By Martina Pansze
A Legacy of Wildfires in the West
By Margaret Hedderman
The fading scars of the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire were an ever-present reminder that it could happen again. All it would take was one long drought, one wayward spark. Sixteen years later, winter never came. Southwest Colorado suffered one of its driest winters on record and locals knew it wasn’t a matter of “if,” but rather “when” Durango’s next big fire would ignite. It happened on June 1st, 2018, approximately ten miles north of town in the bedroom community of Hermosa.
The initial blaze raced up a steep hillside near the D&SNGRR tracks, quickly outpacing the efforts of local residents who battled the fire with homemade equipment. Within a week, the 416 Fire - as it became known - grew to 7,000-plus acres, forcing hundreds of Hermosa residents to evacuate, closing US Highway 550, and sending heavy plumes of smoke down the valley. Not long afterward, a second flame arose - the Burro Fire. Together, they affected over 50,000 acres in the San Juan National Forest and on private land.
The hot and dry conditions typical of June were exacerbated by the winter’s weak snowfall. The forest was ripe for wildfire. Marching through the tangled and overgrown Hermosa Creek drainage, the 416 Fire burned especially hot in areas loaded with fuel. It charred stands of pine on the steep, rocky terrain overlooking Highway 550 and quite possibly destroyed some of Colorado’s oldest Douglas firs and ponderosa pines. When the rains finally came in early July, flash floods ripped through the burn area, turning the Animas River black. Trout thrashed in the murky shallows, suffocating in the ash and heavy sediments.
It was a grim start to summer. The noxious smell of smoke seeping under the windowsills at night felt unhealthy, unnatural. And yet forests, at least in the American Southwest, have evolved with fire as a natural disturbance. Fire can help shape the character of forest ecosystems, affecting everything from its resilience to future fires to its quality of wildlife habitat.
“When we’re talking about the Western US, these are ecosystems that are very fire prone,” says Dr. Camille Stevens-Rumann, a former wildland firefighter and Assistant Professor of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship at Colorado State University.
She describes the role fire plays in forest health as “resetting and restarting” and adds that “we need a certain proportion of that on the landscape.”
Natural fires, which typically burn at a low to moderate severity level, creep through the forest understory, clearing brush and dense foliage. It’s almost like weeding the garden; by removing smaller, competing plants, the larger individuals have more room to grow. Sunlight freely filters through a more open canopy, shining on new seedlings and wildflowers. Fires create meadows, shrublands, and different types of forests, producing a wider variety of habitat for wildlife.
Oftentimes, a fire will burn in a patchwork pattern of severity levels, known as a “fire mosaic,” which provides a diverse range of wildlife habitats within a forest.
“Eagles are often hunting in those open meadow areas,” Stevens-Rumann says. “But then there are certain species that like those dense, closed forests - like the Mexican Spotted Owl.”
Fire mosaics also produce something known as an “ecotone” - or an edge between two different types of habitats. Imagine stepping out of a ponderosa forest into a mountain meadow; or the point where a piñon covered hillside unfolds into a rolling sageland. Species like the mountain lion thrive in ecotones, where they can prowl under the cover of trees, unseen by their prey in open areas.
More biodiverse ecosystems are typically better equipped to combat disease, pest infestations, and even future fire.
“Fire also creates more resilience to disturbances like wind storms or bark beetle infestation,” says Amanda Kuenzi, the Community Science Director at Mountain Studies Institute in Silverton, CO.
It’s difficult to talk about fire ecology without over-generalizing the subject. What is normal for one forest in one part of Colorado can be different for another forest in a different part of the state. The role fire plays within a forest ecosystem is extremely variable, depending on the region, climate, and type of trees present. But we can say (hopefully without too much generalization), where fire destroys it can also create. Certain species of trees, like the lodgepole pine, actually rely upon its presence in order to reproduce. Found throughout much of the Rocky Mountains, the serotinous cones of a lodgepole pine tree can only sprout when exposed to fire, typically after the parent tree has burned and died. A great example of this is the 1988 fire in Yellowstone where huge tracts of lodgepole pine forest burned. Today, much of the forest has regrown.
You can get a sense of how forests recover from fire simply by taking a hike. Most trails in the San Juan Mountains will likely meander through white stands of aspen bending in the breeze.
“Up around Vallecito Reservoir are some of the best examples of those huge patches created by these recent crown fires,” says Dr. Peter Brown, referring to the Missionary Ridge Fire. Brown is a dendrochronologist and fire ecologist at Colorado State University, who has studied fire history throughout Colorado.
Like gamble oak, aspen is one of the first tree species to come back after a fire. An entire aspen grove is often a single plant, with multiple trees sprouting from a single root system. The Pando aspen grove in Utah is possibly the largest living organism on earth, sharing a single root system that extends over 106 acres. After a forest fire, aspen roots are quick to re-sprout and cover the burn area with new growth.“It’s one thing to sit here and say everything will recover,” says Dr. Donald Falk from the University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment. “But we don’t know what that recovery projectory will be. There’s no question that the consequences can be very long lasting.”
Like Brown, Falk studies historic fire regimes, determining the nature and severity of forest fires across centuries. Using tree ring analysis to date fire scars, fire historians have been able to look at the presence of forest fires dating back to the 1500s. Of course, studying the size and perimeter of a fire that happened two or three hundred years ago has its challenges.
“Often the tree ring evidence has deteriorated, or the trees have been cut,” Falk says. “It’s really hard for us to draw a perimeter and say where this fire burned in this year.”
Where possible, fire ecologists will setup a grid across a forest and sample a selection of trees to determine the size of historic fires. Studies in the Rincon Mountains of southern Arizona and the Valles Caldera of New Mexico revealed surprising insights.
“We have a lot of evidence that fire area in the past was actually larger than it is today,” Falk says. “For example in the Rincon Mountains, you go back to the 19th Century and in the 1800s alone there were two years where fire was all over the landscape.”
With no one to put them out, these fires would burn for weeks, sometimes months at a time. Inching through a soft bed of pine needles, the fire would flare up when it found a load of fuel, then die back down. Some fire ecologists believe a particular fire in the Valles Caldera actually burned throughout the winter. While fires may have burned a larger swath of land historically, they were rarely the blazing walls of flames that we often see today.
“Everything we see suggests that historical fire was much more at that low severity end,” Falk says.
Today’s forest fires burn hotter over a great percentage of land - sometimes tens of thousands of acres - than they ever have. What’s changed? Decades of fire suppression and climate change. Historically, a conifer, ponderosa pine forest would contain 80 to 120 trees per hectare (2.47 acres). Today’s forests are clogged with anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 trees per hectare. We’ve essentially created a ladder for forest fires to climb from the ground through the understory and into the tree crowns.
Throughout much of the 20th Century, the US Forest Service enacted a total fire suppression regime. Fires were regarded as uncontrollable, destructive forces.
“There was a policy we had nationally to put fires out by 10:00 am the following day,” Stevens-Rumann says. “We allowed for a lot of fuel buildup in these systems.”
It wasn’t until the 1960s that federal policies began to change. Part of that was due to the discovery that no new giant sequoias had sprouted and grown in the decades of fire suppression. The giant sequoia relies on fire for the germination of its seeds and reduction of competition from other tree species like the white fir. Although we no longer operate under a total fire suppression regime, forest fires are unable to burn as they once did in part because of how populous the landscape has become.
"Land use is the biggest challenge to contemporary fire management. It’s as consequential as climate change,” Falk says. “It’s basically driving the entire equation right now. You can’t let a fire burn anywhere without hitting someone’s second home.”
The effects of fire suppression have been compounded by climate change. Historically fire season was limited by lingering snow pack in the spring and the onset of monsoonal rain in the late summer. Today, snow packs are not only weaker than they used to be, but are also melting earlier - sometimes four weeks earlier - allowing the fire season to begin sooner. Fires are also burning longer into the summer and fall. In Arizona, fire season was historically in May and June. Now, the state, which has been beleaguered by extreme forest fires in the last several years, experiences a year-round fire season.
Climate change isn’t just affecting the severity of forest fires; it’s also altering how forests recover.
“A lot of us are still in the mindset that climate change is perhaps real, but we’re going to see the changes later,” Stevens-Rumann says. “The truth is that our forests are feeling it right now.”
Stevens-Rumann recently authored a report linking climate change to slower forest regeneration after a fire. She found a significant decrease in the ability of forests to recover in the beginning of the 21st Century compared to the latter part of the 20th. The severity of forest fires is partially to blame. In 2002 the Hayman Fire near Colorado Springs torched thousands of acres, leaving nothing but a charred wasteland. Many of these high-severity fires are burning patches that are as big as the entire wildfire perimeter would have been twenty or thirty years ago.
“Hayman has a 60,000 acre hole where every acre was killed,” Brown says. “It’s still grass shrubland. There’s no recovery at all.”
To regenerate, there needs to be something to regrow from - like a seed or root system. When thousands of acres are destroyed, there is often nothing left to sprout. Ponderosa pine, for example, has a large, heavy seed that usually falls only a few feet from the tree. If an entire forest is destroyed, there may not be any seeds left to form a new forest.
The changing climate also makes it more difficult for seedlings to grow in a new set of conditions they’re not adapted to.
“Trees are most susceptible to mortality when they’re new. Just like humans, we’re more wary of babies getting hurt,” Stevens-Rumann says. “They’re going to be more susceptible to damage under extreme conditions.”
In places like Missionary Ridge that have been slow to recover in certain areas, seedlings have a difficult time taking hold. On the high, exposed slopes where tall pines once provided shade, new seedlings bake in the relentless sun. The changing climate could cause burn areas to transform into something other than a forest.
“The climate envelope is a big wild card,” Falk says. “It could push the forest into a new state like a shrubland or grassland. We could see a loss of forest habitat - a loss of sequestered carbon.”
In Durango, there is cautious optimism that areas affected by the 416 Fire will have a natural recovery. An initial report released on July 3rd, estimated that less than 10% of the fire was high severity burn, with nearly 37% of that low severity.
“From what we’ve been able to see at this point, it burned in a mosaic,” says Gretchen Fitzgerald, the Public Affairs Officer for the San Juan National Forest. “Where it burned low severity, that had an impact that doesn’t need a recovery.”
