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, January 31, 2011

A Mountain Man in the Desert

     What am I doing here? My position is totally exposed and I haven't seen a tree since we dropped below the North Rim. Paranoia is overtaking my senses. There is no place to hide amongst the rocks and stumpy sagebrush. What am I supposed to do when I hear the “whup-whup-whup” of the black helicopters closing in?

     “What black helicopters are you mumbling about?” my wife asks. “There is nobody looking for you! How would they know to find you here, anyway? We're hundreds of miles from home... and nobody is looking for you back there either.”

     I flash my disarming smile before looking serious and shifty-eyed once again. “How indeed? And just because they aren't looking for me right now, doesn't mean they won't soon. I'll tell you one thing, when it does happen, I better be in pine forest in the mountains somewhere or I won't stand a chance. I might as well be on Mars,” I finish, staring up at the towering cliffs of red and gold.

     I am exaggerating, of course, but the deeper our hike took us into the heart of Grand Canyon, the more I felt like a foreigner amongst the prickly foliage and barren rock. I am used to a canopy of treetops providing shelter from the watchful satellites above. I am used to thick tree trunks serving as backrests and windbreaks. I am used to crystal clear streams, creeks, and rivers flowing bountifully through the wilderness. I am used to bears and wolves. What I am not used to is a gargantuan fissure in the earth defying my sizable imagination in both scale and splendor.

     So, a desert rat I am not. However, the two day descent has opened my eyes to the mesmerizing colors, shapes, and possibilities of rocks, the geological and intrinsic appeal of these seemingly lifeless wastelands. As a child, my grandfather drove us all over the washed out roads of the deserted Owyhee Desert dominating southeast Idaho. He knew that area of the Gem state as well as anyone. He called it his “backyard”. I, on the other hand, could never get past the scorching heat, coupled with the complete lack of water and shade. For all the prehistoric fossils and Native American artifacts we discovered, I still remember wishing we were someplace cooler, someplace surrounded by pine trees, and someplace I could go swimming.

     Now that I am in the middle of the big ditch, and witnessing first hand, this unique world treasure, I realize my neighboring slot canyons are a poor substitute for the real thing. In an effort to get back on the “desert” horse, my wife and I spent last weekend in Big Jack's Canyon out in the lands my grandfather once loved. Despite my childhood aversion for such places, I welcomed the opportunity, mostly because it was the middle of November and neither sunburn nor unquenchable thirst would be an issue. In fact, our weekend getaway saw us struggling to stay warm after sundown. Still, it was a beautifully remote setting with big horn sheep as our only neighbors. By the end, I found myself looking forward to Northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon.

     The one discomfort still eating at me as we approach within a mile of the Colorado River is the fact that we will be alone in the backcountry for Thanksgiving. While the rest of our friends and family gorge themselves on turkey, potatoes, and rolls, we will settle for something dehydrated that won't be followed by pumpkin pie. Perhaps the meager meal served on the most gluttonous of holidays will serve as a reminder for why we are truly thankful.

     “Let’s stop at Phantom Ranch and grab a beer on our way through. We deserve it after last night,” I suggest.

     “What, you didn't enjoy our romantic dinner at the outhouse?” she asks with a crooked grin.

     Due to the violent fluctuation of a blizzard that had been hammering the North Rim since our arrival, our first night in the big ditch had almost been spent trapped on the covered porch of a four stall outhouse. In fact, my first views of the Grand Canyon had been one giant anti-climax. From last night’s precarious perch at the very top of the chasm, all I could see was what looked like a dense fog spilling out over the lip of the canyon and filling the very sky. Apparently, you could see the opposite rim on a clear day, but as it was, I couldn't see fifty feet into the soupy mess.

     “Are you sure there's a way down there?” I had shouted at my wife to be heard over the gusting wind.

     “Apparently,” she shrugged, looking down into the fog choked abyss.

     The force of the gale had the snow blowing sideways creating ghostly patterns in the air. Still, the pine trees and snow had left me feeling at home. At least until I watched a rabbit jump out of a distant tree and standup on its hind legs, its bushy tail swaying back and forth with the gusts. It took my brain a second to figure out something was amiss, but then it occurred to me I had never seen a rabbit climb a tree before, nor had I seen one with tail long enough to be swaying in the wind.

     “What the hell…” I began to say when Jamie elbowed my shoulder and pointed at the creature.

     “Dan, it’s a Kaibab squirrel!”

