Saturday, December 20, 2008

Dock Ellis, the trippin' no-hit pitcher, passes

Everybody deserves a wilderness to traverse. Long-time pitcher Dock Ellis had many regions he explored and honored. But certainly the most ... elegant, perhaps, is his pitching a no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates whilst under the influence of LSD.

Dock Ellis hath passed
. Long may he throw celestial strikes. With sparks trailing the pitches ...

Hear Dock tell the story himself:

Friday, December 19, 2008

The ice is always whiter next door ...

It's supposed to get cold this weekend -- below zero here in Durango, the weather prognosticators say.

For myself, that means a few strategic maneuvers: letting the faucets and toilet drip in the downstairs bathroom, so they don't freeze; throwing a big fatty log in the woodstove before heading up to bed; moving the mailbox down to the tree along the walkway so the mailman doesn't have to scale the glacier that bulges on our front step in midwinter (it is, I am fairly sure, the only glacier on Earth that is advancing).

Beyond that, though, I'm looking forward to it. I like to fully inhale the breath of winter's breadth, and now that I've had some nice deep gulps of snow (three most glorious powder days at Purgatory this week -- now that's the way to start a ski season!), I owe winter its depth of cold. Bring it on.

Of course, here on the southern flank of the Southern Rockies, even in the depth of winter the cold is pretty shallow. A few degrees below zero, maybe, for a week, maybe. Last year, if I remember correctly, winter managed to plunge us to double-digits below zero; still, though, for self-anointed mountain folk, Durango's so-called cold is a mere splash in a puddle.

For real submersion, you need to head to the deep end of winter's pool. There you'll find folks throwing blankets over the hoods of their cars, or plugging in electric heaters attached to the blocks of their cars' engines, or pulling their car batteries into the bedroom with them where they will hopefully awakened warm, refreshed, and ready to crank over a crankcase full of sludgy-cold tranny oil in the morning.

I learned those tricks and many more during the several years I spent living in the Fraser Valley, in northern Colorado, in the 1980s. In the Fraser Valley (which includes the town of Fraser, the self-proclaimed "Icebox of the Nation," even though the town lost a bitter trademark dispute with International Falls, Minn., over that moniker), an unusual geologic feature creates what is essentially a high-altitude sink where the cold pools in a fierce, dense, frigid pool that frequently submerges the towns of Winter Park, Fraser, and Tabernash in temperatures of 40 degrees below zero and lower.

The coldest temperature I, myself, experienced was in Tabernash, when it hit 62 degrees below zero. While I hitchhiked to work that clear, crystal, still morning, smoke from nearby chimneys snaked down off roofs and crawled to the ground, and snow fell from my breath.

After that, Durango feels tropical, and its week of single-digit sub-zero temps a cute little anomaly in an otherwise lovely climate.

Well, what Durango is to the Fraser Valley, the Icebox of the Nation -- whichever one you really believe deserves to be billed as such -- is to Oymyakon. Located in Siberian Russia, Oymyakon holds the record for the coldest temperature for an inhabited place in the northern hemisphere: -71.2 degrees Celcius.

In Oymyakon, according to the news segment below (recorded in 1996), birds freeze to death in flight, but the residents are tough as nails. It gets hard to breath at around 60 below zero, reports the grinning town "weatherman." And even the kids are resilient: At the Oymyakon school, students have recess until 40 below zero, and school isn't called off until the temperature sinks to minus 52.

I'll take Durango -- or even Tabernash -- any winter's day.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Purgatory finally sees powder ...

It's been a long wait (especially with a 13-year-old powder-hounding daughter daily asking the ski-bum's equivalent of are we there yet??), but we finally got up to Purgatory ... er, Durango Mountain Resort ... today.
From Purg 14 dec 08

And it was a good day to go: although only the front-side six-pack was open and only a handful of runs were open, the skiing that was there was excellent. Employees reported the area had at last received a foot and a half of light, lovely snow.
From Purg 14 dec 08

We spent most of the day hitting Paradise and Hades, and at midday patrollers opened Lower Pando and Lower Hades -- and we were lucky enough to be standing at the rope when they opened lower Hades, which led to a glorious back-country quality float trip down Hades' steep uncut face.

Changes at Purg? Well, the base area looked quite nice. The wide entranceway courtyard has a nice, cozy, throw-back ski-area feel to it, with it brick cobblestone
From Purg 14 dec 08
and classic lamp posts. And the new Purgy's is attractive and functional (although it seems crazy they didn't put an easy-to-access water fountain near the entrance to the restaurant and bar ...). Out in front of the restaurant, a bonfire gave cold folks -- and it was a cold day of alternating snow squalls and sun bursts -- a place to sit and enjoy a day in the hills.
From Purg 14 dec 08

But, rest assured: other stuff that classic Purgatory haven't changed. My favorite personal gripes were left in tact:
  • It was still that familiar unmanaged chaos at the six pack loading area - people trying to figure out how to merge the entrance lines, and six-seater chairs going up with one or two people while dozens wait below -- while at the loading area three employees, oblivious to the line-mess behind them, rake the snow and watch people load.
  • The lifts and base area are still aurally sterile -- devoid of the festive music that imbue powder-day spirit at the base area and the tops and bottoms of lifts at most ski areas. Even the soundtrack to Purgy's restaurant of was the indecipherable mumbling from the TVs broadcasting two different football games.
It's refreshing to know they're not improving everything at Purg.

