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There’s Something About Wyoming 29 July 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Travel, Wyoming.
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There’s something about Wyoming, the high peaks, the plains, the desolation. The entire state, which is about the size of Colorado, counts fewer residents than Denver. And that’s the appeal. We arrived there two summers ago for an 11 day trip in which we went five straight days without seeing another human being. 17 trail miles from the nearest road, we plopped down in the Shoshone Valley at an old camp and watched as rain fell, then hail, then snow. We swaddled ourselves in sleeping bags on a frosty August morning, and with hands I could barely feel, I took the photo above.

I suppose in theory, I could find all that in Colorado—maybe in the San Juans—but in practice, I haven’t. Wyoming offers an altogether different experience, at once immediate and ancient. Primeval you might say if you were prone to such language. Along with the Alaskan wilds, and Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem remains one of the last great untouched stretches of earth in America. There be grizzlies there, and wolves, and entire valleys which function untrammeled by humans.

If that doesn’t lift your spirits; if the existence of a landscape in which humans are irrelevant doesn’t excite you the littlest bit, then, well, stop reading because this is a place to feel small, and insignificant. As I said in a college essay, longer ago now than I care to consider, we find solace in the mountains precisely because the mountains do not care whether we find solace in them at all. Wyoming is a place that does not care about you, or your concerns. Whatever you bring there, whatever you may find there, is your own. Nothing given, nothing taken.

But enough of that. Let’s speak realistically about wolves and bears and high meadows awash in a sea of indian paintbrush and alpine sunflower. The snow lingers well into August. Glaciers inch down valleys, grinding the landscape into submission. We ran into a pack train about a week into our last trip. “Not often we see people out here on foot,”  their leader said. “Stay safe.” They trotted off. And it was in those wilds that we crossed paths with two young grizzlies, racing from one drainage to another over a 12,000′ saddle. The second stopped and gave us a glance at a few hundred yards, then continued on his way, unconcerned about our two-legged intrusion.

We preserve wilderness to preserve these encounters, to keep Wyoming in existence. This Saturday, we’ll drive 450 miles over 7 hours to walk 50 miles over 5 days. In pursuing speed, our culture has lost a sense of scale and an ability to appreciate just how grand and expansive this American landscape really is. How far can you walk in a day? How far can you bike? Drive? Fly?

But those are the sorts of questions you ask in Colorado, where you can climb a 14er and return home that afternoon. Come to Wyoming and forget you were concerned about that sort of thing. Put one foot in front of the other. Walk, and in so doing, experience everything.


Live Near Mountains 29 June 2010

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One of the things to like about Denver is its proximity to the mountains. In fact, absent the mountains, this city would have wasted away long ago like another Leadville (which, of course had the mountains and still failed, but whatever). Poor Leadville. It deserved so much more. Denver continues to grow, drawing more and more of the “active lifestyle” crowd that bikes to work and drives Subarus filled with Labrador Retrievers and climbing gear and PBR on weekends.

This, I gather, is how the state’s population maintains its 19.1% obesity rate (cool interactive map if you follow the link), not only the lowest figure in the nation, but the only one to edge in under the 20% mark. Relatively speaking, Coloradans are a thin lot, although this being America and not Malawi, it’s I-eat-bunches-and-work-out-bunches thin, not I-can’t-find-food thin. This is best considered when buying a calorie-free cola for $1.53, about the cost of killing ring worm in an African child. But then again, African children are very far away.

At any rate, I came to Colorado so that I too could burn excess calories for pleasure, flouting all evolutionary expectations in favor of sledding down a snow-packed slope on a Therm-A-Rest on June 27th. Although it’s possible that women desire an expert Therm-A-Rest sledder, in which case I’m still shackled by all that genetic propagation stuff. You are, too, you know. Think about that next time you stand up straighter when an attractive woman wanders into the room. Except, of course, you aren’t quite as cool as the bird of paradise in Planet Earth and Richard Attenborough doesn’t narrate your life.

At any rate, I’d been meaning to talk about the Indian Peaks Wilderness, possibly the closest federally-designated wildness to the Denver area. Struck by a desire to wander around in the woods and stand on top of very tall things, we went there this weekend. So did a homeless man who tied up two hikers at gunpoint and set the Nederland police on red alert. But we missed him. Maybe next time. From the news reports, the offender tied the couple to two trees and wandered away. And evidently he did a bad job it of since the man managed to free himself and run back to town as the assailant did who-knows-what. Total injuries for the event amounted to a couple rope burns and a minor laceration–the fleeing man tripped over a log.

