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3-Minute Fiction 26 September 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Fiction.
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Something a little different today. NPR just closed the fifth round of its three-minute fiction contest, and I managed to slip this in right before the 11:59 p.m. eastern deadline. The rules: The story must start with the sentence “Some people swore that the house was haunted” and end with the sentence, “Nothing was ever the same again after that” without going over 600 words. I won’t win, but here it is just the same.

Birch Street

Some people swore that the house was haunted. Or at least cursed. Twelve years ago, the city replaced 322’s lamppost after an errant Dodge Dart had mown it down. Bernie Spitz, who’d lived there for as long as anyone could remember, planted a garden around the new pole, ivy mostly, and a six-pack of snapdragons he’d bought leaving the grocery store. The power company uprooted the whole thing last week to do some maintenance work. Nothing good ever came to this neighborhood.

Next door, Gary Mueller sat on the front porch drinking a Rolling Rock and watching the fireflies. Tom would be by any time now. Always was late, always would be. Not a problem, though, for Gary. Lot of time to do nothing since Karen had left. Probably got held up at the gas station buying some cigarettes. How much was a pack these days, anyway? Gary hadn’t smoked since college. Even then, it was just something you did when you got drunk. Everybody smokes when he’s drunk.

11:20 p.m. Tom’s Volkswagen bounced over the curb and into the driveway. The fireflies had retired.

“Godammit, Gary. You just wouldn’t believe it,” said Tom, shutting the door. “Whole goddamn truckload of chickens down on 68. Overturned in a ditch, that’s what. Just a shitload of chickens and feathers in a ditch, and this trucker, this trucker, he doesn’t know what the hell’s just happened. Not even pissed. Just standing there. Sure thing they probably weren’t his, way he was acting.”

“Hurt maybe?”

“Who the hell knows? Of course, I mean, it’s – hell, somebody had to do something about all those chickens. So, you know, I mean, I’m late. Nobody else around to take care of that goddamn mess. Who’re you gonna see come by that time of night, anyway?”

Gary shrugged.

“Goddamn empty country roads, Gary. You got a beer?”

Gary handed him a Rolling Rock and opened another for himself. Heat lightning silhouetted the maple across the street. Bernie’s dog barked at shadows, ghosts?

“What’s an hour after five years?” asked Tom.

Gary shrugged. This was the first time he’d seen him since college, when they’d spent stoned weekends together on the rise overlooking New Basel. In January, snow fell and the wind piled it into drifts and the leaves no longer whispered overhead. They’d never met in February when it snowed on Wednesday and rained on Friday and the Minnetowish River swirled in gelid grayness below.

Once over a bottle of Cutty Sark and a pile of beer cans, he’d told Tom he’d knocked up the waitress from Chris’s, the sandwich place just off campus. Tom had never met Karen but had heard she didn’t wear bras. Then Gary went back to school on Monday, and Tom headed home to La Crosse. He didn’t talk about his job at UPS. Gary never asked.

That night Gary drank Seven and Sevens until the bartender stopped serving him. Then he drove his car into the river. He was never sure if he’d meant to do that. He’d seen the guardrail under the street lamp at the intersection of 4th and US 41 and maybe he’d turned a little bit. Maybe he hadn’t.

They fished his Pontiac out the next morning. No one had seen the accident, but Gary remembered dragging himself across the ice while the snow filled up his tire tracks.

Tom looked into his beer. “Shit. Chickens.” Lightning arced through the clouds.

Gary’s fingers still went numb on cool days. Nothing was ever the same again after that.


The Orage Billy Jacket 23 September 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Skiing.
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No fur in the bro-den, brah.

Sometimes, in the middle of writing  a press release for a company providing credit risk management in the mortgage-backed securities market, I wonder what the rest of the world is doing.

Evidently, it’s getting paid to write ad copy like this:

The Orage Billy Jacket keeps your game tight whether you’re getting face shots in the woods, lapping the park, or just trying to pick up spring-breaking coeds in the lodge. The 10K waterproofing and strategic insulation keep you warm and dry, and the removable fur on the hood might trick those college cuties into believing you live in a classy, secluded private chateau rather than a smelly bro-den with DNA stains and empty beer cans all over the carpet.