And today, it would've been hard to improve the skiing.
From Purg 14 dec 08

It has begun ... Check out the slide show:

And more snow is a'comin' ...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Point of Interest: Durango high school students make their own damn ski movie

A couple of weeks ago we quenched our ski hungering for a while by going down to the Abbey Theatre and checking out Point of Interest, a ski film entirely shot, performed, edited, and produced by some Durango High School students.

I left hungrier than ever to get out on my boards -- and happy and chipper and feeling damn fine about the shape of the next crop of ski bums.

Filmed in and around Purgatory, and other familiar local San Juan locales, Point of Interest is imaginative filming of good action melded with cool music and laced with witty humor. Produced and edited by the talented Matt Mulligan, and starring the skiing and boarding of Mulligan and other students, including David VanAtta, Ben Southworth, Cedar Jocks, Aidan Sheehad, Jenna Mulligan, and Derek Macguffie, the film was full of spirit and creativity and good fun.

And it struck me as a good, healthy, mountain-town rite of passage: the kids taking over the terrain -- done watching, and out doing.

The future of the mountain culture, I think, is in good hands.

Check it out:


Friday, December 5, 2008

Craig Childs defends the modern forager

I've never been one to try to keep up with the Joneses. I just wait for them to have a yard sale.

As a long-time bum (fishing, ski, van, river, desert, mountain, etc. etc.), I've found there are few things in life that are worth acquiring new. And that there are many, many ways -- many underground economies, and even many sources of free pickings -- to get goods that are plenty good. And cheap.

Which is important when you have built your life around living in the hinterlands of the American West, and around building the time in that life -- generally (at least in my case) at the expense of a more abundant income -- to get out and enjoy it.

Want less; do more. Know what I mean?

Hotchkiss, Colo.-based writer Craig Childs (author of the excellent and engaging House of Rain) knows what I mean. And he waxes philosophic about it -- his own and others' adventures in 21st century scavenging -- in a recent column in the LA Times.

Read Craig Childs' "Man as Scavenger." Then raise a tin-cup toast to hunting and gathering in the modern world!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The ill effects of less habitat and fewer hunters

Every night lately when my dog and I head out to practice our before-bed ritual of sauntering the neighborhood, we've seen the new neighbors. Sometimes they're standing in the dark in the backyard next door, silently eyeing us. Other times, they're in the yard of neighbors on the other side, munching the last apples of fall that lay on the ground under the now-bare apple tree. Sometimes they're just moving down the alley in a gang sporting their (ahem) leather jackets, acting like they own the place.

The deer move as freely through our little city at the foot of the big mountains as do my teenage kids on their skateboards and bikes. We all share this space, even if warily. As do the other longer-term denizens of the Animas Valley, home and byway for wildlife since the glaciers went back to the hills for more rocks 10 millenia ago. Still wandering through our town's alleys and taking residence in our privately-owned backyard pastures are, along the with usual assortment of rodents and varmits, more wild wildlife: bear, elk, coyotes, and mountain lion.

And it's not just here in the remote San Juan Country where this is happening: Wildlife are moving into and squatting on suburban and urban landscapes all over the country. And not without consequence, for both human and non.

The causes and implications of this re-wilding of our urban habitat was the subject of an interesting discussion yesterday on NPR's "On Point," with host Tom Ashbrook. The show looked at the question, "Are animals crowding humans, or is it the other way around? Is hunting the way to solve problems between people and animals?"

Guests discussing the issue on the show were:
  • John Rocchetta, a land steward who manages properties on Long Island.
  • Brian Vincent, founder of Big Wildlife, an Oregon-based conservation group.
It's worth giving it a listen. There's an interesting discussion in the comments on the webpage, as well.

Here, too, is the recent excellent piece on the state of hunting by Matthew Teague in Sports Illustrated.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Group fights for southeastern Utah forests

Looking for a Christmas gift for that person who can't keep away from the wonders of southeastern Utah? Give that high-country canyoneer a membership with Red Rock Forests.

Red Rock Forests is a Moab-based 501(c)3 non-profit formed nearly 10 years ago, in 1999. Originally called "Friends of the Abajos," the group is now dedicated to the protection of southeastern Utah's unique and fragile high-desert forest lands in and around the Abajo and La Sal mountains.

The organization's staff of six (including Monticello wilderness activist and writer Amy Irvine-McHarg, author of Trespass: Living at the edge of the promised land), with the help of volunteers, is working on several campaigns, including an updated inventory of legal and illegal roads in the Abajo Moutains, monitoring and commenting on Manti-La Sal National Forest management plans and proposals, and an outreach and education campaign on oil-and-gas and mineral development in the Canyonlands area.

They describe themselves thus:
Red Rock Forests strives to protect the sky-island mountains and plateaus above America's Redrock Wilderness in southern Utah, emphasizing the La Sal Mountains, Abajo Mountains, and Elk Ridge in the Canyonlands Basin. We recognize the vital ecological role these ranges play in sustaining Utah's desert wildlife and waterways. For this reason, ecology is our guiding principle, though we use education, public policy, the law, citizen action, and collaboration with other organizations and agencies to achieve protection for these irreplaceable high desert oases.
Read more of their "about us" here.

Check out their newsletters and donate to join here.

Contact Red Rock Forests at