     A squirrel? As if the fuzzy little animal knew it had a captivated audience, the silver creature hopped in our direction before scampering up a much closer tree. It had all the dexterity of our own fox squirrels back home, but it was much bigger, and its ears had tufts of fur sprouting straight up from the tips creating a rabbit-eared illusion. Perhaps most striking was the animal’s fluffy white tail. Easily doubling the length of the creature, and as big around as its body, the squirrel began cleaning its elegant ivory appendage while stealing glances in our direction as if to ensure we were riveted by the show.

     As it turned out, Jamie and I were the last two visitors to the North Rim before the storm forced park officials to close the entrance. Over the course of the next several days, we would run into hikers who had been diverted the additional 250 miles to the South Rim due to the Northern impasse. So content to be strolling in the National Park wonderland, not a single one of them seemed overly miffed about the detour, and we were ecstatic because Jamie and I had the descent hike all to ourselves.

     When we had set out on the North Kaibab trail, the fog was firmly in place and the snow was still blowing sideways. A Ranger has assured us the weather would improve once we had descended a couple miles into the canyon. It seemed odd at the time that somewhere directly below us existed a whole different desert climate. Cinching the rain gear tight and hoping our hiking boots could withstand the six inches of wet snow, my wife and I set out from the North Rim marching through the blizzard.

     The Ranger was right. Two miles into the canyon the heavy snow had turned into a monsoon. No longer quite cold enough, the storm just pounded us with freezing rain instead. We had, however, managed to get below the thick fog and the grandeur that is the Big Ditch began to reveal itself through the dissipating mist. Photographs are poor substitutes for the actuality of the epic, breathtaking scenery, but my recollections of the Grand Canyon itself are so vividly real, I scarcely need reminders.

     Like an impossibly long, crooked, colossal inverted pyramid had been extracted from the earth, the canyon is a stepped chasm of unimaginable proportion. The flat part of each giant stair a traversable shelf, the step risers brilliantly colored cliff walls hundreds of feet tall. As we descended deeper, the golden layer of rock topping the canyon gave way to bright pink granite, which eventually, and just as abruptly, became a stone of darker red. There is no blurring of colors, only distinct lines where one geological era stopped and another began. Between the Neapolitan rock layers and dizzying drops, the canyon revealed her inner sanctums. I felt connected to this desert landscape in a way I never imagined.

     Making it easier to appreciate the scenic beauty the rain finally relented. The wind however did not and during our pass through the “eye of the needle”, a three foot wide ledge with no handrails next to a precipitous drop, Jamie and I were buffeted by fifty mile an hour gales. Mercifully most of the force was pushing us into the rock wall on one side of the trail, but random gusts would hit us square in the back shoving our already top-heavy momentum forward and our hearts into our throats.

     By the time we reached the Roaring Springs break area, only six miles into the hike, the clouds were turning ugly once again. The storm unleashed with renewed fury just as we had made it to the covered and raised deck of the outhouse. Trying to ignore the intermittent odors assailing our nostrils between blasts of wind and sleet, Jamie and I ate trail mix and waited nearly two hours for the next break in weather.

     Just as it began to appear we’d be trapped for the night, the storm broke apart to reveal the night’s first stars and white moonlight lit up the nearby cliffs. Donning our headlamps, we scampered the remaining couple of miles to Cottonwood campground and secured out site. After a late night meal of chicken stew we quickly fell asleep, grateful to be smelling sage instead of the reek of outhouse.

     The sky had cleared by the first hint of dawn and we wasted no time getting our packs together and strapped to our back once again. Through the winding, rock corridor of one stunning site after another, my wife and I took our time appreciating the eons of erosion responsible for the rugged, beautiful canyon through which we descended. I even developed a kink in my neck from looking up and twice almost fell on my face from being too enthralled to watch the rocky trail.

     Before stopping for lunch we bypassed the short detour trail to Bridal Falls, supposedly one of the grandest sites in the entire park. Our eventual exit route from the canyon would see us hiking back to the North Rim on the same trail, so we agreed to save it for later. By then both of us were craving that beer at Phantom Ranch. We were also curious to see such a watering hole in the middle of a backcountry destination. Our arrival to the resort will be the first time I have had a frosted adult beverage made available during the middle of a wilderness backpacking trip.

     I am not sure what exactly I had pictured in my mind for Phantom Ranch but the reality of the small resort doesn’t match. I imagined fewer buildings and more campsites and the restaurant saloon that I craved is just a small cantina with a meager sampling of food items and equipment. The cheeseburger and frosty pint of beer we had talked about on the trail reluctantly become a six pack of lukewarm American lager and a chocolate bar.

