6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"

Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"

"Hot Spring Break "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Trick or Treater

          The SUV headlights cut across their front lawn causing elongating shadows to sprout from leafless trees and dead rosebushes that shudder and lurch like a wounded animal. Swinging into the driveway, Krista hears her boyfriend’s slurred swearing from the back of the rig. Brad had been so quiet the last couple miles she figured he had passed out on the drive home. Krista hears his muffled voice inside the dishwasher cardboard box serving as his robot costume, but the only words she actually understands are, “sons-a-bitches” and “jack o’ lanterns.”

          Krista parks the dark blue vehicle in front of their ranch style home nearly hidden by the abundance of front yard landscaping, tall decorative grasses and sunflowers now flaccid in the late October cold. She opens the back hatch still smiling about the storage area being the only place they could fit Brad once he donned his bulky outfit. Her own sleek black cat ensemble hadn’t been nearly so problematic, neither in transit, nor at the party. Brad, on the other hand, had managed to knock over an unattended beer and a glass of wine, which probably wouldn’t have been a big deal if it weren’t a combined holiday and house warming party for her best friend.

          “What are you shouting about, Mr. Roboto?”

          Brad spills out the back of the rig, nearly losing his footing in the loose gravel before standing to full height and pointing towards the three foot fence separating their front and backyards. In the dim glow emanating from their neighbor’s porch light, Krista sees the three jack o’ lanterns they had spent all of last night carving. The ten pound pumpkins have been toppled from their posts and lay broken on ground.

          “Those little bastards,” he slurs while waddling towards the downed gourds. “Should have known better.”

          “What little bastards?” Krista asks as they stand over their ruined decorations. Each Jack-o’-Lantern is directly below where it was originally placed having hit the ground with just enough force to split the thick walls revealing the pale orange innards. Held close to the earth by the heavy and chilled mountain air, is the earthy smell of pumpkin and the faint lingering odor of extinguished candle.

          “Those punk kids I’ve seen around here and down at the park. Who else would have done it?”

          “I don’t know,” Krista admits, “but I’ve never had any trouble with any of the children in Timberline and I’ve lived here all my life. In this town, everyone knows everyone and word would get out too quickly. Besides, most of them are just way too polite to pull something like this. “

          “Well, at least they didn’t smash them all over the house and sidewalk like they do where I’m from. I guess your bastards are civilized bastards.”

          “I guess so,” Krista admits shaking her head and wondering which of her neighbors would possibly do something so unnecessary and juvenile. No suspects came immediately to mind; as far as she knew they were on great terms with the entire street. Brad is right though; the vandals could have done a lot more damage.

          Shortly after stepping inside and helping Brad out of his robot costume, Krista opens their front door to check on the candy bowl. Knowing they were headed to the party, but not wanting to deny the usual trick-or-treaters, Brad had suggested they leave a small dish on the front porch with enough candy to handle the limited number of annual visitors along with a sign that read, “Please just take one. Happy Halloween!” Krista sees the bowl immediately but it isn’t on the cedar side table where they left it. Down the front steps and out in the front lawn, she sees the dish lying on the ground flipped over. Scattered around the bowl are shreds of Tootsie Roll wrappers.

          She pokes her head inside and calls Brad to the scene. Already a little incensed from the pumpkin mess and still buzzed from the night’s drinking, her boyfriend arrives in the doorway his face instantly turning red at the messy sight before throwing his hands in the air.

          “What the hell? There was enough candy in that dish for every kid in Timberline to have some. Little bastards. And they had the nerve to stand there in our front yard eating it. I swear to God… grrr, how many kids didn’t get any after the thieves took everything. Hell, it was probably some other child leaving here empty-handed that decided to knock over my Jack-o’-Lanterns.”

          Caught between chuckling at Brad’s over-zealous reaction to some pumpkins, a cheap bag of candy, and the genuine disappointment she feels for her small mountain town, Krista just stands there shaking her head. As Brad bends over to gather up the dish and torn wrappers, there is a nearby crash of something hollow and aluminum hitting concrete violating the calm, dark night. The young couple exchange an apprehensive look upon realizing the noise came from around the side of the house where their old shed sits. The small storage unit is even older than their house, having already weathered some forty Timberline winters and long since lost its only door. Brad’s eyebrows suddenly climb to the middle of his forehead as if comprehending something for the first time.

          “The little pigs are still here,” he whispers. “They saw our car pulling up and had no choice but to duck into the side yard and now they are trying to hide in the shed. That sounded like your empty gas can.”

          “Think so?” Krista whispers. “Well they have to know we heard that.”

          “They’re probably shitting bricks as we speak,” Brad says in an equally hushed tone. “This is going to be fun. Here, hand me your key chain so I can use the little flashlight.”

          Krista fumbles through her front pocket and hands over her car keys. Rubbing his fingertips together in anticipation, Krista’s boyfriend slinks into the dark shadows beneath the roof, and slips towards the side yard barely visible. Brad looks back for a split second, offering Krista a wolf-like grin before vanishing around the corner.

          Krista cups her mouth with both hands. “Don’t hurt anyone. Just scare them,” she says unsure if he can even hear her. Not wanting to witness what might be an ugly exchange between her hot-headed boyfriend and some dumb kids, she waits inside their doorway listening intently for the impending encounter.

          After a couple seconds of silence, the young lady hears Brad’s voice utter a quick, “Ah-ha!” followed by a hissing growl, another loud metallic crash and then a startled, high-pitched yelp sounding more like a terrified teenage girl. Krista darts around the corner to see Brad’s shadowy figure scrambling to pick himself off the ground just outside the shed door. So panicked is her boyfriend, he actually peels out upon reaching his feet and nearly falls again, just barely managing to catch himself with one hand before propelling towards Krista with his eyes bulging.

         “There’s a freakin’ bear in your shed,” he gasps as he grabs Krista by the elbow and starts dragging her towards the front door. “I saw its shadow when I flashed the light inside and the damn thing growled at me. A saw its eyes!”

          Krista manages to dislodge Brad’s firm grip. Some pressing notion of incredulous disbelief has her needing to see the wild animal for herself. Black bears aren’t uncommon in Timberline, but she had never had one in her yard before. Turning back just as Brad darts around the front of the house, Krista notices her boyfriend left her tiny flashlight in the shed where he no doubt dropped it upon being startled. The keychain scatters a dim glow out the door of the shed and inside the light, she notices the swelling shadow of what is indeed a shaggy beast getting larger as it approaches the doorway. Krista is just about to chase after her Brad, when the animal pokes its head out of the shed.

          Krista first gasps in surprise upon seeing the beast and then doubles over in laughter as the animal steps out of the doorway into plain sight. Brad must have just seen a quick optical illusion with the light and projected shadows, clearly never getting a good look at the animal itself or he wouldn’t have experienced such an alarmed reaction. At least she hoped so.

          “What are you doing? Get in here!”

          Brad’s terse voice sounds as if it is coming from well inside the house, causing Krista to laugh even harder, tears actually welling in the corners of her eyes as uncontrolled hysteria takes over. The big raccoon standing outside the shed sits back on its haunches and studies her with a guarded expression. The masked animal is missing all but the ragged base of one ear and she instantly takes note of the familiar white scar running in a diagonal line across its skull. For a second, the animal doesn’t seem to recognize her and then Krista remembers her own costume complete with pointy ears, and long tail. She removes her whiskered black mask and smiles down at her seasonal friend.

          Taking a moment to catch her breath between gales of laughter, Krista finally manages, “I see you met Hollyfield. He shows up every year around this time. Come say hello.”

          Upon hearing his name, Hollyfield raises one forearm and stretches out its long, dexterous fingers as if expecting another piece of candy or just offering to shake someone’s hand.

          “I don’t know,” Krista says to the old raccoon still chuckling. “He might need a few minutes before we can do a formal introduction.”

Trick or Treat

An overactive imagination
Left awake
For decades now
On a night
That might take me back
To a holiday
Stolen away
To a time
When I would
Have readily accepted
Unblinking red pupils
From the shadows
Spilling out of my closet
A naked branch
Turned scaly tentacle
Scraping my window
The sulphuric reek
A demon’s arrival
Or any terror
Fit to storm the wall
I built between myself
And the real horror
Living one room over
Looking a lot
Like me

Thursday, October 27, 2011


          Another backcountry trip in Yellowstone means that for the last week, I had to hear about grizzly bears from every person catching wind of my plans. Friends, family, co-workers, and the occasional stranger butting into my conversation, can’t help but offer their warnings and advice for dealing with such a dangerous wild animal. Of course, most of them don’t venture into grizzly country, have never encountered one in the wild, and really have no idea what they’re talking about. They’ve read sensationalist headlines, seen all the books about man-eaters, fell for some politician’s biased bullshit, or watched overly dramatized documentaries about the animal and are now convinced their fear-based perspective is an accurate representation of a complex animal.
          Complicating the issue tenfold is the fact there have been grizzly bear related deaths in the park for the last two summers, something that hadn’t happened in 25 years prior to 2010. Rather than accept the events as an educational opportunity for backcountry travelers, people are manipulating these tragedies to further their own greedy agendas. The Endangered Species Act has been rendered toothless by western politicians who are more focused on “saving our families” from all these wild animal attacks then they are on creating employment opportunities or protecting our shared environment for future generations. Contrary to scientific data proving their immense value to a complete ecosystem, the reckless slaughter of our once protected gray wolves has commenced and it won’t be long until grizzlies are thinned out as well.

