Saturday, June 29, 2013

without a trace.

Colorado's Weminuche Wilderness

Recently I voted in a one-question online survey for a chance to win a pair of sunglasses. The question was: Do You Leave No Trace?

I really wanted to win the sunglasses, so I checked the box marked "Yes, mostly." I mean, I consider that a fairly accurate response, but I also thought that if I was more truthful and checked ones of the boxes marked "Um, I take a rock every now and then," or "Don't camp within 200 feet of water? Really?", I might jeopardize my chances of winning the sunglasses. And did I mention the sunglasses were really sweet?

The author of the survey, who comes across as a strong Leave No Trace proponent, wrote that "LNT has done a fantastic job of getting the message out, and, incredibly, without coming across like a nag. Too many wilderness proponents are shrill, annoying, and self-righteous... but Leave No Trace principles are clearly grounded in our own best self-interest. And they aren’t so difficult to follow.

"But," he concluded, as if with one eyebrow raised, staring right at me, "Do you?"

LNT as a concept is easy enough, but the seven LNT principles (memorized by anyone who wants a wilderness job) are pretty rigid. I clearly remember my first night camping on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River (a Wild and Scenic River as revered as the holy grail) and asking my group innocently if I should toss the stubby carrot-ends from our dinner into the churning, silty river.

My friend Chris looked at me aghast. "Do you know," he asked, his voice dripping with italics, "where we ARE?"

Fair enough. But fair, too, that the sediment in the river would likely have ground those three carrot stubs into shreds that soon would have joined the bits of leaves and other biomass in that turbulent, dynamic ecosystem.

There are diehard LNT proponents (like my friend Chris) who will never build a fire in the backcountry, who eat their apple cores, wipe their ass with pinecones, and practice the endearing habit known as self-sumping: wherein, after cooking and eating a meal, one sloshes an inch of precious water into the pot, uses one's grubby fingers to scrub off all remaining grease, bits of food, burned tidbits, etc., then drinks the resulting dirty dishwater to avoid leaving any bits of food behind. Though self-sumping was born in environments where water is precious or food smells might attract grizzlies, it's now practiced nonchalantly even in environments where it's completely unnecessary. Some people actually claim to enjoy the taste of dirty dishwater.

The alternative to self-sumping is to dig a hole far from where you'll be sleeping, place a piece of mesh or a hash of twigs over it, pour the dishwater into the hole, fling the bits of food caught in your sieve into a trash bag, then cover the hole. Is this a pain in the ass? Maybe. If you're not in bear country, can you simply fling the water into the bushes? I say, why not?

In parts of Alaska, Leave No Trace is almost laughable. There are places so rarely visited by humans, where the land is so fecund and so resilient that it erodes, eats up, grows over, and washes away any prints left by a lonely camper within a matter of days. There are places where the rivers are so enormous and silty and filled with hungry organisms that they immediately devour last night's leftover spaghetti. Should campers in such places be ashamed into not carrying out a rock as a memento when miners a few hundred miles away are blasting into watersheds with TNT?

I believe that Leave No Trace is a worthy principle to teach anyone new to backcountry travel, or anyone who believes that burying toilet paper or tossing orange peels off the trail are acceptable practices. But after a while, you (hopefully) learn that LNT is just that: a principle, not a set of unbendable rules. Obviously, respecting fire bans and leaving cultural artifacts are important, but there's a lot to be said for having a campfire: not only when it's necessary for warmth or to dry out, but to help ensure that kids or even wilderness newbies have a positive experience in a place that can otherwise be cold and scary. There's a lot to be said for being hands-on: for picking flowers and edible plants, for catching frogs, for being the kind of kid who has a rock collection. There's a lot to be said for leaving the hard-packed trail behind and venturing into the unknown.

There are places to rejoice in these small vagrancies, and places not to. It's more important to practice LNT on highly used lands that receive a lot of impact, or in sensitive environments like alpine or desert areas. And while I often walk off trail, choose a waterfront camp or take home a porcupine quill, I always pick up others' trash and carry out my own. It's all a matter of judgement.

For information's sake, the seven Leave No Trace principles:

Plan ahead and prepare
Travel and camp on durable surfaces
Dispose of waste properly
Leave what you find
Minimize campfire impacts
Respect wildlife
Be considerate of other visitors
Waterfront camping on the Stikine River, British Columbia

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

my last day in durango.

All day today I'd planned on going to the gym with Margaret, because my "Welcome to Durango" packet had included a free pass and I needed the exercise. But after many hours at home pretending to be a writer while actually wasting vast amounts of time online, Margaret showed up and we decided that happy hour downtown sounded far more appealing than a session at the gym. It was a good choice. One cocktail led to another, and eventually I found myself walking home happily buzzed through the warm, friendly streets of Durango.