It’s likely that the fire created patches of hydrophobic soil where it burned the hottest. Intense heat can cause plant material in the soil to form a waxy layer that repels water, which in turn can lead to severe erosion. When heavy rains swept over the mountains in July, several mudslides washed out roads and covered the train tracks near burned areas. Flash flooding is often a overlooked consequence of major forest fires, but frequently causes more property damage than the fire itself. Many cities have implemented wildfire mitigation programs as a result of extreme flooding.
Unhealthy, overgrown forests paired with climate change have compounded the destructive effects of wildfires. And the problem isn’t going away. To restore our forests, fire ecologists are looking to the past to determine the best methods of land management.
“We use the historic understanding of disturbance regimes as a model to go into the future,” Brown says.
In Durango, the longterm effects of the 416 and Burro Fires are still continuing to unfold. It will likely be years before we have a good sense of how to the forest will recover. Which, of course, is perfectly natural.
“You have to think like a forest,” says Brown. “Humans have such short attention spans. Ten years for us is a long time, but it’s nothing in the life of a tree.”
The sounds of a mountain river pinching against a steep bank and pouring over large granite boulders are enough to wash out the chatter of excited voices. From a perch above the drop, we yell into each other’s ears, pointing, and pantomiming various oar-strokes necessary to pick apart this long, technical rapid. It’s one that we don’t want to mess up. Upstream, the bow-lines anchoring our vessels to the shore are under the full tension of the Animas River. Our fleet includes two rafts: a 30-year old 12’ Hyside named Tom Brady, and a brand-spanking-new 13.9’ Jack’s Plastic Dragonfly, a rental from San Juan College, explicitly labeled so with huge black letters across the tubes. Just the sight of these two boats perched above class V whitewater would likely send most swift-water professionals running for their whistles and SPOT devices.
Traveling through the mountains on a river full of freshly melted snow is an experience to behold. Especially this season. The sight of clean, cold water making its way from high peaks to the low valleys feels more like a mirage than an actual spring run-off. In a week, most of this water will be gone. What little snow is left melts awkwardly beneath swaths of red and brown dust blown in from nearby deserts, and extended weather forecasts encourage little hope for rain.
Still, it’s good to be up here, to connect with this river and the truly inspiring mountainscape through which it passes. Above the churning waters, a perfectly positioned Engelmann spruce clings to the rocks. Its root crown is exposed at its base, and within is a cool, dark space about the size of a mini-fridge. Inside, old letters are sealed in a glass jar, a bottle of Jim Beam sits half-full, there is a denim train conductor's hat, a boatman’s river knife and helmet, quartz crystals, polished river stones, sea glass and a weathered logbook in a small ammo-can. The log book is graced with dozens of names and journal-style entries dating back to the mid-1990’s. Many are from backpackers who passed through the area. Others remember a dear friend, lost to the river. There are entries from railroad workers, and even a few skiers who were there in winter.
It’s moving to see how different people connect to this place. How those who have come to this old tree above the river pay homage, let go, and perhaps so much more than that. There’s something about being in the mountains that makes us more human, more alive, and forces us to ponder our place in this world where we exist. I take a few moments to pull out a little something of my own, carefully placing it with the other items beneath the tree.
Back at the boats, excitement is running high. After exchanging last nervous hoots with the crew aboard Tom Brady, we launch out into the main current with our rental. My seat, bolted to the frame, sits high on the raft. I have a perfect view of the obvious horizon line at the top of the drop. Airborne mist and spray is all I can see beyond that. Turning the snout of the raft towards a boulder that marks my entrance into the rapid, I take a long breath and push hard on the oars.
May 19, 2018
By Missy Votel
This July 6, it will have been two years since Neil Hannum woke up in a strange hospital bed, in a city 300 miles from his home.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Oh shit, not again,’” Hannum, 54, recalled recently.
A free-range kid before there even was such a thing, Hannum was no stranger to hospitals and emergency rooms. He was reared near Davis, Calif., one of six kids, in the free-wheeling ’70s. Like many kids growing up before smart phones and the internet, the bicycle was his ticket to freedom and adventure. He developed a love of the bicycle at an early age, partaking in many not-so-carefully-thought-out two-wheeled escapades with his four brothers. He broke more than his fair share of bones along the way – femur, fibula, collar bone (both sides), ribs and scapula. There were probably a few concussions thrown in there, too. “All we did was hit our heads,” he said. “There were no helmets back then.”
Hannum parlayed his two-wheeled obsession into a job after college at Answer Products, purveyor of BMX and moto gear. Then, he continued on the familiar arc that ultimately landed him in the biking mecca that is Durango.
A longtime fixture in the local cycling scene, he did stints over the years at Bula and co-owned a marketing firm, Creative Conspiracy. But, perhaps he was best known for his most recent incarnation as The Chip Peddler, purveyor of locally made potato and later tortilla chips. His trademark yellow and green bags – featuring artwork of a bicycle of course – were a staple on local store shelves as well as Zia Taqueria. His golden-yellow Chip Peddler delivery truck and matching delivery bike were common sights around town.
Hannum was working on taking Chip Peddler to the next level, earning highly coveted shelf space at Whole Foods, when it all came crashing down.
On June 26, 2016, Hannum was finishing up a road ride, heading south on Highway 550. He was stopped at the light at Trimble Lane, about to turn left to meet his family in the parking lot at PJ’s Market. That’s when he was struck from behind by a vehicle trying to pass him on the right.
At least that’s what he was told. Hannum remembers 4 nothing about the accident, the events leading up to it, or several weeks after.
“I did not remember anything about the day until a friend asked me if I remembered being at their house that morning,” he recalled. “I do not recall nine days of my life.”
It’s a sad reality in the battle of two wheels vs. four, cyclists almost always lose. In Hannum’s case, he suffered a traumatic brain injury and a broken T11 on his spine and was airlifted to St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver. With the local community, his wife, Kris, and two children keeping vigil, he woke up from a medically induced coma the day after the accident. Thankfully – miraculously – he suffered no permanent spinal cord damage. Although he didn’t walk away from the accident, he would walk again. That was the good news.
The bad news, his brain had taken the brunt of the fall. There was no telling how, or if, he would ever recover.
Fortunately, the brain has an amazing way of protecting itself in such instances. Like an intricate computer, it shuts itself down, goes into “safe mode” if you will. And when it finally reboots, the process can be slow and unpredictable. People have been said to awaken with amnesia (no, it’s not just a plot device for soap operas), speaking a foreign language, or with new aptitude for, say, piano.
In Hannum’s case, he was merely in the wrong decade. When he came to, the nurses asked him about his kids; he told them they were 3 and 5 (they were actually 13 and 15). The way he described it, the memories were there, they were just a disjointed and scrambled patchwork. “Basically, the shit hit the fan,” he said. “It’s like your memories are in a file cabinet that gets tipped over and all the files get blown in the wind. With the answer about my kids, I just pulled up the wrong piece of paper.”
Once awake and out of intensive care, Hannum was transferred to Craig Hospital in Denver for rehabilitation. He spent six and a half weeks in Denver, relying on others to slowly help him piece his life back together.
“It was only other people telling me things that helped me,” he said. “If they’d told me I had slipped on a banana, I would’ve been afraid of bananas.”
Although his stay at Craig was arduous at times – bad coffee, sheets like “sand paper,” a cacophony of blinking lights at all hours and Denver TV news, which he jokes was “even more traumatic than the accident” – it was also eye-opening. “Walking around and seeing the other patients, I realized how lucky I was,” he said.
But without the benefit of riding to keep his sanity, he turned to his second love – the yin to the rough-and-tumble biking yang – art.
“It was always Neil, the artist,” said Hannum, a graduate of the College of Design in Pasadena, one of the higher-profile art schools in the country.
Up until then, Hannum’s art had taken a bit of a back seat to making chips and his two-wheeled fetish. While his jobs over the years had incorporated his talent for design and illustration, it was almost as if the accident had opened some sort of artistic portal – or in this case, a veritable geyser. While still at Craig, Hannum – also a history buff – started a prolific series of hand-drawn portraits of the 44 presidents. (Trivia question: why is Donald Trump the 45th president if there have only been 44? Because Grover Cleveland served two nonconsecutive terms.)
“I poured myself into it. There’s a lot of therapy in that,” Hannum said.
Eventually released and sent home, he continued the art while working to rebuild his life. It’s something he said he never could have accomplished without the support of the local community. “That is the awesomeness of this community,” he said.
“I’d be hiking around or in the City Market line and strangers would come up and say, ‘You don’t know me, but I was at the intersection when you got hit. How are you doing?’”
Naturally, Hannum’s first order of business upon returning home – despite doctor’s orders to wait a year – was to get back on the bike. As luck would have it, the old adage about riding a bike proved true.
“Two weeks after I got back, I wanted to get back on my bike to make sure I could still ride, so I went around the neighborhood,” he said.
Eventually, he was riding back and forth from his north Durango home to the Chip Peddler kitchen, in Bodo Park. “I didn’t tell Kris,” he confides.
Ever the instigator, eight months out, he rode his bike from a friend’s house in Morrison to a doctor’s appointment in Denver – albeit along a bike path.
“They asked ‘How’d you get here?’ and I said, ‘I rode my bike.’ They didn’t like that,” Hannum said.
When the doctors protested, saying riding a bike could be dangerous, he pushed back. “Hmmm, I guess I probably shouldn’t be in a car then, either,” he replied.
And while the behavior may seem cavalier, it’s not for Hannum, who doesn’t even own a car. He is among the rare breed of diehards for whom taking away bikes is like taking away the very air they breathe. For him, accidents are a necessary, albeit unfortunate, part of the deal. “If you ride your bike 100 times a year, how many times do you think you’ll have a wreck?” Hannum reasoned. (He noted that he feels his accident was more of an “incident” than a “wreck,” with several culpable factors, including a poorly designed intersection.)
And while cycling offers much-needed psychological therapy, it also brings with it physical relief as well. Since the accident, an inner ear problem has given him the constant sensation of “floating.” Cycling is the only activity where he actually feels grounded, he said. “I feel better on my bicycle.”
Alas, Hannum admits he’ll never be back to his pre-accident riding form. Mental, emotional and physical limitations still hold him back. “I’m just not as excited about it,” he said. “Part of that is being so out of shape. I used to joke even before the accident that I had to train to be in last.”