          But I grow weary of this topic. For once, I don’t want to talk about bears. When I get on the subject, I get defensive, I get combative, I get ugly, and that isn’t how I should feel when discussing something I cherish. I’m almost hoping my wife and I can avoid any sight of them on our 50 mile walk so my thoughts aren’t dragged down to such a miserable, hopeless place. Not that seeing bears is ever any kind of guarantee, but considering our hike will take us through some of the densest grizzly habitat in the lower 48… Still, maybe I can find something else to think about.

          Something like the megafauna herbivores that are way more likely spotted in Yellowstone than any other National Park. I’m talking elk, moose, and the unmistakable shaggy tanks otherwise known as bison. North America’s grand champion ungulates, all three species leftovers from the last ice age, regularly weighing between one and two thousand pounds. Creatures of such size and magnificence they can steal your breath as readily as a pack of wolves running along the Lamar River. And, while most people think it’s the predators you have to watch out for, it’s actually the horned ones more likely to injure someone. However, I’m certain some 99% of all tourists ever wounded by a large herbivore in Yellowstone had it coming. Jamie and I tend to have a lot more respect for a giant animal’s personal space than do most of the park’s shutterbug crowd. Were I in their hoofs, I would flat out run amuck every time someone so much as approached me, taking out as many slack-jawed buffoons as I possibly could. The rangers would quickly see to my violent end, but it would be fun while it lasted.

          My daydreams of goring tourists are interrupted by the sudden sound of branches snapping and neck-high sagebrush being trampled. A massive blur of brown hair, no doubt having heard the sound of our boots on the hard-packed trail, lurches to its feet in a cloud of dust and pushes through the prickly foliage lining the creek bed. In the seconds it takes for the animal to charge onto the trail before us, I remove the bear spray from Jamie’s pack. The noise had me reaching for the canister just in case we had a grizzly on hand, but now that I can clearly see what we’re dealing with, I’m still reluctant to put it away.

          Upon reaching the path, the shaggy bison stops in its tracks and swivels its rotund head in our direction. His eyes are the same color as the darker tone of chocolate hair covering its head and shoulders. The creature looks less than amused for having been disturbed and I’m beginning to wonder if we’re going to find out how well bear spray works on bison when it finally seems to decide we aren’t worth the trouble. The animal’s body language visibly relaxes and he even ducks his head for a mouthful of grass. Comfortable now that we aren’t a threat, the bison turns and ambles back towards its wallow of overturned earth to resume napping.

          “One down,” I say. “He was a great specimen too. That’s what we’re after, the big boys of all three.”

          “We’d already seen bison before we even hit the trail,” my wife counters. “And why are we only counting the boys? What kind of sexist bullshit is that?”

          “We can’t count anything we saw from our car. This is a backcountry megafauna expedition. And girls just don’t have the same majesty as the boys. Sorry, but were looking for big studs and big racks.”

          “Hey, the bisoness has horns… but I agree it will be nice to spot a big stud for a change.”

          In response, I flex my left arm and kiss my tattooed bicep. “A woman would have to be blind to not notice these guns.”

          Grinning, Jamie and I resume our trek across the rolling meadows of golden grass following Cache Creek towards the Lamar River valley just a few miles west of our location. As usual, the close wildlife encounter has buoyed our spirits and it feels as though we could backpack all day without tiring. It’s the first real animal we’ve spotted since leaving the trailhead, unless you count the ruffled grouse we startled atop Thunderer pass yesterday. But sometimes, that’s just how it is in the backcountry. Not even Yellowstone promises thrilling wildlife encounters, although that isn’t the popular perception. As even I had done at a young age, tourists assume that if they are brave enough to venture beyond the boardwalks, they will be treated to a spectacle of wildlife straight out of their wildest dreams. And sadly, that landscape does only exist in their imagination. As it was across the entire country, Yellowstone was absolutely ransacked by the first waves of European invaders. Wildlife populations were hunted, poisoned, and trapped to extinction, or were pushed so close to the brink they will never recover. If you want to see the Yellowstone of 500 years ago, I’ll guarantee some animal sightings, but you better bring the time machine.

          Having just reached the first creek crossing after intersecting the Lamar River Trail, Jamie and I are sitting on water polished stones swapping our hiking boots for river sandals, when we see our first party of other people descending the steep bank above us. They are three young men who at first glance appear to spend more time in front of computers than they do outdoors. Slight of build, bordering on scrawny, they look dirty and underwhelmed with their hard walking experience. The leader of the group stumbles to the water’s edge letting his pack slide off his shoulders and fall hard to the ground with a metallic clank. He lets out a heavy sigh before following his pack to the earth where he begins working at his dusty shoestrings.

          “So,” I say, trying to hide my smile, “did you guys see a bunch of bison along the Lamar?” The next two days of our own trip will see us hiking along the famous river and I’m curious as to what may be in store. I had overheard a ranger talking to a tourist as we were obtaining our backpacking permit in West Yellowstone, and the young brunette indicated the great beasts were strewn all over the Lamar Valley.

          The younger man peers up at me through some half-assed dreadlocks. His blond hair is already thinning ensuring that the stringy locks he’s managed to produce are as good as they are going to get. “We haven’t seen shit,” is his abrupt reply. “I thought there were animals in this park. I think we saw something that was so far away and in the trees I couldn’t tell if it was moose or elk. Other than that, some birds and squirrels. There’s more wildlife in Ohio than Yellowstone.”

          His companions nod their heads in subdued agreement and I can’t help feeling bad for the young men. They drove a long way thinking they were going to be exposed to something that simply doesn’t exist. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience numerous wild animal encounters in the backcountry of Yellowstone, but I’ve also had to put in the time. Not every walk rewards you with bear and wolf sightings. Hell, the last time Jamie and I hiked the South Boundary Trail, we saw exactly one deer on the whole trek. One deer. I see more wildlife than that on my morning bike rides to work through the north end neighborhoods of Boise. Don’t get me wrong, that deer was nice enough; she hung around the outskirts of our camp for a couple of hours, but still, talk about your disappointments. It was then, I tried to adopt a sense of appreciation for the animals I do see, rather than set myself up with unrealistic expectations.

          During our brief interaction with the hikers, we also learn they have only seen a couple other backpackers. So, I guess you take the good with the bad. If we aren’t to see any wildlife, at least we won’t have to deal with any people either. It also means that we won’t necessarily have to stick to our reservations. Our scheduled campsite for the night is still a long way off and we are nearly ready to call it day. We didn’t stay where we were supposed to last night either, choosing instead a more concealed site that we felt safe to steal after a late arrival and seeing nobody else around. Had a park ranger shown up, or someone with the appropriate permit, we would have been forced to push on for our reserved site, or find a guerrilla camp somewhere off trail.

          The setting but still unseasonably warm September sun is just putting the finishing touches on our browning arms by the time we choose a spot for the evening. The designated site is on a large flat expanse of grass, bordered by evergreen lodge pole pines and aspen trees whose leaves are just beginning their stunning transformation to vivid orange. The trail is cut into the hillside just above the river plain guaranteeing we’ll be spotted if anyone happens by, but with the sunset less than an hour off, we’re fairly certain that won’t be a concern. Jamie and I have barely enough time to strip naked and take what has become our ritualistic plunge after a day of hiking. The Lamar, like all mountain rivers, is torturously cold and we just manage to dry off and change into our nightly fleece before the fiery yellow orb sinks into the ridgeline and the temperature instantly drops ten degrees. Day two of our trip is over, and we have one Bison sighting for all our effort.

          The dawn brings with it a renewed sense of hope, not only do we have full day ahead of us for potentially spotting animals, but because as soon as we were back on the main trail, my wife and I realize we are following a bear. A thick layer of super fine dust covering the path leaves clear evidence of recent activity. So distinct are the imprints in the earth, I am convinced it is a black bear. A griz would leave much larger and deeper claw imprints than what we see before us. The eerily human-like prints sit right on top obscuring the trail’s older sign, and we soon find a fresh pile of loose stool filled with half-digested berries to confirm our suspicions. Our bear walked by within the last couple hours.

          My initial excitement of potentially tracking a bear fades with the usual depressing thoughts that rack my brain whenever I’m on the subject. Feeling my jaded philosophies kicking in, I try to ignore the ursine prints as I crush them beneath my heels. I’m not supposed to be thinking about bears, I’m supposed to be looking for megafauna. A modest goal it would seem, but one proving increasingly difficult. By the time we have settled on another camp for night three, again, not one we actually reserved, Jamie and I are beginning to feel alone in the park. Not only did we never see our bear, we never saw another sign of life all day, unless, like our Ohio travelers, we’re counting the occasional bird and squirrel. Our route for the day had taken us off the Lamar River Trail and onto the Hoodoo Basin Trail following Miller Creek. It’s a good thing the warm September weather hasn’t produced a single cloud in days and the scenery has been subtly gorgeous, otherwise even my patience would be rapidly dissolving.

          The animal tease continues after we have set up camp, douse ourselves in the stream, eat dinner, and pull up a seat around a small campfire to ward off the evening chill. From the swelling shadows just north of our camp, a deep mono-syllabic grunt cuts through the silence. And then again. It sounds like a large animal clearing its throat one forced cough at a time. While Jamie and I perk up our ears, we hear the repeated noise only this time from a slightly different location.

