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Traveling, living, loving, exploring and trying to make some semblance of sense out of this crazy world.  


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cold Light

Cold light slices across the blue morning shadows of Flagstaff; compounded of one part fog to two parts morning rush hour. Fourth Avenue is a long stretch of fading hope and faltering enterprise; peeling restaurant signs and broken sidewalks and new names on familiar buildings, the words "AVAILABLE!" AND "FOR LEASE, BUILD TO SUIT" silently shouted again and again from darkened interiors filled with broken shelves and abandoned desks.

Behind a dumpster, I see a flash a wind-whipped flame above a dented can, quickly hidden by the angry, black-dyed, stud-pierced, Goth-struck sprite who glares back at me in a world-weary apathy that is far too old for her tender years. Natives standing huddled in a group, counting change outside the Circle K; two black-clad working girls fishing for the last customers of the night or just a ride back to whatever tiny apartment they share; a Glenn Ford replica real life cowboy striding along the street in denim and leather, hat pulled low over weathered features, eyes nested in a wrinkled tapestry of wind and sun, hard work and laughter and loss. Breath streams out in a ghostly banner from beneath the battered brim of his Stetson, fading like memories.

Clouds wreathe the top of the Kachina Peaks, the snow-draped shoulders below alive with moving shadows. Lines of cliffs draw my eye up away from the light as I sit waiting, and an impatient horn reminds me that I am still operating in the present.

Flagstaff holds so much potential, and so much promise, balanced against so many promises and lives broken and wasted on the way. Every day, so many battle with such determination to reach what may be an illusion, and so many more come face to face with the cold hard facts of simple existence. those who a handful of years ago dwelt in comfort and ease find themselves operating on a budget for the first time in years, sometimes in a lifetime. Those who once succeeded by dint of hard work find the water levels slowly rising, as they stroke for what seems like a receding shore.

But on every hand, generous people reach out caring hands to lift up the fallen, to shelter, feed or simply comfort the weary, the broken, the lost. Again and again, the greatest gifts, those of compassion and shared humanity, are given, freely and in abundance, by those who are themselves often struggling to make ends meet, no more than a single paycheck or whim of fate away from the streets.

The sun rises higher, and in the rising reds and golds of dawn, I see the glittering of a thousand ice crystals, and think of beauty, even in the cold light of truth.

Sorry for the long break, Gentle Readers... I have been busy trying to make a life and look after a lovely wife, as well as submitting a manuscript for a new guidebook to the crags and byways of Smoke Hole Canyon, the amazing locale where Cindy and I lived in West Virginia.

Stay tuned for further developments... we're headed south in a few weeks, to see the old stomping grounds of the Superstition Mountains; yet another adventure of Il Viejos Fuerte, to yet another Secret Crag!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Heading East

Busy, busy, busy...

We're planning a trip Back East, heading "home" before the mad crush and rush of the holidays. Traveling light, as always, and planning a week that will surely defy the constraints of just how much two humans can cram into a series of twenty-four hour days. Clearing out a storage unit, visiting with friends and family, maybe a bit of tree work, and eventually getting out to the crags to do a bit of climbing and fact-checking for the upcoming Climbers' Guide to Smoke Hole Canyon, for which yours truly signed a contract this past week with a publisher who seems to think 3,000 copies would be a good start.

Editing, planning, and musing on life... it's gonna be a busy week...

Stay tuned for more.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mountain Project Link to Little Elden and the Elyssian Buttress

Check out this link from Mountain project for more beta (info) on our latest "find"...

Getting PSYCHED!!!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Another Power Couple Adventure

We were spending too long inside, in the city. No doubt, we had done good things, were working on doing more. And I remain grateful for opportunity and income. But the groove had become a rut, the routine a Routine. While Cindy explored the city and met interesting people, I marched through the endless chain of 5-7 hours frying fish, slicing veggies, washing truckloads of plates and pans and either cursing or racing the clock under glaring lights in a kitchen alternating between hip-hop or mariachi for a soundtrack. When the end of my shift came, I usually found myself too tired mentally and physically to enjoy or join the nightlife and frenetic energy of the crowds negotiating the streets of Old Town Flagstaff. After months of epics and adventures, Life had devolved to predominantly sitting in our tiny apartment reading and passing time until the next shift of work.

We did not leave West Virginia and all that was home to fall back into the grind of 9 to 5, or the illusions of urban prosperity. Our visits to the local hot new climbing area had left us both with a yearning to do a few new lines and get out more tempered with a bad taste for Flagstaff climbers' insistence on taking their dogs EVERYWHERE, in packs that often outnumbered the humans at the crags, and their propensity for gathering in the middle of a silent forest to shout, pose, spray and socialize.

This was the Scene.

This is what we left behind, what we had never been a part of, what we had no wish to become.

We went looking for unmarked branches on the Path. Mount Elden's fire-scarred flanks sport a host of cliffs, many covered i routes and fairly active, especially as winter drives climbers to the sunny Southern slopes. Finding solitude now only to lose it to a crowd later had little appeal. We needed something with a touch of crazy.

With a hint and a nod from John Burcham, local photog and climbing guru, we followed a trail leading out of an unmarked parking lot beyond a sagging fence along Highway 89, a lost corner of Heaven with open meadows, owl calling in the dusk, deer climbing the steep hillsides, ancient junipers offering shade to weary travelers, and a mountainside covered in hundreds of feet of pinnacles, faces and slabs, two hours' hike from the car, three minutes from the city limits of Flagstaff.

After an initial hike to recon the road conditions and get a better look at the target, Cindy and I set out Early Thursday morning with snacks and water bottles, chalk bags and shoes and cameras, determined to break out of the box we had been slowly building.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

No Translation Possible

"No one chooses to be homeless."

These words are mumbled hurriedly between bites of hot lasagna and fruit salad in the common dining area of the Flagstaff Family Food Center. The speaker is a bearded man somewhere in his late 40s to early 60s... it's hard to tell, under the grime and the weariness and the bright red knit hat he's wearing to complete his ensemble of tweed jacket, blue jeans, and Arizona Diamondbacks sweatshirt. He has entered quietly amid the noise and haste of 150 people chatting, exchanging greetings or farewells in three languages, wringing out wet jackets and clothes and making their way through the food line as volunteers from a local church dish up school lunch trays of nutritious hot food and cups of Gatorade and tea.

I spot Israel in the line and wave a hello to the tall, thin black man, a refugee from Africa, who is in the midst of a two-year vision quest after a decade behind the blue rope, pressing the flesh with the movers and the shakers of California and the nation to start and raise funds for assorted non-profits. A few more familiar faces trickle in out of the still-thundering gloom of the afternoon, as Cindy and I tuck into our meal and listen to our newest encounter.

"A rough night for us all out there." Our guest peers out from under shaggy brows, shaking his head once in a gesture of frustration and sympathy and many, many other emotions that chase each other across his face like storm winds crossing a pond's surface. "Too many of us depended on the wrong things, I guess."

"True," Cindy answers/ "We have to depend on each other."

He nods, but continues as if unaware that she has spoken.

"Jobs, pensions, family, savings plans, religion..." His voice is fading, movement slowing as his eyes fall away through space and time, perhaps back to the edge of the Void into which his own future vanished.

"...tenure..." Silence falls and I exchange a sympathy-filled look with my wife, who squeezes my hand under the table.

I wish I could write to you of what it is to be homeless. Obviously, it is the state of having no fixed address, usually without consent. But there is no possible translation of the concept. Unlike writing about climbing, I'm not covering a topic which some of you may choose to explore or experience on your own. And while most of us know someone who has fallen on hard times, most likely they have a couch to crash on, or a spare room at a relative or friend's house to call their own, even if for just a little while.

But to be truly homeless, to have NO WHERE to go when the storms draw their black curtain across the skies and the lightning seems bent of incinerating every bit of God's Creation and the thunder washes over you like waves in an angry sea, is a concept that many people can only imagine in the same way they imagine elves and unicorns... nothing that is a fact in their own frame of reference. The thought of slowly starving in country with an obesity problem is simply counter to sanity and logic. It is unthinkable that, as churches across the nation send millions in aid and donations to Africa and as millionaires bequeath seven-figure estates for the care and feeding of their pets, families and grandparents and veterans are sleeping in parks and abandoned buildings and run-down cars, going to bed hungry again, tonight, within walking distance of restaurants that throw away hundreds of pounds of food every week and walled communities where the average pet eats better than the homeless in this city.

And yet these are the facts, cold and hard to digest as they may be. This is the reality so many live in and so many more are unable to imagine.

Until three weeks ago, it was my reality.

After spending two weeks at the end of July broke, out of gas, unemployed, living out of a tent and an S10 pickup, slowly starving in southern Colorado, I know the feeling of quiet desperation that is the life of a homeless person. I understand the despair and the anger and the hopeless helplessness, the shame of asking for help from strangers and the humbling of pride that is realizing that you can do nothing to prevent your spouse from sharing your discomfort. I understand these things with my flesh and bones, but there are no colors in my palette to paint them for you, no language that I know capable of translating cold thoughts and prose into intuitive empathy, comprehension and understanding. I can only pound away at ignorance with the blunt instruments of words, hoping against hope that those of you who know me or have come to know me can somehow get a glimpse, through this crack in the wall, of Life on the Other Side.

If only one of you sees, even for the briefest of moments, and if that sight leads you to care, and to act, to ask "What can I do, myself, to help someone DIRECTLY, today?", then the message is not lost.

No one chooses to be sick, or old, or unemployed, or homeless.

But we can choose to make a difference, even a small one, every day.

Last week, I handed a 20 dollar bill out of my first meager paycheck to an angel in an apron, serving dinner and faith and love to the homeless and downtrodden, to alcoholics and junkies, mental patients and families at the Jesus Project Sunday dinner at McKellips School here in Flagstaff. There were any number of things I could have spent that money on... but there was a greater need to pay it back to the people who fed us, who shared hope and joy and a smile when we were down and lost.

This week, Cindy and I volunteered at the same kitchen, spending my one day off working to prepare food for 200, trying to share just a little of our tale and a small measure of hope with so many who hover on the edge of despair and surrender.

Pay it forward. Our government and the leaders of our faith have abandoned us to political expedience and private agendas, big headlines and tax write-offs. All we have is each other, and God. As Gandhi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Angels, Unaware

There are prophets in our streets.

There are angels in our midst.

We stride a land long bereft of hope and opportunities. A land in which even the Children of God seem to turn a deaf ear to the lessons of his Son, who was homeless and unemployed and advocated socialism as a tenet of Christianity.

Who, when questioned concerning the multitudes of his day, said simply, "Feed them."