That said, he does still partake in “slow” mountain bike rides (there are no cars on the trails) with a friend, who is helping to motivate him after the injury. And he attended some local cyclocross races last winter “just to be with friends.”
As for The Chip Peddler, that has also shifted gears. As Hannum explained it, sliding around on greasy floors with a head injury just wasn’t an ideal situation. Although he had an employee to help him out, without another investor, it was impossible to keep the chip ship afloat. In March 2017, after more than seven years in business, he decided to call it quits. The chips quietly disappeared from local shelves, as fans cried into their jars of salsa.
“I told (Zia) and held on for the rest of the summer,” he said. When meeting for this story in April, he had just brokered a deal with the Bluegrass Meltdown to trade his last box of chips for some concert tickets. The chipping equipment and fryer, which he bought leveraging his family’s savings, is for sale.
“It’s like a Big Head Todd song,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot of things.”
Perhaps it is more sweet than bitter, though. “The human body is an amazing machine. I can do all the things I still want to do in a way.”
For Hannum, the end of one road only means the beginning of another to be explored. In this case, that new road is his art – which has moved on from presidents to local landmarks as well as colorful, nearly psychedelic illustrations of old trucks. Working out of his home with no studio to speak of, the works – totaling 100 and counting – can be seen on his Instagram page, @2wheeltribe.
Hannum admits to becoming somewhat of a “truck stalker” as of late, combing the countryside for old trucks to emulate. “I like to take pictures of old trucks, I have a couple CDs full of them,” he said. “Sometimes, I’ll even look for old trucks on Google Earth.”
So, I guess if you’ll pardon the pun, Hannum intends to keep on trucking. (And he certainly hasn’t lost his sense of self-deprecating, morbid humor joking that the car will “have to hit him twice next time.”) He envisions ultimately teaming up with a storyteller and turning the illustrations into a series of children’s books.
“I want to re-emerge,” he said. “If I could work on art, and do more art, I’d be happy.”
(That and he’d like to return to Europe someday for a bike-touring trip, like the ones he did in 2006 and 2009, when he rode to Oktoberfest. Surely, there’s also a book in there somewhere, too.)
And although his wounds have healed – he refers to the purple scar across the left side of his face as his “tattoo”– it’s clear that the internal ones, the ones we can’t see, are still raw. He gets emotional talking about two other locals who are currently at Craig Hospital: Wiley Corra, 15, who suffered a traumatic brain injury from a fall in late March; and Bryan Brock, a 44-year-old father of two, who had a stroke believed to be the result of a collision in a hockey game.
For Hannum, ever the student of history, it all just helps to underscore the fragility of it all – the need to leave your mark, whether it be tire tracks on a dirt trail or ink on paper. But most importantly, do what you love.
“With what you’re doing today, make sure it’s something you and your family will be proud of,” he said.
By R.J. Howe
Hot acrid piss. It’s funny what triggers a memory. But, apparently it wasn’t that hot. By some scientific oddity, there was a steep enough temperature gradient between the piss and the scorching vishnu schist, upon which it fell, to produce steam. Now, before you judge, this act left no trace. Except for the pee-pee steam that momentarily wafted through the air. The liquid vaporized. Mmmmmaromatherapy. Namaste.
This June day in the desert was hot. How hot you say? It was so hot that the mythical “WaaaWaaaBraaaaaaaaaaaWaaa” legato of the digeridoo played steady in the back of my head and everyone present had that “WaaaWaaBraaaaaaaaaWaa” expression on their face coupled with the characteristic slow movement of large homo sapiens in an arid environment that showed little regard for their recreational endeavor.
This was someone’s vacation, and it was my job to have fun, keep it cool and get these folks back to the boats safely. Big desert canyon, the grandest of them all, is still really fun in the summer. Seriously, I’m not being sarcastic. It is so good! Even in June. At the very least, this was what our crew tried to tell the folks as they stumbled on loose rock, found delightful cactus piles and listened to the soothing sounds of the “dij” play a concert, not quite in the back of their heads, but more down near the brain stem (in that monkey part of your brain that, I think, is called the hippocampus).
Anyhow, amongst all this fandango, I couldn’t shake the hiking conversation, with an old guard boatman, out of my mind;
Tom: “Are you sure you guys aren’t pregnant?”
Me: “No, Tom. No, we are not.”
Tom: “So you guys aren’t trying.”
Me: “Well, kinda.”
Tom: “What do you mean kinda? You’re either trying or you’re not, you ignoramus! You guys are definitely pregnant.”
As the days in the ditch passed by and the wonderful rhythm of landscape and water took over, I still could not stop thinking about Tom’s words. It didn’t help that he would occasionally drop a, “Morning daddy.” Or a “Are you sure you’re ready?” But, Tom is a gentle enough mentor and a father himself. He slowly took me under his wing, and one night he told a story that will remain an inflection point on the trajectory of my life.
Tom read a Hopi legend about a boy from Tokonavi, near the confluence of the San Juan River. This legend is long. It comes from a tradition of oral history from the oldest inhabitants of the desert Southwest. It is tale of a boy who becomes a man as he travels down the length of the Colorado, in a wooden boat, to the Sea of Cortez and further into a multidimensional world that can only be digested with a Hopi frame of reference. As stars twinkled, hinting at the mysteries of our universe, Tom concluded the telling and said, “If you guys have a boy, you should name him Tiyo.”
“We’re not pregnant Tom. Good night.”
Driftwood plays a major role in Tiyo’s story. From his home on the rim, he watched glacial-like piles float through Glen Canyon on their way toward a void of unknown. His ancestors used beefy cedars, from the river, as kiva beams and headers for their T-shaped door ways. His father carved ceremonial and practical driftwood sticks, called pahos, that he would later use on his journey. And, ultimately, Tiyo convinced his dad to build a boat. Some versions of the story say the boat was made of driftwood logs, while others tell of a more ornate cottonwood sarcophagus pole-driven dory mixed with a kayak.
“What’s that in the water?”
“Hey Dan, grab a hold of that thing!”
Dan and I reach over the edge of the boat and pulled up a beautiful 10-foot driftwood cedar beam. This thing had been carved by countless rapids, flashfloods and preserved in water. It had sparkly pea-gravel lodged in its nooks and crannies and a sign that it was not an antiquity, staples holding down a fragment of poly-pro tarp. “It’s coming with us.”
We strapped it down as a spare oar and rowed downstream. As we hit shore, my buddy Rico exclaimed, “Who’s Tiyo log is that?”
Each night, I slept on the boat and lay my pillow on the log. The dreams that followed we’re beyond my comprehension. During one vignette, I was a tiny beetle on a beach near the mouth of the Little Colorado River. Part of the legend played out before me. Spider Woman called out to Tiyo. She told him to step through a portal in the sand. He said, “It’s too small, I can’t fit.” Spider Woman encouraged him, “Just try.” So he tried and passed into another world.
As an American of prestigious Euro-trash-mut lineage, my connection to the landscape of the West only goes back so far. Eighteen-ninety-eight, to be exact, when my great-great grandmother Maggie Weatherly and her husband, John R., arrived in Hutchinson County, Texas. They filed on four sections of land and lived in a stone dugout for seven years before they built a home, family and got into ranching.
They eventually established the town of Granada and opened a store, cafe, early telephone exchange and the first post office in the county. Maggie was the post-mistress. In 1926, John R. convinced some oil barons to further convince the railroad to build a spur to Granada (or Isom, Texas). But the boom promptly busted, and they went back to ranching.
My family stayed in cattle ranching until the late ’70s, when my grandfather Elbert died in a tragic accident that sent shock waves through the whole brood. His boys are still trying to figure out what to do and their girls and boys aren’t sure what any of it means. Yep, that’s it. Just over a hundred years of connection and understanding passed down through pictures and stories. Oil and ranching. But somewhere in there, the landscape of the West has shaped us all more than we are aware of. Like river stones slowly working their way to the sea, becoming a new shape with each turn and tumble. I can only sense it.
Tiyo, the boy from Tokonavi, came from an oral history culture that has its roots in the tail end of the Pleistocene. Hopi ancestral heritage goes back at least 3,000 years. He did not just sense landscape. Tiyo had a deep-rooted understanding of the physical space and ecological foundation that supported his existence. This understanding, passed down through generations, shaped his frame of reference and reality.
The dreams continued each night. The boy becomes a young man and a hero. He traveled through a multiverse of magic to an island in the Sea of Cortez. Tiyo and Spider Woman meet a snake-human deity, who tells them of the snake people who live in a land to the south. He eventually returns home with knowledge of the snake dance and a means to bring plentitude to his clan.
I wake from slumber and the dream of a river trip. As I drive toward home, over a red carpet of desert outback, the earth takes on a different shape beneath my feet. Daydreaming and a long road bring me to bed late. Deep sleep is broken by a scuttled noise in the bathroom. I walk in with fat eyes and see my love. Beautiful and shaking. “We’re pregnant.”
The blur that followed still hasn’t come into fine focus, but nine months and one day later, we came home holding a baby boy with no name. The nurses at the hospital did not like it, and the grandparents were pissed. He lived without a name for about three weeks. We tried other names like Jupiter Moon Beam and Paul, but nothing seemed to fit. So, after reaching out to a Hopi elder to make sure we weren’t crossing the line, we named him Tiyo.
It’s hard not to feel like a cliché honky. A trespasser who’s conveniently appropriated a culture that my ancestors squashed under their boots and pretty pallor shoes. But, I have to repurpose this fucked up old energy somehow. Sending it spiraling to the heavens in a profoundly positive direction. A prayer of respect. A recognition of a proud tradition and a hope that we can do better in the days to come.
Little boats in desert sand
Folds and fissures of our momma’s hands
These rusted ramparts and our bones
Shaped and softened into river stones
Time has her way with the lot
And there that remains is all we got
So, let’s live a little while we can
On little boats in desert sand
By john van becay
Growing up, we lived below a meat-packing house, in fact on the other side of the tracks from a meat-packing house.
It wasn't as bad as it sounds, it was merely the placement of the two buildings: Basin Pack, a commercial establishment next to the highway; and ours, a house near the river, downslope from the slaughterhouse – with a railroad in between.