          “You hearing that?” Jamie asks. “What is that?”

          “There’s a moose out there circling our camp,” I reply without hesitation. I’m honestly not certain, but having automatically ruled out bear, bison, and elk, I’m not sure what else could possibly create such a loud deep bass grunt.

          “Think so?”

          I shrug my shoulders. We can poke around the dark forest if you like. See if we can find it…”

          Jamie’s eyes take on a distant look of contemplation before she finally shakes her head. “No, I don’t think I feel like startling anything big enough to be making that sound.”

          “Good idea. Maybe tomorrow we can find its tracks.”

          The breaking dawn finds us having forgotten about the eerie noise from the night before. It isn’t until Jamie is cleaning up our breakfast and I have wandered out into the meadow of chest high grass still wet with dew bordering our campsite to relive my insistent bladder that we hear the sound again. On the heels of the noise, I hear the practiced bird whistle Jamie and I use to communicate from a distance. I look back at my wife to see her holding up one index finger to indicate a solitary animal. Next she places her thumbs against her temples and spreads her hands wide to represent big antlers. Finally, she points to a dense stand of trees, some fifty yards from where I’m standing. It takes a minute or two to find the massive creature totally still amongst the underbrush and lower ponderosa branches. The dark silhouette is looking right at me.

          Naturally curious and having apparently dismissed us as posing zero threat, the pre-historic beast steps into a break in the trees allowing a wide open look at our grunting friend. Even from this distance, the massive animal ranks amongst the largest bull moose I have ever seen. The hump above its front shoulders has to be as tall as my 6’2” frame and its multi-pronged rack is nearly the length of my outstretched arms. White socks turn to black hair at the bull’s shins and it’s more chocolate colored winter coat has begun breaking through the ebony sheen in streaking patches. So impressed am I with the magnificent creature’s appearance, it takes me a few moments to realize my exposed position in the meadow isn’t exactly ideal. If the moose decided to charge, I’d be hard pressed to race back to the tree line in time.

          Despite their somewhat volatile temperament and reputation, my close encounters with moose have always been peaceful. Unlike deer and elk, they don’t tend to panic in the presence of humans. Instead of choosing between fight or flight in a sudden, decision-making situation, moose have adopted a third option and it’s seemingly one of intellectual understanding preceding any action. Our giant visitor seems as content as we do to stand there staring at each other across the meadow. Finally bored with the exchange, the bull crosses the grassy field with impossibly long strides eating up the terrain in a manner that defies the casualness of its pace.

          “Two down,” I say to Jamie with a huge smile as I stroll back into camp, my pant legs wet from the meadow’s morning dew.

          “Unbelievable,” she says. “Did you see the size of that sucker? You were making me a little nervous out there.”

          “Yeah, I was making myself a little nervous. Glad he’s in a good mood. I think he might be on the prowl for a mate.”

          “I think that’s what he’s been talking about,” Jamie agrees. “Check me out ladies; have you ever seen a rack this big? If he had his woman with him, he might be a little testier. Typical for you men to try and impress your girlfriends.”

          Our morning excitement quickly fades into another hot and sweaty march as we gradually gain elevation on our climb to the top of the pass that will eventually dump us out in Hoodoo Basin. The Hoodoos are bizarre formations of rock that look like misshapen pillars or oddly sculpted towers. The Nez Perce Indians, native to these hunting grounds, believed the silent sentinels of stone were what became of their ancestors after death. Jamie and I have been looking forward to the unique basin since first reading of it long ago.

          Sometime just after our lunch break we run into only the second party of backpackers we’ve seen all trip. They are a sunburnt and sweaty couple from New Zealand and they too wear expressions of discontent. Already suspecting I know the answer, I ask them if they’ve had any memorable wildlife encounters.

          “Are there really animals in this park?” is the young man’s response, his bright blue eyes looking defeated. I assume the ones we saw on the drive to the trailhead were just automated cardboard cutouts for tourists.”

          Ouch. More products of magazine articles and television documentaries. Even people from the rainforests of New Zealand, an island bursting with colorful and unique wildlife, think they are missing out on something after hearing something about this park. And these folks didn’t drive here from Ohio, they flew halfway around the world to sweat their asses off in a desolate landscape while vainly hoping for a once in a lifetime grizzly bear or gray wolf encounter. I hate to break it to the tired couple, but their chances of spotting wildlife in Yellowstone are much greater from the road than the backcountry. Thousands of human eyes intently scrutinizing the landscape, coupled with covering ground at a much higher rate of speed, automatically ensures the front country as the best opportunity for animal sighting. The sudden walls of slow or unmoving traffic around every other bend, commonly referred to as “bear jams,” are a dead giveaway for nearby wildlife.

          “It all depends on the time of year and which part of the park you’re in…” I say in a lame attempt at consolation. I decide to keep our bison and moose sightings secret rather than rub any salt in their wounds. In the backcountry, it also helps to know what you’re looking for, what you’re listening for, and even smelling at times. Both Jamie and I have been caught standing right next to large, potentially dangerous animal, and had no idea until the creature suddenly moved revealing its hidden location. I wonder if the New Zealanders have noticed the fresh bear tracks that have been underfoot since yesterday, obvious in the trail dust more often than not. Would a bear print, something they aren’t used to seeing, even stand out considering the manner in which their vision and brains have been programmed to recognize the world?

          “Keep your eyes peeled,” Jamie shouts back at them as we part ways. “They’re out there somewhere.”

          And out there they are. We here the whistling and nasal honking of the bull elk a couple hours later as we approach the very headwaters of the Lamar River atop the Hoodoo Basin pass at nearly 10,000 feet of elevation. Judging from the commotion, the rut is already in full swing and he is singing his own praises to whatever harem he’s managed to gather this season.

          Even scouring the scrub brush covered hillsides in full anticipation of the herd, and despite the fact they are standing out in the open, we don’t see them until they are startled into motion by our presence. Just up the sloping hillside, about twenty head of fat, healthy ladies instantly charge for the nearest stand of trees. Jamie and I both cringe slightly in anticipation of what happens next. The bull, an absolute grand champion, charges out of the trees where his ladies just vanished and thunders towards us. He stops at the point where I begin reaching for Jamie’s bear spray and arches his neck to let out a long crude sounding bellow. He follows the extended grunting with a series of high-pitched whistles that seems to call his herd back from the trees and send them sprinting in the other direction.

          While his ladies scamper for safety, the bull elk continues watching us occasionally lowering and then raising his seven-point rack in a defiant gesture. He seems to be suggesting that he wouldn’t mind showing us those horns at a much closer distance. Impressed with his bold display of protection and aggression, we just stand there unmoving and watch the herd leader’s antics. Once the ladies have all fled up the mountain, the big male finally releases us from his gaze and follows them into the tree line.

          “Megafauna!” I shout once the herd has vanished. “That’s all three. Holy crap, I’m not sure which of our samples was truly king. They were all freakin’ huge. Total badasses. Did you see the way he stared at us? Thought he might want to start some shit there for a second.”

          “I liked the way he had to tell his ladies they were running in the wrong direction. He was probably thinkin’, ‘Goddamn women’,” Jamie says.

          “Pimpin’ ain’t easy,” I laugh.

          So what if we haven’t seen any lions, wolves, or bears on this trip. There is more to the animal kingdom than just the predators and a lot of the “prey” is much bigger, stronger, and just as visually striking as their bloodthirsty counterparts. Watching that bull elk take care of his herd was no less dramatic than seeing a grizzly protect her cub. Knowing that these animals continue to thrive, especially all these years after wolf re-introduction speaks volumes, of how well adapted these animals are to each other. They evolved together over thousands of years, and it is in the presence of every last one of them that the natural systems continue to work. The hunters, the hunted, the squirrels and birds, all the way up to Yellowstone’s megafuana are equally important, equally beautiful, and if our trip’s wildlife spotting has come to an end, so be it; as always, the privilege was ours.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Slipped Chain

Convulsive commotion
Beneath a mesh canopy
Intended to keep
You away from plump
Purple bunches
Of in utero wine
Instead have trapped
Your pounding breast

A succulent cell
Possibly worthy
Of clipped wings
Were it not for
The dogged hawk
And her impotent efforts
To set you free

Not a relationship
For man’s hand
But with the hunter
Not understanding
Why its tools
Fail to find purchase
And you
Having to experience
That blood rush
Of certain doom
Only to be left
Still flapping
The system feels
Somehow marred

With all of our
Instincts betrayed
And being
Unable to witness
The awkward
Sterile exchange
I drive the raptor back
And lift the net
So the two might continue
Their natural choreography

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Always a Noose Attached

It is a presence
Lingering between
The towers and alleys
Of this Northwest giant
An invisible force
Chasing me through a
Gridlock maze
Somehow overpowering
The burning rubber
And dinosaur remains

Following my nose
Like some fox
In a hunt
I allow myself led
To a campus
Littered instead
With flowerbeds
Neon hedges and
Old growth cedar

Here in a circle
Of misplaced sequoia
Titans holding hands
And stretching up
Into a labyrinth of
Golden limbs
I can almost escape
This dogged hunter

Sorry Portland
But for all your finery
Quaint coffee shops
Bookstores and
Sex shows
Your city still
Smells like piss

The Price of Dignity

He is young
Baggy shorts and a O.U. cap
Standing by a BMX bike
Next to a downtown pay phone
Asking me
If I might have a quarter

His face yet to feel
The years of weather
worry and whatever
Chemicals on the mind
Works the angle and
He hears the pocket jingle
Before asking for
Whatever I can afford

Use it while you can
I suppose
Just know
That you've ruined it
For the next grifter
Over a meager score
And it won't be long
Before everyone can smell
Your game
From two blocks away

Friday, September 30, 2011

Back to the Backbone (of the World)

          For once, the backcountry permit process within a major National Park goes relatively smoothly. By that I mean, we are still unable to secure any of the ten possible hikes we planned due to the crowded reservations of other tourists, but at least Jamie manages to get out of the office in less than an hour. I have barely begun my ritual of glaring at people and pacing when she hands me the printed permit. Swinging our truck out of the crowded parking lot, I can't help ribbing my wife.