Who, when questioned on "What must I do to be saved?" replied "Sell all you have, give it to the poor, leave your home and wife and parents and follow me."

Who told the religious leaders "Even as you have done unto the least of these, so have you done unto me."

Jesus never had a savings account, a resume, a credit score, a 401k, a fixed address, or a political agenda. Every church and church member in the world would do well to remember that. those who ignore those facts are worse than hypocrits, and will no doubt someday hear the words 'depart from me ye workers of iniquity, you generation of vipers... I never knew you."

I stand in a dinner line with vision seekers and homeless families, with licensed psychiatrists and decorated veterans, alcoholics and rape victims and prostitutes and junkies, carpenters and plumbers and truckdrivers and waitresses. The Flagstafff Family Food Center feeds between 100 and 200 people daily using only donations of food from local grocery stores and bakeries and restaurants; a mission of mercy, preaching love and equality among people who are daily led to feel that they are the unwanted refuse of a society that refuses to accept responsibility for the economic and social abyss into which more and more of its citizens are falling. For while there are any number of long-winded defenders of hedge-fund managers and banking, Wall Street and its schools of parahna-like stockbrokers, no one can explain how people could choose to be homeless and poor and lost.

That somehow, somewhere, the homeless are responsible for the collapse of the markets and housing industry, and that the true victims are somehow the huge corporations who walk away from multi-million dollar defaults with a clean slate and a handful of government money; the stockbrokers and hedge-fund managers who erased a nation's savings in speculation, while most of them made money on the deal. These modern-day pirates are welcome at any bank in the nation, with money to spare to start the balloon growing again, while working class Moms and Dads cannot borrow enough for a tank of gas to reach the minimum wage jobs they have had to acccept on the verge of retirement. Parents are waging wars with prayer, but the churches they attend are busy trying to secure commitments from their members to keep tithing regularly, with the promise of overflowing riches from Heaven if they do.

Who would God bribe?

And in the midst of this, we rub shoulders with angels, unaware... feeding the hungry, giving hope and comfort to the lost, doing, even unto the least of these, as they would if the Son Himself had appeared at their door. Stretching shoestring budgets to work a miracle of loaves and fishes every week, week in and week out.

 Walking on water, and turning a storm of tragedy into the wine of human compassion.

Monday, August 15, 2011

River Song

Last days in West Virginia-

Cindy is laughing, watching tiny minks dart out of cover towards her floating line, as dragonflies hunt the shadows and shallows and gannets chase their own reflections over the flat surface of the South Branch. Huge catfish and an assortment of trout, minnows and perch cruise in solitary splendor and swift-moving schools beneath the huge boulders from which a dozen generations of Smoke Hole teens have dived and cannonballed, where more innocence has been lost and experienced gained than the most jaded nightclubs of the city. Broken glass winks like lost gems in the sunshine atop the biggest of these as I clear the dust from the last bolt hole at the top of our latest Entrance Wall route, Cindy's long-awaited River Song.

The last weeks have been a series of revelations and epiphanies; old friends who seem to have forgotten our names and faces, new friends with more gifts and kindness than we deserve or can quite grasp. Long-delayed projects completed or abandoned, explorations of a few places that have always been "somedays", and the not-so-surprising realization that, as expected, many of the most famous climbing spots here in the East have become so infatuated with their own "scene" that they have strangled the essence of what made them magical and rare.

Lessons learned, questions answered, hard truths faced, new opportunities embraced and unfinished business laid to rest.

It is in service of the last concept that I find myself hanging sixty feet above the ground, pounding in the last bolt, after having the previous two attempts on this particular placement fail in a particularly frustrating fashion. I eye the last hole and bolt, my depleted drill battery still arm against my ribs, and murmur to the 3/8" bolt in my hand.

"You screw me this time, and I'll put the damned thing up mixed." I grin and set the bolt in the hole, leashed hammer poised to swing. "I've done it before."

The bolt apparently heeds my warning and, just to be perverse, sets smoothly and cleanly in the hole with a half-dozen sharp blows. I position the hanger and give the nut three complete rotations, continuing to crank to the approximately 30 pounds of torque that is industry standard and is a feeling I know in my bones. I zip the ratchet back into my work pouch and brush drill powder off the nearby holds. With a Elvis-like pump of my hips, I release the Shunt backing up my rappel and slid earthward, as a raucous chorus of ravens fill the canyon with their squabbling croaks.

Friday, July 22, 2011

And the Ants Dig Free Again...

A hard rain and a long afternoon of reflection. Golden sunlight like liquid fire across the tips of scrub oak and blue spruce. Robins and western finches, swallows diving and stalling aginst the blue, blue Colorado sky.

A lot of dismay and anger, lately. I left a state that is (usually correctly) stereotyped for ignorance and destruction, to return to a place that I remembered as somewhat pristine and remote, only to find it had been discovered by the new oil millionaires and "ranchers" of the Lone Star state. To be fair, they are only a part of the problem, but they are such a major part that the rest are only "colateral damage" by comparison.

Felled trees, live and dead, hacked off bushes by the truckload, simply dragged aside and left as fire tinder in a land that has seen far too little rain, despite a recent string of afternoon thunderstorms.

Open pits filled with human feces and toilet paper, swarming with flies, less than a dozen paces from the river's edge. Piles of horse manure, also alight with insects and bearing dozens of species of non-native grains seeds; girdled trees surrounded by pits where thirsty mounts have pawed open the fragile soil to reach water-bearing roots while tethered to soft-skinned saplings. Firepits a-glitter with broken glass that has been strewn across every campsite into which a horse trailer and King Ranch Silverado can be manuevered, and plenty of sawn saplings and taller timber where there wasn't quite enough room. Massive erosion, the loosened soil washing down to smother the rich but fragile carpet of grass that sprouts across the open forest floor.

Trees so carved with initials and "TX" that they are literally bleeding to death. Trees so riddled with bullets that they have broken in half in high winds. Gunfire from huge trucks and Hummers pulled to the shoulder of the road, secure in the knowledge that no NFS lawman has seen this road in the last two months and that cell phone coverage is almost 30 miles away.

In my rage and dismay, I have committed a sin on which I have called too many people; I have generalized. I know that all the residents of the Lone Star State are no irresonsible hooligans and wannabe cowboys with a gun in one hand and a beer in the other, riding their mounts rough-shod across the fragile ecosystems of surrounding states. I klnow that the state of Texas has produced many fine sons and daughters. Indeed, many of the First Texans were first Virginians, who came West to seek a fortune. Some found it, many did not, but all are remembered in the annals of our history, deservedly or not.

But people are only as good as the perception they allow others to perpetuate. And as much destruction as I have withnessed on the East side of the Mississippi River, it does not hold a candle to what I have witnessed in the mountains of the West.

But I did not come here to spread criticism and despair, only to comment on mny apparent blindness. I have friends that I treasure in El Paso and Corpus Christi, and fond memories of Juarez and Laredo, Puerto Penasco and Samalayuca. I think the people of southern Texas, eastern New Mexico and Mexico proper are some of the finest friends I have ever had. I know that they fight the same stereotypes I found prevalent at home and for the same reasons- because good people no longer speak up when they see or hear of their peers acting in a manner which brings disgrace upon their community and region.

It is a fight that I carry in my heart, and too often allow to spill onto the page.

And so this morning, I sat with a cup of steaming coffee, waiting for the sunrise and watching as, after the passing of the storm, the ants dug free again.

We fight our little fights, suffer our tiny tempests in a teacup, make our bold declarations and achieve our little victories and then drown in the first wash of rain. Our carefully constructed castles of sand collapse in on themselves and we are left only with the options to once again laugh at oursleves or shake our fists at a Heaven to whom we must seem small, pathetic, and rather pompous.

I am living a dream, surrounded by beauty and the opportunity for discovery and growth with an amazing woman who is more than I had ever dreamed could enter my life, especially at this late date. I laugh more every day than I have during entire years of my past. I am, in short, blessed, and I am a fool to lose sight of that in debate over which political party is less corrupt (The Whigs, I think...), which politician most inept, which corporation more demonic, and which state the producer of the most destructive rednecks. I know and believe that this world is poised on the brink of a paradigm shift which will render it incomprehensible to all but a small population of dreamers and believers, very few of whom will belong to the dogmatic tribes currently controlling and defining the intellectual and spiritual discourse of human beings and their interactions with the myriad life forms on this planet and in the worlds around us.

I know that my only Path through that Change will be in the light Cindy and I hold between us remaining unsullied by the meaningless debates that swirl in this ephemeral dream that is currently held to be "reality".

So I again foreswear the frenzy of debate and counterattack. There is a wall back there, in the beyond, that we've seen from the top of North Lake's crag; a wall that begs for exploration, and maybe another meaningless flag erected to commemorate a First Ascent. The P.O.W.E.R (Poor Old Worn-out Economic Refugee) Couple will survive; to wander and dream, scrimp and save and maybe even starve a little, but always, in the end, to celebrate the gift of each day.

Storms come, rain falls, conceits collapse.

And the ants dig out again...

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Thirty Days On the Road

Bear with me, I'm writing this from a tempemental laptop in an uncomfortable crouch on a wooden chair with a sore old ass and a huge grin on my face.

We've been at it for thirty days now, from the time we locked the apartment door until now; living out of a small truck and a big tent full of backpacks and climbing gear and smelly clothes and assorted gadgets, in a series of National Forest and private campsites, backroad pullouts and friend's houses.

Spent the weekend hiking around some favorite old spots in Germany Valley, pruning back half-forgotten trails, shoring up steps and cleaning up old lines. Getting back in touch with the local store keepers and landowners to confirm access and ownership. Downloaded a vast store of beta on West Virginia countryside marryin's and buryin's, reunions and feuds, slow business, high prices, flash floods, pillbillies, mean young men and fast young women. Sat in camp in the slow-falling shadows of evening watching my wife-to-be organize and artisan and wander peacefully through her own space, the purple air filled with the scent of honeysuckle and green grass and sage and birdsong.

We now have a topper for the S10 affectionately known as Icy Blue, acquired from a kindly, chatty little fellow on the outskirts of the town of Stuart's Draft, Virginia, on Saturday morning of the holiday weekend. The money was a traveling gift from my parents following two days of work in their hundred-foot oak trees. Cindy and I rose early, skipped coffee and crossed the various mountains and rivers and state lines to reach Stuart's Draft, near Waynesboro, where we checked out the goods, paid the man, mounted the new unit and finished a 200 mile round-trip loop, including visits to Doc Goodwack and a few other friends, in time for late lunch back in camp at The Bluffs. Happy hour was declared early in celebration of our new acquisition.