     By the time we finish our third drink, the simple rustic nature of the place has won us over. We actually find ourselves preferring the small operation over a bustling brew pub full of tourists. So much, in fact, that rather than push on to our reserved campsite, we track down the ranger office and manage to finagle one of the previously booked camps due to a last minute cancellation. Just before bed Jamie makes a trip down to the camper’s bathrooms and is breathless upon her return.

     “I just saw a ring-tailed cat!” she announces.

     “Dammit,” I mutter. I had truly been hoping to see one of these strange creatures and I had almost joined my wife on her trip to the bathroom. Related to raccoons, these adorable mammals are extremely intelligent, curious, and possess opposable thumbs capable of manipulating zippers and bags. They have longer bodies and shorter legs than actual felines, but they possess a similarly adorable countenance. Like the Kaibab squirrel, they are absolutely at home in the trees, which means their presence in the canyon is restricted to the very few wooded areas. Phantom Ranch is a veritable oasis in the Grand Canyon.

     Any camper in Phantom Ranch who doesn’t utilize the provided ammunition boxes to stash their food, will wake up to find it gone. One of our neighboring campers saw a ring-tail, calmly and coolly, unzip the top pouch of her backpack and fish out a sack full of trail mix sitting right on top. And if the cats don’t rob you, the fearless mice will. Before setting out, we had borrowed a steel-mesh bag that is sealed shut at the top with a wide swath of hardcore Velcro. Nothing short of a bear is breaking into our food and hauling it off.

     I sleep poorly hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary ringed-tail cats, but all I do is make myself tired. Also, a campground, unless deserted, always makes me feel a bit cagey; too many hairless apes wandering about the joint, disrespecting the environment, and generally pissing me off. It doesn’t take much. Not to mention the ever present threat of black helicopters as well. They could have spies all around me and I’d never now until it was too late. It is time to hide once again.

     After crossing the interstate-wide river of slow churning chocolate milk more commonly known as “The Colorado”, we steel ourselves for the climb halfway to the top of the South Rim. Once again, we are instantly staggered by the views of the colorful river canyon from above. There are overhangs designed for viewing that are literally one step to the river hundreds of feet below. These natural viewing platforms have no handrails or safety features whatsoever. If a sudden blast of wind were to hit you while pressing your luck on the ledge, well, the end is certain, but I do wonder if people tend to scream, or just take a sudden intake of breath in the moment of realization that is never let out again.

     At the intersection of the South Kaibab trail and our intended eastern path across the Tonto Plateau, we talk with a Ranger claiming to be the oldest employee in the park. Frankly, we aren’t about to dispute that fact. The grizzled old timer looks as though he’s seen a season or two out in the desert.

     “What about our trail here?” asks Jamie, pointing east.

     My wife and I exchange questioning glances when he responds, “I ain’t been out that way in twenty… twenty-five years. Ain’t much out there. Hope you brought enough water.”

     Some people might interpret those words as ominous or, at least, a practical warning. Nothing he witnessed out there ever inspired a return visit. How great could it be? To us, it sounds like our chances of running into any other hikers just dropped considerably. The information leaves us beaming and ready to march on.

     The ranger was right, particularly for the first stretch. The Tonto Plateau was a gently rolling half-mile wide shelf of stumpy sagebrush and a variety of cacti. I begin to think there isn’t a plant here that wouldn’t prick, lacerate, or poison you if given the opportunity; nothing like are soft green and mostly harmless foliage back home. To our south, sheer walls ascend to the skyline; to the North, a cliff followed by a direct plummet to the Colorado River. From the open vantage point, we see black clouds still raging over the North Rim where our truck is surely buried in snow.

     As we hike deeper into the remote country, the storm in the northern sky is joined by an equally ugly mass of churning clouds to the south and west. The weather appears to be boxing us in. For some reason, karma, good fortune, or dumb luck tends to watch our backs in the backcountry and this time is no different. Just as we think it would be wise to get a campsite battened down, a natural shelter appears before us. At the base of a rocky outcropping, eons of wind and rain have worn the underside of a couple monstrous boulders creating a cave just large enough for our two-man tent and backpacks.

     By the time we finish making camp and eating dinner, the storm activity has all shifted northward. All we experience, from the safety of our shelter, are strong blasts of wind and ominous skies that talk tougher than they actually are. As the afternoon set in, the weather settles altogether and patches of blue appear overhead.