          “Ever gonna drop that extra twenty dollars for advance reservations?”

          “Pfft,” Jamie snorts. “It already costs a fortune to pack in Glacier. We just spent close to a hundred bucks.”

          “Uh-huh, and now we're not doing any of the hikes we mapped out. Not plan B. Not plan C. Hell, it wasn't a plan at all. You just worked it out by what was available.”

          “Yeah. So? There are no bad hikes in Glacier.”

          “That’s mostly true,” I agree, dutifully ignoring my first trip to the park while honeymooning with the ex-wife, “but why spend all that time planning when we know it won't matter? We never get the hikes we want because we don't make reservations.”

          Jamie unrolls her window and turns to the coral pink and jade green mountaintops still dotted with winter's last stubborn snowfields. The towering peaks absolutely dominate the skyline. From their sheer faces, waterfalls drop into eternity, some of silver ribbons unraveling into windblown mist before they touch ground. The fragrance of white pine fills our lungs with rich air that somehow defies the oxygen depleted elevation.

          “If you aren't satisfied by journey's end, you can ask for your money back,” Jamie says.

          “Don’t think I won’t if you have me slogging through another mosquito infested bog of overgrown thimbleberries.”

          Our last hike in Glacier saw us spend the first two days pushing through a humid Montana jungle before we finally reached the alpine zone and the staggering panoramic views upon which this park has built its legend. People specifically make Glacier a destination for the scenery, not the rock climbing, not the wildlife, well… except for the bears. They do come for the bears and there are plenty of those around.

          On the first night of our previous trip, my wife and I were awoken in the middle of a moonless night to the repeated exhales of a disturbed grizzly. The bear got within twenty feet of our tent before I politely asked the unseen predator to be on its way. Fortunately for us, he obliged, because unbeknownst to me, the safety strap that holds the bear spray in its holster had flipped in front of the nozzle. Had I discharged the weapon, it would have blown up in my face. Much to the amusement of the grizzly, I’m sure.

          National Park policy pretty much insists that people encountering bears, immediately report the incident to the nearest ranger. Did we? No, and hell no. I have an entirely different philosophy on the subject. The bears can do whatever they want in their house and that includes eating someone for all I care. I mean, that obviously sucks for the individual and their family, but as far as I’m concerned, no ursine should answer to a human. They don’t need to justify their behavior. Bears aren’t the ones rendering this planet uninhabitable. Eat all you want, griz. I guarantee we’ll make more.

          The path leading in and out of that campsite was covered with a variety of ripe berry bushes, so really, we were parked in the bear’s supermarket aisle and it had every reason to be put off by our intrusion. Although already certain of what we’d heard, I still researched bear sounds after arriving home until I was satisfied our midnight marauder was none other than the king of the forest. To this day, the experience ranks right up there with being caught in a mountain goat stampede for sheer thrills and chills.

          As it was with our previous trip, the Packer’s Roost trailhead starts right in the midst of a humid, dense, and shadowed forest providing ideal habitat for the season’s remaining mosquitos. With our field of vision limited to the wall of trees and undergrowth on both sides of the muddy trail, we begin a climb to better views.

          Also as it was with our last Glacier hike, I am sweating, sticky, and mumbling under my breath before finally breaking free from the tree line. Up next is a ruthless, sun exposed climb, switching back every hundred yards, until we are tempted to plow straight up the loose dirt and slippery rock of the steep mountainside. The forest here was devastated by wildfire a few years back and the sun bleached spears still standing do little to shade us from the afternoon heat.

          Only six miles to our first campsite, it still feels like ten by the time we drag our tired butts into Flat Top, one of Glacier’s communal backcountry sites. Hoping against hope the other hikers holding reservations have either been lost or eaten proves fruitless. All but one site is taken by the time we arrive, but through some quirky force of human habit that I’ll never understand, the one isolated spot is still free. The other parties elected to camp right on top of one another.

          Jamie and I experience the same phenomena when eating out at a restaurant. It never fails that, even in a seat yourself establishment, no matter what corner we hide in, no matter how late or lacking in business, the next party though the door elects to sit at the table right next to us. And this despite my ability to radiate a sense of pure malevolent unpleasantness. I don’t get it. Go the hell away. I don’t want to hear anything you’re talking about, and I don’t want you overhearing me. Just leave us alone. Why is that so hard?

          Don’t get me wrong. Most backpackers are nice enough people, and a lot of them even share similar philosophies on life and nature, but I still don’t go to the woods to meet people. I go to the woods to meet animals if anyone, and it isn’t long before I realize our campsite has adopted some of the local mule deer. Sadly, even these creatures have been spoiled by man. A healthy four-spike and his two doe companions wander from site to site looking for handouts, clearly indicating that others have been feeding them. Seems even the more eco-minded backpacking sect can’t resist sharing their rations with the wildlife, eventually creating beggars that don’t act wild at all.

          In the front country this is an on-going problem for many parks. In the backcountry, it’s only an issue where hikers are prone to take breaks or camp for the night. Considering the immense square mileage of a place like Glacier, it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the problem areas are exactly where people like me tend to wind up. At a popular rest site atop Two Medicine Pass, just southeast of where we’re currently camped, a golden mantle ground squirrel once snatched my almonds in the time it took me to set the small bag on a rock and fish something out of my pocket.

          Before I could blink, the striped bandit was dragging his prize towards the precipitous cliff edge. Bounding after, I leapt off the top of the first ledge landing some eight feet below on a narrow shelf dizzily overlooking what was easily a fatal fall to the talus slope below. Almost inadvertently squashing the poor fellow in the process, the panicked squirrel spat out the stolen goods and darted over the edge clinging to the vertical wall in a way I could only dream. I retrieved my almonds before fully assessing the potential scenarios that could have just played out.

          “Find your nuts?” Jamie asked as my pale face peeked back up over the ledge.

          “They’re habanero flavored,” I managed to reply. “I didn’t want the poor guy burning his mouth.”

          Glacier isn’t the only national park with issues. We’ve battled hoary marmots on Death Canyon Shelf in the Tetons over a lunch of homemade meatballs. That’s right, hoary marmots apparently love barbeque sauce. There are campsites so overrun with the giant rodents, rangers are at a loss for what to do about it. I’ve also had a mouse climb my leg while trying to eat a Thanksgiving feast of cheesy potato soup in the bowels of Grand Canyon, a park where if the rodents don’t get your food, the dexterous ring-tail cats will.

          Once the animals in a given environment associate people with food, they not only become a problem, they are actually capable of passing this behavior down to their children. It becomes generational knowledge within specific populations. Of course, when there is some kind of encounter between people and an animal used to receiving handouts, whom do you suppose gets the short end of that stick? Embracing a philosophy I also can’t understand, park rangers are apparently reluctant to shoot the people at fault.

          The deer here at Flat Top are all but tame with the buck following me around attached to my hip as if I had him on an invisible leash. Despite the fact that a group of gregarious easterners oddly spend their time in the food prep area rather than their own camp, I still speak more words to my hooved neighbors than I do them. I try to remind the deer of what they are and that people are not to be trusted. During our own dinner, Jamie patiently fields questions from the other hikers and asks a few of her own. I stare off at my surroundings hoping to spot something of interest and wonder what our journey has in store.

          Day two finds us awake at first light tearing through our instant oatmeal. With equal determination, we break camp, load our packs, and are the first party out of Flat Top. Today is the first of what our itinerary suggests are back to back twenty mile days. Well, technically today’s march is just over eighteen, but honestly, anything surpassing the 15 mile mark can be a physical challenge… especially depending on the terrain. Thankfully, with the exception of the first five miles or so, the majority of our day will be spent heading downhill. Somewhat frustrating considering yesterday’s march to reach this elevation, but such are the hikes in tall mountains. By their very nature they go up and down, even if you manage to secure a ridgeline trail.

          We eventually leaved the burned forest surrounding Flat Top and climb until our views are nothing less than staggering. By the time we reach 50, a campsite named for its panoramic views of over 50 nearby snow-spotted peaks, we can easily understand why this particular campsite is so highly sought after. By not making reservations for our hike, we were certain of finding this place booked for the duration, but at least we get to catch the scenery.