We crashed early and were deep into REM sleep when a familiar voice called out "Hello?" a light shone into the tent and someone asked "Are you guys naked in there?" I confirmed the truth and we were granted a few moments of abuse-filled dimness in which to remedy the situation. We emerged into welcoming arms and there were soon open beers and seats found for everyone.

Plans and introductions were made, amid jokes and smokes and laughter, and an hour or so later the raiders wandered back out into the night. Miss Cindy and I crashed smiling and rose early, determined to beat the heat, spending the day in the river with friends, toproping and doing a bit of rappeling on the private cliffs close to camp. There were big plans elesewhere, but the weather and the humidity seemed determined to thwart first ascent ambitions, with a heat advisory for West Virginia and humidity hovering around 80 or 90 per cent. If nothing else, I knew that Cindy's MS would NOT react to conditions like that in a favorable way. Having dealt with her seizures from heat and dehydration before, I was determined to take it easy and err on the side of caution. Besides, after three seasons of riding herd over the small riot of Eagle Rock Campground on this first major outdoor holiday of the year, it felt nice to have no obligations, no one else's messes to clean up. There were opportunities enough to climb in the future. For now, it was time for the Power Couple.

We're settling into this lifestyle of simplicity, something natural to the heart of what we both really ARE, deep down; gypsies, wanderers, travelers. With the topper to keep our gear dry, safe,and out of the sun, we're thinking of taking a week or two to help out in Joplin, before heading on out to Colorado to see if my friend DeChristo (Tom Reid) is as ornery and ugly as ever, if the cliffs are as fine and tall, the air as sweet and clear. From there, who knows? But make no mistake, we ARE getting married and California IS on the schedule... the schedule is just very, very liquid, right now. If we have promised or threatened to visit, please bear with us. We both lived on other peops schedules for years and we're being a bit irresponsible right now. The vacation will turn into tour soon, I promise.

We have challenges ahead, some known, many not. I am still trying to find work and still finding very little. People who are building are not hiring, and if so they aren't hiring carpenters closing in on 50- those guys know too much about the building code and labor laws. They ask too many questions and bend too few rules and have opinions that are not all about the bottom line. As in the rest of my life, my inability to stay silent regarding stupidity, waste, responsibility and safety costs me a great deal in the search for gainful employment, as well.

Cindy is still fighting the battle with MS, and some days ae better than others. We are living this life a day or a week at a time, accepting what is, trying to change what we can, trying to save our energies for the adventures ahead rather than worrying about the things we have no control over in the puppet theater most folks call day-to-day life.

We lazed in the river until mid afternoon, when I climbed the hill to retrieve Cindy's fishing gear and met our late-night party rolling down the hill to the Hole. Coco the chocolate Lab was in the lead by several hundred feet, tail wagging her whole body, deflated football clenched in her teeth. The others came wandering down the hill, gawking at the soaring, private cliffline over the road and asking me questions about access and privacy and climbing.

We swam and fished and watched eagles soar over the Gorge, waved to the landowners wading downriver from us, tossed sticks and blls and otherwise tried to coax Coco into the water. As shadows fell over the river, we retreated to hang gear from the Sandbagger's Buttress and enjoy some shady rock climbing; Jaynie shooting up the cliff liike a natural and Mike showing the same kind of determination he had on his initial outing the week before, Cindy cranking the thinner line to the left with determination after being spit off the week before.

Evening faded into cold Stella Artois and laughing conversations as we sorted and swapped gear by the cars, bidding them goodnight as we headed for camp and a late dinner. Stars gleamed from the skies overhead as a whipporwill launched into his endless refrain. Honeysuckle blew on the breeze as Cindy turned to me and smiled, her forest eyes dancing, and for just a little while, all was right with the world.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Aborted Rapture

Survived the end of the world and spent the weekend at the crags (surprise! Of course, with the weather we had, if I hadn't been there, the world WOULD have ended, so you are all welcome. I'll look for the checks in the mail. )

Cranked Saturday with Doc Fisher and Cindy B, at an increasingly popular Secret Crag #7. The Stewarts and Randy L, along with amanda and Johnathan showed up and pulled and partied, and several of our D.C. neighbors wandered in as well. The hundreds of feet of new trails and edging constructed since their last visit went unremarked.

Mister Fisher vocalized his way up the steep and still-crumbly 5.10R sport route Grain of Sand, but fell below the anchors. After a prolonged rest, he returned and sent the route then retrieved his anchors. No progress was made on the heinous project just L of Cold Day in Hell.

An early evening turned into late-night pizza fest after several hours of Guiness, pool, humorous commentary on the Apocalypse/Rapture and as designated driver for a friend who called from the bar as we passed through phone coverage.

Back to camp late and crashed hard. Up early to run errands and fetch coffee and see if the world had gotten the day wrong by 1 (no change). Mike D and friend show just after noon, with Coco the chocolate Lab bounding happily through the woods. We wander out through the thick forest covering the private land and private crags near camp and set a top rope/rappel for Mike's first experience at each. He rocks it, and we all have fun on a moderate wall.

Later, while taking a break, we discover a baby copperhead about 9 inches long coiled right in the midst of our set-up. babies, of course, are the worst due to their tendency to completely drain all venom into the victim during a bite. We dispatch our unwelcome guest after a round of photos and more smokes all around are called for to steady jazzed nerves.

Cindy gets on rock, as does the Curmudgeon and Mike D , who aced the first and second rappels like an old hand and proceeds to climb in the same manner, crimping small holds and stepping high in work boots.

An awesome afternoon hike out through a sunlit forest along a rushing stream, dozens of songbirds filling the air with music as butterflies dip and soar through the mountain laurel and rhododendron. We crack cold Stellas and enjoy a few moments of conversation and recounting before the needs of home and pet ownership call our friends away and we head back to camp and dinner.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Another adventure afternoon

Spent yesterday morning clearing trail and pruning around camp while Cindy ran into nearby Petersburg on errands. High broken clouds brought morning sun and soft breezes to our rain-beseiged little camp, a welcome change after a week of daily storms and precipitation. Tiny maples, red and white and chesnut oaks, lady slipper and sassifrass glistened with drops of moisture along the forest floor, spiderwebs spun to diamond in an instant of dewfall, the rich smell of the growing, ancient forest heavy as the mist that swirled in the shafts of sunlight. Stone and concrete foundations peek through leaf and brush derelict ships in a leafy sea, and a shattered length of beam slowly sinks into the earth under a burden of multicolored fungus and moss.

Cindy returns from town with a proud smile and a new inspection sticker, and we grab a quick lunch and head over to the rim in search of the afternoon's latest adventure.

After some wandering and peering, we locate the top of an old trad line of mine, a ground-up indulgence that proved interesting in the short section of crack just above mid-height. A complex anchor and a brief battle with some hanging deadfall and the resultant brush see us in place on a ledge about 20' above the game trail that winds along the bottom of the cliff. The route is partially wet but clean and we set about beating ourselves silly on the steep crack moves up a sharp dihedral (corner) to the awkward exit at the roof, which brings you out of the wetness and onto the shoulder, an easy stemming scramble up a steep slot to the anchors.

Easier said than done.

Cindy makes a mighty effort at the onsight TR, but wet rock and lots of recent weather-related downtime conspire to send her swinging into space. I am impressed by her determination when we trade places and I grunt through the moves more by dint of brute strength and bullheaded stupidity than finesse and superior skill. The line is a sweet bit of coner and crack, but the crack is wide even for my slablike hands, and the face around it is slightly overhanging.

I lower, and Cindy has another go of it, but a banged elbow ona blown chicken-wing jam takes her last reserves and we lower off to make the quick hike back up and around to the anchors. New "No Trespassing" signs remind me of the landowner's story of a recent burglary, and I am again very glad for having acquired and maintained both climbing access and good relations with these folks so many years ago.

Top anchors and gear are soon retrieved, cold adult beverages are soon acquired, and less than an hour later we are settling in to enjoy another fine pasta dinner and an evening of birdsong and forest breezes.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Adventure, Incorporated

Took advantage of the break in showers yesterday morning to run errands and then hit the crag. Cindy and I took light recon packs and rapped down a vegetated 30m cliff in the north end of Germany Valley. The line was composed of a series of ledges, faces, corners and chimneys to reach the steep slope at the bottom, adjacent to a harder climb called "The Fall of Innennin", a technical 5.10 mixed line which I hope to put the First Ascent on someday soon, Lord willin and the rain stops a-fallin'.

GREAT little 3-hour adventure made MUCH harder by climbing in boots and helmets- kudos to the FA parties, who likely did the line wearing combat boots and protected by a loop of hemp line tied around their waists. We only found the one piton, so the line likely wandered off to a different ending, but slung horns and sheer balls were likely the only pro for those brave lads of the U.S. Army. Miss Cindy did magnificently (of course) handling the exposure, the multi-pitch rappels and climbing, and the difficulties of carrying a pack in a vertical environment with the humor and concentration of a pro. We dubbed the line "The Climb of the Unknown Soldier", probably about 5.6, tricky and sparse protection, so PG/R... but lots of holds, many of them jugs, and plenty of rests. HUGE oak tree at the top to belay from, and a ten minute stroll to camp.

Planning a trip to Seneca Rocks for Cindy's first summit in the next two weeks, then back down to Asheville, Shortoff Mountain, Looking Glass, and the Red River Gorge in the first few weeks of June.

Adventure, Incorporated, at your service....

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dispatches from the Road



We don' NEED no stinkin' DISPATCHES, caberone'! Ah-ahahahahhahhaah!!"

Just over 1200 miles later, we're home again, home again, hippity-hop. (Actually, we're house and dogsitting, but we've made ourselves at home, as ordered. So, sorta homeagain.. whatever...) Blue Ridge Parkway, Linn Falls, Grandfather Mountain, downtown Asheville, Western North Carolina highways and their charming lack of signs and the incredible beauty of the Smokies. New frinds for me, reunions and lot catching up for Cindy.

Full trip report with pictures to follow.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Asheville, NC

Tuesday night, enjoyed a great evening and chimichanga dinner with our buddy Simon Moore, hiding out from the storms and rain and laughing at the vindictive mess his psycho g/f left when she cleaned out all the domestic goods "which she brought to the relationship" (half of which seemed to actually belong to Simon... go figure). Shared some of our multiple-backup domestic gear with the lad and left him in a much better mood Wednesday morning to begin the drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway to Asheville, NC to visit with some friends of my future bride and see a bit of that great southern climbing.

Loooong drive, and I honestly cannot recommend anyone ever drive the BRP between Roanoke and Asheville... too many houses right beside the Park "boundary", too little info about where you are, no beta on where the intersecting highways lead (like, "can I get OFF this road ahead and get onto an interstate, or just lost?"), and damned few pullouts or rest areas, as well as the fact that, despite the temps being in the 80s a week or two ago, most of the facilities STILL aren't open... so no potties for the girls or boys en route!