     “We need to find some more water for tomorrow,” Jamie notes as we emerge from our confined cave to stretch our muscles.

     “It looks like the main trail is about to drop into that slot canyon to our east. With all the recent storm activity, we can probably find some pothole water.”

     Pothole water is the precipitation left trapped in the natural cracks and eroded bowls of level rock after the storms and flashfloods have passed. Slot canyons are the best place to look for water out in the desert. There are countless of these smaller side chasms feeding the Colorado River. Tourists taking rafting trips down the Grand right after a heavy storm must be treated to breathtaking scene of countless waterfalls cascading from above.

     We follow our small canyon to the South and away from the river thinking our best bet is to search the higher ground. The slot is filled with a rainbow of boulders from a variety of geological eras dropped from differing heights above, as well as the occasionally firmly rooted juniper. The very base of the chasm is filled with intermittent stretches of flat, polished stone that look promising, but eventually the walls converge in a dry dead-end rising a hundred feet above us.

     After retracing our footsteps and following the slot in the opposite direction, we find our pothole water. Surrounded by the footprints of big horn sheep, Jamie and I locate several tiny pools of clear water in the naturally eroded bowls along the flat rock bottom of the drainage. After the tedious ritual of scooping spoon-sized servings into our filtering bottles, we return to camp prepared for another day of hydration in the desert.

     “We might make a desert rat out of you yet,” says Jamie and we crawl into our tent for the night.

     “I might be willing to consider part-time employment,” I reply.

     Three days of steep hiking has taken its toll and we sleep from the moment our eyes close until a murderous cawing brings us back to the reality of a frigid dawn full of gusting winds. The raven sits just outside our cave fixing us with one menacing eye. Maybe we had crashed in his pad on accident. Who knows? In any case, we allow our surly alarm clock to get us moving until the coffee can kick in and take over. Our plan for the day is to reach a point of similar elevation, but on the opposite side of the canyon. We are as deep as we are getting on this expedition; it is time to head back to the North Rim.

     On our way back to the South Kaibab trail, we notice a large family of nervous deer just uphill from our position. While we watch, a herd of big horn ewes and their calves trot past below us. All of the ungulates we have seen in Grand Canyon look fat and happy, with the exception of some scattered deer we saw in the creek bottom of Phantom Ranch. Distinct ribs were showing on about a third of that population.

     Deer eat discarded trash and it clogs their bellies until they can no longer digest actual food and they slowly starve to death. At one point, in the not too distant past, park rangers had to slaughter a sizeable portion of the herd to put them out of their misery. Autopsies later revealed several pounds of plastic garbage in each animal’s stomach. Thinking about the unnecessary suffering of those deer, I get locked in a violent mental cycle wishing I could inflict similar torture on the mindless transgressors.

     I am still fixated on the variety of ways in which I would gladly punish litterbugs when we cross the Colorado River for the second time and find ourselves back at the bustling resort of Phantom Ranch. We stop at the cantina one last time to purchase critical ingredients for our Thanksgiving feast, a meal that had been taking shape in our minds as we have covered mile after mile of rocky trail. Showing considerable restraint, we stay just long enough for one beer before re-shouldering our portable homes and waving goodbye to this remote outpost of pseudo-civilization. Our last act before resuming the march is to mail a couple postcards that are to be carried by pack mules all the way to the Southern Rim where they will then be turned over to the actual post office.

     By dusk we have covered more ground than any other day of the trip and we are once again off the main path in the desert backcountry. We make our camp for the night on the flat rock of a drainage bottom sheltered from the wind. It is the ideal location to be creamed by a midnight flashflood that could carry us over the cliff just below our site and onto the jagged rocks far below. We agree that if either of us awakes to the sound of rain, we’ll get up and move, but the skies look like they will hold. Taking advantage of the day’s last light, we can almost see our location from the night before, halfway up the southern canyon walls and on the great Tonto Plateau. The distance seems immense, not even remotely possible to cover in one day, yet we made it… just in time for a quick dinner and another night of exhausted slumber.

     “Happy Turkey Day!” my wife shouts in my ear to wake me up and cease my snoring. After my heart quits seizing from the jolt, and a couple of dirty looks, I return the blessing. It really is Thanksgiving even it doesn’t remotely feel like it out in the Big Ditch. Still, looking around at our primeval landscape, completely void of trees and human life, it is easy to list a plethora of things I am grateful for. The most surprising of which is that a mountain man could feel so content out in the desert; I suddenly realize I haven’t thought about the black helicopters in over a day.