Until about 1960, and only then because of some government mandate stopping the practice, Basin Pack dumped its waste – blood, sewage, offal – into the Animas River. The pipe crossed our property and dripped thick black blood into the river. Some days, it smelled pretty bad. Our sewer emptied into the Animas as well. So did hundreds of others, then the rivers were the sewers. Living along a river in the West only became fashionable in the mid-20th century. "Run flush the toilet. Farmington needs a drink!" kids would shout at each other.
The D&RGW, Durango's then-obscure train, ran between our house and Basin Pack. It was a real railroad in those days, one that put its back into its living. A minor branch ran to Silverton hauling supplies up and ore back as well as a few passengers. By the mid-20th century, the tourist part of the Silverton run was beginning to take hold. The main line south from Durango past our house hauled freight into town and lumber and other resources out – from Durango to the world. It passed by our house twice a day, once going to town, once coming back. The engineers knew us and blew the whistle at our crossing.
In the 1950s, the Durango city limits were at the present day Sonic drive-in. The highway south clung precariously to the side of the mountain above the river until it reached the present day Wal-Mart where the river plain widened. The only remnant left of that original highway is what we call Sawmill Road. There, businesses – Randall’s Auto, Weidman's Sawmill and Basin Pack – sprang up. It was the only place wide enough. The road's official name was Highway 550-160, but that was only used on radio broadcasts or in the newspaper. It was the highway south of town. That's all the name it needed. Its mailing designation was Route 2. Our house was 1-C – Route 2 Box 1-C. There were no zip codes. Our phone number was Ch 7-0921, Ch for Cherry. In the mid ’50, a newer, straighter, wider highway was built on fill carved from the mountain above the old road. For about 30 years, this new road was the only highway running south from Durango. Now it is Highway 3. Much later, the present highway was built across the river through Bodo Park. But back then, it was Bodo Ranch, owned by Archie Bodo, or more familiarly, "jackrabbit flats." We hunted rabbits there at night from the back of a bouncing pickup. But that's another story.
Basin Pack didn’t start as a packing house. Steve Simon, a local rancher, built a sale barn – a place to auction livestock – on the site in the 1940s. Sales were on Thursday at 1 p.m. Animals being auctioned were held in corrals between the sale barn and our house. The sale continued through the afternoon. Often they were still loading animals after dark. The yard lights would blaze late into the evening bathing our bedrooms in light. The rest of the week, the building was empty. To further the building’s use – it already had the bleacher-style seating and a snack bar for the auction – on Saturday night, Simon brought in professional wrestlers for staged matches. Folks made an evening of it. It was a popular event while it lasted. A few years later, a fire destroyed the building. Rising from the ashes, built of cement block this time, was Basin Pack, a meat-processing plant.
Children become gradually aware, first of their individuality, then of family members, then of places and other people, and finally of relationships. My sister Gretta and I knew from the beginning that Basin Pack was a special place for our parents, especially our father, Frank Becay. Dad's cousin, Jerry Horvat, worked there along with two younger guys, Frankie Schoser and Paul Simon – Steve’s son – and maybe one or two other butchers. Jerry, being older and a master at his trade, ran the butcher side. Paul handled the business end. Dad and his cousin Jerry were tight. As a result, everyone there treated our family with great regard. I couldn’t keep them straight. I constantly confused Steve and Paul. If that wasn’t bad enough, I had trouble recognizing our cousin Jerry from the other meat cutters. In my defense, they all wore white jackets with paper caps cocked to one side. One time, I called the wrong guy “Jerry.” It embarrassed me so I couldn't speak to anyone there for weeks. Sometimes, after Basin Pack closed for the day, they had a card game. If it was Thursday, men from the weekly livestock auction just down the road would attend. Sometimes it would go all night. Paul would clean up after the game, yawning and bleary-eyed, and open the doors for the next day’s business. The card game of choice was Pitch.
Basin Pack was a slaughterhouse but also sold meat by the pound and a few groceries. When mom ran out of some essentials, she would call my sister and me. "Here's 2 dollars. Run up to Basin Pack. Get a pound and a half of hamburger and some baking powder. You understand?" This felt important and I wanted to help.
"Tell me what you're going to buy."
"Half a hamburger and baking soda."
Mom blinked. "Powder ... baking powder."
"A pound of baking powder...," my voice trailed off. I looked at my sister. She was no help.
"Oh dear John," said my mother. She wrote something on a piece of paper. She put the paper and the money in an envelope. "Give this to Jerry, or Frankie or Paul."
"Which one is...?”
"Never mind. Just give it to anybody who works there."
"Can we get a coke?" it was our generic term for soft drink.
"Yes, but only two. And don't drink them up there. Bring them back here." My mother was a frugal sort. The two sodas would be split between her, my sister and me. "Now come right back. I need those things."
We started for the door.
"Put the envelope in your pocket."
We hiked up the road (our extended gravel driveway), and then down into the parking lot of Basin Pack. Even for those pre-building code days, Basin Pack was unusual, walls of cement block painted red with a silver curved roof. A bell tinkled above the door when we entered. It was dim and cool inside with shelves lined with unfamiliar things. A low hum of machinery filled the air. Weekly specials were handwritten on butcher paper and taped inside the windows. In summer, there might have been a fly climbing the glass where light peeked through. There probably was a commercial display or two, a counter stand or metal sign proclaiming the virtues of Red Man chewing tobacco or offering flat tins of Kiwi shoe polish. If there were no other customers, it would take a moment before one of the men would appear from the back, wiping his hands on a blood-stained apron. His face lit when he saw who it was. We couldn't keep them straight but they all knew who we were and they all looked out for us. We were shy around them. I handed the fellow my envelope.
Keeping us safe was one thing; a chance to horrify us, quite another. Butchers run to a black sense of humor, and Jerry had a keen wit. It made a lethal combination. Once Gretta asked him if he had seen her missing cat. Jerry pointed to a skinned cleaned rabbit for sale in the meat case. “Does your cat look like that?”
The grocery part of the store operated from behind a butchers' case of glass and chipped white enamel, taller than we were, that stretched most of one side of the store. Inside the glass, shallow enamel pans lined in paper and propped at an angle held the meat, blood pooling at the low end. This was at our eye level and bore some scrutiny. The case was brightly lit. U-shaped staples with cardboard labels were stabbed into the meat. The meat case intrigued me. Part of it was cold to the touch, part of it warm. On top of the case, eye level for an adult, an elaborate meat scale held center stage. I loved to watch the expert way the men weighed the meat and the scale did its work. The men put a sheet of tissue-like paper on the scale and plopped the meat on top. They were never more than an ounce or two off. Numbers staggered on a cylinder spun inside the scale. The scale not only weighed the meat but calculated the price, all mechanically, no electricity required.
Our salesman folded our purchase into waxed butcher paper in four economical moves. It took about three seconds, and it would not leak. They always gave us a 1/4 pound more than we paid for. They scribbled on it with a grease pencil. At the end of the counter was a mechanical cash register, a bulky brass ornate thing that clicked with every lever pushed, whirred and rang a bell and ejected the cash drawer when the black and white metal signs popped up with the price.
Jerry, or Frankie or Paul, handed us a paper bag with a heavy package of meat and a red and silver can of baking powder, and finally, most importantly, the change. Basin Pack had the chest type of soda pop dispenser. Inside the sliding lid were tracks that held the cold bottles by their necks. We examined the colorful bottle caps, made our choice and dropped in a coin – a nickel? a dime? – then slid our prize, the sharp crimped caps poking our fingers, around the track to a gate that would allow the bottle its freedom and us sweet, cold refreshment. The bottles of Coca-Cola were the small 6½-ounce size made of thick green glass. Nehi grape and orange were larger, I think but didn't pack the punch of Coke. It was a vexing choice.
I never saw the animals killed, but I heard them. The cattle were shot with a .22 rifle in the back of the head, slumping to their knees, I imagined, and probably quickly dead. At supper one night, my brother took a bite of beef tongue and winced. He fished in his mouth and extracted the .22 slug that had killed the animal. The cow eats lead and we spit it out.
The hogs were altogether a different matter. Perhaps their skulls resisted the .22 so a clean kill was not as likely. Or maybe they were more dangerous. Some of the customers who brought in hogs for custom slaughter wanted the whole hog back, including blood and entrails. The hogs were immobilized in a tight pen. A rope or chain was slipped around their rear legs and with a block and tackle they were jerked off their feet upside down, twisting and squirming. A quick stab in the throat – the jugular, not the windpipe – and the hog was left hanging, upside down, to bleed to death. The gush of blood over the animal's eyes and in its mouth as it thrashed and turned, the hot pain in its neck, shocked and horrified it. It squealed in terror, its voice loud and high, piercing at first, but diminishing as its life's blood ran down its jaw and into a pan. Gradually the hog bled out and the squeal slowly died away. It took a minute. The sound seemed to hang in the air after it was over. It bothered me as a child and writing this it still kind of bothers me. Any protest was met with derision and flawed logic. "You like to eat, or don't ya?"
Most of our meat came through the Basin Pack. If we didn't buy theirs outright, they custom butchered an animal, ours or someone else's. During hunting season, they did a large volume of custom butchering of deer and elk. When I was a little older, Dad took me along to visit behind the scenes. The back, where the meat cutting was done, contained thick, scarred wooden cutting tables, knives, saws, cleavers, basins of gore, and the smell of blood and raw meat. Adjacent to the cutting room stood the meat lockers, room-sizes refrigerators, with thick wooden doors, where whole carcasses swung on hooks. It was cold and eerie. I had a fear of being trapped in there. The cutting room seemed safer.
Nearby was a smoke room, its warm spicy smell escaping when the door was opened. Along one wall were stacked cardboard buckets filled with lard for sale. Memories are slippery things ... were the floors slick? A little treacherous to the foot? Was there a swinging light bulb or two casting moving shadows to light the grisly scene? It could have been real nightmare stuff. We never gave it a thought. The killing was chilling, the cutting up, not very.
