Saturday, March 29, 2014

Scenes from Paonia and nearby


28 Jan. 2014

It occurs to me, lying in bed with the silence of the house pressing around and the moon shining through the curtains, how easily I acclimate to being alone. Jesse is in Peru for six weeks and the solitude comes back as naturally as breathing, which is both reassuring and a little frightening. There are people from other places and other times that I consider good friends, and yet we interact rarely — they're like ships on a sea, summonable if I capsize but mostly just distant lights on my horizon. I go through my days independently, interacting mostly with the people who happen to be here with me in this place, at this time. Our orbits have randomly crossed, and while I'm grateful to walk into the brewery after work and know at least eight people by name, some bitter, cynical part of me can't forget that before long, they'll be gone from this place and so will I. We are all transient and rootless, all following our own paths. Sometimes I have to remind myself that that doesn't make our time here less meaningful.

1 Feb. 2014

Today I drove to Crested Butte, taking the longest of the three possible routes because the other two were blocked by snow. The drive to and from Gunnison was lovely, and the valley up to Crested Butte even more so — worn wooden barns tucked against hillsides, a cloud settling into the muted pink sky, a deepening dusk punctured by the lights of town. I have a drink at the bar where my friend works and talk to an older man, an engineer. Crested Butte is still a little funky and not as gaudy as some Colorado ski towns, but still clearly wealthy, with log beams and pricey boutiques. I am happy that I can drive here for a visit and happier still to come home to a town shaped by people who actually live there. When I'm wakened at night by the whistle of the coal train as it passes through Paonia, I sleepily smile that I live in a place where people still work with their hands in the earth.

8 Feb. 2014

It's been snowing on and off for a week now, a real winter like I haven't had since that one in Vermont — that winter carrying armloads of wood inside, clomping up the stairs in heavy, wet boots, driving up the hill after work and getting out of the car and standing for a moment in the frosted air on the mountaintop, my head tilted to the stars, the night perfectly still. This winter is different — I'm in town, for one thing — but every morning I wake up to a fresh inch or two of snow.

This morning I drink coffee and listen to KVNF as more snow falls outside. There's an old guy named Don doing the Saturday morning children's show, reading a story about going owling in the forest. Don struggles with the broadcasting technology and there's dead air but it's endearing because he's old, and has a sidekick named Wally who keeps saying, 'Yeah, Don. Yeah.' And Pete Seeger died and they play Pete Seeger songs, and then they talk on the phone to an 11-year-old boy and discuss pancakes and sledding and school. The boy gets to shoot .22s for science class. When a baby is born, Don and Wally welcome him or her over the radio and play a song called "You're My Little Potato." Life carries on. The seasons change.

14 February 2014

Walking to Joanna's house on a February night, carrying a jar of wine in my coat pocket, it feels suddenly like spring — a mild weekend coming in. The moon is nearly full and the streets are quiet, houses glowing from behind curtains. Faraway, a dog barks. Melting snow drips off a rooftop. Below the street, fresh snowmelt gushes through a sewer. How can such an ordinary night be so beautiful? Bare branches; grainy snow giving way to bare ground; a smell of wet soil and cold water in the air. Sometimes I love this place too much.

One Sunday in February

I've come to the edge of the San Juan mountains to stay in a friend's cabin for the weekend, and the snow is nearly gone, the landscape brown and soft. This is my dream: To not know or care what the date is; to wake up and sit outside on the steps of a cabin with a book and coffee in a hand-thrown mug; to feel the air on my face and hear, maybe, the rushing of water or of wind; to see the birds and the mountains, or maybe the sea. If this could be my morning at least one day a week, Lord, I will not complain about the other six. I will be happy.

Let this be my Sunday; let this be my church: morning sun, cold air, birds and a cup of strong coffee.

"And I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the Lord. And I will be the glory in her midst."
--Zechariah, 2:5

Friday, March 28, 2014

the in-between places.

"How much time does it take for place to seep in, for the here to quell the longing for the there?" -Rebecca Durham

Sometimes I ask how I have come to love this place, this stark, open land, sagebrush stabbed into its sandy soil, cracks and fissures splitting the earth. Coming from the rich and fertile coasts, where everything grows wild and green, where we bend to yank weeds from the ground — how did the people who came here before give that up for a place where every tendril of life must be coaxed from the earth, where the only plants are gnarled and stunted; brittle bits of life that thumb their nose at excess and fertility? Why did they stop moving and say, Here. This is the place.

