Friday, January 30, 2009

Fear and Loathing - and optimism - in Mountain Village

A friend of mine just spent a bargain weekend in Mountain Village. Not exactly wilderness, this multi-million-dollar trophy-home enclave set on the backside (appropriately enough, methinks) of Telluride Ski Area's Coonskin Mountain that looms over the more appealing and personable -- and relatively real -- town of Telluride.

Yet he came back with some crazy tales.

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The stories he told me, though, weren't about the skiing -- that was fair to midland, he reported. It was the house he stayed in at Mountain Village that left him dazzled and babbling.

The lodging was the gift of a friend, who has a friend on the East Coast who has a house in Moutain Village. The owner and his family only get to Mountain Village, you know, a couple of weekends a year -- the rest of time time it sits empty, but is kept ready, idling, waiting: heated, stocked, lit, and fully accoutremented.

The "house," as my friend described it, is a gargantuan wood and log structure with gaping glass windows, a multi-floor cathedral-style vaulted central living space, and seven or so bedrooms -- each with its own bathroom. And more. The place, too, he related with some audible awe, was fully outfitted with a Wii game console, super-sonic sound system, and drive-in-sized flat screen TV -- with the cable, of course, turned on year-round for those couple of weekend visits.

And although the owner was kind enough to let his local friend bring some buddies -- like that Buffett song "Gypsies in the Palace" -- to hunker down there with their cheap beer and T-Cards, it still left my friend with some vague, gnawing sense of ill ease, like, That's just not okay ...

I get it.

Living here in one of the most gorgeous spots on Earth, we, of course, are all too familiar with Mountain Village, or some jet-set enclave like it, that has been carved out like a fortified colonial outpost in some beautiful corner of the San Juans or Four Corners. And if you're like me, you can't help but look toward those often-empty but always-lit-and-heated and maintained mega-houses set upon the metaphoric hill above the commonfolk, and scratch out a mental note: Um, Mr. Obama, I have a great idea where the country can save energy and resources right away ...

And we're certainly not alone in our distaste for such waste. Mountain Village itself -- the crown jewel in Four Corner's set of gaudy second-home (and third, and fourth) monuments to ego -- has even been the subject of a funny and biting mockumentary, The Lost People of Mountain Village, by Telluriders Carol Black and Neal Marlens.

Still, I try to not let my cynicism and scorn obscure the big picture here: That those aren't just distasteful shrines to oppulence piled up in places like Mountain Village -- those are also resources held in reserve for a day not far away when we'll need all that stored wood, all those spare parts, all that housing space. Just think: that single-family tens-of-thousands-of-square-foot weekend getaway spot my friend squatted in could one day be ... a hostel for dozens of trekkers ... an indoor village for some future self-styled traveling-buddha-like career-bumming class of wayfarers ... or a series of studio apartments for the future dwellers in some Rewilded West.

For myself, that's a beautiful vision that takes away some of the sorrow I feel for the poor slobs so rich that they feel they need an outpost in some faraway place they wish they could afford to let go of their wealth enough to actually move to. I think now that maybe this is their way of giving back to the future generations of the places and cultures they plundered in their reckless and fruitless search for happiness in their sad, unrooted, tedious, wealthy worlds.

Again, though, I'm not alone in this optimistic vision.

This vision, too, or something like it is being explored elsewhere -- in bigger circles and by smarter people than just some middle-aged low-budget still-ski-bumming multi-jobbed curmudgeon like me. The New York Times recently ran a piece titled "What Will Save the Suburbs," which profiles progressive urban planners who are already looking at potential benefits and uses of abandoned suburban neighborhoods and their accompanying blight of strip malls and box stores.

And those skills we'll need to make use of those in those reclaimed landscapes that got hammered in the last of couple of decades or centuries of urban/suburban sprawl? There, too, there be those looking for a bright side. Check out these "urban foragers," stalking a still bountiful and resilient landscape, even in urban Chicago.