Got in late, ate steak and taters and crashed! Woke late and casual, lots of coffee and sorting the mess on the truck and now we're out exploring and planning for a shish kebab dinner tonite and maybe Looking Glass tomorrow... lots and lots of great moderate climbs up on the south end of the formation, according to the beta I snagged in a phone call from the Super Sensei, Ed Begoon.

Cindy has been a trouper; driving, map reading, and generally being good company on the trip.

The day is too gorgeous to spend in here, so we're out and after it!

More tomorrow... or the next day...

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Disassembling a Life

Taking a break from packing and sorting, winnowing away the excess to prepare for new voyages.

Long day yesterday between these final preparations and spending a few hours working on a friend's house til 11 pm last night.

Crappy crag day earlier this week- twisted the ankle I had sprained three days before just minutes after getting out of the car at the Entrance Walls. Resigned to remain earthbound, I did trailwork while Pat led an "interesting" variant of my line "Raindancer and Cindy B styled the TR and gear cleanup as always. Trying to remain on the Path is hard, some days, absorbed in thoughts of deterioration and the bitter spite of fair-weather acquaintances.

Raindrops heralded the first notes from the fat lady, and we headed home to watch the storms.

Putting all of this into some sort of shape... more later.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Strange Weather

In the first of 3 (or 4, I don't know yet) videos, the Lyndon State College Outdoor Adventure Program returns with sensei Jamie Struck to once again build trail, climb rock, explore, discover and bring a ray of sunshine to Wild wonderful West Virginia.

Enjoy Strange Weather, my friends, and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


It is too cliché.

The old climber, full of wrath, a caricature of faded dreams and failed ambitions, railing against the failings of the younger generation and those who have made a more fortunate way in this life, alienating friends and wreaking havoc.

A loner with no social skills thundering judgments upon the social networking sites and climbing forums in which he is not only a member but an administrator.

Dramatic exit, cue the violins and isn’t that just the teensiest whiff of sanctimonious BS trailing in the wake of the tattered knight as he rides (predictably) into the setting sun.

Paulo Coelho says that every Warrior will at some time in the Journey, doubt, fail, betray, fall into the Abyss, lose faith and question the dream of his own Legend.

I have many times sought a way to impart the Vision that drives me to bend down and touch the earth and stones of the crags where I climb and enjoy so many days of my life. And I have many times lost patience and momentum to squabble and snarl like a junkyard dog with packs of fools and people just as opinionated as myself, imparting nothing but invective, leaving nothing but a bad impression.

I am only human, as I must so often remind myself. I have a dream, but nothing of grand and sweeping scope, nothing to change forever the lives of my fellow humans. It is in the end a simple proposition. We must be stewards to the lands and crags upon which we travel because if we are not, then we are some of the most destructive idiots on the planet. We do not come to harvest fruit or game, but in our passing we create massive impact. Our disruption of the biosphere stretches from the common ground, if you will, of the horizontal world up the perpendicular faces where few of the other users of the forest venture.

In other words, our IMPACT is twice that of our fellow users.

And all of this to climb up a piece of stone.

But me no buts about climbers being more environmentally conscious or active. I’ve been in this game for three decades now, and I’ve mangled the rules a few times myself. Climbers have good intentions and poor application. They carry reuseable hemp shopping bags to big “organic” grocery stores and shop fair trade goods from Indonesia and Zaire in the giant chain stores in the metroplexes where they live. They buy their gas (or the electricity for their hybrid) from huge corporations, then come to West Virginia and throw their trash away. They send their yearly check to the Access Fund and the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and Amnesty International or Doctors Without Borders which are all wonderful organizations but few if any of them have a maintained, dependable impact on the communities near where 90% of the people in the United States climb. Yes, the Access Fund does sponsor Adopt-A-Crag. Yes, they do stay involved in the fight to secure and preserve access to climbing areas everywhere. Yes, a lot of influential people believe very strongly in their mission. And yes, they are introducing a lot of new people to the art of climbing every single day... and thus increasing impact, and the likelihood of access issues for them to resolve in the future.

It's called job security.

When was the last time you read or heard of the Access Fund, Climbing Magazine, Rock and Ice or anyone else sponsoring a sit-in or demonstration to stop mountaintop removal, or organizing a hands-on seminar on trail building and impact management, at a crag near you? And it’s that last bit that’s important, boys and girls, oh yes indeed. If you don’t get that beta a lot closer to home than the Regional Conference on Impact Management and Resource Conservation in Reno, then your shiny gathering of experts and celebrities amounts to little more than a headline, some filler, and a photo op for fundraising.

These mountains belong to all of us and they are being destroyed by greedy corporations and despoiled by irresponsible visitors and narrow-minded locals. The fight to save public lands is not a hobby, it is a war. And environmental activism is not accomplished with a checkbook or a regional conference.

Every day is trail day.

And every day is trash clean-up day.

If you find a fresh dump of trash in your local crag’s parking area, don’t just leave it. You can get free trash bags and gloves from most local Department of Highways garages any day of the week and they are often open on Saturdays. If you bag it and tell them where it is, they will come pick it up on any state road.

We are already altering the native environment forever, no matter how sensitive we are to that change, or how active, informed and involved we may be globally. We pay no fees, buy no permits, and bring the largest groups, by far, of any sport. I have seen fifty people crammed into a three-acre crag, with a half-dozen dogs and several children included in that count. At the end of the day, the trails and the underbrush surrounding them, not to mention the areas along the top of the cliffs, looked as though cattle had stampeded through the forest. I saw at least a dozen Access Fund or environmental organization stickers on bumpers and helmets that day, and on most other occasions that I’ve been to a crag with devastating impact and erosion.

I do not decry the dreams and ambitions of the next generation. I have always known you would come. Welcome to it.

But remember that honor is a gift a person gives to himself or herself. Honor the tradition that we, the few, have tried to pass down to you, one of both good routes up the cliff and good routes to the cliff. Harder numbers are nothing that will bring you great joy in the long run, believe me. You will eventually derive as much love and satisfaction from a well-crafted 5.8 as ever you felt cranking up some steep crimpfest. And if you make of the crag and trails a thing of function and beauty, as in balance with nature and the heartbeat that speaks with a thousand voices from the world all around you as any work of Mankind can ever be, you will honor yourself.

If we only take, and do not give as an act of selfless love towards the places that give us so much, then we are no better than the most selfish users of the forest. If we do not lead by belief and example, then our voices and our causes mean no more than any other in the decisions and fates of our public lands. By good stewardship we empower ourselves and the generations of climbers and adventurers to come.

So join what organizations you will. Head out to Adopt-A-Crag and National Trails Day and even those ridiculous Mid-Atlantic Climbers Coalition cleanups of car pullouts on the Skyline Drive. Do what you want.

But the next time you are speeding up the trail to hit that project or start your weekend, take time to stop, bend down, and replace that kicked-out border stone. Take a few minutes to slip off your pack, breathe some morning air, and fix that wobbly step. And speak up when you see someone else trampling the underbrush or crosscutting the trails.

Meanwhile, I’ll be trying to stop, take a deep breath, and control the urge to scream at basically good people who just don’t get it. I’ll be trying to mend some fences with former friends who’ve felt the razor edge of my sarcasm and wit. Not with much hope, but the only thing a man can do when passion leads him astray is to admit he has misspoken and bow deep in humble contrition.

And again, I have preached to this small choir, beating a dead horse, wasting space and the fleeting moments of my elderly life.

I thank you all for your patience with a crusty old man.

It is a narrow difference, the dividing line between caricature and ideal. I came to West Virginia over two decades ago, filled with youthful dreams and ideals. I traveled far and lost a number of both, then came back to find them waiting for me in those mysterious green hills and lost crags. I have tried and, to some degree, succeeded in changing a number of things in the places I have lived and climbed. I have also had some notable and spectacular failures. I lost a number of my illusions and found the love of my life.

It is my story, my personal Legend, and if it is trite, or banal, or cliché, well… I guess I’m okay with that.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Production Mode

Following a Wednesday of loading crates and tubs and crossing mountains to set up a storage unit and run errands in Harrisonburg, Cindy and I spent Thursday dodging incredible runoff still cascading out of the hills. Tuesday's torrential overnight rains brought flashfloods throughout Pendelton and Grant Counties, washing out roads, ditches, and stripping soil from croplands and gardens. In some places, the water came up 6-8 FEET overnight, when as much as 2 inches of rain fell on already saturated ground. Even after a full day of cleanup on Wednesday, the conditions were still questionable Thursday. The morning dawned somewhat cloudy and cooler, leading us to doubt, but the sky cover gradually cleared and we headed into increasing spring sunshine.

Cindy B and I arrived to find Mr. Fisher loading pack at the car. We hiked up to the crag together, stopping briefly to eye the new project, then headed up to the main walls to see what conditions there looked like.

Fifty feet from the Reach, we cold hear water POURING over the rock. the right end of the wall looked like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, with a fine spray of mist glowing in the morning light and water falling over a 25 foot stretch of face, pooling several inches deep beneath and running off the hillside in a steady stream. Evidence revealed that flows had also poured out of several of the small "caves" in the base of the wall at a few points, but the new steps and trails stayed solid and seemed to have settled in quite nicely.

We climbed Superman, which Mike followed by "beating the crap out of (himself)" on Grain of Sand. He eventually lowered and we headed down for a run on Thieves in the Temple, and Second Rule, with Mister F using the last ascent to set a TR on the hard new project L of Cold Day in Hell. I then led Second again and Cindy followed to clean the gear. By now the skies were completely clear and warm breezes blew out of the west as we remarked n this amazing transformation in the weather.

After a short break, Miss Pinkpants wisely headed for the river and a bit of fishing, while Doc Goodwack and I set ourselves to work out the micro-crimper complexities involved in the bottom of the new project.

A steep face with now real footholds led to a wicked heel hook and a cross-over crimper to set up for the throw to the clip jug. Another cross over and fancy footwork led to powerful sidepuls and another bolt, then a grunt to the hands-free rest below the third crux and fourth bolt. Here, strength and determination finally ceded the day to pragmatism as the sun sank low in the west and the realization of draws to be retrieved from Grain of Sand sank in. Mike batmanned a section, then cranked the easier headwall and cleaned gear before lowering. An hour and a horrendous rap-and-swing session later, we were on our way down the trail.

We found Cindy in possession of no fewer than THREE proud catches, and soon inherited two more trout from a fisherman less interested in cleaning than catching. We made our good-byes, Mister Fisher heading home to prepare for work the next day and the Power Couple wending north to our increasingly empty abode.