I saw Willie sitting in front of the Bookcase, in the same place where I'd met him a couple weeks ago. He's a local homeless musician, and he reminds me of my Dad, though I doubt my Dad would take kindly to the comparison. After meeting Willie for the first time, I felt so bad for him and at the same time liked him so much that I thought about bringing him some cookies or a card on Father's Day, since his own daughters have cut off all ties with him. But one thing led to another, and I never did.

Tonight Willie and I shared a cigar and he told me with a humble openness about his alcoholism, the 30 years he spent drunk without a hangover, and the four heart attacks and three strokes that have since straightened him out. People walked by and smiled and said hello, and I wondered if it looked odd, me sitting on a bench with this gnarly bearded guy who looks like a worn-down cowboy. But there's no denying that regardless of his age or socioeconomic class, he's good company. Talking with him satisfies some unspoken need; it eases the guilt I feel for being thousands of miles away from the barstool where I know my own father is sitting, the man who loves my company so much and would do anything for me except stop his own suffering.

It's not only guilt that makes me stop and sit with Willie, but enjoyment, too, the pleasure of knowing that my company has the power to make an old man so damn happy; the pleasure of knowing that I have all the time in the world this evening to stop and chat; the pleasure that I somehow strangely get from hanging out with fascinating old guys I've met in my travels. Maybe it is weird. Maybe I should be more cautious.

I'm sure that's what many people in my life would tell me: be more careful, Krista. There's no need to befriend these strangers. But there are others, I hope, who see things the way I do, who believe that intuition is a thing to be trusted, that risk is inherent in everything we do, and that spreading compassion and learning about somebody else's life is sometimes worth a little bit of risk.

I walked home a few more blocks, just as dusk was turning to dark, ran into a couple more friends, talked with them for a bit, walked on. Said hello to people sitting on their porches or walking by with their dogs, partners, friends or kids. Looked in the glowing windows of houses, as I do at this time of day, and imagine the lives lived inside. Wearing a skirt and tank top, I was perfectly warm, skin caressed, feeling safe and cared for and content in this little town where I've been living. Thank you, universe, for giving me this place, this life, these people. Tomorrow I move again -- north to Paonia. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

moving water

I've lately discovered that I LOVE taking photos of whitewater. The resolution may not be high enough here to get the full effect (unless you click on an individual photo to see it full screen), but the clarity of the water drops as they're frozen by the film and the fluidity of water as it's cut by a paddle or a boat are amazing to play around with. Thanks to Jesse, Sam and Peter for letting me take their pictures.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Sunday at the Bookcase

For a town of 13,000 to 18,000 -- depending on the season or who you ask -- Durango, Colorado sure has a lot of book stores. There are at least five, not counting the handful of thrift stores that also sell used books for a quarter each. Equally prolific in this transient, high desert town are interesting characters who could be found in the pages of a book themselves, and the combination of fascinating people hanging around funky bookstores makes it far too easy to lose track of time here, especially on a hot Sunday afternoon.

Last Sunday, sticking to my bike seat in the 90-degree heat, I rode to a tiny storefront called the Bookcase with the intent of asking the owner if I could take her picture. Quick in and out, I thought, then on to dinner with friends. But a tall lemonade, free book and hours of conversation later, the heat of the day had faded into cool evening and I was still there.

I fancy myself something of a bookstore connoisseur, having grown up in a part of Massachusetts that the New York Times once called “the most author-saturated, book-cherishing, literature-celebrating place in the nation.” My favorite bookstore in the world is the Montague Bookmill in Montague, Mass., but in my travels I've come across some other good ones as well. While I don't think much of the highly-touted Powell's City of Books in Portland, Ore.  (a bit overwhelming and lacking in character, if you ask me), the Old Inlet Bookshop in Homer, Alaska is completely my style -- disorganized, cheap, with an compelling and knowledgeable person behind the counter. So is is Observatory Books, a Juneau-based shop that specializes in old maps and Alaskana. Or Lion Heart Book Store in Seattle, or Back of Beyond Books in Moab. Finding these places is one of my favorite things about traveling. Everywhere I've been, from Brooklyn to Burlington to Berkeley, I come across these beloved, ramshackle shops, places with creaky floors and enough dust to cause an allergy attack; places that persevere against .99 cent books from Amazon and quietly retreat to back alleys when rents go up downtown; places that barely scrape by financially but invite you to partake in that modern rarity, browsing leisurely without knowing that you'll find.

Rarely, though, do my traveling companions have the desire to spend hours among yellowing books, so I often only get a taste of what these stores have to offer. Each one leaves me yearning for more -- wondering at its history, wondering what I missed hidden in that back room, wondering what possessed the owner to take up such an enchanting but financially disastrous enterprise. I've daydreamed of owning a bookstore myself someday, but when I talked to Minnesota author and Birchbark Books owner Louise Erdrich about it, she informed me that it's "not a viable business if you want to become a wealthy person at all."

