Monday, December 28, 2009

Earth Matters: Glass half full

I was Santa Claus for several years before Christmas cheer got the best of me and I gave up the pretense. I passed out candy to Crested Butte children in what is now Jerry’s Gym: Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas, peace on Earth and good will toward men. I sported a fake beard and wore a red Santa suit over a big, round belly. At the time, the belly wasn’t fake. I was in the spirit; more accurately, the spirits were in me.

Ultimately, though, my skeptical nature got me expelled from Santa’s magical realm, and I reverted to my bah-humbug roots. Perhaps that is too harsh; although I tend to be disparaging, I actually do a decent job of observing the holidays. My glass is half-full because in whatever maturity I have achieved, I perceive the gratification of receiving in the context of the joy of giving.

This year, I awoke a couple of days after Christmas in an uncharacteristic funk. The night before, I had visited with swells for whom world-wide social and economic turmoil is some kind of distant interference in the white noise of their busy and affluent lives.

I felt like a poor country cousin, a provincial and pedestrian hayseed. My self-esteem was in the toilet. I felt I should have accomplished more in my life instead of pursuing my low-key, self-indulgent life here at the head of the draw.

My angst was so out of character I couldn’t at first place its source. Then I realized the unbidden emotional betrayal was simple envy, in this case the desire to wrangle the wherewithal and a big SUV on a ski trip to Canada.

“There will always be people wealthier than us,” commiserated one friend, “and you have to ask yourself, are they really happy?”

“Hell yes, they’re happy,” I responded. “They’re going on a ski trip to Canada. How could they not be happy about that?” Money may not buy happiness, but it sure can help.

To take the edge off my anxiety, I determined not to use those materially more comfortable as a metric. Instead, I would appraise my response to those less fortunate than I am, because by practically any metric, I have it pretty good. I consciously chose the life I lead and I entertain few regrets.

That train of thought might seem obvious and fundamental to more enlightened and highly evolved folks, but like I said, my emotion arose unbidden. As soon as I had thought it through, I immediately felt better. That thinking is glass half-full kind of stuff.

In the dark of winter, I sometimes experience something akin to cabin fever. I am a creature of the sun and when the orb transits too close to the horizon I feel its lack. Winter temperatures bouncing below zero fuel my lack-luster attitude; perhaps I should simply hide the thermometer.

I combat my seasonal disorder by getting outside into whatever sun presents. This time of year, sun is good stuff—curative—and I try to get as much as I can on my face. Some people say sun on the face is bad, others say we don’t get enough to maintain our immune systems. Whatever. I like sun and figure skiing is as good a prescription as any to get my required daily dose.

Skiing is my panacea and it always has been. During November, before it snows and when the sun shines only paltry light from the southern sky, I fret and sometimes sicken in the darkness. But when there is enough snow to ski, my attitude is on the ascendant. At the solstice, I celebrate because days start getting longer, snow falls and I’m skiing.

Even so, sometimes I whine about the damned cold and how my life could be so different had I not consigned myself to the frozen food section. But consign I did, and chances are I will remain until I’m freezer burned. At that point, cook me good and spread the sauce at the top of Total Recall.

In the short run, though, I walk down Teocalli Avenue and raise my eyes to an incredibly blue sky in crystalline clear air. My eyes play over the granite cliffs and distinctive summit of Crested Butte Mountain. I watch as perhaps a winter moon rises gibbous over the south ridge. That view never fails to thrill me. It fills me with joy for the natural community that surrounds me, and the human community among which I make my home. No regrets, only delight.

That is more than a glass half-full. In point of fact, my cup runneth over. And I am thankful.

Gravity Works: First pow

There is a big difference between skiing knee-deep natural, unconsolidated snow, and zipping across seventeen inches of solid man-made. Really? Ya think?

I’m not talking about obvious differences. Make no mistake, skiing fast on cold corduroy carries its own thrill. Lacking most all friction, acceleration and velocity are gravity’s playthings. And with those new shaped skis we paid so much for last fall, groomers transform velocity into sweeping, centripetal carves, consistent across the surface.