Monday- Pyro Gets Rhythm! Desecration and Sacrilige at the Entrance Walls! Lies, Scandal, and Rumor!

And, of course, plenty of color commmentary by yours truly, The Curmudgeon.

Stay tuned....

Monday, April 11, 2011


Got out late yesterday to rendezvous with Pyro and Doc Goodwack at Reed's. Despite a gloomy start to the day, the afternoon cleared and we found ourselves setting toprope on the new line L of Shaved Scamper under blue skies with only a few fluffy clouds. The previous night's rain, however, had been torrential and most of the crag was dripping water, as the creek raged below. While cindy relaxed in the warm sun, Pyro and I headed up to see what the good Doctor was doing.

Doc Goodwack, aka Mike Fisher, was finishing up the bolting and cleaning of his hard new line L of Cold Day in Hell. Pat and I left him to the fnial bolting and hiked on up the trail to clean up a bit under Ryan Eubank's newest project. Fifteen minutes made a world of difference, and we wandered back down towards where Cindy waited, passing M.fisher on the way. Mike debated a few minutes over leaving his new line unmarked as a project. I assured him that there were very few mortals who would be able to just walk up and onsight climb the initial crux or two, so he pulled gear and soon joined us for a toprope burn or two down at the Power Couple Wall.

Pat and I had headed up earlier to set a rap line and toprope, the first to allow him some practice at getting down over the top to anchors, rebelaying there, and then using his new Petzl Shunt to back-up a rappel and as a soloist aid when climbing in conjunction with a static line.

While Pat worked out the complexities and headgames required for his chosen goals of the day, I rapped and tapped the line, then offered a TR ride to Miss Cindy and the crew. Once they had finished their runs with glowing praise of the line's quality and sustained pump, I climbed it one more time, clipped hard into the anchors, and set-up the rope for rappel. I pulled up the drill and tools, settled earplugs and glasses and blow tube around my neck and started the long-tedious process of rap-bolting.

Let anyone who says that rap bolting is taking the easier road come do a bit of it on our steep, sandy, humid WV crags. After the anchors, which had gone in quickly and easily, my first bolt, a donated piece of hardware from friends in the North, snapped off cleanly at the face as I was putting the final torque on it.

This scared the living hell out of me, because the strength of my bolts are literally a life-and-death matter. If I could snap off a bolt tightening it down with a wrench under minimal load, what would happen if my 200 pounds of solid beef came down on it in a 10-foot fall? Or after dozens of other climbers hung on the bolt and then someone took a good long winger?

I tapped the traitor bolt back into its hole and began the frustrating process of finding another bolt placement when the first one goes south. The second hole was good, the second bolt survived placement, and in the end the clip was only moved about 8 inches. The rest of the line went in without incident, but it was a jarring reminder of the fact that some very kind and generous people, who live extraordinarily sumptuous lifestyles, who think nothing of dropping $50 on a bottle of liquor or more on thir favorite vices, people who have climbed all over the United States and, in some cases, the globe, turn around and ignore all their own experiences, putting their lives and the lives of others at risk by trying to save a few dollars on hardware.

I sorted through my remaining gear and removed all the suspect bolts, which will do just fine for mounting porch rails and deck cleats. Mike and I talked about innocent malfeasance, looking at a botched pruning job done, supposedly to clear a "project". This screwed up tree butchery and the weak effort at route development were all done by a climber who, despite having climbed Mt. Everest and pulling hard numbers at crags across the south, just couldn't seem to get around to putting up the project he had placed anchors on 6 months ago. This guy, who is a lawyer in D.C. (not exactly a low-income job) is too tight to supply his own hardware, cleaning tools, or drill. He repeatedly ignored ivitations for community trailwork, and usually showed up with at least one partner in tow the day after the work was done, which was in fact what he had done following recent efforts by Lyndon State College. Now, in addition to screwing up the cliffs, he had cut through a 4-inch limb in mid-branch, leaving a pointed stub that actually aimed at the climb he was "developing"!

I've said it before but it bears repeating: The worst problems of the climbing community are, first and foremost, "entitled" climbers who take no responsibility for their own impact, who treat locals and landowners like shit and screw up access, who generally think that they are God's gift to climbing. The second worst problem is the community that remains silent when the aforementioned genetic mistakes act like assholes.

We parted at the road with plans to rejoin Mike mid-week to send the new lines. I tossed my stuff in with Pyro to go in search of Miss Pinkpants.

Cindy had headed off to threaten the finny residents of the south Branch, and had three on the stringer when we got there. she fished for another half hour as Pyro and I shot the bull, looking at all the potential of the Entrance Walls and across the river at the privately-owned haven of Jake's Hill, where I have a trad 5.7 and a sport 5.8. a departing fisherman handed off two more fish and we decided that the day had come to a pretty good end. Pat headed back across the mountain and we wandered north to Petersburg, with fish to clean and smiles on our faces.

Friday, April 8, 2011

My personal heroine, Miss Cindy Bender

For anyone who was present at the recent Trail Daze, or indeed awake at any of the local crags for most of the last three years, Cindy Bender has become a fixture in Smoke Hole area climbing. Her ready smile and laughter, her generous and encouraging nature, her often vocal resolve to climb as hard as she can, whenever she can, redefining the limitations of the battle she fights day to day with and shattering all the myths of what a former mom, stroke victim, and multiple back surgery patient can accomplish with a singular focus of will, an unflinchingly honest assessment ofd reality and an open acceptance of whatever life brings.

I offer here a link to her blogsite, and a look into aa life less ordinary, one I am proud to share.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Paradigm Revision

Here's the model-

You decide to visit the South, somewhere outside the busy growing heart of New River Gorge, recently re-"exposed" with a new guidebook and a slew of magazine aticles. Seneca Rocks is a bit firther off the map and offers the history and cultural background to make the trip more than simply an excercise in rock climbing. Added bonus, there is a small sport crag nearby... downside is, it's one with a vociferous, cantankerous curmudgeon railing about the trails and access and responsibility and generally making an ass of himself.

But you are the Sensei... you transmute the raw stuff of humanity into human beings, as best you can with your wits and the tools of academia. There is something familiar in the issues this geezer is raising, the same issues as have risen again and again across the face of the clinmbing world; impact, disregard, and apathy. A misplaced sense of entitlement that overpowers and supercedes the more important perception of responsibility and sustained, active involvement of stewardship. Besides, the harsh bastard seems to put up more than a few lines and he's pretty damned funny, from time to time.

If the Curmudgeon cannot come to the Sensei, the Sensei indeed will come to the Curmudgeon and his mountains.

Jamie Struck, the Sensei in question, led a Spring Trip crew from the Outdoor Adventure program of Lyndon State College into the shadow of some of the most historic and controversial of West virginia's climbing areas. He turned shite to gold and forever altered my perception of what a small group of determined people could do to mkae a real difference all while HAVING FUN!! LSC was the first group whose approach was entirely proactive. Their first day at Franklin began with trailwork, replanting at the base of Castaways and mulching a bare hilllside with 8 bags of local cedar mulch. They also moved several hundred pounds of stone, re-edging a long stretch of trail and helping build the cross-rail below Franklinstein.

Then they broke out the ropes and pulled all the nmoderates and a few harder lines about an inch closer to the ground.

The following year was one of controversy and questionable actions at Franklin Gorge, many of them mine. I apparently erred in assuming that I could act without the concensus of the same community which failed to speak out as groups and dogs trampled the undegrowth out of existance, dug open hillsides and trails, and left trash scattered from the last route to the insanely-full parking lot. I accepted the fact that a new era had come to Franklin, one in which I was not welcome, due as much to my own sparkling personality as to any major shift in ethics. Good routes, a personal vision and ethic of climber responsibilty and stewardship, and long hours of trailwork cannot compete with laid-back personality, crag dogs, and world travelers with a connect to The Scene. The sheer volume of the weekend masses from commercial ventures crowding this tiny crag on private property without the knowledge or consent of the landowners became far more than I could silently stomach. I saw the same group of posers and hard pullers completely avoiding any trailwork or responsibility for the impacty of the crowds they guided through the crags they had taken no part in creating.

In searching for a place to escape the endless circle of questions and cascading inevitabilities of impact, I followed the oldest program I know... I turned down an old back road to nowhere.

On the same evening Clay Clarke and Mike Fisher were putting the twilight send on the steepfest "Davey Jones Locker" at Franklin Gorge, I was walking through the falling dusk, ten miles away, staring at walls of pockets and horizontals, of stacked roofs and long, varied face climbs. I had climbed the same ridge, lost in thought, only to stop dead in my tracks at the foot of a featured wall with two bolted routes tucked into a pocketed corner below what was obviously a local huter's boneyard. Nearby was another, with a few abandoned tools in the brush at the base and a trace of initial trailwork, or at least pruning and trundling.

But the webbing on the anchors proved stiff with age, and it seemed no one had been here in at least three years, maybe four.

Thus the nom du crag The Boneyard was born. This was my second trip, hiking in from where the cliffband eventually bent down to touch the shoulder of the road. I moved steadily along the featured base.

The potential left me speechless, and the mystery of the apparently abandoned routes added spice to the game. I contacted the local NFS offices and gat a handful of computer overlays that seemed to indicate the cliffs as Public land, but they were ambiguous at best.

When Jamie and crew contacted me that spring, we discussed the situation at Franklin and eventually the crew decided that LSC's efforts would be best spent on preserving and improving public lands.

The Lionhearts, as I had nicknamed them, returned to West Virginia, bringing their energy and skills to yet another lost crag, Secret Crag #7. Steps and trails were built, lessons taught and shared, a minimal number of digits smashed or deformed, good food and times had by all despite crappy weather much different from sunfest of the year before. What had been an obscure cliffband took its first steps towards becoming a crag. Many mighty efforts were expended on attempts at the face that would later become "Shaved Scamper".

and when away from the crags, Jamie and the crew encountered and interacted with locals in a positive, open way. They stayed in locally-owned campgrounds, shopped for meals in local stores and ate their final WV meal in the Korner Cafe in Franklin. They touched the heart of the crusty old curmudgeon, got their first taste of venison, climbed a via ferrata, scaled lines at Seneca, pulled trad in Judy Gap and fostered hope for another generation yet to come, even if they had to come from the other end of New England.

This year's crew was true to that tradition in every sense of the word. They powered through the 13-hour commute and had camp set in less than an hour. They rose to snow and sleet and Mike Gray's famous breakfast burritos and went out to do great things. They rallied in the face of truly crappy conditions and saddled up. The sleet changed to snow and the rain almost died but still kept falling and they still shouldered tools and went up the hill to go to work. They built trail and moved stone like junior titans, laughed and swore, farted and ran around excitedly, all while redefining about 100 yards of game trails, loose stone and steep hillside. The sun came out and shone down upon their golden and brown curly heads.