Sky Full of Bacon 07: Eat This City from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

So next time you pass by some gated community or resort slum or McMansion hovel, swallow that bitterness, put away that molotov cocktail, and instead see instead the potential. What bounty is awaiting us in the disappearing and someday-to-be-reclaimed Mountain Villages around the West?

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Proceeds from sales of the Lost People of Mountain Village DVD support the Sheep Mountain Alliance. Buy the DVD here.

Learn more about or contact Ken Wright at

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The power of pictures

Here's another great example of the power of pictures -- and how the internet provides a valuable forum that traditional mass media could not have for distributing and making those pictures even more effective.

This photo study, titled "The Places We Live," captures images of slums in four cities around the world -- in Venezuela, India, Indonesia, and Kenya -- in an interactive slide-show format, and set against quotes from residents and even with background "street sounds."

Once you've picked a city, you can then "enter" an individual's house, "walk" around their house, and listen to the householder talk about their life.

There is also a photo book based on the project, and a gallery exhibition touring the world.

The Places We Live.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

newspaper and blogs merge in new newspaper vision

While most newspapers are shrinking, and many are folding up all together, an entrepreneur in Chicago is launching his vision of a new kind of newspaper -- one that combines the values of a hard-copy paper with the content style of on-line publications.

The Printed Blog will be a print publication, but will employ a new business model different from traditional newspapers. According to the New York Times, publisher Joshua Karp's newspaper will cull the best of blogs from particular regions, combine that with reader-generated material, and publish may "hyper-local" versions of The Printed Blog.

The first editions are due to appear in Chicago and San Francisco tomorrow (Jan. 23, '09).

To make the paper financially viable, Karp is employing some very non-traditional newspaper-publishing practices:
  • The newspapers will be free;
  • volunteers are trolling and selecting blogs for content;
  • user-generated content such as comments and letters will be placed alongside ads and articles;
  • bloggers are letting Karp excerpt posts for free (in exchange for promotion);
  • rather than using large centralized printing presses with a wide distribution system, Karp in putting individual small presses in the homes of individual distributors, then paying the costs -- that way each edition can be shaped for each specific region, and there are no costs in shipping the papers to each distributor;
  • ads will also be taylored to each micro-local edition.
Karp predicts as many as 50 distinct versions could one day be found in a city the size of Chicago.

The first editions will be weekly, but Karp hopes to go daily -- or even twice daily -- once ad revenues allow.

Check out the New York Times article here.

Visit The Printed Blog here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Franti and Spearhead's Obama song

Michael Franti and Spearhead released this video and song about Obama in December. It's worth revisiting one more time. At least.

You can also download the song for free at Spearhead Vibrations.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Extra! Global-warming defying glacier discovered!

That's right: This is a photo of what is perhaps the world's only advancing glacier. And it's right on here in the Southern Rockies.

Right on our doorstep, actually, demanding the state intervene and close the area for the good of the public.

Scientists are uncertain as to whether this is evidence of Global Cooling, or just a product of classic southwestern Colorado climate: Big dumps of snow interspersed with periods of warm days and frigid night

Monday, January 19, 2009

Utah oil and gas leases halted

On Saturday night, a district judge in Denver put a stop to the sale of oil and gas leases in Utah that had been auctioned off on Dec. 19, arguing that the effects of the leases on Utah's wildlands needed further study.

The decision will likely place the fate of the 110,000 acres of leased lands in hands of the soon-to-be Obama Administration. So far, Obama staffers have been critical of the leases.

Read the LA Times story here.

Bush by the numbers

Well, with President Bush's grand goodbye over -- in his farewell speech Thursday night, he asserted he always had the nation's best interests in mind -- history can now begin debating and framing the quality and qualities of the Bush Presidency.

But what about the quantities of the Bush Years?

Can't argue much about numbers. So Harper's Magazine generated one of its famous Harper's Indexes, and lined up the stats and counts that puts a solid framing around the last eight years in our country -- numbers all fascinating, some funny, many scary, others just weird.