There is no explaining why places like this get under our skin — not quite desert, not quite mountains, just a wild, lonely in-between. In in a time when the most hospitable places have been flattened under a sea of asphalt or privatized by the wealthy, I wonder whether these expanses appear less like wasteland and more like refuges. If our circumstances cause us to see not desolation but possibility.

I think briefly that must be so, and then I wonder again about the people who came here before. There's more to it. There's something in our soul that yearns for this.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Water rights bill pits ski industry against conservationists

Update: the House passed HR 3189 on Thursday, March 13.

The German philosopher with the impressively bushy mustache, Friedrich Nietzsche, said that all things are subject to interpretation. Had he lived in the Western U.S., he might have tacked on a clause: “Especially when it comes to water policy.”
  A House bill to be voted on this week hammers his point home, with policy experts, conservation groups, the U.S. Forest Service and the ski industry each reaching different conclusions about the potential consequences of HR 3189, the “Water Rights Protection Act.” The bill seeks to prevent the federal government from imposing cond­itions on water rights owned by public land leaseholders. Opponents contend it would also weaken federal agencies’ ability to conserve stream flows for wildlife and recreation.

American Rivers, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and some 60 other conservation groups say the bill's broad language opens the door for ranchers, ski resorts, municipalities and others who own water rights on public land to bypass federal environmental laws and deplete rivers. By shifting management from federal to state or local control, the bill could undermine stream flow requirements mandated by the Endangered Species Act, or Fish and Wildlife measures that help fish pass over dams, the groups say.

“This bill is written way too broadly,” says Matt Niemerski, Western water policy director for Washington, D.C.-based American Rivers. “It would undermine efforts to improve the health of rivers and public lands, and force federal agencies to put private water use ahead of public uses, like wildlife, fishing or boating.”

Introduced last year by Representatives Scott Tipton, R-Colo., and Jared Polis, D-Colo., the legislation sprung from a seemingly simple disagreement between the U.S. Forest Service and a handful of Colorado ski resorts. It’s since bloomed into a complex web of accusations and interpretations that’s entangled river advocates, the ski industry, the Interior Department and Big Ag. ...

...Read the rest of the story here:

Monday, March 10, 2014

Here in the North Fork Valley, at about 5,600 feet, it feels like spring. There are robins. The sun is still shining when I get home from work. The river is brown and churning and smells like wet earth. 

Today I went for my first good bike ride of the season, feeling every one of my leg muscles on the uphills and grinning wildly on the downs. I passed stiff-legged newborn calves blinking in the bright light and donkeys standing placidly in fields, smiling at the earth. Horses kicking their hooves in sheer joy. I know how they feel. Spring -- even false spring, with more wintry weather likely to come -- stirs a kind of happiness so distinct it should have its own name. Sun on your cheeks. Bare skin. The smell of dirt. One of the reasons I like a good hard winter is so I can really appreciate spring when it comes.

Nothing -- absolutely nothing -- makes me happier than the changing seasons. I thrive on change, and if I can't travel as often as I like or pack my house up every six months, I've decided I must live somewhere with four seasons. Three times in the last decade I've skipped winter (in Hawaii, the Marshall Islands and New Zealand) and now I've sworn to never again live without months of cold and snow; without wood fires and soup-making and early nights. Without winter, there couldn't be fall or spring. Everything would be the same all the time, stagnant and warm and boring, the same foods and the same smells. I won't have it.

It's false spring in the valley, but up in the mountains, at 11,000 feet, winter still holds fast. Last weekend I went to a friend's cabin the day after a storm and backcountry snowboarded through deep, fresh powder for the first time ever, cutting S-shaped tracks through unbroken alpine meadows. Holy god. I'm a convert.

First we skinned and snowshoed up through the clouds:


At the top, the clouds began to lift, and my lungs and legs were burning. I swore I'd only ski down once, because no way in hell was I hiking back up:

Ten minutes later with a shit-eating grin on my face, I gamely turned around for another run. The clouds broke up like ice from a river:

Best. Skiing. Ever.

A man, his dog and a beer in the alpine sunshine. I don't think anything could be better.

Life is so beautiful lately I wish I could stop time and prevent anything from marring this perfection. But I know the darkness is inevitable, and I'm not afraid. Spring will always return.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

shedding light on the national park popularity contest

Last summer, I visited Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time and, to be frank, was a little disgusted. Not by the park itself – the mountains were beautiful, even if the beetle-kill and $20 backcountry permits were disheartening – but by the salt-water-taffy-munching, airbrushed-tee-shirt-wearing crowd glutting the park’s gateway community of Estes Park, Colo., turning it into a kind of Jersey Shore of the Rockies.