They ate (read: inhaled) a lunch of homemade chicken salad and bean soup, grabbed ropes and shoes and packs and went back up the new trails to shred like rabid weasels. They followed this first day with a week of discovery and imagination, community and humanity; exploring Germany Valley's karstlands, cranking trad at Seneca and encountering their first local reptile. They returned to Nelson Gap to find the new owners competent and professional, and finished their trip by becoming the first visitors to cross the South Branch and onsight Eagle Rock AFTER a full day at Nelson. We waved them good-bye at 4:30 a.m. from the chilly sidewalk lights below Cindy's apartment.

Lyndon State College defined the top of the bar, throwing down the gauntlet for every other climber and organization that carries a rope into the woods of West Virginia. Not by words but by deeds, they left a clear message.

"This is the Model."

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

New Voyages, Old Dreams

Right now, the fire is flickering out. Jamie is scribbling in his new journal, or answering one of a thousand final questions. The LSC crew is likely asleep or close to it, except for Katie.

They will rise in the morning, before dawn, and run north and east through the sleeping mountains that have so enjoyed their presence fo the last six days. In their stay they have climbed new troutes and discovered new depths and stren gths inside themselves. They questioned and listened, worked and played and renminded an old man of what community looks like. In the process, they changed the face of a small corner of West Virginia rock climbing.

Jamie Struck is an amazing climber, instructor, and person. I do not call him sensei purely out of jest. It has been and continues to be a shared journey of lessons and discoveries.

MOre later, but for now- my deepest thanks, to Jamie and the LSC Crew, to Pyro Pat for pasta and service above and beyond and Speyburn and to Cindy for amazing work on all aspects of hosting a crew of lions.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Crimson Epic

November, 1995; Sunset, Crimson Chrysalis, Red Rock Canyons, Las Vegas.

We sat atop the classic pillar and looked out over the descending stone sculptures to the urban glitter of Vegas. Steve slowly ground out the stub of his Drum spliff and squinted into the haze, lips pursed in contemplation. Like me, he was calculating.

We had hiked into the Red Rocks during the annual government closure of the Parks over budget squabbles, reasoning that the closure of the loop road would reduce likelihood of competition for this classic moderate route. A ranger met us at the gate, stepping from his idling truck into the morning chill with a laugh as we parked at the wrong end of the canyon Road and preparing to hike in. After determining that we were properly supplied and veterans of at least survival level experience, he shook his head and chuckled, but nonetheless gave us a lift as far as the trailhead parking lot, where he eyed us thoughtfully before giving a final shake of his head and wishing us good luck.  We were already hiking as he drove away into the dawning light.

Our reasoning of the closure greatly reducing competition for the line proved correct. As we thrashed and wandered through the brush, feeder washes, and cactus groves, tacking towards the base, we seemed alone in the canyon, and, for a time, the world. Winded, sweating in the rising heat, we dumped packs after the last brutal approach march to the foot of the wall and sipped at tepid water like panting hounds.  but we were three weeks in the Vegas desert, and recovery came quickly in the face of our hunger.  We were ready for this.

Racking and the flaking of the rope was accomplished swiftly, the first pitches delegated and dissected the night before over beers and buds, the rack minimized for light flight. I took lead and swung up into the open 5.5 first pitch, a long run with little gear worth wasting time on, and beautiful views of the desert. As I set belay at the second Pitch, Steve began climbing, gaining the first twenty feet before I could take in slack. I shouted to him, and he paused, until I tugged his knot and he resumed, swarming smoothly through the pitch, relaxing at the belay to sip a cupful of water as I snagged off and sorted the cleaned pieces, then handed over the rack.

Four pitches or so passed in this fashion; smoothly, just the two of us, the occasional laugh or comment, and the clear quiet desert, with even crass, tasteless Las Vegas somehow beautiful in the afternoon light.

Then the next party appeared.  We heard them first; lost, crashing through the brush, cursing cactus encounters and falls into washes, shouting incoherent instructions to each other.  Finally we picked them out of the heat shimmer and dust.

I looked at them, and the sun, and thought of how long it had taken us. True, we were taking it very easy, but we were still strong climbers, and climbing quickly enough. They were cutting it VERY close.

We cruised the top, the final 5.8 section the easiest panel of rock on the entire upper pitches, just balancey, with perhaps one truly 5.8 move, and then the summit, Steve cruising casually up the moves and smiling at the view as he topped out. He glanced down at the group, still struggling to finish the second pitch, and shook his lean head.

"Not likely those fellas are gonna get up much 'fore we get down." he drawled in his broad cowboy way. I smiled at the character, but then frowned at the sun sinking behind the horizon, limning us in fire, and painting our silhouettes against the cliff behind our perch. We rapped the already-rigged ropes back to the previous stance, pulled, and re-rigged, dropping to the next belay. One rap below that, we ran into the ascending group.

"You guys make the top?" the kid asked. He was wide-eyed in the dusk, helmet askew as he absently belayed his partner up to the already crowded stance. Behind him, Steve grimaced and shook his head, eyes on the coiling rope as I sorted runners, attempting to stay out of the macramé creation this lad seemed intent on weaving.

He had no headlamp, no water, and wore only a t-shirt. His partner, when he arrived, had a can of soda and some cheese crackers riding in a cargo pocket. Nothing else, save harness, chalk bag, cleaning tool, and shoes.

Steve's glance met mine with a single shared thought.

Coyote bait.

As the sun set, the radiant heat drew moisture from the wicks of our bodies, even as the night winds became chilling, sweeping down out of the canyons. We set the rap, as they began to shiver, and shared our water, measuring those few cups of compassion against a desert hike in the dark, over three miles in total length. At our patient insistence, they rappelled s-l-o-w-l-y to the next stance, with gentle encouragement to "get the f*** down from here...NOW!!!"

We waited, sipping slowly and talking about the great climbs of the last weeks. Prince of Darkness. Dream of Wild Turkeys. Frogland. Triassic Sands. The afternoon we spent finding out that the 10b/c crux of "Children of the Sun" was either some other climb, maybe a 12 moderate, or broken beyond the abilities of the average 5.11 climber. Wandering the neon Babylon of the City, on rest days, swimming in the excess.

We rapped, and found the rope still threading the anchors. I clipped in around them, and called all clear. Steve followed, and still no motion. He looked down, just as the first really large puff of smoke rose up past us. His lips compressed in a thin line, he observed that the "little shmucks are getting STONED..." I thought longingly of our own cold beers and fine greenery waiting oh so far away in the bus, and finished pulling the rope with a shouted warning.

Steve finally lost all pretense of courtesy. He leaned over, and with a voice no doubt by now well-known on Mt. Hood, shouted-

"Excuse me!”

No response save another drifting puff of smoke. He looked at me and smiled, inhaling deeply and leaning out once more.

“YO! On the LEDGE” Heads finally craned up in recognition.

“Hey, bro-“ someone began below, but Steve had by now lost all pretense of any brotherhood with these dead-end branches of the spiral helix.

“The F***ing SUN is SETTING! Please PULL YOUR ROPE!"

There was an interminable moment, and finally, slowly, the rope began to move; first pulling the knot tight against the anchors, then, after another tug confirmed the mistake, reversing to begin moving downward. Steve snorted, and helped it along with several mighty pulls, yelling "ROPE" as it cleared the anchors and whipped out into the falling gloom. I quickly brought the end of our rope through the anchor and knotted it, then threaded the anchors and pull from the rap station above all in one economy of motion and effort, pitching our lines before the Darwin Days finalists below had even begun to coil their own.

Darkness was upon us when we finally reached the base, now in the lead, our headlamps lighting the other party as they finished their descent, the last courtesy we offered these failures of Darwin Days. Without a word, we turned, packed bags, and left them there, in the wastelands and the dark, without water or resources or, as far as I could tell, a single blessed clue.

If they were still missing the next day, I didn't hear about it.

But, then again, I didn't ask.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Lyndon State College WV Trip '08

This is MY Appalachia

Let me tell you of my Appalachia.

My Appalachia is cradled in the folds of the oldest mountains in the world. It is nurtured by the oldest River, born in the oldest of seas and returning again to that same tidal call.

My Appalachia is covered in forests; oaks and hickories, ash and maple and tulip poplar, pines and cedars, walnut and chestnut, lost orchards of apple and cherry and pear trees blooming each spring above the fading foundations of some forgotten homestead. Stripped of almost 98% of her timber by the second decade of the 20th Century, my Appalachia is a place of healing wounds and continuing abuses.

My Appalachia is a hundred generations of women and men, seeking a new start or a place of peace, looking for solace and solitude.

There are archetypes here, as there are in every corner of the world, characters that come dangerously close to caricature and traditions that threaten at every turn to stereotype a people who are complex and varied, inspiring and pathetic, heroic and villainous by turns; resolute and solitary, communal and cordial, reserved and determined. They are Mountaineers, and there is something in that name that goes beyond the simple view all too many of us, myself included, have come to accept over the years.

There are many faces to this ancient landscape. Someone once said, “There is more known about Appalachia that is not true than any other place in the world.”

Here there are green valleys filled with wildflowers and crumbling cabins, and rocky slopes covered with blackberries and clear cuts and whitetail deer. Giant trucks roar down new highways past old towns and retirees putter along twisting backroads below climbers lost in an unimagined volume of adventurous ascents. Fishermen chase trout and bass down the stocked rivers and mountain bikes wend the ridgetop trails, agape at the beauty all around them, blind to the plight of the people who live in the midst of Eden.

A thousand years ago the tribes of the surrounding region of North America had ended their wandering, sorted themselves out and settled into nations with very different ways of life. The Seneca, the Catawba, the Shawnee, and the Delaware; all of these were peoples who walked ancient trails through these mountains to reach the abundant game that filled the forests and streams. They fought each other and the newly arrived settlers, and none can say on whose side the first or last blows fell. The signs of the Amerinds are few, these days, mostly road signs and the highways we still use, the occasional striking profile or headful of coal black hair among the population.

In many ways, it is a mercy that most of the First People of this continent are gone, for here too there are scars, the silent scream of outraged nature, echoing among the flat-topped tels and overburden-filled valleys where mountains once stood, streams once ran, and tiny communities once thrived. Here there are a hundred towns like Buffalo Creek, buried under a sudden tsunami of coal ash and mud and floodwater. Coal towns and chemical towns, towns where men and hope die young and girls grow into mothers who grow old before their time. Towns where the piles of felled wood lie as hills in sullenly glowing pools of tannic acid and sulfuric poison, a harvest of forests still recovering from near 98 percent destruction by the early years of the last century. The last of the hemlocks are falling, the mighty green sentinels of the mountainsides now only rotting logs and tinder piles in the wake of the fuzzy adelgid. The shadow of the chestnut blight stretches across the years. Another invasive species, another void in the forest ecosystem.