While I gripe about early-season “ribbon of death,” skiing, even lacking significant gradient, the groomed smooth and obdurate surface serves a purpose. Muscles and reflexes refresh in familiar use and tune me to edge and surface. If nothing else, I get used to the wind in my face. Ultimately tiresome? Yes.

Quickly, it seemed, early season turned into winter. This is good since if weather is colder than a well-digger’s ass, snow is more than a nice amenity. It is essential to my winter sanity and survival. I get to ski on it, and after all, I live in a ski town. Good thing, too, seeing as how I like skiing so much.

The ribbon of death is gone, buried under a foot or two of natural snow. It won’t reappear until next spring when temperatures and grooming will have transformed the surface into something quite different. But it snowed, and the wise powers-that-be opened the ski mountain. It kept snowing and snowed some more. My greatest hope at this point is that it just keeps snowing, although by the time you read this I’m sure it will have stopped…bite my tongue.

And that conjures a difference between natural and man-made snow. Yes, you can feel the difference under your skis or snowboard. I am not sure whether new snow is faster or slower—depending on temperature and wax—but it damned sure is softer. It carves and pushes, and when it’s cold like it is in December, it splashes and froths. When it finally gets deeper, you can float in it and push those big wide skis against it to turn or control speed. Or you can just let ‘em roll…but keep your tips up.

The sudden transformation from restrictive man-made snow to a blanket of the natural stuff stirred significant participation by local enthusiasts. Jokerville opened to a crowd anxious to test its mettle against more serious gradient than the kitchen table. Deep and with an established base, the natural snow quickly moguled up under the assault. They were natural moguls, though, and not hard and severe because like I said, it kept snowing.

Absent East River and extreme terrain, most of the rest of the mountain opened. As it continued snowing, I skied that knee-deep, natural and unconsolidated snow I was talking about. Down Jokerville—not a drop-in—next to the trees, I found da kine.

At first I was skeptical. It can’t´ be this good. It was still early season; we hadn’t gotten that much snow…had we? Damn; it felt like powder! After finding a few untracked shots tucked here and there near the trees, my pants had snow on them even past my knees. It finally hit me: That was the first powder day of the season. I’d been down in it and hardly even realized it.

There was a time when powder absolutely freaked me out. I remember standing at Vail when I was about eleven years old, powder up to my butt, crying in frustration. Those days are history. Now tears might fog my goggles, but they are tears of joy.

Dolores LaChapelle wrote, “We powder skiers…relinquish our human control and turn it over to the earth below us (the gravity) and the sky above (the snow which that sky gives us) and our way is laid out for us so we can live validly for those moments when we are so intimately a part of the fourfold…I know of nothing which teaches one to live validly as quickly as powder snow.”

Yeah. What she said.

Powder is best, but December powder is the best of the best because it’s so damned cold when crystals form and fall to the ground. Powder snow is the stuff of story and legend: champagne powder, cold smoke…totally sick dude. And there I was, knee-deep in the stuff on Jokerville. Totally sick, dude!

Gravity Works: If you don't ski opening day...

“How was opening day?” asked my friend.

“It was good,” I answered.

It was the best of times. Opening day at the ski area might not be the best ski day of the season, but any time spent skiing is better than time spent doing most anything else. After a month of anticipation, I was psyched to drag my lazy butt off the couch and out from in front of the computer. I wanted to see if it still fit onto a chair lift. Think festive.

Anticipation is probably at least half the thrill. Usually I start dreaming about skiing in late August, for sure by September. By mid-October, enthusiasts gather in front of the post office to talk snow and skis; by November the psych builds as temperatures fall.

Pre-season November is always difficult for me because it’s often too cold for me to bother my horses or hike the mountains. I get all antsy for lack of exercise, which is why more enthusiastic souls submit to pre-season physical training. I have always eschewed such routine not for doubting its value, but simply because I’m lazy. Hence, couch and computer.

The computer provides pre-season conditioning, reading about new equipment, surfing ski areas and summoning snow and weather reports from resorts where it hasn’t even snowed yet. I look at pictures of previous season powder and imagine coming season thrills. Oh yeah: the psych builds.