          In addition to the mountaintop views, 50 has a giant rolling grass-covered meadow stretching out to the north and west nearly as far as the eye can wander. These high open spaces are ideal grizzly habitat and the few hikers we pass make mention of recent sightings. All we see of the giant ursine population is a monstrous pile of scat as fresh as any I have ever encountered. The sight causes Jamie and I to break into our bluesy bear song.

Black bear way down low
Grizzly bear way up high
You know we love you both
And that ain’t no lie
Hey bear
We’re just passin’ through
Hey bear
Don’t wanna bother you

          On the far side of the rolling meadow, we encounter the ruins of what might have been an old ranger outpost or lookout tower. About three feet of heavy stone and thickly mortared walls are all that is left, but what remains creates a nice windbreak for a lunch. Here we are beset upon by a family of Columbia ground squirrels. Working together, one attempts to distract us with ridiculously cute poses, while its cousins try to sneak up on our backsides.

          Hovering close to our food supply, Jamie and I realize we forgot to grab a couple of items from the portable cooler in our truck. We remembered the tortillas and bread for our lunches, but forgot to grab the cheese and honey-peanut butter mix that will actually sustain us. It’s a real problem considering the miles we need to walk and the fact that Jamie and I don’t pack extra meals “just in case.”

          Our system is fine-tuned and includes no wasted weight. Now, it seems, our usual approach might be a problem. I can get by without enough food for some time, but Jamie has an insane metabolism and has to keep fueling that fire. Without sustenance, she wilts like a cut flower. Having no other choice, except for a possible ground squirrel shish kabob, we eat our dry tortillas and continue knowing the next twelve miles will be one knee-busting trek downhill until we are at an even lower elevation than where we started yesterday.

          By the time we reach the shores of Waterton Lake and stagger through the last two kilometers to our campsite, I am exhausted and Jamie has taken on a pale and gaunt appearance. There is one other gentleman sitting in the food prep area, but we ignore him until after we have established our campsite well away from his and jumped into the creek for a quick bath. With the sun having already set, we shiver on the shoreline until the light breeze has mostly dried us off.

          “That was ballsy,” says our new neighbor as we head to the fire pit to eat dinner and raise the rest of our rations up the bear pole. The man seems to be about our age, about my height, has a thick head of black hair shaved nearly to the scalp, and seems a tad bit soft for backpacker. We quickly learn he is very friendly, extremely talkative, and isn’t shy about displaying his somewhat effeminate nature. We both assume the guy is gay before he openly confirms our suspicions. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. His name is John, and we soon realize that not only is he a flamboyantly homosexual backpacker, a rare find in my experience, he is also racially intolerant. Shortly after sitting down, he is bagging on the Mexican population back in Vegas where he lives. Everything about the guy seems a little contradictory, but I guess it truly does take all types.

          John works for REI back in Vegas, and his pack is loaded with all the latest lightweight gear. Proving his issues with duality, he has off-set his ultra-light load with almost thirty pounds of food. Thirty pounds of food for what he says is a five day expeditions is about three times more than necessary. I can understand being cautious and bringing an extra meal, but an additional twenty pounds is just crazy. However, once John finds out about our lack of real lunch sustenance, he begins rummaging through his pack for all sorts of items. Before long we have snagged a bag of cooked chicken, peanut butter packets, electrolyte pills, and even some candy.

          Jamie, in her exhausted, half-starved state, says to John without thinking, “My God, you must be some kind of food fairy.” After a split second of awkward silence where I fix my wife with questioning look, the declaration sends our new friend into fits of laughter that soon spreads to all three of us.

          “Never heard that one before,” he cackles, “But I guess there’s no sense living in denial.”

          Throughout the course of the evening, John learns of tomorrow’s plan to hike twenty more miles despite Jamie’s exhausted countenance. He does his best to talk us out of it and piggyback on his permit for the next day or two. Having already expressed his relief that he wouldn’t have to camp here alone, I suspect John is a little nervous at the thought of sleeping by himself in grizzly country. And, while his reserved itinerary would actually make more sense for our own journey, we have yet to hear the man let a moment of silence go unfilled. That just won’t do. Not for us. His constant blabbing would be a good bear deterrent on the trail, but at some point, I’d rather let a grizzly eat me than have to endure non-stop chatter.

          We luck out the next morning when, after having returned to the edge of Waterton Lake, John realizes he has forgotten something back at camp. He tells us not to wait for him, and although we had zero intention of doing so, we pretend to be disappointed his idea isn’t going to work. Feigning reluctant waves, we hit the trail almost running just in case he has plans of catching us. After remembering the guy is carrying a sixty pound pack, we slow to our usual pace. John isn’t going to match our speed unless he can convince a bear to carry his load.

          After a few miles back the same way we came in, we pass an intersection taking us left up a new trail towards another series of steep switchbacks that we have been dreading since spying the route on our topographic map. The climb to the top of Stoney Indian Pass is going to be a bitch; there’s really no way around it. Not only that, once we exhaust ourselves on the ascent, we’re supposed to walk twelve more miles to our next reserved site. Although we never shared our plan with John, Jamie and I never had any intention of adhering to the official itinerary. We could force it out if we had to, arriving at camp after sunset, but we have a better idea.

          The ascent to the top of Stoney Indian is everything we feared, and by the time we have crested the ridgeline to look into the next massive drainage, my wife and I are ready to be done for the day. Keeping our eyes peeled for a suitable location, we drop down the other side for maybe a mile before we find what we are looking for. Beneath the backdrop of the cascading Atsina Falls, Jamie and I slip off the trail and sneak around a small rise affording the best views of the dramatic cirque. Like an amphitheater for the Gods, the water, mist, sheer rocks walls once carved by the park’s namesake, and vividly colorful mountain peaks create an outdoor cathedral like nothing man has ever, or will ever, create.

            Our guerrilla camp is totally not copasetic with park officials, but with the Leave-No-Trace principles that Jamie and I adhere to, nobody will ever know of our trespass. Well, unless I do something stupid like write about it. As it is with other endeavors, the master craftsman knows the rules well enough that he also knows when to break them. In the Northern Tetons, the officials expect you to create your own campsites because there are no official ones. Nowhere in Glacier is that the case, but we know what we’re doing from ample practice in our usual stomping grounds. Besides, for one night at least, our questionable behavior might very well land us the best seat in the park.

           Basking in our isolated surroundings, Jamie and I eat a hearty dinner of chicken and mashed potatoes before retiring with the appearance of the evening’s first stars. As night closes in, sounds from the falls begin to take on the eerie qualities of human whispers. We decide the spooky voices belong to the area’s Blackfeet ancestors, still asking the visitors of today to remember the tragic past of this land lest history repeat itself. Mankind is far from finished with its conquering, raping, and killing of the natural world and the ever-vigilant ghosts living here know it.

           Having slept as well as we ever have in the backcountry, Jamie and I awake at dawn bursting with energy, possibly enhanced by two mugs of stout coffee from our French press. We’re not even in the same ballpark as John, but there are some luxuries we refuse to forgo no matter how much extra weight it means. However, despite the temptation to doddle in our private campsite, we can’t afford to linger. Cutting yesterday short means we get to make up for it today.

           It doesn’t take long to drop below the exposed mountainsides and back into the predictable overgrowth of thimbleberries and ferns. Once again, our vision becomes limited to the trail just in front of us and what little we can make out through the dense foliage on either side. Jamie tends to be our navigator in the backcountry, keeping her vision at eye level looking for trail sign, or on nearby peaks to ensure our course jives with the topographical maps we always carry. I am the wildlife spotter, constantly checking the ground for sign of recent activity, examining the tree limbs overhead for evidence of canopy life, and occasionally studying the clouds for distant raptors. I may occasionally stub a toe on an obvious rock, but my vigilance does have some advantages.

          Just after our mid-day break, we are still pushing through the bush, wishing we’d brought machetes, when I spot movement on the uphill side of our path no more than forty feet ahead. All I see are what looks like brown, hairy shoulders, and rounded ears behind a fallen tree running perpendicular to our trail. While I can’t tell for certain what the creature is, we’re on an intersecting course, and something about its gait prompts me to grab Jamie and stop her short. Before she can question me, I point out the animal’s movement and yank a canister of bear spray from her pack’s side pocket. I remove the safety cap and place my finger on the trigger just as the animal comes into full sight.

          “Hey bear,” says Jamie as a young grizzly steps onto the trail. The juvenile animal instantly turns to face us rising on its back legs to full height. The bear is maybe five feet tall and possibly pushing two hundred and fifty pounds, but that’s still more grizzly than I ever want to tangle with in hand to hand combat. Our new bear friend is of a similar mindset. A split second after standing up to check us out, the bear is back on all fours tearing down the trail in the opposite direction. In an instant, the animal charges into the dense brush and is gone. We barely hear a single branch breaking as the grizzly makes its get away.

          “I never get tired of that,” Jamie says with a broad grin.

          “What’s that,” I ask, “seeing me scare grizzly bears half to death with my fierce persona?”

          “Something like that,” my wife says laughing. “Or, he just thought it would be embarrassing to whip your ass in front of your special lady friend and decided to spare you any hurt feelings.”

          Her theory is probably the more accurate of the two and I’m glad there was no trouble. I don’t want to injure a bear with the painful spray any more than I want one of them chewing on us. Ultimately, we both feel blessed with back to back close range grizzly encounters on our last two Glacier hikes. This one didn’t have quite the elements of drama and suspense as the last one, but at least we got a great look at this bear in broad daylight.