     After several miles of steep downhill, we are back on the main Kaibab Trail. With the exception of our intended detour to Bridal Falls, from here on out it is a straight climb back to the top. Wore out from the constant uphill, we almost ignore the path to the unique viewing site for a second time. Jamie finally makes a command decision to push ourselves a bit further and see what the fuss is about.

      A half hour later, I’m pleased we made the hour long side visit because the falls are possibly the most stunning vision we have seen in the entire park. The water pours over an abrupt rock ledge from an unknown source above onto what looks like a small cinder cone volcano covered with bright green algae. The waterfall splashes of the rock formation scattering mist and droplets throughout the dead-end slot. Even in the cold November air, Jamie and I drop our packs and let the refreshing spray wash over us.

      By the time we reach our final campsite, we are ravenous from the constant incline. Our Thanksgiving feast consists of a cubed and grilled summer sausage added to a pot of creamy, cheesy potato soup and a stale bagel slathered with cream cheese. In our famished state, it is as delicious as any holiday feast we ever consumed.

     The smells even brought an army of intrepid mice from the nearby bushes that were not easily dispelled. Much to my wife’s horror, one even made it halfway up the outside of my pants before I shook him down to my boot tip and then with a gentle kick launched him back into the expanding shadows of nightfall. This is a woman who fell asleep during a grizzly bear attack in Glacier (long story), but the thought of a mouse touching her is terrifying. Go figure.

       In the last light of dusk, I look up to the awaiting North Rim where I can just detect the individual outlines of separate pine trees. The snowline appears to start a couple of miles from the top. Tomorrow will see us hidden beneath the fragrant green boughs once again, carving a path through the snow and ice just like nature intended… at least for this man of the mountains. Gone will be the cacti and sagebrush and with it my heightened sense of paranoia. Soon, I will be able to hide from the helicopters once again. Still, as I look at the last hint of light grazing the tallest gold cliff miles above our campsite, I can’ help feeling like I will miss this barren landscape. Maybe I inherited some of my Grandpa’s desert rat blood after all.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Henceforth Aspirations

Won a chemical lottery
This morning
Awaking lion grin
And stallion strut
The energy
Positively contagious

Howling troubadour
Steering wheel snare
And finger guns
For fellow
Tombstone commuters

Frosty barnacles
Of dead winter dawn
Melting in the wake
Of all this
Solar activity

A first taste of
Spring on the lips
Of her breath
Budding nubs
And I accept your
On this first sunrise
Before the rest
Of my days

Friday, January 21, 2011

Murder Suicide

I can only imagine
My frustration
When the inevitable future
Finds me
Trapped in a gently
Jostling sea
Of silent slates
And empty eyes locked
On a hand held

All of us caught
In the flow of
Wedged bumpers
Harmlessly bouncing
From one person
To the next

I will be the only one
Trying to
Plot an untouched course
The only one saying
And finally the only one
To break down
Screaming certain death
To the next
Pile of oblivion
Touching me

Rather than display
Visible reactions
All they will do
Is turn the device around
Making me
The temporary target
Of indifferent attention
And within seconds
I will see myself
Freaking out on the
News monitors
Strung above our heads

Without trial
Or explanation
I will be exposed
As far too alive
And dangerously unfit
For living

Behind the War Paint

     I hand the cashier a twenty dollar bill and turn to walk out the door when a tattered missing person sign taped to the glass catches my attention. Actually, it is the eyes I notice first. His unique name sits just above that blank stare awaiting my confirmation. His 'gone missing' date is over two years old. Missing? Two years? How had I not heard anything? Why hadn’t mother said something? Probably because I never call or visit, I instantly reason with a slight flare-up of guilt. It had been three years since my father's funeral prompted my last trip to the place I was raised, three years since I had set foot in this gas station, and almost twice that long since my final conversation with the man on the poster.

     His name was Cactus Dry Creek and he belonged to the only Indian family in our small mountain town. His tan skin and long black hair stood out as much as his name was inappropriate for central Idaho’s cold, forested climate. Of course, he wasn't born in Timberline. His family moved here from Nevada, which made him a double rarity in our neck of the woods. After the sawmills closed, nobody moved to Timberline; they only moved away.