Yeah… and due diligence is cool, too.

Matchstick Productions’ The Way I See It 21 September 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Self, Skiing.
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The first ski movie of the year and winter’s on its way. Despite the record heat here you can feel it. Ask the crowd. Ask the Aspens. Ask the guns waiting at A-Basin and Loveland. At one o’clock last night, standing in my room wearing nothing but boxers and ski boots, I stepped into my bindings, just to hear the reassuring clank as they engaged. Vail’s season pass for Coloradans carries the tagline, “It’s why you live here.” And it’s right. Winter can’t come soon enough.

The Way I See It serves up everything you’d expect from a ski movie: big lines, big air, big grins. But Saturday night in Boulder–no better city for it–offered more. “More, more more,” as Mark Abma says in the film. More, as in  celebrities. Of a sort. I’d brag about seeing a bunch of people who are famous if I thought you were into that sort of thing.

I will anyway. Movie premieres invariably involve the cast and crew as well, and for this one athletes like Cody Townsend, Mark Abma, and Ingrid Backstrom join the heli pilots, cameramen, lead grips, gaffers and all the rest to kick off the season with a whole lotta drunk. The season will probably continue with a whole lotta drunk followed by a whole lotta hungover, and if title sponsor Red Bull has anything to say about it, a whole lotta weird, kinda drunk, hungover, caffeine-high wonkiness as well. This is as it should be.

The crowd’s drunk, too. The MC presents a bunch of swag, capping it off with the promises that someone will win a heli-ski trip in Alaska. He tells us to cheer when we like we see. Mark Abma pretends(?) to play the piano. The crowd cheers. The film rolls. The crowd cheers. And then, if you’ve ever seen a ski film before, you know what happens next: skiing, without plot or context or any reason but for the pursuit of the perfect line, whether it falls through powder pillows in Japan or mile-long spines in the Chugach Range. To watch a ski movie is not to watch a baseball game, the spectacle and the rivalry of it. To watch skiers ski is to aspire.

“If only…” lies behind every whistle and holler for the stunts. If only I could turn my skis a little more quickly, weight them just a little differently… if only I could spend more time on the mountain, I’d get my own sponsorship, too. We delude ourselves, but what a grand, sustaining delusion it is. Every five-foot cliff-drop presents the chance to become Shane McConkey, and every 15-foot kicker in the park offers a shot at being the next Bobby Brown.

Skiing is the rare sport in which the challenges can always match the level of ability. The football team always picks the poor receiver last, and the bad basketball player never gets the pass, but the bad skier competes against herself. The terror of the steeps begins with the easiest greens until with time, the blues inspire fear and blacks and then the rocks and trees and slopes so steep dropping in feels like jumping off a building. The best skiers in the world still face a challenge, maybe with the same fear that faces the “never-ever” on Keystone’s bunny slope.

Watching The Way I See It from the heli and helmet perspectives we see what we’re still too afraid to approach. But with time, time and determination we’ll inure ourselves to the in-bounds double diamonds, seeking new challenges elsewhere. At least, watching a ski movie, we sense the possibility. It is of course unlikely that I will drop a 60-foot cliff. Unlikelier still that I’ll arrive at a ski movie as anything other than a spectator, but a tiny fire burns in the back of my mind as I see these athletes attack some of the gnarliest terrain in the world. Two words stoke the flame: It’s…possible. Don’t say it isn’t.

Cycling Independence Pass 14 September 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado Passes, Cycling.
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Key Stats

– Start location: Aspen, CO

– End location: Aspen, CO

– Route type: Out and back

– Directions: Take Colorado 82 east from Aspen. No other possibilities.

– Vertical: 4000′

– Distance: 18 miles one-way (from Aspen)

– Average grade: 4.2%

– Steepest sustained grade: 7%

– Surface type/condition: Chip seal/bumpy, potholes, some sand

-Other notes: Pack cold weather gear. Descending from 12,095′ is a lot nippier than climbing it. Also, you know, Colorado weather changes without much warning.

From May through late September, you can drive Independence Pass. For some amount of time on the other side of those dates, you can probably snowmobile it. But why choose either when you can climb 4000 feet on two wheels?

Bike Independence Pass. People will think you rock.