          Whether you actually see one or not, even the possibility of spotting these great animals is what brings people to this magnificent park. Don’t get me wrong, the scenery is second to none, but it’s also a guarantee. A bear sighting, on the other hand, is far from a safe bet. Few would argue that a grizzly encounters are one of the most memorable thrills anyone could ask for, at least as long as you don’t wind up as pepper-spray flavored dung. Jamie and I still have a couple more strenuous days of climbing passes, including the exhausting trek up to the Ptarmigan Tunnel and down the other side, but I imagine last night’s guerrilla camp and today’s bear are to be the highlights of this Glacier expedition.

          Maybe not. Who knows? The one thing I can guarantee is that we’ll be back for more at some point. Just as this stretch of the Northern Rockies was once dubbed the Backbone of the World by the Blackfeet Indians, outdoor excursions like this Glacier trek are the support system of our very lives.

Can't Kill What is Already Dead

No tourniquet or
White hot cauterization
Ever eased this
Self-inflicted flow
Of severing limbs
To silence the page

Trying to carve the muse
From this heart
With one hand remaining
While poisoning the tumors
In my brain
Left the ink
That much darker
And harder to read

All my efforts
Just a sticky
Delicious mess
Beneath the lingering
Pleasant odor
Of burnt hair

Rendezvous of Ghosts

Following ancient footsteps
Of the Nez Perce
And snake eaters
Tracking game
On their summer migration
Into the mythical
Basin of boiling mud
Ancestral Spirits and
Spouting geyser

The land of megafauna
Hoof and horn
And the hairy eyeball
Shoulder to shoulder with
Their constant escort
Of claw
Fang and tracks
That in the gathering dusk
Walk across your grave
Right into your spirit

In this rare air
It becomes easy
To imagine ourselves
Back in time painted
With the stain of berry
And flower
Wearing the leather
Eating the flesh
Of our providers
And channeling gratitude
Into a nightly song
Danced around our fire
To the beat of a drum
All but forgotten

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Generation Why

You have celebrated
Your own emasculation
Handing over the keys
Of destiny
While believing
You are still behind the wheel
You have boldly agreed
With another man’s idea
About temporary employment
Superseding the critical condition
Of a planet’s fading pulse
You have stood idly in place
While an economic gap
Opened beneath your feet
Swallowing generations whole
Thinking the lottery dream
Is attainable
To the true believer
You have bled for a flag
Doubled as a blindfold
And used by the firing squad
To sell you on the success
Of their weaponry
You have turned your back
On facts
Figures and immutable law
Replacing knowledge with
Propaganda and randomly
Applied blame
And yet you still
Have the nerve to sit there
Demanding others
To participate in a solution
Handed down to us
By the problem

Like Monster Like Son

The concrete my father
Once finished
Turned out more durable
Than he ever could and
Walking across his work
Some thirty years later
I pass through his bent ghost
Down on aching knees

Some of his craft
Is beginning to flake
And crumble
But still holds true
To its original form
He did as well
Only his mold was cast
In the hands of
Blood most hateful
Bound to deteriorate
Before its time

Watching him waste away
Through eyes
He robbed of innocence
I understand
That having never stood
On a solid foundation
He never had a chance
Of crafting one himself

Descending from cracked streets
I too
Seek a lasting legacy
But as it was with him
My best work
Is better off unnoticed
Beneath the feet
Of so many passerby’s

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Nightly Prayers

Can't sleep
Murderous electricity
Shocking my veins
Another gash
On mankind's soul
Another meal lost
To the cancerous hyena
And my faith
Has become the conviction
There is nothing
Within our limited scope
Worthy of rapture

Let the ice sheets melt
Help oceans rise
Open molten rifts
In your geologic puzzle
Blast ash
Around your womanly figure
Turn acid rain to
Unbreathable poison
Allow tsunamis to strike
Take trailer parks
In your twister's embrace
Topple the towers
Of every nation
Wipe this slate
And remove your
Undeserved presence
From the fingers
Of this scab picking plague

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rock the Mountain

          “Rooooock the Mountaaaaaaiiiiiiin!”

          The hoarse call knifes across the nomadic city of brightly colored tents, through the drone of a distant speed metal band, and the battle cry is immediately echoed by hundreds of nearby campers. The handful of us sitting in a smoker's huddle, submerged to our waists in Grimes Creek, raise our drinks for the countless time to toast the weekend mantra. Rock the mountain indeed. I’m not sure how I was talked into coming back to this annual festival, but the perseverance is just getting underway. Rock the Mountain isn’t so much a celebration of all things heavy metal as it is a gauntlet of sheer attrition. Three days of brutal July temperatures, hellish hangovers, and music played at ear-shattering decibels tests the mettle of even the strongest man and only the foolish come back for more.

          Mixing a blessing with a curse, pain is a fleeting memory. I once read that if women could accurately remember the sensations of childbirth, they'd never willingly get pregnant again. Rock the Mountain works in a similar sort of fashion. That's the only excuse I can think of for recognizing so many, of what to me our now, regulars. Some of them recall me as well. I see it in their eyes... and overtly hear it their voices, like when a security guard couldn't comprehend the fact I wasn't there to perform. Hoping to give me a confidence boost before taking the stage, I instead became a sort of leprous beggar after explaining that my heart just wasn't in the music anymore. For a moment I thought he might tear the neon wristband from my arm and send me packing. I guess some circles are harder to escape than others.

          An invite to this event is no doubt laced with promises of free flowing alcohol, cheap drugs, and rampant nudity, making it the ideal mecca for scores of disenchanted, testosterone dripping young males and the occasional lady they talk into three days of filth, heat exhaustion, vocals that were never intended to be in any sort of key, and hearing loss inducing amplifiers. Hell, my wife attended the festival exactly once and fled the debauchery before it was over, vowing never to return. I’ve said on more than one occasion that my wife is smarter than me. Every year, I come home dead tired, dehydrated, hung over, strung out, and suffering from a mild case of sun stroke. Almost impossible to comprehend is the fact I am back for the sixth time.

          The first five trips can be excused. As previously alluded, I was actually one of the performers during that half-decade reign. Through some cosmic chance and circumstance, I found myself fronting a pseudo-political four piece and occasionally playing some rhythm guitar. For a garage rock band operating in the anemic Boise music scene, Rock the Mountain is about as good a gig as one can expect. Granted, you don’t get paid, but you do at least get an audience that doesn't consist of your circle of friends being subjected to your act for the one-hundredth time. Outside of weekends, and in just a handful of venues, the same can rarely be said for even a money making show during the week. Idahoans aren't really known for their late night, free-spirited, club-hopping ways. Surly, pragmatic, and conservative are adjectives coming more readily to mind and our musicians don't fall far from the apple tree.

          The performers at Rock the Mountain tend to embrace an ideology of either violence or depression, although the more creative acts figure out a way to blend the two. In all fairness though, efforts have been made in recent years to somewhat diversify the acts. Still, for the majority of bands, there is very little in the way of vocal melody structure, tone rich acoustics, or lyrics pondering social concerns, politics, or god forbid, environmental concerns. This is Idaho after all.

          The occasional deciphered growl is more geared towards self-loathing, hating others, and telling the world to piss off, and they are usually delivered by some beer-bellied screamer trying to act tough. Like I said, I should know because I was one of them. Although, rest assured, my tough guy act was genuine. The powers governing the universe won’t let you front a band called GuerrillaWrench unless you can rock out the camouflage shorts with some sense of soldier like authority. And if I didn’t, piss off, let me go about believing that I did.

          After the drama-filled conclusion of GuerrillaWrench, a door through which all bands must pass, the bass player and drummer (also my little brother), forged ahead with a new band christened Boss Hawg and the Short Bus. As the name implies, the theory of political correctness doesn’t register on their radar. They are carving out their own crass niche in the Boise music scene with classics like “Ball Gags are Fun,” “The Ballad of the Chigronese,” and the You-Tube inspired, “Monkey Fuckin’ a Toad.” As you may have guessed, there are zero sacred cows in their paradigm. Just ask the one-legged lady who recently complained about their crudity only to wind up with a song written in her honor. Cruel? Yes. Sophomoric? Yes. Funny? I am going straight to Hell, but yes. That’s just how the Short Bus rolls…

          As it was with GuerrillaWrench’s first Rock the Mountain performance, Boss Hawg was handed a crappy time slot during the hottest part of the day. Like true rockers, they performed their sweaty hearts out to me, the guitar player’s new girlfriend, and a bunch of spectators hiding in the shade about fifty yards away. Despite the handicap, they gradually won over the distant crowd and even managed to slap a cherry on top with a spirited finale called “Hard-Core Puppet Porn.” A song that had even the true metal heads throwing up the devil horns. GuerrillaWrench managed a superior performance on each subsequent trip to Rock the Mountain and I suspect it will be the same for Boss Hawg and the Short Bus.

          Sitting in Grimes Creek after their performance, I offer my honest appraisal of their set, which I know my little brother appreciates. I mix in the good with the bad, but mostly, I am just happy to see my family and friends still doing what they love. What has replaced my affinity for band practice, landing gigs, and rocking out in a live setting, is really what makes this weekend such a unique festival - the mountains. We aren't deep in Idaho backcountry by any means, but we are out in the sticks and surrounded on all sides by densely pine covered hillsides. There isn't a city light or paved road as far the eye can see. I had to leave my backpack at home or the temptation to flee the hectic scene and vanish into the woods might have been overwhelming. Instead, I'll settle for drinking my nervous energy and naturally reclusive nature into submission.