The bare rafters and walls were coated in years of grease. Rolls of white butcher paper and brown tape hung close at hand. Buckets lined the walls, none of them empty. A deep galvanized sink provided steaming hot water. A large vat of hot liquid removed the hair from the hog carcasses. A gray mop stood in a corner. Rags from white to nearly black lay around. The middle of things were clean, the edges, not so much. The place was kinda smelly and greasy and a little cold, but most of all, endlessly fascinating.
"Stay out of the way," Dad said, which included the unspoken, "and be quiet." Dad and I would watch the men cut up a carcass. They worked it without speaking, unbelievably quick. Their knives danced, appeared, disappeared, glinting a moment. The long thin blades seemed alive. It was mesmerizing to watch. Frequently, they used a steel or whetstone to touch up an edge. A few practiced strokes, backhand, forehand, and it had regained its razor edge and they returned to separating meat from bone. It seemed an intricate ballet, all knives, hands, and chunks of meat. And the sound – steel slicing flesh and scraping bone – there is no sound quite like it. We watched, at the edge of the cutting room floor, as they reduced a carcass, chunk by chunk, carving it up, tossing it onto a growing mound of meal-sized entrees in the center of the table.
When they took a break, Dad joined them for a smoke. They exchanged inside talk about I know not what. I was mostly ignored. Occasionally, one of the men would indicate me with a jut of the chin and apologize for an expletive used or a juicy tidbit that would have to wait. "Not in front of the kid." The apology was not to me. The apology was for any embarrassment I might have caused my father.
Jerry would disappear into the meat locker and return with a white package of freshly butchered prime rib, cold to the touch. It belonged to some customer. It was often big game the client had brought in. Sometimes it had their name scrawled in black. You didn't get 100 percent of your meat back. It was part of the vig of doing business. "Tell Adeline to cook that tonight,” Jerry would hand it to Dad. Dad would hand it to me. Mom burned the wrapping afterward.
We generally ate high on the hog but sometimes a little lower down. We ate every part of the animal except the digestive tract and lungs – heart, tongue, brain, liver, kidneys, feet, joints and all the cuts of meat graced our table one time or another. Hamburger, steak, roast, we had so much red meat, mostly beef, from Basin Pack, or from my mother's family farm, that we grew tired of it. Chicken was a treat for us.
Behind Basin Pack stood gray weathered corrals left over from the sale barn days. There were far more corrals than needed. The few that were used held the animals for a day or two before slaughter. They had troughs for feed and water. We would climb the rails, wary of splinters, hang over the top and peer inside at the doomed cattle milling around, tails swishing. The ground was hoof deep in manure. For the first decade of my life, flies and the smell of raw sewage were never far off. We probably threw pebbles at the broad, slow backs below us. I regret it now though I doubt it made any difference. The steers didn't pay it much mind. Perhaps they had bigger concerns. Still.
"Gawddammit! Get down from there!" a familiar voice would bawl. There was a segregation of animals, cattle here, hogs over there. We were strictly forbidden horsing around the hog pens. I don't remember where the loading chute was, though they had to have one. These were elevated ramps with fenced sides and an open front. Their mouth was pickup bed height. They were used to load and unload livestock. They were called loading chutes, but in this case, unloading chute was more accurate. This was a one way trip for these animals. Something I never figured out were the missing parts. Where were the hides? The hooves? The heads? Where did they go? They could have gone to a rendering plant. Or a landfill. Or some back road arroyo. I never found out.
Gradually we grew apart, Basin Pack and us. The front grocery declined and was discontinued, though I think they always had candy bars and cokes. Safeway and City Market cut into their business. They concentrated more on custom meat cutting. The corrals were demolished. In their place, the sawmill next door stacked green lumber to cure. The railroad past our house had been abandoned. I was nearly grown, other things interested me, and I didn't pay much attention. Jerry went to work cutting meat at City Market. Sometimes we saw him there. Basin Pack, so much a part of my early life, became more and more peripheral. It was a slow process, like colors fading in the sun. Something in your life from earliest memory, something you experienced every day, you take for granted. I had graduated and moved away to college. Basin Pack became scenery, something from my past that had always been there. Where was it going?
In 1980, I contracted a chronic acute illness. I was living at home with my parents and niece Charlotte, who was attending Fort Lewis College. Charlotte and I got along well and played lots of jokes on each other. I could not work. I was on heavy doses of prednisone, a potent steroid. Prednisone controls inflammation, as it is supposed to, but it has some evil side effects, insomnia being one. I slept in fits and bouts. I was hyper with drug-induced energy or jagged with fatigue. One night, for the first time in many, many nights, I slept like a newborn. I was under nature's anesthesia, pretty much dead to the world. In the morning, I staggered downstairs, drugged, for a change, with sleep. The family was gathered in the kitchen. They were eyeing me, sizing me up – for something. They glanced at each other. Finally, Charlotte broke the news, "John, Basin Pack burned last night."
"Yeah, right, Charlotte. Nice try. You expect me to believe that?"
"No, really, look." Through the tall living room windows, I could see a trail of smoke. I was completely disoriented. What? How?
"They fought it all night," mom said. "They couldn't put it out."
"Why didn't you wake me?"
"You were sleeping so soundly. We didn't want to disturb you when you were finally getting some rest."
It was devastatingly true. From the rubble drifted wisps of smoke. "It was all that grease, everything coated in grease," said my father. "Nothing could put that out."
Dad was right. Over the decades, the grease had permeated the interior, perhaps inches deep. Once ablaze, it was not to be denied. Fire trucks as far as Cortez were summoned to pump water on the inferno. It was a futile effort. It burned until it burned itself out. And it burned hot. There were cement blocks left, cracked from the heat, a few lengths of blackened pipe jutting at odd angles, and not much else. Fire crews concentrated on preventing its spread to nearby lumber stacks, the rest of the sawmill, and our house.
I was incredulous ... the moan of sirens, flashing lights, the squawk of radios, revving engines, slamming doors, shouts and commotion, the roar and crackle of flames casting their lurid light. Dozens of men fought this fire for hours, maybe a hundred yards from my bedroom window. I never heard a thing.
And just like that, Basin Pack was gone. And I slept through it. That might have been its final gift – not to disturb me with its demise. To this day, I wonder at its part in our lives and mourn its fiery end, though going out in a blaze of glory was certainly better than slowly going broke, moldering for a few years, then being razed for a new commercial endeavor. Not to worry, like everything else in Durango, Basin Pack was replaced by a modern business, but its end seemed more honorable, like burning an old flag instead of throwing it in the trash.
They never did determine the cause of the blaze. There was nothing left to trace. It was likely faulty wiring. I like to think it was arson. But I could be wrong.
By Joy Martin
In the mountains of Southwest Montana during the first week of October, over a foot of heavy flakes settled onto a layer of cruddy old September snow. On Saturday, October 7, a crisp wind howled, and the sun broke across a blue sky. Two best friends marched toward Imp Peak deep in the Madison Range in search of some early-season skiing.
Rather than the usual suiting up in the parking lot, the lovers tramped their ski gear in six miles on a dirt trail. They probably hiked in t-shirts, chatting about her plans to teach math someday and his idea to open a bakery. He was rehabbing his arm after a shoulder injury, so their winter adventures were looking modest.
When they finally reached snow, they switched to skis and skins. It's all speculation at this point about why the girl, 23-year-old Inge Perkins, didn't take her beacon out of her pack. And we'll never know if the guy, 27-year-old Hayden Kennedy, wore his but failed to turn it on.
We can only guess they felt safe enough to cross the wind-loaded, north-northeast flanks of the couloir together. With fall still in the air and the mountains not yet flaunting full-on winter conditions, their guard was down. It was October 7, for crying out loud, but before day's end, October 7 would end up yielding the season's earliest avalanche fatality since 1972, according to Dale Atkins, former president of the American Avalanche Association.
The avalanche that caught Perkins and Kennedy was relatively small, as highlighted by the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center report: "...1-2' deep at the crown, approximately 150' wide, and 300' long. The slope where the avalanche released was 38-45° steep..." The combo of the new snow and heavy winds produced a hard wind slab that released on the softer, weaker layer underneath, says the report.
After the avalanche ran its course, Kennedy found himself buried up to his mid-chest and the back of his neck, according to the report. He probably looked around for any sign of his partner, calling her name, scanning the scene for clues. After digging himself out, he turned his beacon to search mode. No signal. Her beacon was off. He spent the next three hours blindly probing the debris field. Nothing. Defeated, he stuck the probe in one last spot to mark for search and rescue and hiked back to the trailhead, alone.
"Hayden survived the avalanche but not the unbearable loss of his partner in life," wrote Michael Kennedy, Hayden's father, in a public statement. "He chose to end his life. Myself and his mother Julie sorrowfully respect his decision."
Before taking his own life, Hayden Kennedy scribbled a detailed note for rescuers about what had happened, the gear they both had on them, his futile search and where to look for Perkins’ body. On Monday morning, October 9, nine search and rescue team members, including two dog handlers and two dogs, arrived to the shadowed bowl of Imp Peak.
Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, did a beacon search first, "just to confirm," he says. Nothing. Next he checked to see if Perkins had a RECCO chip, even though he'd been told she probably didn't. Nothing. And then he started spot probing. An hour later, Chabot found Perkins. The team confirmed she had a shovel, probe and beacon - in her pack, turned off, as Kennedy had mentioned in his note.
As world-renowned alpinists, climbers and skiers, Kennedy and Perkins weren't newbies to backcountry travel. They were celebrated and respected in the mountain industry - Perkins, a Scarpa-sponsored athlete, and Kennedy, the son of former editor-in-chief for Climbing Magazine and bearer of numerous awe-inspiring feats and first ascents. Both had Level 2 avalanche training.
"People forget," says Chabot. "It doesn't matter whether we're in the early season, late season or the middle of winter. We make mistakes. Even as pros, when we make mistakes, it's the simple mistakes that we blow it on.
"This is especially true when the slopes are small," Chabot adds. "We picture them as if we were going somewhere bigger. We don't always appreciate how small slopes can be deadly."
Both Kennedy and Perkins had strong Colorado connections. He was born and raised in Carbondale, and she attended Fort Lewis College in Durango, spending a couple of winters skiing in the San Juan Mountains: home of a community that knows its fair share of avalanche-related tragedies.
