arrested a small throng, which, alas, happened to include two working journalists.

My friend says he grew up in a place "so steeped in racism that it is difficult to imagine the Deep South as being all that different." He writes that "my own family was as steeped as any and frankly I have struggled all my life to dissolve with reason and experience the attitudes imbued in me almost before I was old enough to walk."

This good man's confessional recall triggered an array of empathy in our online circle of writers, lawyers, teachers and philosophers. "You've got to be taught," Oscar Hammerstein III wrote, "to hate and fear, you've got to be taught, from year to year, it's got to drummed in you dear little ear."

My father's  racism was merely reflective of the common attitude in our all-white suburb of Cincinnati. Before kindergarten we knew there was, deep in The City, a place called "Niggertown," where people different from us in color and of lesser intelligence loitered insolently in deserved squalor. We knew the Niggers begrudged us our superior lifestyle, and if given the chance would take it from us by violence, which is why they had to be kept in Niggertown. In John and Dorothy Ashby's brilliantly satirical musical play about post-riot Detroit, "Three Six," the police would sing this prelude to a raid on a black numbers runner: "Ring around the ghetto, keep the Niggers in. Let them knife each other, fightin' over gin."

When the men of my suburban neighborhood joined my father in a tenperate glass of Heudepohl at the Westwood Inn, they never contemplated lynchings and fiery crosses, but they never either voiced disapproval of the depredations of the KKK not that far away in Terre Haute.  And when white hope Billy Conn fought black Joe Louis for the world's heavyweight boxing championship, not a penny was bet on Louis. The sons of these men went off to fight World War II in all-white units of a segregated army and most of those fortunate enough to return home in one piece liked the segregated United States they came home to and built Levittowns to keep it that way. Lyndon Johnson was condemned in the North, too, for letting Niggers have too big a piece of the Bill of Rights.

I spent my early years in journalism in Iowa, working often in towns where you could walk from end to end without seeing a black face, except perhaps laboring in the rail yards at the dirtiest and basest of jobs. My eldest son was swimming in the newly desegregated municipal pool when he saw his first black contemporary. For the briefest of moments he stared at the black kid in unbridled astonishment. Is there a glimmer of hope somewhere in this little event in that same son's life? That he was arrested protesting the Vietnam war in Washington DC. That he was stashed with thousands of others in RFK stadium before being shipped off randomly to storage in a precinct jail. That when I finally tracked him down in a precinct on a far edge of the district, and posted his bond, he refused release.  Why? "He's leading a protest," the jailer told me. "They say one of our officers insulted a black prisoner."

Like my writer friend, I have "struggled all my life to dissolve with reason and experience the attitudes imbued in me almost before I was old enough to walk." The great imperative of this struggle for me was to assure that the attitudes were not passed on to my children. Perhaps I succeeded. I hope I succeeded.

Even so, I have done little to slow the train that has just passed through Ferguson, this highballin' train of deeply racist America, this train that's bound not for glory, but for infamy.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Magnetism of the Mountains

GOLDEN, BC, Canada -- Our northern cousins are as adept at Yellowstoning their treasures as we are. Routing major highways through the hearts of national parks makes it easy to love them to death.
Then, too, we blundered into Canada on the long weekend of their biggest national holiday. In the Rockies of Alberta and British Columbia, all of Canada, it seemed, was up and about.  The highway running through Kootenay National Park was a long narrow parking lot for the populace of Calgary, seeking relief from a heat wave that sent temperatures higher than those we had fled back home in New Mexico.

Visitors seeking the summit of Revelstoke on the wildflower Parkway,the ice fields of Glacier or the sun-drenched jewel that is Emerald Lake flounder in a sea of logging trucks, 18-wheelers, rental RVs and SUVs mounting kayaks and mountain bikes and canoes and camping gear. Venture onto a remote forest service road that's not on the tourist maps and you'll share it with Volvo-loads of escaped Windsorites looking for black bears, mobile drilling rigs looking for black-gold treasure, locals driving off-road vehicles at race-track speed. This is an area of brawny, beautiful mountains; of crystalline streams and trout-teeming rivers and lakes; of forests still nearly primeval.  Little wonder everyone wants their piece of it.