Some of my favorites from the Bush Years Harper's Index:

Year in which a political candidate first sued Palm Beach County over problems with hanging chads: 1984

Minimum number of Bush appointees who have regulated industries they used to represent as lobbyists: 98

Hours after the 9/11 attacks that an Alaska congressman speculated they may have been committed by “eco-terrorists”: 9

Minimum number of calls the FBI received in fall 2001 from Utah residents claiming to have seen Osama bin Laden: 20

Percentage of the amendments in the Bill of Rights that are violated by the USA PATRIOT Act, according to the ACLU: 50

Portion of Baghdad residents in 2007 who had a family member or friend wounded or killed since 2003: 3/4

Number of all U.S. war veterans who have been denied Veterans Administration health care since 2003: 452,677

Seconds it took a Maryland consultant in 2004 to pick a Diebold voting machine’s lock and remove its memory card: 10

Percentage change since 2002 in the number of U.S. teens using illegal drugs: –9

Percentage change in the number of adults in their fifties doing so: +121

Number of words in the first sentence of Bill Clinton’s memoir and in that of George W. Bush’s, respectively: 49, 5

Rank of Bush among U.S. presidents with the highest disapproval rating: 1

And my all-time most favoritist:
Minimum number of times that Frederick Douglass was beaten in what is now Donald Rumsfeld’s vacation home: 25
Hard to argue with numbers. But I guarantee this list will generate lots of debates over everybody's most favoritist.

Read the list here.

Subscribe to Harper's here.

Watch Bush's speech in two parts -- part 1 here, and part 2 here. Or listen to it here. Or read it here.

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As a side note (or, perhaps, actually, a pointedly relevant note), yesterday NPR's All Things Considered aired an illuminating and wee-bit chilling piece quantifying Dick Cheney's influence in the Bush Administration. Listen here.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Oh dear, a deer mouse under 'dere ...

A bit of a seasonal reminder:

Yesterday I trapped a deer mouse in the cabinet under our kitchen sink. Once I saw what it was, I went into full Andromeda Strain mode: I cleaned myself up, put on a mask and gloves, scrubbed under the sink, and sprayed it with a chlorine solution. I also located and plugged the hole in the back of the cabinet where I suspect the intruder entered.

Before that, though, I had already reached under and grabbed the mouse trap barehanded. And the day before, my wife had cleaned under there unprotected when she noticed mouse droppings.

We never suspected deer mice might be in our house. I had seen a mouse -- a regular gray house mouse -- scurry across our kitchen floor in December, but never found droppings under the sink and relied on the cat to keep the inside of our house generally guarded. In past winters, as well, I had trapped mice in our kitchen, but always your standard grey variety.

Deer mice generally live outdoors, and so in rural areas. So I shhhheeeerrrr was su-prised when I caught me a deer mouse, right in our house, right in downtown Durango.

Deer mice, as everyone in these here parts knows by now, carry hantavirus, and the Four Corners is one of the major places where hantavirus is found. The virus is spread through the air around infected deer mouse urine, saliva, and feces. An area where mice have been can be infectious for up to three days.

Science Daily offers this nutshell history of hantavirus:
In May 1993, an outbreak of a mysterious lung disease appeared in the Four Corners region where the boundaries of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado meet. After two deaths among young Navajos were linked, other cases soon were discovered, and the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other agencies found the disease was caused by a previously unknown type of hantavirus, carried primarily by the deer mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus.

The new hantavirus was named the Sin Nombre virus, and the disease it caused was named hantavirus pulmonary syndrome. Experts showed the disease wasn't spread among people, but from mice to people, often when mouse droppings were inhaled.

The latest, but outdated figures on the CDC Web site show that from the 1993 outbreak through March 26, 2007, there were 465 cases of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome in the United States, and 35 percent of the patients died.

And in the winter, they like to move indoors, just like everyone else. Even in town, it seems.