In the winding commute from Petersburg to Smoke Hole Canyon along Route 220, you will likely pass 86 year old Paul, hobbling determinedly along, a stick figure with a snarl of beard wrapping his tanned burl of a face. Several years ago, Paul was knocked unconscious in a car crash, which also ignited the car. Some unknown soul pulled the old man from the wreckage, covered him with a jacket, and left before the ambulance arrived. Although badly burned, he made a recovery that would have been impressive in a man of half his years. But there is far more than meets the eye to this unremarkable-looking man.

Seventy years ago, Paul was a young soldier, one of the early paratroopers who would go on to jump into the combat theaters of Europe. He logged dozens of jumps and served with honor, traveled the world and the settled back home to raise a family. But life in the hollows and mountains is never what you think, and Paul wound up alone in his singlewide trailer, tucked into the forest ridge below mountains he knows and loves so well.

Now he limps along the shoulder of the highway and on rare occasions visits with friends on his way to a cup of coffee and an hour of solitary company on the front bench of Kile’s Grocery in Upper Tract. From time to time, inclement weather will drive him inside to share jokes and observations on the weather, stock market, or local politics with “The Liar’s Club”, generally four to six men of ages from mid forties to late eighties. Carl Kimble and Skinner, Dave the proprietor or Marsha his wife, Mike Alt, the local EMT coordinator, any one of a dozen delivery drivers, salesmen and local farmers all pass the time and pass in and out of the tiny, crowded store.

Carl and his family owned most of Smoke Hole Canyon at one time, an acreage that accounts for a fair amount of Pendleton County. Skinner is a local veteran of the foreign wars, lean, sly, sharp, lustful for the younger shapes curving through the narrow aisles of the store, eyeing budding beauty and aging grace alike with an avid gleam that is thinly disguised as polite humor.

Behind the counter, Dave will smile from behind his enormous mustache, or Marsha will cast a weary eye at the gathering of Old Crowes behind you, wiping her hands as she finishes another sandwich and says “Beritewichanaminit, hon, k?” with a look that tells you that Marsha might have been a good time and a tough customer, back in the day. More often than not, someone in the group will offer Paul a ride back home, but unless the rain is falling in a flood, or snow is blowing like a blizzard, it is a rare occasion on which the old man will accept.

He is a “tough old codger“, old Paul; bent by years and injuries and sorrow and loss, bewildered by the changes in a world that seems to have forgotten his sacrifice and discounted his worth, but marching resolutely onward, determined to make it on his own, if he can.

This is Appalachia… MY Appalachia.

The town in which I once spent so much of my time is filled with characters like Paul, broken soldiers who served their country in one of three or four wars we’ve managed since the start of the Age of Reason. There are, as well, the last of the Old Guard, sons of the original settlers and older landholding families, like Carl Kimble and his brother Harlin, whose father bought up parcels of land in the years of the Great Depression to keep his neighbors from losing them to the government and out of state logging companies for back taxes. They persist, these last heirs to an empire of forested mountains and rich valleys without end, empires that have so silently, thoroughly vanished when they were not looking. They are racists without apology, but not a one of them would turn away from a man in need, no matter the color of his skin. They are gentlemen to a lady even if she is not, and ladies even when not in the company of gentlemen.

Appalachia has been betrayed so often and so badly that the concepts of novelty, progress and change are equated with the locals’ perception of rampant destruction of the American way of life. The state divided itself from the capitol of the Confederacy and was rewarded, in the aftermath of the Civil War, by being treated as an occupied territory filled with war criminals, just like the rest of the South. If one looks at predominant attitudes among the general population today, it is possible to see what the long-term outcome of military occupation looks like.

Local culture and heritage has been erased, overwritten by the program of consumerism and narcissistic regard. America’s current love affair with the “thug” is personified in nine out of ten of the local youth between the ages of 12 and 20, and persists late into life, incongruously blending with a country slant that is most often described as redneck, an ignorant slap in the face of the miners who fought for their basic human rights and denoted their dedication to the cause with a red bandanna.

Around these citizens of the global village circulate a lot of country folks, young adult urban couples of what was once referred to as the Middle Class, out-of-work Moms and Dads of Class of Lowered Expectations, an increasing number of drifters and transients, mostly itinerant workers (one of the reasons many of the Moms and Dads are out of work, but also victims of corporate greed), the usual suspects, carrying on the usual black market activities that include but are not limited to drugs, weapons, alcohol, and technology. 

Amid this populace dwells a tiny group of (mostly retired) intellectuals who patronize the Arts and read all the important journals and donate to missionaries and relief organizations and have not a clue what life is like for 98% of the people around them.

Petersburg, this contradictory place from which I sent my electronic consciousness out into the larger world, straddles the confluence of two of the most heavily-stocked game fish rivers in North America, and is home to its own particular mutation of the native trout, the Golden. It has been estimated that more than 75% of all trophy game fish caught in West Virginia come from these rivers. I have met piscadores from South Africa and Great Britain, from France and the former Soviet Bloc enthusiastically beating the waters to foam in search of their finny prizes.

But there is neither a boat sales nor is there even the vestige of a fly fishing shop in the closest city to one of the most popular fishing spots on the planet.

Petersburg sprawls within sight of the northern terminus of a trail that has been voted “Best in the East” by hikers and mountain bikers who have crossed America and the globe, and yet there is no outdoor shop selling maps and backpacks and assorted camping gear (unless one counts the military surplus store, which sells equipment that is appropriately out-of-date by a mere two decades).  Here you will find no mountain bike sales or rental center, no trendy little café catering to the bohemian tastes and appetites of the cash-ready tourists who fill the local roads every weekend, no seasonal festivals of local artists or musicians.

This is not true across the entire state. In the towns bordering the New River, Fayetteville and Beckley, whitewater rafting companies and rock climbing guides and mountain bike rentals sit side by side with taverns, hostels, pizzerias and the renovated homes of vegans and environmentalists and world-famous outdoor athletes.

Thirty years ago, Fayetteville and the incredible rock climbing of the Gorge were just a little known backwater in the American extreme sports cosmos. But unlike Petersburg, that region saw an influx of eager young college students and urban professionals with families, most from more progressive cities in the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland. With the coal (and the powerful interests who controlled the region) long gone, the cities around New River Gorge desperately needed something to save them from the creeping oblivion that has rendered too many small towns little more than a road sign at an empty intersection of roads that lead nowhere. There was vision and energy, a need perceived and an answer offered and accepted.  Property was cheap and easy to come by, regulations were sparse and rarely enforced, interest rates and fees were low, and soon New River Gorge was a growing idea with a bright future.

In ironic contrast to the middle-of-nowhere status of the Gorge, Petersburg sits directly on the route between major tourist dollar sources like D.C., New York, and lower New England to the north and one of the oldest climbing areas in the country, Seneca Rocks, to the south. The cliffs of Champe and Nelson and Judy Gap and the virtually untouched adventure potential of Smoke Hole Canyon all wait within a half hour drive. The skiing and snowboarding of Canaan and Whitegrass are less than an hour to the west. The Allegheny Front rises impressive and blue to the south and west.

 But on these decaying streets you will find no shops selling skis or climbing equipment or guidebooks, no catchy graphics art signs announcing the offices of a rafting guide or climbing school, no fit young liberals lounging over a cup of espresso while debating “An Inconvenient Truth” or anticipating the next Banff Film Festival or trip to Burning Man.

This town and indeed most of this state is ruled by old men dreaming of an age of glory and missed opportunity, many of them in the halls of power, trying to turn back the clock to a past that never existed, or young men filled with the hatred and ideals of the old, opposed to change, opposed to exposure to outside concepts and lifestyles and answers. They are afraid and reactionary and strident in their opposition. The world they knew or imagined is gone, and the world they cling to is fading. Because Appalachia is once again emerging into the world, and life as it has been known here is changing.

And yet the story is one that has been told again and again in the history of the state and the country. Mentally-fragmented and physically-disabled military veterans, homeless families and immigrants legal and illegal appear in their streets in increasing numbers, and outside business presses close, offering compromise and desperately-needed jobs in return for just a little more of the states vanishing heart. “Humanitarian” efforts do little to end the misconceptions and stereotypes that are so useful as fundraising tools, and the inherent “us and them” of any “relief organization” comes inevitably into play, whether consciously or not.

Appalachia; myth and dream, a land of contradictions and paradox. West Virginia was the first state, THE FIRST STATE in the Union to create public schools for black children during the Civil War. Today, West Virginia’s children, black and white, cannot take books home from school to study at Circleville elementary, because there aren’t enough books for all the children to start with. Most of them will end up dropping out of school because they are pregnant, or have gotten someone pregnant, or because their families need the paycheck from a job at the mill or the mine or the poultry plant more than they need another high-school graduate with dreams that will never come true under the corrupt system of out-of-state ownership of resources that has been West Virginia’s doom since Grant was in the White House.

A thousand feet above this community sits an international agency with several hundred acres of private property, a multimillion dollar budget, and offices on three continents, a mountain institute whose credo states a goal of “preserving and advancing mountain culture.” While this lofty ideal sounds as good on paper as saving Tibet or the whales, in practice they have consistently tried to “ensure responsible stewardship and appreciation of Appalachia’s natural, cultural, and community resources” in spite of the people, instead of in support of the people. They have approached their goals in precisely the wrong order. You cannot save the forests and mountains, nor the predominately inaccurate illusions of mountain culture, without first saving the people, and ensuring the future, namely through the children of the small communities.

Not that such a thing hasn’t been tried, and by this very institute‘s founders. The plan was an interesting mixture of ideas that had failed a decade before and concepts that had never been tried at the time. But again, there was the persistent perception that the local people were far too backwards to be included in the process and they were, instead, presented with a fait accompli after private meetings and negotiations between institute founders and government officials in the distant capitol. Decisions had been reached for the good of the people in spite of the people and the local school superintendent was the last to know, informed in a congratulatory phone call that assumed he was already part of the process. A school board meeting had been called without his knowledge and the deal was all but done.

The bureaucrats and the intellectuals had forgotten that they were dealing with the first mountaineers. Phone lines hummed and lunch counters and barber shops and beauty parlors were abuzz with the news. On the night of the board meeting, almost 900 people turned up, some of them heavily armed, the rest desperate and ready to do just about anything to “save our schools“. Local police and sheriff’s departments as well as dozens of state troopers stood in a cordon around the crowd, unable or unwilling to interfere.