          What I do appreciate about this outdoor musical festival is that it actually forces people to camp. There are no cabins or hotels around these parts. However, despite Idaho being a mecca for all things wilderness related, most of the aforementioned “regulars” are not exactly what I'd call experienced backwoodsmen. If campfires were allowed, there is no way I'd even attend. I have no desire to burn to death with a bunch of screaming dipshits who still haven't figured out the rudimentary basics of fire, something even our caveman ancestors had mastered.

          Our camp once saved the entire valley from burning when some jackasses kicked their flaming propane stove into a meadow of dry grass. Were it not for Boss Hawg's future guitar player having brought a fire extinguisher, the entire treasure valley would have been cleansed of its metal-head population. Something the cops would cheer, except that they'd lose a couple of their own in the hypothetical blaze; they do make their presence known at Rock the Mountain.

          A couple years back, my little brother, who as a child, I affectionately dubbed “Hawg”, fished one of these greenhorns out of Ol' Grimey. We had renamed the creek for its penchant of running disturbingly warm and the wasted savages always sitting upstream. In any case, the young kid had been tripping balls on acid, been separated from his friends, and had no idea where he was in the moonless night.  Little did he know, the kid was probably better off staying in the creek.

          Shivering cold he hunkered down in a chair while Hawg graciously hooked him up with a steaming mug of tea. Only problem, it was mushroom tea and before long the psychedelic madness took hold once more and off he went spiraling into the dark on his magical quest to find home. From our individual tents, we all vividly recount hearing his voice at the crack of dawn over by the wall of overflowing urinals screaming, “My name is John and I don't know where I am!” A desperate and panicked admission that left us all chuckling in our sleep deprived state.

          It may have been GuerrillaWrench's last gig at Rock the Mountain that resolved any lingering doubts I had about ending my career as a musician and it wasn't because we played a bad show. Quite the opposite, in fact. Our thirty minute set around dusk woke the crowd up for the first time all day and we upstaged several better known acts in the process. We also nearly literally destroyed the stage with our frenetic bouncing and foot stomping.

          My fondest memory was making eye contact with the bass player, and nodding towards the hole he was tearing in the stage floor, only for him to respond in all earnest with an “I don't give a fuck.” I remember turning to the audience with a shit-eating grin and announcing at the top of my lungs, “We're GuerrillaWrench and we don't give a fuck.” As the crowd cheered, and a front row wave of flashing breasts nearly tripped up the song, I realized our band was at the peak of its existence. It wasn't going to get any better than it was at that moment and I was at peace with moving on. Besides, beyond the sweaty masses, beyond the temporary town of tents, even above and beyond Ol' Grimey, I could already hear the mountains calling my name.

          I no longer belong amongst humanity, not for any length of time anyway. The thrill I once experienced from making music with a tight-knit bunch of genuine friends has been replaced with an overwhelming desire to seek out the most isolated and quiet stretches of wilderness left on our dying planet. Removing myself from the root cause of our mother's sickness is about the only way I can keep from dying myself, or even worse, being unable to resist the temptation to help her cleanse our environment of the worst offenders. Although a writer these days, if I get the music itch, I can still take my acoustic deep into woods and play a one man show for the bears and wolves. At this point, I suspect they're the only ones who'd understand any art of my creation.

Lyrical excerpt from “Trash Fiction” by GuerrillaWrench

The rigid heads
In today’s traffic jam

Accept the latest delay
Were I half the man
I claim to be
I would walk away
From you soulless machines

But as long as we sit here
Enduring the end
And this deliberate suffocation
The bad guys always win

Selling the Dream

Pay no attention
To the transparent overlords
Stealing bread
Straight off your table
While the opportunities
They purportedly create
From their wealth exemptions
Forever fail to materialize

Ignore the widening gap
Like some oceanic trench
Where the continents pull apart
Removing all power
From our collective grasp
And placing it in offshore accounts
Of American nobility

Turn a deaf eye
To the cries of our forests
Oceans and mountains
And with a blind heart
Continue to punish a landscape
Easily capable of sustaining
Excessive demands
As though our children
Were somehow her fault

Despise the messenger
For suggesting a better way
When you so desperately
Need to believe
The true minority
Is one day going to provide
The handshake and secret knock
To an exclusive club
That never actively recruits
A new member

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Divine Solution

My bottomless bottle
Of delectable red
Has improved upon perfection
By breathing uncorked
In the electrical storm
And shimmering heat wave
For another year

Harvested from elderberry
Wolf hair
And lion breath
She is the secret recipe
Hand crafted in the distillery
Of heaven
Sent to earth
For one mortal’s glimpse
Into ever expanding eternity

Beyond my lips
And across my tongue
Down to the molten core
Of primordial acid
She is the only elixir
To coat this daily indigestion
And hold my deliriums
From their tremors

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Blind Leading the Numb

Rolling back the audacity
Of those who dared hope
Old man cracker
Has once again employed
The transparent
Bait and switch somehow
Convincing punch cards
To aim blame everywhere
But the target
That might do some good

Cover to cover
Back to front
Upside down and inside out
This book has been digested
By billions
Standing strong and question less
For a single letter
They barely understand
While both sides
Pick clean the pockets
Of the distracted
Desert wanderers
Shielding themselves
From the sun
By plucking out both eyes
And turning them over
To the nearest vulture

Return of the Kid

          Nobody likes a trilogy. Let me rephrase that. Nobody likes the third installment of a trilogy. Don’t believe me? Name one that people hold in the same regard as the original and initial sequel. Hell, by the time any kind of follow-up rolls around, the once captivating idea has typically grown stale. Still, if some novelist or movie director is fortunate enough to get through back to back related stories with some degree of success, they almost seem obligated to force out a third.

          I wince inwardly as this realization lands home. This is exactly what I am trying to do. Vainly hoping another story will materialize for me in the Lynx Creek drainage of the rugged Sawtooths just a few miles above Atlanta, Idaho. The last two trips to this mountainous location on the Middle Fork of the Boise River led to first a heart-pounding, and then a heart-breaking, experience with the local mountain goats. The first time, while searching for Lynx Creek hot spring, my wife and I were caught in a stampede of the shaggy white beasts after they were spooked by unleashed dogs. Although a bit terrifying, the once-in-a-lifetime encounter, and my faceoff with the angry herd leader, reignited a passion for writing that I have embraced ever since.

          On our return visit the following July, we ran into a half-dressed, wild woman who had lost her Siberian husky in the same drainage. We never saw the dog, but I did find fresh, mid-sized canine prints in the mud around the geothermal seeps where the goats hang out. Later that afternoon, we were haunted by the cries of a lost baby goat perched on a cliff above our campsite. After spotting each other, the yearling began descending the sheer rock walls as if Jamie and I were going to be its new family. Like true warriors, we hid as the whimpering goat circled our foliage concealed tent. Leaving us emotionally traumatized, the youngster finally retreated up the rocks while we theorized it was another unleashed dog that caused the herd to panic and separate our fuzzy little supplicant from its family.

          Clearly, we have some kind of cosmic connection with this place involving mountain goat drama and that’s the reason it has been two years since our last visit. Subconsciously deciding we couldn’t handle witnessing more stress for the herd, we gave Lynx Creek a break last summer. Now, feeling the pressure to come up with a new outdoor adventure article, I have convinced my wife to revisit our old stomping grounds and the heart of my craft’s inspiration. It may be an act of desperation, hoping some worthwhile trilogy will unfold, but it’s the Fourth of July weekend and our reclusive nature insists we be somewhere far removed from the drunken idiots with their loud, colorful gunpowder and Lynx Creek is an ideal location even if nothing occurs.

          “Remember that couple we kept seeing on the trail the first time we came up here?” Jamie asks, interrupting my train of thought.

          My response is a bray of laughter. How could I forget? We should have known our Lynx Creek saga was going to be a little Twilight-Zone-ish from their presence alone. Jamie and I had been walking past their car camp on our way to the trailhead when the guy initiated a conversation with us. He was still young, in his mid-thirties, but had already grown soft. Not overweight by any means, just not in any kind of shape either. He briefly recollected aloud about all the hardcore backpacking trips he once endured, and as we chatted, his eyes took on a distant, competitive fire. His nearby wife, wearing caked on make-up and overly styled hair, didn’t look as if she had ever spent a day in the backcountry, nor did she look compelled to start.

          It was during our first break of the morning, resting a hundred feet from the path, when we saw them march by. Well, he was marching and she was reluctantly in tow. More humorous was the gear they had elected to bring. The doughy old-school adventurer carried nothing but a machete and a length of rope coiled about his shoulder. His wife held a pink, hard-shelled piece of carry-on luggage. Not sure what he intended on chopping with that big blade, or doing with that rope, and neither appeared to have water, but I guess I’ll never know what was in the small suitcase.

          We missed the hidden trail descending to Lynx Creek a few times before finding our way down, while the other couple kept missing the path to a higher lake, causing us to pass each other a few times throughout the day. Each time, the man did his best to puff out his chest and pick up the pace, while his lady made no effort to disguise her exhaustion and disgust. By the last time we saw them, the sun had just set behind the towering Sawtooth ridgeline, they were miles from their campsite, and the woman looked as if she was reevaluating their entire relationship. Between fits of laughter, we felt a little bad for them.