Pre-season conditioning also involves checking my gear, perhaps augmenting my quiver with a new and mostly un-needed pair of skis, and making sure my pockets have all the right stuff in them. I make sure warm clothes replace last spring’s lighter-weight gear in my locker. Inevitably, and no matter how many times I complete this drill, I always forget something. This year was no exception.

I had no intention of making it up on the hill in time to catch anything like the first chair. I mean, get real: About the only thing that can stir me out from between the sheets that early is a foot of fresh. No fresh on opening day; instead—typically—the day dawned bright and bluebird sunny.

I was rested and ready to ski. Now temporal awareness would shift to a metric of fifteen minute intervals between bus pickups. Acceleration and momentum would define rips down the strip. Gravity would circumscribe experience and focus compelling force into frictionless advance. Physics rules.

Actually, all that evocative prose is a remembrance of seasons past. Opening day is never like that. Instead, skiing is zooming down a strip of man-made snow in a mere fraction of the time it takes to ride a chairlift to the top of it. Most of the fun is had standing in the lift line talking about skiing, people watching, and appraising ski fashions and those wearing them.

Skeptics scoff at early season skiing because there aren’t enough ski runs open, because what is open is too gentle-gradient to make turns, because they don’t like man-made snow, because the lift lines are too long or because the lifts run too slowly. I know one skier who simply won’t use Teocalli Lift because it is slow and old.

Other people simply have a difficult time making the transition between summer activity and winter thrills. It is a physical and psychological leap to stop playing golf, hiking and fishing, and gear up to freeze your ass off on a chairlift.
Skiing every chance I get is important, though, if for no other reason than what I call “hardening.” Hardening is what trees do as temperatures fall, drawing their sap and whatever vital juices into their core and roots. They harden themselves to the cold.

I harden myself by submitting to cold wind in my face, freezing on chairlifts and trying to warm my hands and feet against the cold. This may not be too important now while temperatures are still relatively warm, but the discipline will stand me in good stead when December and January temperatGravity Works:ures try to kill me. I’ll be able to take it; I will be hardened to it. I am ready for it.

Now I spend time every day watching long-range weather forecasts and praying for snow. Snow gods are getting used to my entreaties that the El Nuño doughnut hole will go bother someone else. All the signs are there; ski season has begun.

Earth Matters: No puff piece

I wish I could sit down and write some Pollyanna puff piece that made everybody feel good and soothed all the angst. I wanted to write a parable or allegory drawing on some old fable or fairy tale, but I couldn’t find the template. My skills are not equal to the task.

Both sides of the ongoing Snodgrass NEPA debate have asked me to toss my hat into one corner or the other. Also, both sides of the debate have enjoined me from doing so. People in the middle—ambivalent, undecided or whatever—asked me to articulate their indeterminate feelings. Others want me to write a puff piece like: Hey, we are all a community together, so let’s just get along. Right. Pollyanna pap. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Instead, the gods of discord and dissension dance a jig down Elk Avenue to the tune of disparate opinions, fraying tempers and dissolving friendships. Mayhem rules. A visit to the post office or grocery store means running a gauntlet of questions, commiseration, fault-finding, blame laying, justifications, rationalizations, speculations and worry. Petitions proliferate; hearts burn.

Neither side in the debate is really to blame for the state of affairs in which our community finds itself, although each side would be first to blame the other. Had not the ski company proposed expansion onto Snodgrass, we wouldn’t be at such loggerheads. Had not opponents to the proposal taken exception to the manifest order of things, we’d be progressing into a prosperous future. We are polarized and pummeled; some simply stopped paying attention, others are just plain tired.

One of the just plain tired people told me she’d thought national economic woes would cause the community to draw closer and pull together. She lamented the perfect storm of local discord and national anxiety. One feeds the other.

After remaining passive for years, those supporting ski area expansion finally found their voice. I do not understand why they didn’t more firmly join the battle at the get-go. After protesting at the Forest Service office in Golden last week, one newly outspoken enthusiast wrote on Facebook: “I love yelling things at people that they deserve…” Catharsis.