This is why people come to Colorado. Even our criminals would rather wander around in the woods than inflict any real pain. By contrast, folks in Chicago kill each other at a rate that would reel us in from Iraq and Afghanistan right quick. But now that handguns are legal… less death?

So it’s become clear that I don’t really have anything new to say about the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and if you were looking for information about it, I’d try SummitPost.org instead, a much better resource than I’ll ever be. If you noticed, though, I’ve changed the name of this blog to Colorado:Wandered to better reflect the new content. I’ve decided to focus on the things that make Colorado an interesting place to live, with particular relevance to twenty-somethings who enjoy the possibility of moving here. The mountains hold an obvious appeal but there remains more to discuss. My 9-5 job only permits so much leisure, but it’s possible to take in enough to write twice a week.

I’ll try to avoid the humdrum. Check back for novelty.


Friday Seriousness: Obama and the Great Outdoors Initiative 16 April 2010

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Is earth week next week? Google says yes, and I guess that’s why President Obama came out today to tell Americans about the Great Outdoors Initiative, which will do… something. As best I can recall, The Sierra Club showed up to laud the move and my former employer, well, actually, blew it off, but perhaps with good reason: the initiative doesn’t initiate anything. It hopes. Case in point:

The president said the “America’s Great Outdoors” program will involve a series of listening sessions throughout the nation to solicit an array of ideas.

Yes, an array of ideas. That’s about as vague “variety of issues” on my resume, and it marks a return to the aspiration game, which seems to hope that since we won’t be going to moon anytime soon, we might as well gaze at America’s wild-ish navel instead. Aren’t there weekly radio addresses for the stuff no one needs to know, though? Did America really need a special meeting to hear that it was getting a little homely, that maybe it should try getting out every once and while to work on its tan, take a stroll in the woods, leave a Snickers wrapper at a scenic overlook? Well, maybe.

Yes, National Park attendance has not grown in step with the economy, and more Americans visited in 1987 than have in any other year since then despite our swelling population. But to use the presidential pulpit to urge Americans to reconnect with the outdoors smacks of desperation. Curious since we’ve made no attempt to hide our flirtations with televisions and theme parks and European vacations over the last two decades. Why the hope for reconnection now? With more wilderness than ever, with conservation-friendly bureaucrats in office, why the sudden rush to support the American outdoors?

Over at the Times’s DotEarth blog, Andy Revkin might have the answer: our urban president. George W wandered around Crawford wounding trees with a bow saw in the name of fire mitigation. Cheney hunted quail and friends. Clinton whitewater rafted. Al Gore’s still afraid of ManBearPig. And George H.W., even if he didn’t like broccoli, at least retired to the Maine coast now and then. On the other hand, urbanite Obama, not so big on the Bass Pro scene despite his academic predilections for conservation.

I don’t think, however, that the great outdoors initiative is an effort to make up for lost opportunities or for the fact that Obama’s never wrestled a grizzly with his bare hands. Rather, it’s an offer from an urban American to urban Americans reminding them that Colorado exists, that so much space lies between I-5 and I-95. Really. And, yes, that may sound like aspirational gibberish to folks who make it into the woods every once and a while. Maybe it is.

But recall that the urban poor voted for Obama in overwhelming numbers. And recall that there are a lot of urban poor. They registered because he appeared on the ticket. Regardless of what you make as the reason why, consider that these are folks who rarely if ever see opportunities to vacation in national parks. It is they who need the hope of a wild America the most, and more pragmatically, it is the conservation crowd that needs more voters interested in environmental issues. Ignore the hope-y language  and instead focus on the stated problem and implied “ask” here:

Despite our conservation efforts, too many of our fields are becoming fragmented, too many of our rivers and streams are becoming polluted, and we are losing our connection to the parks, wild places, and open spaces we grew up with and cherish. Children, especially, are spending less time outside running and playing, fishing and hunting, and connecting to the outdoors just down the street or outside of town.

If Obama can offer the hope of America’s natural bounty to those who might never have made use of it, he can also recruit supporters to protect that bounty. And in this case, I bet winning environmental consideration from voters who already hang on your every word will prove far easier than swaying a hardened and skeptical suburban electorate. When more Americans connect with the outdoors, more Americans vote for the outdoors. Shrewd move. And yeah, it’s cool if the city folks get end up getting muddy a little more often, too.