     Considered an outsider, Cactus wasn’t treated particularly well at his new high school. It wasn't outright bullying. It was more that people acted like they just couldn't see him, like they thought he might disappear if they never acknowledged his existence. Once the primary focus of my peers neglect, due to an innate understanding of math, I was all too happy for Cactus' arrival. At least at first.

     The Dry Creek family bought the house closest to ours. Although we lived a quarter mile apart, he had to pass our place on his walks to and from school. I would watch him out my living room window as he moped past our fence, gaze at his feet, and his younger sister always trailing behind. I quickly convinced myself that I couldn’t stand his dejected body language, so I went out of my way to ensure our paths crossed during the commute. Looking back on it, I wonder if my motivation was simply the fact that being replaced on the bottom rung of the school's social ladder hadn't won me any more friends. I was still as alone as Cactus.

     In any case, he was just as eager for a comrade and we quickly forged a strong friendship. One of those childhood relationships you naively assume will last forever. As I have aged, and friends have come and gone, forever has come to mean a shorter amount of time. Is it like the pessimists say? Are friendships really just a matter of convenience and circumstance? When one part is removed from the equation, do they eventually fall apart?

     Stepping outside into the gas station parking lot, I am greeted by the rich, pine fragrance I have always associated with my hometown. I may have been all too eager to escape this dead-end settlement, but I never discovered another setting possessing Timberline’s access to a wild world of pristine forest and crystal clear streams. Taking in a combination of familiar sights and subtle changes, I drive my tiny hybrid down Main Street where oxidized Chevy and Ford trucks line the strip. The road leads me past a small school building, and again, I find myself sifting through memories of my old friend.

      Like Cactus, I was tall and lanky, coordinated in ways that weren't altogether graceful, and we found a common bond playing basketball. There weren't enough kids in our school to fund team sports, but if there had been, Cactus and I would have been starters on the hardwood. In addition to all the time spent playing on the town park's crumbling court, we also spent countless hours watching games at his house. I remember vivid images of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird battling back and forth like I had front row seats. He had a color television and my family didn't even have a black and white.

     In those days, Cactus had bright and clear green eyes. Nothing like the dead-end stare barely recognizing me the last time we spoke, nothing like the empty expression on the missing person poster. I remember how quickly his eyes began to fade those last two years of high school. From that seemingly magically blessed moment when Cactus touched the grizzly on the playground, he became a different person. I should know, because our friendship was the first thing to die.

     I remember the bear incident more vividly than any memory I can recall. Our small school held grades one through twelve and because all the classes had their lunch hour at the same time, nearly everyone, teachers included, were milling about the playground when the first child screamed bloody murder. As one, every head in ear shot swiveled towards the commotion. As one, we were met with a terrifying sight none of us could have imagined.

     The scream belonged to a young blond girl named Tess and she was running as fast as her short legs would carry her across the baseball diamond. Loping across the grass, considerably behind the terrified child, was the largest bear any of us had ever seen. Several off the younger girls joined Tess in her panicked shrieking and chaos ensued. I recall teachers yanking children off their feet and dragging them towards the school entrance, while larger boys shoved others kids aside in their haste to reach safety. In a split second, our school succumbed to a state of sheer terror.

     Our town had its share of black bear visitors, but we knew in an instant this was something else. Fish & Game officials later confirmed what we all knew. Despite the last of its kind in Idaho having been killed a century ago, there was ursus horribilisis in the flesh, and at our school. While others fled, I stood staring at the charging grizzly in a dumb stupor. I knew full well what the animal was based on its size and hulking shoulders, but I was unable to wrap my mind around the beast’s actual presence. Then, as if to one-up my stupendous incredulousness, Cactus threw down our basketball and sprinted after the bear.

     The basketball court was off to one side and out of the giant animal’s path. Like the other kids and teachers, Cactus could have reached the school's side door, but instead he charged an intersecting route towards the bear like a man possessed. As the massive grizzly lumbered past the jungle gym area, Cactus closed the gap, made an incredibly athletic springboard jump from halfway up the slide and landed right at the bear's back feet. With his legs still churning, Cactus grabbed ahold and yanked the grizzly's stubby tail. The monstrous creature's reaction was an instantaneous spin with teeth bared, but Cactus had never stopped moving. The tall Indian boy was already ten yards past the bear and moving faster than I had ever seen another human run.

     Now, a grizzly can outrun a horse over short distances, and although this one didn't give chase, I am not convinced it would have caught Cactus that day. The bear, after spinning about and seeing Cactus fly by, actually sat down for a second, as if it were protecting its tail from getting pulled again. Along with the rest of us, the grizzly watched in disbelief as the young man cleared the baseball diamond and sprinted into the bordering forest beyond.