In early 2013, for instance, two locals, 23-year-old Peter Carver and 27-year-old Joe Philpott, lost their lives to avalanches in two separate events only a few months apart. Both had avalanche training and were experienced backcountry skiers. In the wake of community-wide grief, the Carver and Philpott families, a group of avalanche pros, and local gear shop, Pine Needle Mountaineering, decided more avalanche education for winter backcountry users in the San Juan Mountains was needed.
Together, they founded the Joe Philpott and Peter Carver Avalanche Scholarship. One of the biggest deterrents for pursuing avalanche education is the price tag, especially for young skiers, who are heading to the side- and backcountry more than ever, according to Snowsports Industries America. Avalanche level one classes cost between $300 and $400, while level two courses can be double that.
In 2014, the Scholarship helped 10 recipients attend formal level one avalanche training courses. The founding group of the Scholarship schemed how to take their plot one step further, so they decided to offer free avalanche training to the public. Peter Carver's father, Bill, wrote the first check to get the nonprofit organization, Friends of the San Juans (FOSJ), off the ground.
With Carver Brewing, Pine Needle Mountaineering and Osprey as the main sponsors, the FOSJ is also supported by generous donations and a couple of fundraisers throughout the year. It's managed by an all-volunteer executive board and advisory committee. Part of the model encourages Scholarship winners to pay it forward by volunteering their fresh knowledge and skills with the FOSJ after they’ve received level one training. In 2016, 20 Scholarship recipients helped to keep the peer-based educational platform rolling along.
"Our mission is not to scare people off [the snow]," says Jeremy Dakan, owner of Pine Needle Mountaineering. "It's to keep avalanche education in the forefront during the winter for both rookies and super-savvy experienced skiers alike."
Beginning in November, the FOSJ hosts avalanche awareness classroom presentations, where participants learn the basics. The "meat and potatoes" are then on-snow sessions held at Molas Pass throughout the winter. Led by qualified instructors, these sessions teach attendees how to study the snowpack, use their safety gear, understand terrain and witness a rescue demonstration.
These courses are structured to "scratch the surface," says Dakan, sharing some avalanche training but ultimately encouraging participants to enroll in level one and two avalanche courses.
The crux of these FOSJ trainings is to move folks away from just focusing on bar graphs, pie charts and snow science and unpack one of the most significant and overlooked risks of all in winter backcountry travel: the human factor. From falling under the spell of "the expert halo" to perceived safety in familiar terrain to shrugging off beacon checks, we’re all susceptible to lazy decision-making.
"We're all human," says John Strand, co-founder of the FOSJ. "We're all going to make mistakes. You can make a ton of good decisions; it's that one bad one that can change your life."
"It's very easy to get caught in someone else's mistake,” says Daisy Matthews, FOSJ board member. “You have to find a way to make yourself educated."
When a group of humans heads into the elements, there’s a thin veil of security that often leads to overconfidence and heightened risk tolerance - especially when powder fever fuels the adventure. Even (if not especially) expert skiers and riders tend to lean on past experiences, something scientists call “Heuristic traps,” those grossly-inaccurate perceptions of hazards that could potentially kill you.
While 99-percent of the time you’ll win and take home tales of unforgettable conditions, it’s imperative to remember that your life is at stake. Don’t leave your beacon in your pack. Don’t rely on the expert in your group. Don’t fall prey to how good those turns were last time. Don’t be afraid to voice hesitations. Take responsibility for your part in smart decision-making. Do your own research. Get your own level one and two avalanche training.
In short, Know Before You Go. The Know Before You Go campaign reminds backcountry users that, while the mountains are calling and you must go, you have to go equipped with more than a pair of skis and hefty supply of stoke.
Since avalanche fatalities were first recorded in 1950, most avalanche fatalities have occurred in Colorado. In light of this, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) works tirelessly to do their part in raising avalanche awareness, receiving funds from the state as well as donations through their nonprofit arm, Friends of the CAIC.
The CAIC then provides each avalanche-prone 'zone' around the state with a backcountry avalanche forecaster. Currently, Jeff Davis is the sole CAIC backcountry forecaster for the San Juan Mountains, a region roughly the size of the Swiss Alps.
While there are plans to hire a second forecaster for the 2018/2019 season, Davis is busy scrambling to gather data from over 12,000-square-miles of rugged terrain - by himself. One way we regular backcountry users can help is by uploading quality observations to the CAIC website.
"The pros are always learning, which means we recreational users should also be learning," says Strand.
Study observations submitted to the CAIC website by pros, says Strand. Learn the proper terminology and techniques through avalanche training courses. Practice. And while you're honing these skills, the FOSJ asks that you don't hesitate to mention what you're seeing out there.
"Don't get turned off by the technology and technical jargon," encourages Matthews. "Get the conversation started. Use [the FOSJ] social media."
"We're helping the community treat avalanche education as a lifelong learning process," says Strand. "We focus on quality education. That's always our goal; not land use or saving the Canadian lynx. The goal isn't to get big; it's to get good."
Following a banner season last year in the San Juans, backcountry users would be wise to remember that, while the mountains don't change, the snow most definitely will. And though the San Juans can boast some of the most incredible powder in the West, we're also stuck with a notoriously-sketchy snowpack.
Don't let your brain get lazy. Don't get caught off guard. Be smart. Be a friend.
As Hayden Kennedy so eloquently wrote on climber blog, Evening Sends, a couple of weeks before his death:
"Routes ticked, cruxes overcome, and summits achieved can be super meaningful, but they're also not the most important things in life. The true, lasting meaning...is found in the friendships and partnerships that we build while pursuing our climbing goals. Over the last few years, however, as I've watched too many friends go to the mountains only to never return, I've realized something painful. It's not just the memorable summits and crux moves that are fleeting. Friends and climbing partners are fleeting, too.
"...Maybe the most genuine aspects of any tale are the sputterings and the silences, the acknowledgments of failure, the glimmerings in the dark. And maybe one genuine reason to try to share our stories about days we actually send something, when we are alive and at the height of our powers, is to try to bring back what's past, lost, or gone. Perhaps by doing so, we might find some light illuminating a new way forward."
In a single, well-written volume, Jonathan Thompson has masterfully woven together two thousand years of prehistory, history and environmental degradation in a book whose focus is the Animas River. With headwaters above Silverton, ultimately, the Animas flows into the San Juan River near Farmington, some 100 miles to the south. Thompson uses the river and its riparian corridor to place human history into ecological perspective while also telling poignant family and local stories.
He combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years. Thompson follows in the footsteps of his writer/editor father, Sandy Thompson, who was a key force in the creation of Crow Canyon Archaeological Center and an effective voice in arguing for creation of the Weminuche Wilderness. Now in this carefully crafted first book, Jonathan has found his own book-length, literary voice, and a powerful voice it is.
River of Lost Souls is eminently readable, careful in its chronology and well researched, though it could have used more endnotes to clearly delineate sources. Thompson now joins the ranks of local historians Allan Nossaman and Duane Smith, but he does so with an environmental understanding that is overdue. This is the first volume to analyze the multiple impacts of mining near Silverton from the 19th into the 21st century.
An environmental journalist and editor with High Country News, and a former writer and publisher of the Silverton Standard, Thompson has produced that rare synthesis of science, history, legend and local lore that only a native son could write. I respect his ability to understand the complexities of the Gold King mine blow-out in 2015 and his mastery of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clean-up site criteria. I am enthralled by his character sketches, his vignettes of miners, editors, surveyors and significant events like the 1911 flood on the Animas, the 1918 Spanish Flu in Silverton, and the 1939 Silverton miners’ strike.
It’s all here. Basketmaker Indians leaving thousands of butchered human bones at Ridges Basin. Ancestral Puebloan villages. Ute and Navajo occupations. And the arrival of pioneers into Baker’s Park, now Silverton, walking and riding horses and mules over Stony Pass into Cunningham Gulch. The title of River of Lost Souls is inadequate. Yes, it’s about science, politics and greed, but it’s also local and regional history.
The railroad is another main character in the book as is Thompson’s own family. Historic quotes from area newspapers are well chosen, and readers will learn important details about milling and smelting hard rock ore and lingering issues related to the dangers of heavy metals like mercury when mill tailings discharge into watersheds.
Hardrock mining for gold and silver. Uranium mining for yellowcake. Oil and gas wells sprawling across the San Juan Basin. This is not local boosterism. This is what tourists do not see and do not want to see. Durango has diversified into a tourist-based, recreation and public land amenities economy, but Jonathan Thompson shows us our industrial origins and the impacts of mining and oil and gas drilling that residents and visitors alike would rather ignore. It took him a lifetime to write this book, and we are better for it. This is the way environmental journalism is supposed to be. In your face. Up close. Personal.
He writes, “As one of the biggest ore processors around, the Gold King mill also belched out a lot of tailings, most of which ended up in Cement Creek and, ultimately, the Animas River. And as one of the largest employers in the county, it was also one of the deadliest.” p. 84. Or Thompson’s prose, “The blood, the broken bones, the torn-up bodies, and most insidious, the dust of pulverized rock. Day after day, the men emerged from underground coated in the stuff, and their lungs filled up, too.” p. 85.
Yet this is not a negative book. River of Lost Souls is a carefully researched chronicle published by Torrey House Press, whose mission includes developing “literary resources for the conservation movement, educating and entertaining readers, inspiring action.” Thompson does not advocate that we should join this or that environmental group. Instead he lets local people tell their stories and he tells quite a few himself. We are all downstreamers. We live in a connected, diverse environmental landscape with snow and rain that flows into the Animas. Thompson’s success has been to show us those connections and to firmly place us on a long continuum of human occupation.
I was in Silverton’s city park watching Cement Creek turn its vivid orange hue the day it happened, and I wondered what had gone wrong. Thompson explains all that but he also gives us decades of background on the Gold King environmental disaster, as yet unresolved, that made international news.
River of Lost Souls puts it all into perspective, which is why I recommend this book for environmental classes because of its content and its personal touches. River of Lost Souls is a superior read, but I’d suggest a few improvements. Subsequent editions should include a map of the Gold King and the American tunnel, a map of the Animas River, and a map of the San Juan Basin. A glossary of mining and technical terms would also be useful.
Family stories of fishing and camping along the river wed readers to this landscape. Poet Gary Snyder admonishes us to, “Find your place, dig in, and defend it.” River of Lost Souls compels us to do just that. TG
Pick up your copy today at MAria's Bookshop in Downtown Durango or order online at Torrey House Press.