          In an attempt to avoid any annoying or amusing encounters with other people, Jamie and I are using a different route to access the drainage. On a map of the area, we noticed an old road paralleling the opposite side of the river, and while it came to an abrupt stop far short of our destination leaving us no choice but to forge our own path through dense underbrush and across loose talus, we have somehow successfully circumvented our fellow man on this busy holiday weekend.

          Approximately a mile from our destination, Jamie suddenly stops and points towards the closest cliff rising above the thick and prickly maze of buck brush we are trying to navigate. Shielding her eyes from the intense sun and squinting towards the rock wall, she asks, “Is that what I think it is?”

          I look up just in time to see a shaggy white blur disappearing behind a stand of trees atop the cliff. I only catch a momentary glimpse, but it is enough. “Yep,” I answer, “that’s one of our friends alright. Man, what is with this place? We can’t take two steps without tripping over a mountain goat.”

          Jamie’s smile could light up a black hole. “Maybe it’s that same one who tried to adopt us last time,” she says impishly.

          “We should have caught that goat when we had the chance,” I say while cinching up the waist belt of my backpack to get some of the pressure off my shoulders. “It could be carrying most of our gear about now.”

          After pushing through the labyrinth of buck brush, Jamie and I take a break on a rocky outcrop above the raging middle fork. As I quench my thirst, I survey the near and distant ridgelines. I see nothing until I repeat the process and then, from atop a nearby ledge I had just scouted, I spot our mountain goat for the second time. Only visible from the neck up, the animal is peering at us over the top of a boulder with his head cocked sideways.

          “Looks like someone is following us,” I say and nod my head in the direction of our observer.

          Jamie spots the white animal after a few seconds of searching. “Pretty sneaky,” she says. “I think he’s leading us to Lynx Creek.”

          Determining the sex of a distant mountain goat is all but impossible, but I believe Jamie to be correct. Males tend to live by themselves once they reach a certain age, while the females live amongst extended families containing multiple generations. Whipping out the binoculars for a quick look, I can positively say that our onlooker is two to three years old at the most. His goatee and horns pale in comparison to the herd leader with whom I experienced my standoff and he is half the size of that great beast.

          Standing up and pulling Jamie to her feet, I say, “Well, if the goat knows the way, let’s race him there.”

          The rest of the trek is a pleasant walk just above the river on an established, but rarely used trail. Downed trees slow our progress but before long we are once again standing on the banks of the swollen middle fork, looking across the impassable torrent towards the small hot spring on the other side. As predicted, the shallow pool is still swamped by the voluminous runoff, validating our decision to approach the drainage from this side; we weren’t going to be able to soak anyway.

          Neither of us notices our mountain goat escort until we have set up our tent and stripped naked for a cleansing plunge into a small eddy just downriver from camp. As we stand there working up the courage to jump into the freezing water, Jamie points to the top of a sheer granite wall towering over our camp with a gargantuan grin spreading across her face. I look up in time to see our goat friend pulling up a comfortable resting spot on his rocky overlook. Lying on its belly, the animal peers over the cliff for a bird’s eye of the Lynx Creek drainage.

          “Do you see where that goat just laid down?” I ask Jamie, my own smile beginning to match hers.

          “Yep,” she replies. “He is in the exact same location we first noticed that freaked out baby last time. I’m really starting to wonder if that is our goat.”

          Although I don’t want to vocalize my crazy suspicion, as it seems way too coincidental, but I feel an unexplainable certainty that our voyeur is none other than that panic-stricken yearling from two years ago. It’s almost like the animal recognized us on our hike in and purposefully headed to this precise location as if to let us know that he is, in fact, ok. We no longer need to worry; the lions and wolves never found him despite the echoing racket Jamie and I last heard. The distant mountain goat sits frozen in place while we swim and it isn’t until we are in the process of getting dressed that we notice the young billy has vanished once again.

          “Alright,” I say, re-thinking my earlier assessment, “so maybe this goat is just a pervert and it’s pure coincidence that he happened to be sitting on the same rock ledge as our last one.”

          “Only one way to find out,” she replies. “Get naked again and see if it comes back.”

          “I kind of doubt he would have been spying on us for my naked butt. I think he might have a crush on you though,” I say, “which means I might be eating mountain goat for dinner.”

          Normally primetime for mosquitos, Jamie and I take full advantage of the long cool spring having put off the bloodsucker’s arrival by spending our evening next to the river instead of hiding from the swarms in our small tent. Later we drift off to the sound of the almost hypnotic, fluctuating flow of the river and sleep the deserved sleep of the backpacker.

          The following morning, Jamie and I eat instant oatmeal and plan our day. We decide to make the off-trail push straight up the mountainside towards the headwaters of Lynx Creek. With snow still visible on the peaks all around us, we begin the arduous climb. Within the first hour, we have a four foot gopher snake slither right between us and spot two of the green and tan racer snakes, as they rear up at each other and square off like a couple of skinny sock puppets. The smaller one instantly backs down and honoring its namesake, tears off in a streaking blur through the sagebrush dotting our exposed climb.

          Later, as our route finding takes us back into a more forested area, we find a large hard plastic barrel tucked away in a stand of fallen timber. It is the type of storage container used to bait bears, a hunting practice I find particularly loathsome; almost on par with shooting treed lions from point blank range. That isn’t hunting, that’s the equivalent of me challenging a quadriplegic to a game of one-on-one basketball. Near the ambush site, we also find discarded dishes and rusting cooking pots. Looks like the hunters in this drainage are lazy on multiple levels. I am more willing to forgive the ignorance of your average person than I am the slob who claims to be an “outdoorsman” while being unable to hunt an animal without cheating and trashing the wilderness.

          Thinking we have found our headwaters, or at least a small lake, our ascent comes to an end when we crest a talus strewn slope only to find a massive cirque of angular pinkish boulders, some the size of cars. It looks as though a once rocky peak collapsed on itself, inverting the entire mountain top. There are a few melting snowfields, but otherwise, there is no water in the giant bowl. The headwaters are still above us, possibly over the next rise, but we have grown tired and hungry from the climb. We make the long retreat back to camp in time for another dip in the river and a hot meal of instant mashed potatoes and chicken.

          As dusk settles over the valley, we decide to head downriver for a better view of the rocky ledge overlooking our campsite, hoping for one last glimpse of our goat before bed. So fixated on the distant cliff, I fail to notice the shaggy white and black-horned beast drinking from the banks of the middle fork no more than forty feet in front of me. Out of the corner of my eye, I pick up on the slightest bit of motion and turn my head in time to lock eyes with the adult mountain goat as it raises its head in alarm. Both of us freeze in our tracks, somehow hoping the other has yet to notice.

          I try to catch Jamie’s attention with a subtle wave of my hand, but the movement is enough for the goat. Moving with astonishing speed, the animal slips behind a low sagebrush covered rise and vanishes from sight. A moment later, from the uphill side of the mound, appears a baby goat and on its heels a trailing yearling. Jamie and I watch with our mouths agape as a line of mountain goats, each one bigger than the last, charges into view and then up the mountainside into a shallow ravine full of tall undergrowth and a mixture of live and dead trees. The goat I had first seen is second to last, trailed only by a significantly larger herd leader. Within seconds, the spooked family has vanished into the foliage and shadows leaving us alone in the thickening twilight.

          The heart-racing experience immediately transports me back in time to the rage I felt on both previous excursions when some inconsiderate person let their dogs terrify the poor goat family. Only this time, we are the guilty party and we don’t even have a mutt to blame. Although purely accidental, our intentions don’t really matter when the end result is still a panicked herd. The last thing Jamie and I desire is to scare these noble creatures, but at least none were separated in the momentary chaos. I imagine the family will recover from our sudden appearance shortly after catching their breath. On our way back to camp, we check the cliffs one last time, possibly hoping to ensure our young rogue male didn’t witness us harassing his relatives. Thankfully, the ledge is deserted.

          “Don’t beat yourself up over it,” Jamie offers sensing my regret. “I’m sure these goats have seen their share of people. It’s not like they thought we were wolves or anything. They’ll be fine.”

          “I suppose so,” I say, “but I wasn’t paying full attention to my surroundings like I should have been. I feel like an amateur.”

          The images of the fleeing goats sits in the forefront of my mind until I finally drift off into a peaceful slumber. Thankfully, my dreams aren’t haunted by the suffering of mountain goats. In fact, I don’t remember dreaming at all. After breaking camp the next morning and packing up for the march back to our truck, Jamie and I scan the rock walls, but there are no signs of life.

          Shortly before our departing hike takes us beyond the views of exposed mountainside and drops us into the dense trees, I steal one last glance over my shoulder towards the distant ridgeline. It is probably just my imagination, but for a split second, I am almost positive there is a familiar white blur in the process of turning away from us and slipping back into the rocks. Whatever I noticed is gone before I can point it out to Jamie and I’m left wondering if I saw anything at all. It’s crazy, but I want to believe it really might have been our goat, knowing our times together were at an end, seeing us off with a final farewell. I return the gesture with one lingering, concluding wave before turning my back on the Lynx Creek drainage, possibly for the very last time.