Topping out 12,095 feet, Indepedence Pass rises higher than any other paved pass in the state. Cars gasp for oxygen at this altitude. Lesser humans turn back or faint. Someone’s always around to complain that it’s “too damn cold and windy up here.” And that same person is the one who’ll ask, “So you rode a bike all this way? Isn’t that, you know, hard?” And yes, it is hard, but well worth it since Independence Pass offers one of of the best, most scenic climbs in the state, and probably all of America. 10/10. In the fall, with the aspens ablaze, you may turn the dial to 11. It’s better, you see.


Your starting valley


The ride begins in Aspen or Twin Lakes, two cities so different you’ll wonder how they coexist in the same state. Not that Twin Lakes is straight outta’ Compton, but the down payment on any house in Aspen could probably pay for a sizable portion of the clapboard shacks on other side of the pass. In Colorado-speak, this means that while Aspen has cachet, Twin Lakes has “charm,” the last stop before obsolescence or super-stardom. See: Telluride.

Anyway, spend a night in Aspen, experience the town, marvel at both the restraint and the glitz. By constrast, Breck exploded on the scene, with developers tripping over themselves to build mid-range condo towers. Vail grew by design, the Disney World of major ski resorts. But Aspen stayed small and grew expensive. Nothing about this movie-star hangout is real, of course, but it’s classy. Aspen thrives without condos; expansive lawns take up valuable real estate. Ignoring the mountains for a moment, it could look like Upstate New York–with a median household value just south of $800,000.

Leaving town, head east on Colorado 82. It’s possible to park in Aspen itself, but the myriad parking restrictions and any lingering insecurities you may hold about stabling your Honda alongside a Bentley, make a pull-off somewhere up the road a more attractive option. You’re heading up the Roaring Fork valley at this point, a largely natural area that receives federal protection several miles up the way. For now, though, enjoy the couple rolling miles that warm up the legs for the ascent ahead. Get used the the bumpy road, as well. In all but a few places, this is a shoulderless route on crappy pavement. The views and the accomplishment make up for it.

Somewhere late into mile two or early in mile three, the road turns uphill, following the north side of the valley at grades between 4 and 7 percent. For the next few miles you wind your way through mixed pine and aspen forest. The truly enormous aspens receive their own gravel pull-offs and and from these, well-worn footpaths lead to better views. Farther along, you’ll begin passing “Road Narrows/ 15 m.p.h” signs, followed by “Do Not Pass” and then when it seems the road can grow no narrower, between miles 5 and 6 it slims to barely more than one lane, hugging a cliff face for several hundred yards. There is no good way to please drivers through this section. Don’t dawdle, but do admire the view. This is the first section to open up beyond the trees.

The views remain for the next couple miles as the road cuts a path between the creek and the valley wall. Another valley spreads to the east. At mile 8, mountain bikers and more adventurous drivers can take the dirt road back to Grizzly Reservoir and even those on more delicate frames can enjoy a dunk in the frigid Roaring Fork just beyond the parking area. Here, at 9800′ Colorado 82 turns away from the central valley, finally setting a course toward Independence pass–no detours available. It’s a relatively inauspicious beginning, however, rising steadily at grades between 2 and 4 percent for the next 5 miles.

Ever so slightly, the pines back off the road, offering bigger and better vistas until finally, several hundred yards beyond the switchback at mile 12, they give way entirely. The true tree line waits closer to the pass, but count yourself out of the woods for the remainder of the journey. The next 5.5 miles are all alpine, and true to Colorado fashion, pass a 19th century ghost town. No Colorado pass is complete without a few good abandoned structures. Independence, however, became a full scale town in 1880 when prospectors moved in looking for gold. Some 2,000 people lived and worked at 10,900′, and today, quite a few structures remain. The residents, though, disappeared when the gold became too difficult to reach and long, frostbitten winters no longer ended in riches. They packed their things and (yes, this is true. I asked teh internets) skied into Aspen on planks they’d fashioned from the wood in their homes. In the 1930s the government came back and blowed up the mines to discourage interlopers, and you, from exploring them.