Yet by the estimation of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Rocky Mountain National Park is one of our country’s “real treasures.” Alaska’s Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and 133 other little-visited parks? Not so much.

Coburn’s determination of what constitutes a “real treasure” stems from his calculation of how much federal money is spent on each park visitor, leading to the conclusion that less popular parks, like Yukon-Charley, drain taxpayer resources and siphon money away from pressing maintenance at world-famous destinations like the Grand Canyon. Coburn’s report of wasted money and “misplaced priorities” in the Park Service, released last fall, laid out a kind of national-park popularity contest in which the only good ones are those making the most money. It also outlined ways to increase profitability, such as by raising senior citizens’ fees.

Yet two reports released this week by the Interior Department suggest that all parks are economic drivers, even the less popular ones. The first report, a breakdown of the economic impact of national parks in 2012, found that visitor numbers were up by 3.9 million from the previous year, to a total of 282.8 million. Visitors spent $14.7 billion in gateway communities like Estes Park, and supported 243,000 jobs – mostly in hotels, restaurants and bars.

Perhaps more striking, though, is what happens without national parks, as illustrated by the second report’s evaluation of last fall’s government shutdown....

... Read the rest at:

Living with less.

Let me start right off by saying that I failed. Miserably. Last summer I moved to western Colorado after spending most of my 29 years in exceptionally rainy places, and amid discussions of water rights and fights and rivers drying up and unraveling, I decided it would be a good idea to limit my own water footprint. For one week, I’d live on just five gallons of water a day. Then I’d write about it.
I could envision two possible endings:

Scenario One: While standing naked in the bathtub, smugly dribbling water over my head from a cup dipped in a bucket, I conclude that I must be in the 99th percentile of environmentally conscious Americans because living on five gallons a day requires little sacrifice. My houseplants thrive, I remain clean and good-natured, and the brilliant essay I planned to write suffers because it was too easy.

Scenario Two: One week into my experiment, I am ragged and filthy. My plants have withered and I've been shunned at work for peeing in a chamber pot under my desk. I am desperate for a hot shower, and when I finally turn on the faucet and step into the tub, I experience deep revelations that lead to a brilliant essay about limiting my water supply.

Scenario Three never made an appearance in my daydreams, but this is what really happened: It's Monday night – a mere three days after my resolution to live for a week on limited water ­– and I am sitting in bed freshly showered. I did not shower with a bucket. In other words, I didn't even make it to the end of the week.

For me, five gallons a day was a quirky experiment. For the 17 California communities on a list released last month by state health officials, it may become reality: As drought tightens its grip on the state, each community is at risk of running out of drinking water within 100 days. Officials are discussing trucking in water as a possible solution.

In one such place, a town of 1,200 called Lompico, water comes from underground aquifers replenished by rainwater. The problem is, there hasn’t been much rain lately: California received an average of just 7 inches in 2013, compared to their usual 22, and the Sierra Nevada snowpack that feeds many reservoirs is at 12 percent of normal. Lompico residents have been asked to cut their water usage by 30 percent, but as Water District Board president Lois Henry pointed out to the San Francisco Chronicle, “We live in the Santa Cruz Mountains. People don't have lawns. They don't have gardens. How are they going to conserve 30 percent?"

California isn’t the only state to face water shortages; residents of Magdalena, N.M., might be able to offer a few water-conserving suggestions. Last June, Magdalena’s sole well ran dry, and for several weeks Socorro County officials had to truck in water from the county seat, 30 miles away. For a while, families received two plastic water bottles and a five-gallon tank per day. The medical clinic shut its doors. Restaurants switched to disposable plates. Tourism effectively ceased, and some people living in rental properties packed their bags and moved on. It was like a glimpse into a drought-wracked dystopian future ­– or a not-so-distant future, if predictions that the California drought will persist for several months or longer prove accurate.

Dara Machotka-Hafey and her husband, Jonathan, wanted to stay in Magdalena. The year before, they’d bought the only Laundromat in a 60-mile radius, added a mercantile where locals could buy fresh produce, and were renovating an Airstream trailer to live in with their 4-year-old daughter, Nia.
The Laundromat drew customers from as far away as the Navajo reservation and the town of Datil, 40 miles west. The Machotka-Hafeys were still living paycheck-to-paycheck, but they had hope. “We were struggling,” Dara says, “but it was getting better, you know?”

... Read the rest of my essay here:
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