Opposition to expansion has been uncharacteristically quiet. It has the good sense not to gloat over Forest Supervisor Charlie Richmond’s decision to disallow the proposal into the NEPA process. Furthermore, recognizing that such victories are infrequent and short-lived, the opposition can be no more than cautiously optimistic. And they must have expected a backlash.

In a small town like Crested Butte, backlash can be brutal. Instead of agreeing to disagree—traditional status quo—people are in-your-face one way or the other. Businesses are afraid to sign onto petitions and they’re afraid not to. Discrimination happens.

Of course this isn’t the first time our community has been divided. Back in the day, we young, newcomer, hippie types opposed a proposed molybdenum mine on Mt. Emmons. The old-timers who lived here before, those who made their livings digging coal, thought a mine was a capital idea. They saw paychecks, economic development and resurrection of the community. Neither side won that fight; tanking molybdenum prices made the battle moot. But bad feelings persisted for years.

And I wish there was a way to prevent bad feelings now. Things have come to such a pass, most everyone feels strongly one way or the other, that no matter what the ultimate Snodgrass outcome, bad feelings will give “social inbreeding” new meaning. Perhaps my greatest fear is that seeing our community as divided as it is, some opportunist will use that disparity to his own advantage.

My friend and mentor George Sibley opines an economic divide, a line “between those who have to compete for their income in the local economy, and those who don’t” And he’s probably mostly right. Somewhere there is a line, and it might as well be there. He provided no answers to our conflict, though, no silver bullets.

I can’t provide answers or silver bullets either. Perhaps one reason I couldn’t find a parable to apply to our situation is because parables often end by providing a lesson or an answer. At this point, I can’t envision an end, much less a lesson or answer. Having worked on neither side of the conflict, count me among the just plain tired.

Earth Matters: Speak no evil

They tell me timing is everything. In journalism it is important to be timely otherwise it’s all yesterday’s news. Yesterday’s news is fine for lining the bird cage or training a puppy, but it isn’t worth beans in the context of current events.

I am not making excuses when I say it isn’t always easy to be timely in a weekly newspaper. Furthermore, having been laid back by current economic malaise, I have even less control over when my maunderings might be published. So timely is relative; I try to write as if it doesn’t matter.

While it may already be yesterday’s news, I write here to congratulate newly elected members of the Crested Butte Town Council. As cub reporter for the Crested Butte Pilot, I covered town council news for many years and five different mayors. I know sitting behind that council table is no easy job. While it might seem like a popularity contest during the election, trust me: it’s not.

Unfortunately, neither is a town council election an exercise in pure democracy. This sad circumstance confronted me during the candidates’ forum prior to the recent election. Members of the voting public were frustrated because candidates were advised not to answer questions about important issues facing Crested Butte.

There are at least three issues council members and candidates can’t discuss publically outside formal council meetings. These include the proposed Foothills Annexation, proposed Sixth Street Station development, and the proposed Mt. Emmons molybdenum mine. All these proposals are important to town residents who wanted to know where prospective candidates stood on the issues.

Questions: How the hell can voters decide who to vote for if candidates can’t answer any and all questions? Why are council members enjoined from discussing important issues in any forum other than regular and scheduled Town Council meetings? What happened to council members sitting down with constituents over a beer and discussing town business?

I know the answers: First and foremost, the Town wants to avoid future litigation from proponents of proposed projects. The Town must act in either a quasi- or direct regulatory capacity concerning proposed developments. Should council members or prospective council members demonstrate they have already made up their minds about a project, the proponent could appeal a final decision. He could say the decision was made before all evidence was on the table and could ultimately have grounds for a lawsuit.

My gripe is not about erudite, prudent and well-meaning advice to elected representatives. My gripe, and the angst expressed by the voting public, is that the enjoinder subverts democratic process. One question remains extant: How the hell can voters decide who to vote for if candidates can’t talk?

Having posed these difficult questions, a responsible pundit would set about proposing answers. Try as I might, though, I can’t think of any.
Gone are the days when an elected official can say: Elect me because I believe Foothills annexation is more trouble than it is worth, a waste of time and money in an economically difficult business climate. Deep in the past is the time a council person could say, we don’t need to develop Sixth Street Station until all other commercial property in town is built out and rented.