In a grainy black and white video, a furtive figure casts his gaze from side to side. It’s nighttime. Moths flitter in front of the camera and Sombra’s eyes glow like two full moons. The video is high contrast and pixelated, like footage of a fugitive caught on a security camera. Unaware he’s being filmed, Sombra holds his head up, alert to opportunity and danger. Both may find him in the Chiricahua Mountains of southern Arizona.
Sombra (Spanish for “shadow”) is a male jaguar, the largest cat in North America and third in size only to lions and tigers. He weighs between 120 and 210 pounds, measuring nearly three feet tall at the shoulder. His tawny, golden fur is flecked with a camouflage of black rosettes. His shoulders and limbs are thick and muscular, making him a powerful climber and swimmer. And his head is round with a strong jaw and long canine teeth, allowing him to pierce the skull of his prey. Sombra is one of seven male jaguars known to have crossed the US-Mexico border since 1996; an unwitting immigrant caught in an emotionally charged debate over a border wall.
Though commonly pictured in a Central American jungle, the jaguar once prowled throughout the southern United States, from California to Louisiana.
“According to geological records, jaguars evolved in today’s United States thousands of years before they expanded their range into South America,” says Michael Robinson, a Conservation Advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “They were all over North America.”
However, as human populations grew jaguars came to be regarded as a threat to livestock. The 20th Century saw the extirpation of the American jaguar. With a government-backed bounty on its head, the jaguar was trapped, poisoned and shot by ranchers and hunters. The last American jaguar was killed near Tucson in 1965. Although it became illegal to kill them in Arizona four years later, they were left off the endangered species list when it was created in the 1970s.
Decades passed. Jaguar populations throughout Mexico and Central America shrunk to less than 50% of their historic range due to habitat loss and hunting. They became extinct in both El Salvador and Uruguay, and for the most part, all hope was lost that they would ever return to America. Then in the late 1990s, two serendipitous events occurred: the jaguar was added to the endangered species list, and two male jaguars were spotted in southern Arizona. There was a surge of public interest around the big cat and conservationists saw an opportunity for a comeback.
The Santa Rita Mountains, some forty miles north of the border, are marked by sharp, rocky peaks and barbed ridges. From the sunstruck valleys of the Sonoran Desert, the mountains rise 6,000 feet into the sky. Like Jack’s beanstalk, the ecosystems woven into the peaks and canyons are a world apart. The Santa Rita Mountains are one of the most biologically diverse regions in the United States with species like the golden eagle, black bear, and coatimundi, a rare raccoon-like animal. It was near here that El Jefe, a young male jaguar, was treed by a hunter’s dogs in 2011. The hunter snapped a few photos of the snarling cat before gathering his hounds and retreating. But that wasn’t the last of El Jefe. Trail cameras throughout the area captured him on film over 100 times.
El Jefe became a celebrity. For a time he was the only known jaguar to reside in the United States and his fame helped boost opposition to an open-pit copper mine. When El Jefe disappeared in 2016, it led many to believe he crossed back into Mexico, perhaps in search of a mate; illustrating one of the biggest challenges to recovering an American jaguar population: there hasn’t been a documented female in the United States since 1963.
The closest breeding population of jaguars is believed to be in Sonora, loosely dispersed throughout the Sierra Madre. If jaguars were to reclaim their former territory north of the border, a significant number of females would need to make the crossing as well. And what then? Is there still room for the biggest cat in North America? According to conservationists, the answer is yes—in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, in the mountainous Sky Islands of Arizona, and on the Mogollon Rim, the southern escarpment of the Colorado Plateau. All jaguars have to do is get there.
An environmental carte blanche
The US-Mexico border stretches 2,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. It crosses three mountain chains, two deserts, and 25 million acres of protected U.S. public land. There are wilderness and conservation areas, tribal lands, and six national parks along the border. And, despite President Trump’s rhetoric, a third of it is currently fenced in some fashion; be that by 12-to-18-foot wire pedestrian walls, vehicle fences, or Bollard-style steel slats. There have been multiple attempts to secure the border since the 1990s, with much of the construction occurring during the Obama Administration as a result of an act signed by President George W. Bush.
While politicians have debated the effectiveness of a barrier to prevent illegal immigration and drug smuggling for decades, the call for a “big, beautiful wall” became one of President Trump’s most notable campaign promises. That and his claim he would make Mexico pay for it. Just five days into his presidency, President Trump signed an executive order to extend the barrier. Since then, there have been various legal challenges, budget showdowns (and shutdowns), and vacillating messages from the White House. While neither Congress nor Mexico have approved funding for a full-length barrier, the federal government has begun quietly replacing existing fences. The Trump Administration’s first wall contract will rebuild a two-mile section of fencing in California. Another twenty-miles is scheduled to be replaced in New Mexico this year.
The devastating impact a 2,000-mile barrier wall would have upon the many endangered species living in the region isn’t hypothetical. Conservation biologists have already documented the effects of existing fences. In one study, scientists documented a decrease in mountain lion and coati sightings in areas near a barrier wall in comparison to those without. Conversely, the number of humans caught by the camera traps did not decrease in the presence of a barrier.
“The thing about border walls is that they don’t stop people. They stop wildlife,” says Dan Millis, a Borderlands Program Manager for the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the proposed border barrier and its surrounding infrastructure would impact 93 endangered, threatened, and candidate species; destroying critical habitat for 25 of those. Normally federal protections offered under the Endangered Species Act would require extensive environmental impact studies and approval by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before any major development—like a border wall—could proceed. But all that changed after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. In 2005 President Bush signed the REAL ID Act, a measure designed to enhance Driver’s License and ID card security, but also included additional provisions for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The REAL ID Act allows the DHS to waive 37 federal laws, including the Endangered Species, Clean Water, and National Environmental Policy Acts. Waivers have been used five times to construct much of the existing border wall. The act essentially gives the government a carte blanche to override any environmental protections along the border.
Pushed to the brink
When a jaguar roars, his powerful jaw gapes open, revealing two sets of ivory white teeth. His muscular rib cage expands and contracts with each guttural grunt. Jaguars prefer living and hunting in solitude, but will communicate with one another by roaring. The only cat in North America to do so.
Jaguars can occupy territories as large as 30 square miles, depending on the density of available prey. An opportunistic hunter, the American jaguar will eat everything from birds and mice to deer and elk, but rarely people. In the dry borderlands of the American Southwest, they would more than likely maintain larger territories than in the abundant jungles of Central America, potentially meaning fewer numbers overall. But even a small American population could improve the health of the jaguar species as a whole.
Despite conservation efforts in Sonora, jaguars are increasingly under threat from habitat loss, segmentation, and hunting by local ranchers. If they could successfully expand their territory north of the border, it would reduce the risk of inbreeding and create a larger gene pool in the region.
“Marginal populations can be important to species’ genetic diversity and may be important to future species’ evolution, especially against a background of environmental change,” wrote Jesse Lasky, an Assistant Professor of Biology at Penn State University, in a study on wildlife and barrier walls.
Imagine a 30-foot wall sunk several feet into the ground, or better yet, search for images of the eight border wall prototypes recently completed in California. Such a structure would prevent jaguars and other endangered species from crossing the border, blocking connectivity between wildlife populations and decreasing genetic diversity.
“If you decrease genetic diversity you can end up with problems like inbreeding,” Lasky says. “Loss of genetic diversity will only emerge over a number of years, but it can threaten the ability of a species to adapt to new parasites or changes in their environment like climate change.”
The jaguar couldn’t be a better mascot for the case against a border wall, but the truth is that nearly 100 other plant and animal species could be pushed to the brink of extinction by it too. The Mexican gray wolf, which was hunted out of the United States in the 1930s, now has a small population of 113 in Arizona and New Mexico. Their survival relies upon their ability to mate with their Mexican counterparts. The Sonoran pronghorn is in a similar situation. With less than 1,000 of them in both Mexico and the United States, the pronghorn’s future depends on it maintaining a diverse gene pool on both sides of the border. It also demonstrates another major problem for wildlife should the border wall be completed. The pronghorn travels far and wide across the desert and a wall could prevent them, as well as other wildlife, from accessing food and water.
With warming global temperatures already altering and destroying wildlife habitats, many more animals will be on the move in the future.
“The preferred climate for any given organism is probably going to be somewhere else in the future,” Lasky says. “For those distribution shifts to happen, they have to be able to move.”
Many of the species endemic to the borderlands are adapted to very specific climates and precipitation patterns. Climate change will cause numerous wildlife species to migrate into the United States in search of suitable habitats.
“If you’re talking about a species that’s already pushed to the brink and you take their ability to adapt to climate change away…” Millis trails off, but the implication is clear. A border wall would prevent wildlife from finding the habitat they need to survive.
A surge in biological diversity
The video of Sombra peering into the night is just twenty seconds long. At the end, he pads off screen with a quiet rustle of dry grass. The video, shot in the summer of 2017, was the last sighting of Sombra. Has he wandered back to Mexico? Or is he secretly searching the remote Arizona mountains for a mate?
A population of American jaguars could have a profound effect on the borderlands ecosystem. The jaguar is an apex predator and sits at the top of the food chain, managing the overall health of the ecosystem by regulating prey populations and increasing biodiversity.
When wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone during the 1990s, the large elk population was hunted to a more sustainable level. Scientists observed a dramatic regeneration of trees like the aspen and cottonwood, and with them the return of songbirds to the park. Beavers arrived and began building dams, creating habitats for otters, fish and waterfowl. The biodiversity within Yellowstone increased dramatically over the following twenty years. From the genetic to the global level, biodiversity describes the variety of living organisms that contribute to the health of an ecosystem. Even if you look at it from an anthropocentric point of view, biodiversity provides more than a pleasing landscape to look upon. It supplies us with food, water, and clean air.
What would the borderlands ecosystem look like with the return of the jaguar? Would we see a surge in biodiversity like Yellowstone? Would the jaguar’s presence enable other species to return? One thing is certain: we’ll never find out if the border wall is completed. TG
By Joy Martin
Dinosaur footprints, wild horses and resourceful puppies animate the mysterious desert covering Arizona's northeast corner. Named "El Desierto Pintado" by Coronado in 1540, this arc of desert is part of the Navajo Nation's slice of American pie. It's also become one of the most unassuming places to find impactful street art, thanks to a man named Chip Thomas.