     By then, I was the only person left standing in the schoolyard and I had never moved an inch. The rest of the teachers and students were just mouth-agape, wide-staring eyes barely visible from the windows and doorway. Had we really just seen that? First a grizzly where there couldn't be one, and then the unimaginable stunt Cactus pulled. None of it seemed possible. A second later the stunned bear was back on all fours and running its initial route past the side of our school. Moving in opposite directions, both animal and boy were quickly lost from sight.

     Lost in thought on my drive through Timberline, I almost fail to notice I am passing the old Dry Creek cabin. As of my last visit, I saw their familiar vehicles still parked outside and I was tempted to stop by. They would have loved a quick visit, but rather than face the momentary awkwardness of seeing someone for the first time in ages, I have always been one to let a stale relationship disintegrate into dust. This time, there are no cars in the driveway and the windows of the quaint A Frame are boarded over. A rusted For Sale sign sits half fallen over in the weed infested front yard. For all I knew of their whereabouts, the rest of the Dry Creek family had gone missing along with their son.

     I was the first to look for Cactus that fateful day all those years ago, and found him a quarter-mile into the dense forest, sitting at the base of a granite boulder, pale-faced, shaking, and breathless. His eyes were wide with fear and I noticed a tear had recently streamed down one of his cheeks. Cactus recoiled at the sound of my approaching footsteps before realizing it was me.

     “What the hell was that, man?” I demanded. “You could have been killed. You should have been killed!”

     Cactus snorted a quick hysterical laugh and a glob of snot burst from his nose. He ran both hands through his thick, black hair, pressing his skull tightly as if trying to keeps his brain from exploding. He looked at me and his tense shoulders finally collapsed in what looked like total, unexpected relief. My friend then recounted what happened and it was the only time I ever heard the tale told exactly so. From that point on, details quickly changed, heroics were amplified, and the legend of Cactus Dry Creek grew beyond control.

     Just a minute before everyone heard the first blood-curdling scream, Cactus had seen his sister on the jungle gym swing. When the Grizzly appeared and was heading in that direction, helping his sister was his only instinct, his only choice. It wasn't until he was in mid-air, leaping off the slide that Cactus noticed the empty swing still swaying as if recently abandoned. What he didn't know was that a second after her brother had last noticed her whereabouts, she had jumped from the swing and ran towards the drinking fountain. After the bear had been spotted, she was amongst the first children safely inside.

     “I saw that thing heading straight for Skye... or where I thought she was, and I just reacted. I was trying to distract it.” A few minutes later, after his crazy round eyes had relaxed and we could hear the distant voices of our teacher closing in, Cactus revealed another truth, another angle on the story I never heard again. “I don't think that bear was after anyone,” he said. “Honestly, it looked spooked to have found itself around so many people and was just trying to get out of there.”

     “And the tail pull? Are you insane? I can't even believe I'm talking to you right now!”

     “I almost ate dirt on my landing,” he replied sheepishly. “My feet got tangled for split second and I had to grab something.”

     Cactus' life changed instantly and dramatically after touching the grizzly. He was the closest thing to a celebrity Timberline had ever seen. Turns out, it was a tagged bear out of the Glacier Park area in Montana. For some reason, the big beast had abandoned his turf and wandered over three hundred miles from home. The day following the incident, Fish & Game Officials had the young Indian boy pose next to the slumped body of the giant bear. Cactus' fierce pose, standing with one foot atop the dead animal's shoulder, was circulated widely in the northwest, a brief write-up even appearing in National Geographic Magazine.

     He allowed the legend of the grizzly to take on a life of its own and people were all too happy to take the tale and run. By never sharing what he told me, the townsfolk chose to believe that he had somehow tapped into the spiritual powers his Native American ancestors allowing him to perform miracles of courage and wonder. He became an overnight shaman, a mystical man in the whitest community imaginable. People suggested incredulous scenarios, and Cactus didn't refute them. Before long the bear was twice its actual size, probably rabid, and only due to his brave confrontation with the animal were dozens of children spared a certain, bloody death.

     His new found stardom included the attention of our school's attractive females as well as the admiration of Timberline's rough and tumble crowd of young men. Most of them the sons of loggers, these boys fought hard and drank even harder before having even graduated high school. Cactus became a sort of cultish figure head to our town's adolescence because he would attempt any proposed dare, no matter how risky, or ridiculous. People assumed that anyone man enough to tug the tail of a grizzly was brave enough to face any danger.