Passing Independence reveals the final, brutal switchback. The steep stuff returns, ascending at 6-7% without respitefor a couple miles, but in return, the valley floor drops away and the view improves with every pedal stroke. The road tops out at a parking area few hundred yards past the end of the switchback. Prepare to leave your bike behind and wander along the paved trails to the scenic overlook toward the Twin Lakes side of the pass. As so often happens crossing these passes, you’re standing on the Continental Divide. La Plata Peak looms large to the east, all 14,334 feet of it. You may now, as necessary, begin acknowledging compliments about just how hard core you are.

One final note: careful on the descent. Bumpy roads make control difficult and sight-lines never extend far until that last few miles. Be on the lookout for potholes as well. Some look large enough to swallow even 27″ tires.

All the photos:

Hiking a 14er 7 September 2010

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Moving to a new state is typically an easy affair, a matter of finding a place to live, signing the appropriate tax documents and figuring out where to buy full-strength beer. Not so for would-be Coloradans. Not only must they uncover the sinister deception that is 3.2% grocery-store beer, but a forming a covenant with the state also entails certain obligations beyond the immediately evident.   The list runs long, so I’ll provide some essential samples: you must make plans to buy a Subaru, you must make conversation the moment you notice a meteorological event involving water (e.g. “Say, it’s awfully humid!” or “Is that… rain?”), and you must climb a fourteener.

The first two don’t take much effort, but the third, well, that already assumes an understanding of the task. Not a sure thing. I mean, what’s a fourteener? Some kind of gun? One of 14 peaks discovered by a roving band of vigilantes? I wish. In reality, though, a fourteener is any of the 53 peaks in Colorado rising higher than 14,000 feet. Some of them only nose into the designation by a couple feet; some slip through as a technicality, another bump connected to a taller lump; but the tallest of them scrape the sky, reaching heights above all but a handful of mountains in the lower 48. No other state but Alaska–and it never counts in these sorts of contests–can lay claim to so much acreage north of the 14,000-foot mark.

So, as you might imagine, 14ers hold a special place in Coloradans’ hearts. Too special a place. Any Monday at a Colorado workplace, I gather, involves a discussion of the climbs attempted and completed. Commiseration follows the failures. We have all been turned back at one point or another. But rarely does the conversation turn to hike without at summit at its beginning, middle or end. What’s the point? No sense of achievement, evidently. Climbing above the vaunted 14,000-foot barrier takes sterner stuff than a pair of legs and a backpack. It takes… willpower?

I don’t know.

My own experience with Missouri Mountain the other day was a pleasant one: several miles of hiking, most of them above treeline, and a view from the summit that peered across a vast portion of the state. And even our failed attempt climb Huron Peak earlier that morning came to a halt in a basin fit for postcard photography. Call it a failure if you will, but that assumes reaching the summit would count as a success.  With all the information out there on how to climb such mountains, success by that definition seems mostly a matter of time and desire. To summit a 14er is to keep walking, scrambling and climbing where some other folks might have stopped. To be sure, a few hikers die each year attempting one mountain or the other, and some peaks involve significant dangers, but you can read your way around most if not all of them.

It can’t be about the challenge, then. So many other climbs exist to test Coloradans’ skills that the man vs. nature dynamic fails to explains the allure of these mountains. Instead, it must come down to a man vs. man test of dedication, a competition of commitment to stand on top of Very Tall Things. The 14er craze has bred a community, a culture even, that insists on calculating and comparing. It has insisted on and garnered a relevance unrelated to hiking in general. Call it “achievement hiking.” I’ll climb my mountains, you climb yours, and we’ll compare notes; our shared interest in 14ers gives us something to talk about.

But if it’s okay with you, I’ll concede this contest. Climb your mountains and stand within arm’s reach of the heavens, and I’ll explore the backcountry, the barely touched wilds the summiting crowds have ignored. I will take the chance moose or beaver over another beaten ridge-line trail, the chance to see no one at all over the certainty of a summit logbook. When every meter of these wilderness trails has been photographed, and when every possible misstep has been cataloged, then maybe I’ll turn my back on what was once wild. For now, though, you’ll find me there in the lonesome, somewhere below 14,000 feet.

No entry. 6 September 2010

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Just to let you know I’ve been thinking about you, dear readers… no entry last night or tonight because of time spent away over the long weekend. Expect a post tomorrow night.