Thirty years have passed since council members and town staff could say flat out, “I am opposed to a molybdenum mine on Mt. Emmons and I will fight to prevent one from being developed.” Back in the day, that was the mantra by which candidates aspired to Town Council. Town staff was unabashedly tasked with working to prevent a mine.
Furthermore, I remember sitting with mayors, council members and town staff in numerous watering holes, strategizing how to beat the mine. Our cards were on the table; mine operators knew they would have to overcome not only public opinion but also town government at every level.

Perhaps one strategy that came from those confabs was the town’s watershed ordinance, conceived back then to keep the mine out of Crested Butte’s drinking water. Adopted by town government and upheld by the courts, the ordinance established the town firmly in a regulatory capacity. From this position we are today unable to let any cats out of the bag as to whether or not we want a mine.

I wonder if this is some kind of irony, or something altogether more sinister.

Earth Matters: Temperature rising

I used to think good bourbon kept the bugs at bay, that I could get vitamin C from screwdrivers, and that a little beef bouillon mixed with vodka provided my required dosage of protein. When I was unfortunate enough to get sick, I would drink hot toddies with copious quantities of brandy warmed and mixed with Gran Marnier, a dollop of honey and some lemon. I was generally a robust and healthy mixologist.

As most alcoholics do, I was simply fooling myself. Truth be told, all that booze probably didn’t help my immune system one bit. Furthermore, and if memory serves, I didn’t get sick any more or less frequently when Kochevar’s was my health care resource of choice. Hangovers were my most common malaise.

Having plugged the jug, I am much more aware of what I ingest. I know what I eat, I measure my hydration, my weight is more easily controlled and my head is—relatively—clear. This is all good stuff in the context of what I hope is a healthy and active lifestyle. In retrospect, it is a little surprising that I weathered those more, uh…holistic years as well as I did. Just lucky, I guess.

Sober clarity provides the opportunity to actively avoid illness and disease, as much as a man my age can. That is to say, instead of sitting in an airport bar sucking down bourbon and soda, for example, I now spend my time scrubbing my hands until they chap and rinsing with hand sanitizer. Anticipating my time in a tin can rife with contagion, I hydrate, cleanse and avoid obvious germ hangouts like handrails and door handles.

It doesn’t do any good. I’d have been as well served sucking down that bourbon…except for the hangover. Despite all my sanitary precautions, a recent flight on the biohazard express penetrated my heretofore healthy system.

Living up here at the head of the draw, I am not often exposed to the vast variety of germs that make themselves at home in our human congregation. No epidemiologist, I figure constant exposure to an assortment of virulent bugs better prepares an immune response. In other words, our clean mountain air serves to keep us healthy only if we stay there. The minute we expose ourselves to foreign viruses, or when visitors import those critters to our mountain fastness, we are bug bait. Katie, bar the door.

Thankfully, the bugs didn’t kick in until I had made it home to Crested Butte. My most distinct apprehension about air travel is that I will get sick in some distant and unsympathetic port. Not only would I have to endure the agonies of disease with no commiseration, I would suffer the condemnation of those I was unintentionally exposing to my obvious sickness. At home, only my cat would suffer exposure, and I’m pretty sure cats don’t get human disease.

Health care begins, and ultimately ends at home. Here I can shuffle a block or two to the doctor’s office and hope he can provide cure, comfort and solace. Alternatively, I can flop on the couch and read or watch television, and consume mostly worthless over-the-counter comfort and remedy.

Television provides scant comfort because the news is rife with information about widespread viral death and immunization that may be worse than the disease or altogether worthless. In the midst of the H1N1 pandemic, we continue arguing about health care reform and are continuously bombarded with advertisements about everything from erectile dysfunction to restless leg syndrome to…whatever.

It is no small irony that health care reform debate rages in the midst of the most virulent pandemic to impact our population in almost a century. Health care reform opponents should take a look around at a society sick on lousy diets and increasingly vulnerable to any formerly unknown and potent virus that comes down the pike.