     I was probably the only one who knew Cactus couldn't swim when he agreed to jump 80 feet from the rail road bridge into Timberline River. The water below the drop wasn't particularly deep and the current was swift, but I never saw Cactus bat an eye when the challenge was presented at school. I overheard people talking about it later, saying he calmly bobbed to the surface and seemingly let the current take him downstream and out of sight.

     Whatever the task, Cactus was up for it. From exploring half-collapsed mine shafts, to chasing a wolf pack away from an elk kill in his bare feet, the young man seemed born without fear. He never bragged about his exploits, or challenged anyone to replicate his feats; Cactus just seemed to go through the motions with an expressionless visage and let everyone else get caught up in the excitement. Like a magician, he'd perform a stunt, vanish from sight, and then reappear after his audience began to worry that something bad must have happened.

     Months after the bear incident, I noticed a particular dullness overtaking his once bright eyes. The attentive young man I had known quickly took on a thousand-mile-stare where he could dutifully engage someone in minimal conversation, but his focus seemed absolutely elsewhere. As time went on, his face barely registered any emotion at all, matching his reptile like gaze. When we graduated a short time later, I realized it had been a couple months since I had seen him share so much as a passing nod in the school hallway.

     As I park my hybrid in front of the house where I was born and raised, I realize it is the location where I had my last, brief conversation with Cactus. I had been loading my old hatchback with the clothes and supplies I would need for my first year of college. The used vehicle was a graduation gift from my parents. Cactus was ambling past my driveway, again staring at his feet, when he noticed me tying luggage to the top of my car. He stopped and looked at me with his head cocked sideways as if trying to remember something. I was surprised at how gaunt and pale his flesh had become, his dull eyes sunk deep in the cavernous sockets.

     “Cactus?” You okay, buddy?” I remember feeling awkward about calling him that as we hadn't been friends in some time. It felt pathetic to me at that moment, like I was clinging to something long gone. He looked up at me with that same empty look I had come to expect, almost as if seeing me for the first time. His long, slow sigh was barely audible.

     “One of these days, I'm gonna keep runnin',” he said. “Keep runnin' and never look back. I don’t want to know if anyone is watching anymore.”

     My young friend, looking impossibly aged, walked off after that cryptic message and I let him go without a word. I didn't know what he meant. I didn't know what to say. At that point, I'm not sure how much I even cared. His life, his story, was in a place I was leaving behind, and I knew I would never again call this small town home. My excitement about moving to the big city and starting college took precedent over anything happening in the lives of others.

     Climbing the wooden steps to my mother's cabin, I stop and look back at the base of the driveway where an old friend and I had shared our last, awkward exchange. I suddenly wish I could relive that moment, but what would I have said? What would I have done different? I hear his last, monotone words once again and picture his face on the missing person sign. Maybe Cactus was trying to tell me something that day, something he knew had to happen in order to preserve his own life. Maybe he did need to keep running and never look back at the place and the people who saddled him with so many expectations. Maybe he was letting me know that he too needed a fresh start.

     I picture him sprinting through the forest as wild-eyed as he was the day he touched the bear. Only, in my mind, there is joy on his face and an endless clarity to his vision. A sensation defying all logic and reason leaves me feeling as if Cactus is still out there running through the dark and wild woods. Except now, he isn't running towards or away from anything, he isn't running for an audience, Cactus is simply running to feel the wind on his face, to feel his heart pound in his chest, to ensure that he is still alive, and more importantly, living for himself.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Cold comfortable death
The weight
In these hands
Exquisitely ugly instrument
Of polished silver
Precise molding
Evil intention
And I understand
The attraction

The sex in violence
And rigid godhead

Icy steel turned
Blistering hot
A primer’s eye
Coughing sparks and
Scattering fate
Chance and promise
Like tarot cards
Tossed into tornadoes

It is a dance
With the devil
Inviting him to bed
While hoping
He’ll keep that finger
To himself

Friday, January 7, 2011

One Up

The surgical table
Pant dropping
Get to know ya'
Stick of needles
And manhandling
Manhood ensuring
Such a seed
Never again
On the wine

Our purpose
Like every purpose
Is to see
Watered down
And living on
What does that leave
Lives last
As long
As living memory
The after words
All that remains
Are stories

A fitting
And fair
Final chapter
Where the worthy
Find ways
To live forever