"But when people want to be in a bookstore, they want to really be in a bookstore," she continued. "The thing that ... people really love about small, independent bookstores is you never know what to expect. They're eccentric, and every single one is different."

Here in Durango, Southwest Book Trader has the best selection, seemingly defying the laws of physics by packing an uncountable number of books into an incredibly tight space. But my favorite is The Bookcase, due simply to the charisma and generosity of owner Ann Perkins-Parrott.

On Sunday, when I showed up out of the blue and asked if I could aim my obtrusive camera in her direction, she wasn't fazed. She herself has a degree in "socially responsible journalism," she said, so she gets it. She showed me a stuffed owl her grandfather shot, and a clock topped with a lion's head that she thinks is just about the most interesting thing in her shop, besides the people who come in. She showed me her bookcase of DVDs, full of B-film classics like "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter." Prior to receiving her journalism degree and buying the 30-year-old bookstore, she owned two video-rental stores with her now-deceased husband and loves old movies almost as much as she loves books, the weirder and more disturbing the better. "Disturbing's my middle name," she said -- shortly after mentioning that her singing voice could "curdle breast milk still in the teat."

"I'm from Texas," she added. "I can say things like that."

Though business is steady, Ann is at the shop seven days a week, so to stave off boredom she encourages friends and soon-to-be-friends to come hang out. She often takes care of a local disabled man who parks his motorized wheelchair in front of her open door, wiping his weepy eyes with her handkerchief and helping translate his contributions to a running conversation that flows like a river outside her shop. She flirts good-naturedly with a Vietnam vet who sits on the bench outside. She leaves a bowl of water out for dog-walkers who pass by. And lately she's given a key to the bookshop to a friend named Willie, a traveling musician who'd been living under a railroad bridge while trying to find a room for rent in Durango.

"It was loud and cold and dusty as hell with all that coal," he told me of his weeks of homelessness. Now, after Ann leaves for the night, he spreads his sleeping bag on a narrow strip of floor between bookshelves and heats up dinner in the bookshop's microwave. Days, he busks on street corners, playing fiddle and mandolin and guitar. He once sold a song to Willie Nelson. When his two daughters were growing up, he spent most of his time on the road and made enough money playing music to put them both through college, but now when he tries to visit them, he says, they close the door in his face. He's silent for a moment, then tugs on the brim of his worn leather cowboy hat.

"I hope they're happy," he says, looking at the sky. "I am."

Sitting against the sun-warmed bricks in front of the Bookcase, the afternoon slips away, and the talk is of horses and silver-inlaid saddles, Durango locals, the weather. We drink lemonade. A few customers drift in and out of the shop but don't buy anything. Ann takes trades as well as sales, and one young teenage boy seems to treat her sci-fi collection as an obscure rotating library rather than a place to actually make purchases. Ann doesn't seem to mind. The sole online review of her shop says this: "When the owner [Ann] was asked if she took credit cards, this was the answer: 'Plastic, cash, checks. We take everything. If you find something that really needs to be yours and you don't have the money right now, just take it and mail me a check when you get back home.'"

On this particular day, Ann reckons she hasn't made enough money to cover her gas to and from work, so I offer to buy a book just before she closes up for the day. It seems like the least I can do. When I push Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac across the counter toward her with six dollars on top, she carefully looks at it, puts the money between the pages of the book, and hands it back to me.

"This is a gift," she says. "Sometime, you come back to Durango and stop back in here and maybe you'll buy something. But I bought this book with my own money and now I'm giving it to you. I'm the owner, so I can do that."


Thursday, June 6, 2013

adapting to the desert.

I've been living in southwest Colorado for three weeks now and haven't felt so much as a drop of rain against my face. Every morning, a cloudless blue sky flutters behind the thin curtains and sunshine streams in through my bedroom windows. I've stopped carrying raingear "just in case" -- last week I went on a three-day trip down the Rio Chama and against all my training and better judgement, brought neither a rainjacket nor a tent. I'm growing used to sleeping under the stars.

Farmers and ranchers are praying for rain, and the local newspapers are full of stories about drought. But it doesn't feel like a drought. The hillsides are verdant, the trees are topped with bursts of spring green, our garden is flourishing. But whereas summer in New England is a nonstop explosion of green and growing things, the color will only last so long here in the West. Even in good years, anything not artificially irrigated will wither and turn brown by the end of July. I have to tell myself that my idea of beauty -- the one ingrained by my cultural and environmental upbringing in the Northeast -- is not the only one. My friend Montana thinks there is nothing more beautiful than an undulating sea of gold and brown or a jumble of bare rock. Just as concepts of human beauty differ between cultures, so do ideas of environmental beauty.

In the midst of the dry air and endless sunshine, it amazes me that some of the most beautiful rivers in the world still flow, and that life here feels rich rather than scarce. I've spent as much time on and in the water here on the edge of the desert than I did in the middle of the rainforest, and given the lack of precipitation, the gift of water feels even more miraculous.

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