Both mind-numbing and ponderous in its vastness, the Navajo Nation is entirely its own thing, a space that you can't speed through fast enough but could equally spend a lifetime discovering. When Thomas showed up here in 1987, he had no idea he'd stick around for 31 years. Why would an African-American doctor with a penchant for hip-hop on vinyl set down roots in one of America's poorest, richest regions? That answer is as complex as Thomas himself and the land he's come to call home.
The story begins in 1969, the summer of love. Thomas was a gangly preteen when his parents dropped him off at a Quaker-run summer camp in the Black Mountains of North Carolina, the tallest hills east of the Mississippi. As it usually goes at summer camp, Thomas had the time of his life.
"The Quakers are all about consistency in one's life between spiritual practice, work and politics," says Thomas. "They attempt to identify and acknowledge the light that's in each of us. They're conscientious objectors in times of war and take a vow of simplicity, choosing to live simply so others may simply live. They're all about building community."
His father, a devoted yoga practitioner, was impressed by the welcoming warmth extended to his son. With North Carolina public schools recently desegregated in 1968 and the country tangled in antiwar protests and the Civil Rights movement, he was keen to find a safe place for Thomas to attend school.
A junior high boarding school affiliated with the summer camp was an option, which meant Thomas wouldn't have to bus across town for the all-white school. Rather, he'd be in a healthy setting nestled in the pines encouraged by attentive teachers and plenty of opportunities for creative expression.
The school of 24 students was downright cosmopolitan for Appalachia. Thomas was one of three African-Americans, a shock for an only-child who grew up in an all-black neighborhood. The alternative learning environment fit Thomas perfectly, even exposing him to the art of photography, a hobby that would eventually change the landscape of a place he'd yet to lay eyes on.
He went on to attend an Episcopalian high school, then Wake Forest University, and, following in his father's footsteps, Meharry Medical College in Nashville in 1979. After medical school, he spent 18-months in West Virginia for his residency before transferring to inner-city Toledo, Ohio.
His reprieve during those long semesters was New York City, where he found a vivacious group of emcees and artists dabbling in a new creative form called street art. Through these electrifying souls, Thomas became enamored with the Zulu Nation, and, since he couldn't join the South African tribe, soaked in the revolution dripping through the streets of New York.
"There was no YouTube in the ’80s, so it was hard to learn more info about this scene," he says. "I would go to New York City just hoping to see break dancing."
The US government paid for Thomas' med school expenses through the National Health Service Corps program. In return, Thomas would practice medicine in an underserved community for at least four years. At that time, a friend from med school was working on the Navajo reservation and suggested Thomas would enjoy the bizarre beauty of the American Southwest.
So the 31-year-old left the urban sprawl and drove west into the bare arms of pastel ridgelines, baby rocks and arroyos. He moved to Inscription House, a town of just over a thousand people that sits between Page and Kayenta, on the largest Indian reservation in the United States. With 180,000 people spread out over 27,500 square miles, it's an alien world to outsiders.
According to their creation story, the Navajo, or Diné ("people" in the Navajo language), believe they must remain on land that sits between four mountains: the San Francisco Peaks to the west, Mount Taylor to the south, Blanca Peak to the east and Mount Hesperus to the north. In the Navajo Nation Treaty of 1868, the U.S. government granted this territory the Diné's sovereign domain.
The treaty is 150 years old this year and still doesn't include mineral rights to natural resources found on the Navajo Nation. With an abundance of coal, oil, natural gas, uranium and water aquifers, the Navajo people should be amongst the richest in America. Instead, 43 percent live below the poverty level, and Thomas says 20 percent of his patients do not have running water or electricity.
On top of not profiting from these resources, the Navajo suffer from toxic waste exposure emanating from over 500 abandoned uranium sites. The toxins seep into the groundwater, affecting livestock and other animals roaming the region, and attributing to the prevalence of liver, lung, bone and breast cancers found in Thomas' patients.
Health problems rove from these environmental cancers to the full spectrum of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, no thanks to a lack of access to fresh produce and organic products in this food desert. Thomas points out that the former-agrarian Diné are now the country's greatest consumers of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
As well, some of the highest teen pregnancy and teen suicide rates in the country are found on the rez, while domestic violence, recidivism, alcoholism and drug addiction, including a methamphetamine epidemic, run rampant. All to say, Thomas has his plate full as the only permanent physician at the Indian Health Service's clinic.
By 1992, he'd paid off his debt to the government, took a sabbatical to bike from the northernmost point in Africa to the southern tip and then returned to the desert. This time, he balanced work with time spent in his darkroom, developing film from African adventures and of everyday life on the rez. He wasn't sure how, but Thomas had strong premonitions that his photography would grow "bigger" than mere hobby.
Fast forward to 2009. Thomas was on sabbatical in Brazil, hanging out with a colorful group of people not unlike the NYC break dancers and artists of the ’80s. There, on the streets of Rio, Thomas saw something that would change his life forever: a black-and-white photograph blown up to fit the side of a concrete building by none other than world-renowned street artist, JR.
JR's larger-than-life, properly scaled images were the "missing link" for how Thomas would make his photography "bigger." He left the steamy Amazonian climate and, once again, returned to the desert. Suddenly, run-down buildings didn't look hopeless but whispered promise to the photographer. He invited JR to do a project on the res, but Thomas got impatient waiting for the young artist.
"I had ample time to think, gee, where would JR put his pieces? How would he approach the community and engage them? I waited three weeks and then decided, fuck it. I'm going for it."
He enlarged a photo he'd taken of Navajo Code Talkers into two-by-two sections at a print shop and then cut them out on his kitchen floor. He boiled up a biodegradable wheat-paste mixture using water, sugar and Bluebird flour (favored by Navajo grandmas, says Thomas).
"It's Marxist glue, an egalitarian kind of material that pretty much anyone can make, if you can afford a bag of flour and sugar," says Thomas.
One evening, Thomas drove out under the cover of darkness to a shabby jewelry stand on the side of the highway. Using a push broom, he pasted the photo strips onto the wall, smoothing the image in place with his hands. Only the moon and stars saw the first installment of what would become the Painted Desert Project.
A few days later, Thomas passed by the jewelry stand, where the owners were fixing up the structure. He casually inquired, and the owners said that drivers were stopping to take photos of a mural someone put up. Thomas smiled, claiming he was the muralist. They asked him if he'd do one on the other wall so drivers coming from the opposite direction would also see.
It hit Thomas that visual storytelling was meeting a community need. Practically, the art had potential to boost tourism on the reservation and help supplement incomes for families with roadside stands. For Thomas, the murals would reflect back to the community the beauty they'd shown him over the years.
"There's not a tradition or history of muralism here," says Thomas. "It's not a luxury people have. (Street art) serves as an equalizer. It's a flip of the power dynamic having my work in the community, interacting with people from my passion rather than my work. It takes me out of my position of authority and puts me on defense. It's contributing to environmental wellness, just as I'm attempting to do in my medical practice."
He's not fluent in the Diné language so can only assume the natives call him "Tall Skinny Old Black Man Wallpapering Outdoors." But, like most street artists, Thomas started going by his own pseudonym: Jetsonorama, which is a nod to his first dog, Jetson, named after his favorite cartoon show. As well, J-E-T are the initials for James Edward Thomas, his full name, while -orama was a Google suggestion.
In 2012, Jetsonorama started inviting street artists from around the globe to join him in his self-funded project. To prep them for the experience, he sends information about and by the Navajo, including their story of creation. Designed like an artist-in-residence program, the project encourages artists to come with a clean slate and let the environment and people speak to what they'll create.
Upon arrival, artists connect with a community on the rez, where they'll stay for 10 days to a few weeks, mixing and mingling with the locals on horseback rides, at sweat lodges, in meetings with tribal elders and over fry bread. This relationship-building helps remove any perception of cultural imperialism and also illuminates cultural taboos or superstitions that the artists might not consider.
Then community members join the artists in placing murals on water tanks, trading posts, abandoned buildings or any sort of dilapidated edifice between Gray Mountain and Bitter Springs on Highway 89 or Red Lake and Kayenta on Highway 160. Subject matter features aspects of Navajo life, mystical images and social issues that plague the tribe. Atomic sheep and radioactive dogs are two common characters, for example.
While the Navajo generally appreciate the murals, there is the occasional backlash. Jetsonorama once put up an image to confront the development of the Scottsdale-owned Confluence Resort. Locals were outraged that he would speak against a job opportunity in a community where nearly half of the people are unemployed. Jetsonorama was devastated he'd offended his neighbors and painted over the project immediately.
This impermanence is part of the project's democratic nature. Unlike sculptures or monstrous architectural works, murals can easily be "buffed," as it's called in the street-art industry. Most of the time, Jetsonorama lets the elements peel away images, and other times, the Bloods and Crips take care of it for him.
While the gang members might not be open to his tutelage, Jetsonorama does work hard to engage the community in the dialogue about public art. Considering the Navajo Nation is a young community, with one-third of the people under the age of 18, he hopes the youth will keep showing an interest in the rebellious art form.
With the Painted Desert abloom with public art and a much-needed hopeful energy, it's easy to forget that 60-year-old Jetsonorama has a full-time, 40-hour-a-week job donning a doctor's coat. Time to mentor budding artists, much less write grants or raise funds, washes away faster than a flash flood.
"The important thing to remember is that it's not a sprint; it's a marathon," says Thomas. "We are moving the never-ending fight for social and environmental justice forward. In that fight, you've got to take care of yourself. Martin Luther King said, 'Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.'"
The Painted Desert Project, it seems, has turned a seemingly stark landscape into the ultimate canvas, an outdoors gallery bringing the faces behind the mesas to the edge of the highway so that anyone can get a glimpse into life on the rez. This includes the 3 million visitors zooming through the desert each year.
Interested in collaborating with Jetsonorama? For more information, or a couch to surf next time you're headed to the Grand Canyon, find Thomas at Jetsonorama.net. He'll be waiting with hip-hop on vinyl and too many stories for one magazine article. TG