Although virtually all the campsites are occupied, we have a sense of peace and solitude, an island of tranquility among the trees of the Golden Eco Adventure Ranch and campground. We can walk to the vast mowed field where paragliders and other daredevils of the defy-gravity gang land after leaping off a rocky crag high on the slopes of Mount Seven.  World records for distance and speed have been set from this starting point.

Our campsite is surrounded by hundreds of miles of biking and hiking and equestrian trails.  You can ride a ski gondola almost to the summit of Kicking Horse Mountain and walk or bike down to the valley. But you'll share those trails with oodles of hard-bodied Canadians and queue up for most of the morning to get aboard that gondola. Just about everyone says the views make it worth the wait. Canada's mountain parks offer orgies of scenery that neither hordes nor rainstorms can despoil.
Time and the economy have taught the winter resort operators to become year-round destinations for tourists and vacationers. Two excellent German restaurants serve more than passable roladen, jagerspaetzle and blitz torte mit schlag to those who throng to the Kootenay Valley.

 But the culinary crown jewel of the Canadian Rockies is the Cedar House, a small, Swiss chalet-style place with a sunny side veranda overlooking Golden and Reflection Lake. Corey Fraser, trained at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts in Vancouver, is the latest in a line of superb chefs who have kept this restaurant on Canada's finest-dining lists for years.  Like many world-class eateries, Cedar House specializes in fresh local provender, prepared with consummate care and innovation. Its salads are visual works of art that join choice local fruits and vegetables in exotic flavor marriages. Fraser prepares regional delicacies --steelhead trout from the Columbia, duck that swam on Lake Loon, grass-fed Alberta beef, free-range Invermere chicken, Vancouver scallops -- with love, imagination and subtle sauces. Even a simple creme brûlée becomes a Cezanne still life in Fraser's kitchen, garnished with razor-thin slices of apple and peach, wild strawberries and blueberries, half a scoop of rich vanilla ice cream, half a scoop of tangy raspberry sorbet and a slather of something silky and chocolate. Come hungry. Stay long.

A refugee from Stateside clings only briefly to the stereotype of the hardy Canadian as perfect custodian of ecosystems and their wild denizens. Two well-intentioned amateur ecologists opened a shelter for homeless bred-in-captivity wolves a few miles outside of Golden. Visitors pay to watch and photograph the wolves and listen to lectures about wild creatures and environmental responsibility. The chap who took our entrance fee asked where we were from.  "New Mexico," I said, "where ranchers shoot grey wolves as fast as they can be re-introduced to the area where Aldo Leopold once wrote about the 'fierce green fire' in their eyes." "We're no better here," he said.  "We hunt them legally, with no restrictions whatsoever--pregnant females, pups, all fair game.  Some places offer bounties.  Others sterilize them. You'll learn the terrible truth about us if you stay for the next lecture." We stayed.

There is considerable allure in these parts for entrepreneurial outdoorsy types to set up small businesses that leave time free for snowshoeing, skiing, hiking, hunting, fishing -- or hang gliding.  But they, too,face terrible truths about their mountain paradise.

Sandra and her husband, who have owned and managed the local general store cum gas station for ten years, are selling out and heading south.  "Last winter was the last straw for us," said Sandra.  "Thirty below, not just for a day every now and then, but for weeks at a time. The cougars had no prey in the high country so they came down here in the valley and ate livestock and family pets. All our neighbors lost dogs to the cougars." She nodded toward the aging mongrel they found abandoned in the woods nearly a decade ago. "We kept that one indoors all winter," she said.  "Next winter we'll be in a place where he and our girls can run free in safety."

We topped off our gas tank and drove back to the Golden Eco Adventure campground.  We watched a paraglider land in the field.  He was from Toronto.  "This place is unique in the world," he said.  "Perfect thermals for flying.  Our whole club membership is planning to come up here next summer for two weeks."

The mountains will be waiting for them. Man has many ways to smother them with affection, but he can't really love them to death.