They should consider the souls who don’t have a doctor a block away and who couldn’t afford him if they did. Those who like health care the way it is should check out profit margins of big pharma and health insurance providers. They should sit next to me in an airport when I’m spewing contagion.

Between bouts of coughing and on top of the pain of a swollen throat, I pray I haven’t fallen victim to what one friend calls “pig flu.” That eventuality might cause me to seek solace in warm brandy and Gran

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Earth Matters: Flat earthers eat their children

I can’t help it. Darkness burrows into my soul and chews at my attitude like an evil malignancy. My brain shuts down and sleep becomes my only escape. I awake to no morning sunlight and close my eyes again to deny outside darkness.

Cold fingers my marrow, freezes my hands and numbs my skin. I don gloves and more clothes—that’s why they make gore-tex—and gather warmth to my core. I can take the cold—I signed up for it—but the darkness gets me. There is nothing for it at 39 degrees north latitude except to move south…and that won’t happen.

The irony isn’t lost on me when this time of year I again jump on the sky-is-falling-global-warming bandwagon. Here I am, up at the head of the draw at 9,000 feet in the frozen food section, freezing my ass off and hollering that global warming will destroy the world…as we know it. I’m sure that would be just fine for some folks.

Other folks simply don’t believe global warming is happening and deny anthropogenic—human—causes as responsible. U.S. Senator James Inhofe said, “Much of the debate over global warming is predicated on fear, rather than science…The threat of catastrophic global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American People.”

I have a friend in Denver who categorically denies global warming and rejects any assertion that human industry is at fault.

“It is simply liberal propaganda,” he posits, “promulgated because they can’t find any other meaningful agenda.”

I asked when was the last time he visited Rocky Mountain National Park to see where the glaciers used to be. When was the last time he walked on a receding glacier or negotiated recessional moraines? Been in any floods lately? He pleaded a restrictive work load and admitted he seldom leaves Denver.

These are the guys I liken to flat-earthers. Whatever minimal understanding of human nature I enjoy informs me that those who denied the earth as round, labored under the same mindset as those who today believe there is no such thing as global warming…and if there were, it’s not our fault. Yes: flat-out, hot-headed human nature.

But, hey! Columbus has already weighed anchor and is headed off across the warming ocean to a new world. Science confirms the poop in the fan, although the minute one bunch of scientists stands up and says the world is melting, another stands up and says the first is full of nonsense. More human nature.

Anecdotal and visual evidence is worth something, however, and I’m convinced that sure as winter is around the corner, global warming is changing our world. Here is some of that anecdotal stuff I am talking about.

Many years ago, I weighed anchor myself on a 1,000-mile canoe trip north down Canada’s Mackenzie River. This massive and moving body of water drains much of northern Canada through its delta into the Arctic Ocean. We floated haphazardly north in the giant flow, paddling up tributaries to fish and camping on shores scoured yearly by ice flows at spring breakup. Farther north, trees disappear at timberline into hummocky infinities of reindeer moss and permafrost.

An August, 2009 Associated Press article brought my Mackenzie trip back to me: “Climate trouble may be bubbling up in the Far North.” Among the myriad problems of melting ice caps, it seems permafrost is melting and releasing greenhouse components carbon dioxide and methane gas. Think stinky swamp gas trapped inside frozen tundra, melting and bubbling up. This is a feedback loop: Climate changes melt permafrost which releases methane which contributes to warming which melts…on and on.

I have also walked on Alaska’s Root Glacier in the Wrangell and St. Elias Mountains. The glacier is melting and it is difficult to figure where the glacier ends for the recessional moraine obscuring its nose. Unable to transport erosional material, the glacier itself is largely covered with debris. I have not experienced the flooding in Bangladesh where the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna Rivers meet sea level a little too high for human habitation. Nor have I witnessed ongoing wildfires turning California to ash.

In the long run, it won’t matter what the flat-earther, global-warming deniers think. We are probably long past a tipping point where we could have reversed our warming climate trends; denial simply won’t matter. Furthermore, I’ve discovered that flat-earthers didn’t really eat their children, but maybe they should have.