The Institute’s founder stood up and told what amounted to a series of very obvious bald-faced lies about how the entire situation had come about, according to him, “just by coincidence.“ Given that he had tried the same tactic some years previously, after leaving guests standing in a freezing rain at a locked gate, few were surprised, but many were amazed that the Institute would continue to treat them with such contempt when the truth, as they saw it, was so obvious.

Months passed, during which the founders of the institute and the school board chairman met again and again in urgent sessions, all while claiming that nothing was happening. The founder’s wife, writing for the local paper, had completely erased the confrontation between locals and her husband in her version of the story, in which the record attendance was not even mentioned, and the agenda was reported as “the board discussed alternative education.”

In the end, the “coincidental” coup failed. Within a few more years, the Circleville High School was closed and the school district integrated with that of Franklin, a community on the opposite side of the mountain geographically and the opposite side of the world culturally. Many still see this as punishment by the state for not cooperating in their bright vision of the future.

Since this time the institute in question has changed names and the faces at the top of West Virginia’s highest mountain and on the upbeat PC website are not those of the clueless self-promoters who once tried to steal a school district and who endorsed using local farmlands to farm fallow deer, harvesting and selling the spring waters of a county that routinely suffers severe drought, and “shipping” the unemployed out of state. The same folks who used Institute co-signatures on home loans (thus ensuring that, if they defaulted, at least part of their loans would be paid with grant money derived from taxpayer dollars) and who so divided the Pendleton EMS community that to this day, almost two decades later, that region still has trouble maintaining a firefighting and rescue staff beyond the good old boys who love having lots of lights on their trucks and an excuse to drive like hell with the siren on every time the scanner chimes their song.

But you can find their names sprinkled throughout the organization’s staff training manuals, where they are identified as “founders”, “friends and long-time employees” of the current incarnation of the institute, which insists, despite this seeming contradiction, that it has nothing to do with the bad old days.

Please don’t mistake my point- there is no denying that this institute and others like it do a great deal of good to and for people all around the world. But they began their story in the heartland of what the world perceives as “Appalachia”. Began their mission with good goals and bad ideas, and followed that launch with brilliant theories and poor execution. Time and again these institutes have shown skilled maneuvering in the rarified atmosphere of the boardroom and the halls of power, but incredible ineptitude when confronting the challenge of simply talking to their neighbors in the surrounding mountains to seek some insight into what the people they are “just trying to help” think of their assistance.

As one local put it, “You can pee down the back of my neck, and you can tell me it’s a warm spring rain, but don’t expect me to like it or to rush out and start planting corn on your say-so.”  A brown stream of tobacco juice and a squint of pale blue eyes in a weathered face. “Them folks up there-“ a head jerk toward Spruce Knob- “may have changed their names, but they still think we‘re a bunch of dumb hillbillies and they make millions sellin‘ that crap to city people who ain't never been here and don‘t plan on comin‘.”

Meanwhile, down in Big Run and Cherry Grove and Circleville, there are still not enough schoolbooks to go around.

In contrast to whatever contradictions the folks atop the state’s highest peak may or may not be able to resolve, the folks at Elkins-Davis College have done a fine job of repairing some of the damage their institute’s namesakes did to West Virginia during their rise to power. Henry Gassaway Davis and Stephen Benton Elkins were both heavily involved with coal, timber, and the railroads in the jolly days of stealing land from local landowners for a song or at gunpoint or by corrupt government.

However, the fine liberal arts college that bears their names has produced some truly authentic views into mountain life, primarily by letting mountain people tell their own stories, and respecting them without patronizing them. There are opportunities for employment, and real attempts to enrich the day-to-day lives of native West Virginians are made by people who want to know about the world in which many of those natives were born and raised and still live. It is because of this empathy and the college’s pragmatic approach to cultural preservation that so many of West Virginia’s own young people enroll in programs here every year. Quite simply put, Elkins-Davis is dedicated to saving Appalachian culture and biodiversity through empowerment, instead of regulation and legislation.

Non-profits in the region seem bent on simply being one more group that will not identify itself as West Virginian but are making a lot of money being in West Virginia. There are a number of great people involved in the mission to improve local living conditions and/or minister to the poor, whom they do not see as vicitims of out-of-state corporations and corrupt government so much as simply "backwards". Appalachia, it has been said, has been saved so much that it’s been damned near saved to death.

I know in my heart that the staff of many of these organizations well and truly believe that they are helping local people by coercing them into sharing the mission and goals of the organization. I know that there are also a great number of people for whom it is just a job, nothing more, a way to bring home a paycheck and make ends meet in an increasingly desperate world.

No matter what happens in middle management and down below where the rubber meets the road, at the top of this heap, hidden like viruses among the idealists and pollyannas, I inevitably find slick pros who are massaging environmental ethics and the current green market for a buck; corporate conmen looking to soften their resume with a touch of humanity.

Mixed liberally with these are manipulative control freaks who have slept or back stabbed their way to the top, sometimes both, in order to control the incredible flow of funds and resources that are mostly wasted on the effort to improve the housing of the poor in this country. Most West Virginians involved in these programs wind up being treated like a show pony or cultural exhibit, something the institute has accomplished, just another sound byte or PR image, rather than being seen for what they are, which is another human being with equally valid dreams and goals, potentials and problems of their own.

It is so hard for the missionary who brings the Word not to confuse themselves with the Word. None who sit at the head of the table can ever long resist the temptation of looking down from some height, be it moral, intellectual, or simply economic.

It is most often from this breathtaking height that Appalachia is seen, and it is from those biased perspectives that the misconceptions spring.

If these groups and corporations do indeed care about the place in which they conduct a very lucrative business, how in the name of Almighty God can any institute- government, private or spiritual- how can any group or cause which claims to care about mountain people, in this life or the next, sit idly by as billion-dollar coal interests attack not only the people of the Appalachians, their economy and their ecosphere, but the very geography of the region?

The corporations that have for generations stolen the wealth that belonged to every West Virginian and shipped either the resources or the profits out of state are now stealing even the mountains, among these the oldest in the world. I do not know of any other country in which 500 mountains have been destroyed in the middle of one of the richest biospheres on the planet, a place almost recovered from its original and ongoing rape of the early 20th Century, a place absolutely and quite literally soaked with the blood of history.

Where then are the mountain institutes and colleges, the churches and the humanitarians, the petitioners and the protesters?

Where are the multi-million dollar airlifts and fundraising concerts to bring aid and relief to the victims of a war that is being waged against the mountains themselves?

Which famous rock climber, kayaker, hiker, skier, mountain bike rider, fly fishing authority or motorcycle enthusiast has spoken out against this corporate assault on life itself?

West Virginia contains some of the most sublime examples of each of these, and yet who has truly taken this battle to heart?  And of those who may have, how deeply and currently are they involved in the battle to save one of the oldest biospheres on the planet?  Which institute has led a protest to shut down mine operations, if only for an hour?

It is fine and good to send aid to the peoples of the world.

But to do so while ignoring so many of the problems and rampant injustices in the world right outside your door is not only idealistic and foolish, it is losing the fight before you begin. The children of the people you are not reaching in the surrounding community will grow up to vote against every program you create today. They will be the enemy of all your fine ideals and theories forever simply because you cared far more for a child you had never seen than one you drove past every day on your way to and from work and meetings and saving the world.

And the corporations who smile and hand you a check and slap you on the back are the hands and minds behind the lower-tier companies that rape the land and steal the future from the people, who pay pennies on the ton and forty dollars a day and defend themselves with the cry of “Jobs!”

Every relevant agency and organization will quote you numbers and figures, volunteer headcounts and encapsulated programs that are as much sales brochure photo-op or sound byte as true, survival-level response to the destruction of life, all life, in an area that grows by acres every hour of every day and will continue to do so until a loud enough cry is raised to “STOP!”

In the name of expediency and the false promise of jobs and short-term profits, corporations are creating a region of devastation visible from the space shuttle as it circles this fragile lifeboat on which we live. And the institutes and the churches remain silent, or put up a feeble token effort, a check or a truckload of food and clothing, as if full stomachs and warm bodies could create hope and opportunity. Letter writing campaigns that trickle away into disinterest with time, time that means nothing to corporations that think in terms of decades.

You cannot replace a mountain of stone with a mountain of paper.

By falling prey to one of the most unjust preconceptions in the world, the myth and stereotype of Appalachia, we are allowing and abetting the destruction of one of the most amazing regions of life anywhere on earth, and remaining blind to the true beauty of the very real region that is the Appalachian Mountains.

I desperately wish I could break down this barrier between us with more than the blunt force trauma of words, and give you a look into my Appalachia. You will never truly know it until you sit on a mountaintop in fall, watching a thousand colors of red and gold fade into the rising silver of the full moon.

You will never feel it until you have paused, hands locked into stone hundreds of feet from the rocky earth, the wind a wild song in the sky, watching an eagle soar past fifty feet away, or paddled into an eddy under graceful oaks and towering tulip poplars to watch a mother black bear and her fuzzy, tumbling clown of a cub cross a stream, the youngster chasing crawdads and scampering past its lumbering parent.

Appalachia is leaning against a 100-year old oak, sweat drying after a long ride in a breeze carrying the smell of fresh-cut hay and honeysuckle, as a pair of whitetail deer walk delicately past you in the dusk, the fawn awkward on new legs.

Appalachia is sagging fences outlined against the sky, cows lowing in the distance as a tractor sputters to life in the fields far below and a trillion stars fall silently into the night. It is the burning stench of trash and food waste against a background of pork barbecue and frying chicken; barking dogs and sagging trailers, giant trucks and open containers, bad tattoos and plentiful weapons, the dust that blows across the wastelands that were once proud mountains and the silence of the voices that should be crying out. Appalachia is can-do and make-do in the face of necessity, and it is a quite humor in the wake of disaster and injustice and the daily comic tragedy that is Life.

It is patriotism and bigotry, craftsmanship and hand-me-downs, decaying family homes and brand-new double-wide trailers, steam trains and satellite television, smartphones and Facebook.

It is miners and loggers and truckers, heavy equipment operators and waitresses, opera houses and meth labs, hunt clubs and poetry readings. Quiltin’s, funerals, christenings, baptisms and weddings, planting and courting and strikes and the terrible tension between the past and the future.

Its spirit lives in every note from a banjo or guitar echoing out over a holiday crowd from the front porch of Shreve’s Store, in the heart of Smoke Hole Canyon, in the roar of a WVU kickoff crowd in Morgantown and in the endless sigh of the wind across the open tundra of Dolly Sods.

It is the thing visitors from north, south, east and west look upon and marvel at and buy a little piece of to call their own, all without ever understanding.

 My Appalachia is a flower many have claimed to nurture but have too often failed to feed.