The Road to Moab 16 February 2010

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Beware, narrative follows.

Friday morning: my room is a disaster, clothes strewn across the floor, wallet still in my pants, my shoes are peering at me from outside the doorway. And Goudey is gone. It had been his last night in town, and we had celebrated… well, let’s be honest, too much. But. Friday. I’ve planned on heading Utah to make the most of my three-day weekend, so naturally, I eat breakfast, consider my headache for a while and then head back to bed for two hours to strengthen my resolve.

At two o’clock, then, I hit the road and pass all the I-70 ski resorts on my way toward the Beehive State for a trip that as it strikes me now put me on roads farther west than I’d ever before been. And just to be clear, flying to California doesn’t count as “going west,” first because California isn’t really the West with a big W and second because flying eliminates one of travel’s best aspects: the landscape that evolves out the window. Destination-minded coastal people (of both Eastern and Western persuasions) toss that idea with the dismissive “flyover states.” Excepting Chicago, which occasionally does something noteworthy enough to reach New York.

So at any rate, I pass Vail and Avon, set my cruise control for 76 and begin passing signs for towns with geologically indicative names: Glenwood Springs, Basalt, El Jebel, Silt… Rifle? It is an interstate drive that defies comparison; nothing I’ve seen in the whole of Eisenhower’s grand highway system matches the raw beauty of I-70 west of Denver. Leaving the High Rockies, its path follows the meandering Colorado River staying true even into the narrow gash of Glenwood Canyon, the roadways winding nearly atop one another as they dart in and out of tunnels and around 1000 ft sandstone walls.  But maybe I shouldn’t be awed. This is the West after all.

The land sprawls into the sunset past Grand Junction, a boom town buoyed by the Western Slope’s mineral and gas riches. Around here, new wells and houses appear at roughly the same rate, spurring concerns that when the trucks and trains cart away all the wealth, Grand Junction’s reason for existence will have disappeared as well . The future may promise oil shale extraction — flammable ooze from rocks, essentially — that would dump millions more into the economy if anyone ever discovers a profitable process, or if gas prices return to their 2008 highs. But for now, what money flowing in seems at least sufficient to support the outward creep of Tyvek home wrap, vinyl siding and casual dining establishments.

Thankfully, the highway continues west, unfurling across a white sheet, that featureless expanse of the high desert. Moab lies out there.


Everything I’d written following my return from work just disappeared in the save process meaning this entry will end here at Grand Junction because I feel the need to publish anything at this point, but Moab will follow. For the time being, I hope you can content yourselves with some photos. Arches National Park will follow when I get up the gumption to retype my thoughts.

Canyonlands National Park

Deep Ecology and Reality 18 December 2009

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Like a lot folks in the enviro movement, Trevor over at Pondering the World has pulled out deep ecology to defend a relatively hands-off approach to humanity’s relationship with the natural world.     

  • We are one species among many, with equal rights to life.
  • As a member of the human species, my highest priority is our preservation.
  • As stakeholders in ecological integrity, humans should work to preserve the interdependence, richness, and diversity present in the world.
  • Only to satisfy vital needs should this preservation be sacrificed.
  • And of course, to members of the green community this line of thinking makes all the sense in the world. Who doesn’t believe after all that all species hold inherent rights to life? But whenever rights arrive on the scene, clear thinking tends to head out the door. Otherwise, rights raise sticky questions about prioritization, and while Trevor addresses the main point of concern — that humans will destroy other species to survive– it’s still difficult to pinpoint how exactly we’re supposed to resolve issues of conflicting rights. Short of making the a priori claim “humans count for more” anyway.

    At least Trevor has confronted the problem, however. More often than not, deep ecological thinking seems an outgrowth of these economically bountiful times.  We can preserve wilderness because we don’t need anything from wild areas. We can absorb the costs of barring development, but as surfaced in the debate over the Arctic Refuge last summer when we set preservation against our wallets our green-mindedness trickles away.

    The problem for deep ecology, then, lies not in a fault of reasoning but in the economy that sustains it. That economy will not last. Yes, Malthus was wrong about food production, and starvation today is the product of inefficient systems of agriculture and transportation not an overall lack of food. Yet as population continues to grow, humans will consume a commensurately larger portion of the earth’s resources, perhaps more.