Hence I'd like to urge everyone to be aware of the season when you might take on some unplanned -- and worrisome -- tenants. The CDC's hantavirus website urges and offers pointers for a few simple maintenance measures:
They also advise folks to keep bird feeders and woodpiles set well back from the house.

Now that we're all cleaned up, though, we're in the next phase: Seeing what happens. There is, of course, only a small chance the mouse we caught (or his cohorts) are infected -- but it's far from impossible. The only thing we can do, though, once exposed to the droppings and space where deer mice have been, is watch for symptoms: fever, deep muscle aches, and severe shortness of breath.

And keep telling all our friends to keep an eye out for unexpected houseguests ...

Read more about hantavirus symptoms here.

There's also an interesting article this month in Science Daily explaining some of the latest research on deer mice carrying hantavirus in the Four Corners.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Fear and philosophizing on the Kalalau Trail

So there I was, standing on a foot-wide section of gravelly trail etched into the side of crumbling cliffside that fell several hundred feet below my muddy shoes to the pounding Pacific surf. To fall would be to die. And I couldn't help but question if this was such a good idea after all.

It wasn't me -- it was the kids I was wondering about. My wife and I were there with our own two teens, and two of our friends and their two kids. We were headed out for five days on the Kalalau Trail, along the Na Pali Coast, on the north shore of Kauai. The 11-mile hike is rated by Backpacker Magazine as one of the best hikes in the world – and one of the ten most dangerous in the U.S. The Sierra Club rates it a 10 on it's 1-10 hiking difficulty scale.

And now I understood why.

The Kalalau Trail is every bit as amazing as advertised. The ancient footpath runs along the verdant and sheer curtain-like north coast of the island of Kauai – now protected as Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park. It climbs (well, you climb) up and down around sharp-edged ridgelines, and down into and out of narrow stream-carved and waterfall-fed gorges – where the frequent rains can make the stream crossings sometimes an adventure, and sometimes downright dangerous. Even though the trail begins and ends, of course, at sea level, you gain (and lose) more than 5,000 feet over the trail's length.

The views and landscape, though, are truly staggering : Long looks along the vertical and wave-battered coastline; broad backdrops of waterfall-draped cliff faces; cave-like passages through rainforest interspersed with those butt-puckering exposures over the bouldery surf.

Carve through all that an often narrow, sometimes fragile trail across steep, wet clay soils and along stretches of active mass-wasting – where the loose volcanic soils are working hard to return home to the sea – and you have a trail every bit as nerve-wracking as warned.

So why put our kids – never mind ourselves – into such situations?

Well, one main reason: The trail ends at the Kalalau Valley, where millennia-old terraced landscapes are still employed by secretive, interesting (and sometimes creepy) back-to-the-landers (think: these could well be the folks who inspired "The Others" on the TV show Lost), and the valley opening is lined by a beautiful, broad swath of idyllic beach. (See the slideshow below for more.) And all that was there just for those willing to do the work, and take the risks, required to walk there – less than a dozen others when we were there.

So there's a lesson here we want to pass on to our kids, one I might steal from the backcountry skiers' mantra: Earn your turns. Because places (and things) that are hard to get to (or do) can offer great rewards – and those great rewards are greatly magnified by the labor and risk involved in getting there. And, importantly, that the getting there itself, the doing itself, the challenges and risks themselves, are also great rewards.

And, really, isn't that one of the reasons – or the reason -- we live where we do, here in the San Juan Country? Think: Avalanches just this winter, even at ski areas, that have caught and killed people. Think: Rafting. Backpacking. Biking. Hunting. Even just driving a car around here. Hell, my son was on this trip with a full arm cast, the product of his skateboarding addiction. (Which, in all fairness – or karma -- he has passed on to me. Read about that here.)

Risk. Danger. Hard work. Earn your turns. That, in my mind, is why we live the way we do. Why we live where we do.

And in my mind is perhaps the best lesson we can pass on to our kids. One that's worth the risk.