    You can guess the result: as more people compete for scarcer resources, prices will rise. So while we can chat about habitat preservation as the right of the species that require it for now, I suspect that in the far future, our need for molybdenum will trump the American Pika’s right to life. At some point, we will weigh human needs and wants against almost every environmental protection. If that’s true, though, then deep ecological rights are nothing more than conveniences. The cost of  protecting these rights at the moment is sufficiently low enough to ensure their integrity. Notice, too, that deep ecological debate occurs almost exclusively among members of the developed world, although to be sure  it often spills over into normative pre(andpro-)scriptions for developing countries.

    So what does this mean for the deep ecological worldview? Mainly that it doesn’t square with reality. To invoke a right is to say “this contract cannot be broken,” but in speaking about human obligations to the environment, our species’ present trajectory guarantees that we will breach that commitment, stripping it of any value. Better then to throw out the talk of rights and instead say what we intend. That is, to place a high value on the preservation of non-human species for now while recognizing that someday we’ll probably kill every non-economically useful thing on the planet.

    Wilderness, Hidden Gems 10 December 2009

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    It’s occurred to me that I haven’t made you think in a while, at least not in any way that would have required you to weigh arguments and draw conclusions. In fact, intellectually, I’ve let this blog stagnate, preferring jauntier pursuits like the weather. My B, yo. Still time to fix that, though, so why not take a look at a subject near to dear to most Coloradoans? Wilderness. Of the federally-designated kind.

    Although (because I am a nerd) I find wilderness etymologically interesting, it tends to warrant more scrutiny as it has been enshrined in American law, and amidst the legalese, you find this:

    A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

    And of course, the definition is all well and good and perhaps even lightly poetic to those of a certain disposition, but when realized, it also happens to bar most what most Americans consider staples of outdoor adventure. For example: driving. You cannot drive in the wilderness. Intuitive, no?, but since Americans spend most of their waking hours firmly ensconced in a seat of one sort or another, enticing them to enter the backcountry on foot remains a difficult proposition.

    Thus, Yellowstone, which was at one point a wild a geologically tumultuous place, but today resembles the National Park Service’s version of Disneyland, right down to the tour buses. You can buy an Old Faithful sno-globe and feed bears from your car. To be sure, the habituated bears will raid your campsite, eat your sno-globe and potentially your toddler, and must then be airlifted east to the still wild and remote Absaroka Range. But this is the way of Yellowstone, where commercialism cultivates our concept of the natural world. We have created nature, the roadside attraction.

    For the longest time, I loathed that kind of tourism, the kind that carved up what was ostensibly wild into a more palatable yet ersatz version. I cringed at interpretive signs and centers, and for three months at a Washington, D.C. enviro non-profit, I inveighed against any use of nature as “destruction.” Sure, you could don a backpack and some hiking boots without concern, but a mountain bike presented a serious threat. Moving to Colorado, however, has helped shift that perspective.

    Around here, White River Wild,  backed by my former employer, I think, has pushed to include thousands of new acres in the federal Wilderness system. In general these places have remained largely untouched and feature some of the best, most primeval (if that word can take a superlative) lands in the state. They deserve inclusion in the system, to provide a buffer against developers’ caprice. And yet in places, the proposal goes too far. It closes down mountain bike trails in favor of preservation, cuts off enjoyment of the backcountry to serve a definition drawn up before mountain bikes existed.

    Dedication to the idea of the wild — untouched, untrammeled — powerful a role as it may play for so many environmentalists, obscures that practical ramifications of wilderness’s exclusivity.  Fewer users means fewer supporters. It will be difficult to rally support for a product without value to a huge swath of the population. Regardless of whether the environmental community likes it, the median American doesn’t invest the natural world with intrinsic rights. She treats it as a commodity, which means we can ask questions like “How much would you pay to preserve another acre of wilderness.” Or more obliquely, “How expensive was your last backpacking trip?” And when we deny her access, that value drops commensurately. Why fight to save a product you can’t use?

    In Colorado, the concern is all the more immediate, and even though the state boasts a huge population of outdoorsy-types, it’s also front and center in the debate over oil shales and extraction. If the plan establishes the Hidden Gems divides the outdoors community because of ideological concerns about mountain bikes, will that fractured coalition still come together when it faces much more real threats from extraction on the Western Slope?