Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Summing up a week in Mexico in five Quotes

If there's one thing I've learned from jungle travel, it's don't open your door in the middle of the night to a knocking monkey.

Sure, it's all fun and games til someone gets bit in the head.

That gentleman there, the one that keeps falling out of his kayak, the one with the midwestern pigmentation...

Boasting and full of bravado at 9:45 a.m. : Oh hell yeah! I just got out of a riptide. Reality setting in a 11:45 p.m.: Oh hell! I got caught in a riptide and it just came out of no where! Knees knocking.

Grab it! Yeah, I think it bites, but I'm pretty sure it's not poisonous.

Humor aside, it was an amazing week in a beautiful country with beautiful people. Amo Mexico.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Black Panther Movie: I'm Just Going to Say It.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash
Black Panther just became the third highest grossing Marvel-release film of all time in the U.S., outpaced only by The Avengers and The Avengers: Age of Ultron (two of my favorite movies). I’m a marvel junkie. And an action movie junkie. So much so that even my husband says he wouldn’t mind the occasional romantic comedy every now and then. 

This is kind of unusual for a girl, I know, but if you’ve read my book, you get it. And it’s not really that unusual. Humanity’s had a crush on superheroes since story tellers have been spinning yarns. What was Hercules (circa 2000 b.c.) and the other demigods who fought on mortal behalf, if not superheroes? How about Beowulf (circa 1000 a.d.) who used his super strength to rip the arm off the monster Grendel? Humanity has always needed its heroes.

The Black Panther brings it: talented actors, action, compelling characters, good triumphing over evil, cool tech, plenty of heart…yep, this movie’s got it all. But I think there’s more to its popularity. I think it’s a movie we all need.

For one, it’s an antidote. Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, I was surrounded by racism in some of its ugliest forms and from all colors. Whites who hate Blacks, Blacks who hate Whites. Browns, Beiges, Yellows, and Reds who all hate each other and Whites and Blacks. But Memphis, like much of the world, also has, I believe, an even larger majority from all colors who want to see racism in all forms end. I belonged to this faction and I believed with all my heart that I didn’t have a racist cell in my body, especially since I'm part Cherokee and therefore, multi-hued myself.

My trip to Chiapas (the subject of my book Yoga Mama's Buddha Sandals: Mayans, Zapatistas and Silly Little White Girls) was the first time I glimpsed how living in a world with racism, however subtle, had impacted me deep within my psyche; how it had sunk in its ugly tendrils like a virus, quietly influencing me in ways I still don’t fully recognize.

The Black Panther is not just heartening, fun entertainment. It’s not just a long overdue movie about a Black superhero. It’s also a poultice that draws these subconscious poisons to the surface where they can be recognized and rectified. 

Several times during the movie I was distracted by arguments that seemed to come from…well, from someone who thinks differently than I thought I thought. “Why do all the bad guys have to be white?” I found myself asking. “How come all the white characters but one is a bad guy?” “How come there aren’t more white people in this movie?” Where did THAT come from??? Sound familiar? We ALL need this movie. This is what I don’t believe: I don’t believe it is possible to live in this society and not be influenced by its biases and some of those biases are flat out wrong and need to be confronted before we can fully move forward. As we confront and dismiss these toxic mental parasites, the Black Panther gives us a new message to soothe the raw, exposed psyche. Or maybe I speak only for myself. Maybe I make much ado about nothing?

Either way, I plan to go see the movie again for two reasons: 1) so I can see if those thoughts have any more fight in them and reckon with them if they do and 2) It’s a damn good movie, worth seeing again.

Friday, October 13, 2017

How to Exorcise the Bogeyman: Mulling Over the Clean Power Plan

Photo courtesy of Thomas Roberts

By Donna Stewart, article originally prepared for San Juan Citizens Alliance.

How to Exorcise the Bogeyman: Mulling over the Clean Power Plan

“With this bellows I will pump the flames of this fire which looks like from Hell, and witches will flee, straddling their brooms…and when this beverage goes down our throats, we will get free of the evil of our soul and of any charm.”

In some Japanese rituals, evil spirits are warded off by throwing roasted soybeans. The Irish started the ritual of dressing up and carving pumpkins to ward off evil spirits and since the eleventh century, some Gaelic tribes ward off evil spirits by chanting the above conxuro (incantation) during the Queimada, an ancient ritual that involves drinking from a flaming pot of very strong distilled wine, coffee, sugar, lemon peel and coffee beans. I’m game.

Halloween’s coming up and goblins, ghosts and ghouls are parading around homes and towns, especially D.C.. Remember that movie, The Last Rain Forest? Remember Hexxus, the evil pollution-chugging ancient spirit of destruction who thrived on poison fumes and oil spills?, With the latest intention to repeal the Clean Power Plan, I’m starting to wonder if monsters like Hexxus could be based on real characters. Ahem.

Here’s “some” good news about that: According to the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and a few other semi-reputable news outlets, many of the nation’s largest power companies are claiming that even if the move to eliminate the Clean Power Plan succeeds, they’re planning to move forward laying the groundwork for renewable energy and nothing will change that simply because clean, renewable energy makes the most economic sense.

With what’s at stake, it seems like only the bogeyman or some other evil spirit would try to send  us back to the days of black lungs and smoggy (er) skies. Colorado Governor, John Hickenlooper, says the repeal won’t matter in Colorado because we’ll exceed the Plan’s guidelines anyway. Colorado is already closing coal plants and developing infrastructure and jobs in renewable energy.

 “We have dramatically cleaner air and we are saving money. My question to the E.P.A. would be, ‘Which part of that don’t you like?’” Hickenlooper noted in a recent New York Times article.

In an interview with CBS, Janet McCabe, a Senior Fellow at the Environmental Law and Policy Center and one of the architects of the Clean Power Plan, said “This administration is doing all kinds of things to try to prop up this industry but we’re finding that because of increased cost, increased automation…there are all kinds of reasons why the coal industry is not thriving.”

By repealing the Clean Power Plan, by stepping back from Paris, “This administration is basically telling other countries, Okay, you can be the global leaders, and you can make the money that WILL be made by investing in a clean energy future.”

Wind farms and solar farms are already developing all over the U.S. with impressive ROI. In Fowler, Indiana, energy giant BP opened three wind farms, reviving an economy that was considering opening up a waste dump in an attempt to generate jobs. BP’s farms have resulted in $17 million in payments to the county and $33 million invested in roads as well as creating over a hundred permanent, professional pay grade jobs. A recent Department of Energy survey found that this year there are 374,000 solar induastry jobs while only 160,000 people have been employed by the Coal industry.

Another consideration to ponder: Right now, China leads the world in renewable energy development and manufacture. Want more of that here? Let’s chant away some evil spirits. The EPA has a 60 day public comment period before a final decision will be made. You can take a moment to make a comment here:

But wait! How about locally? Is LPEA ramping up plans to bring green energy to our fair city? Why don’t you ask them? Start chanting. Write, Call, or show up to meetings and ask them where we are and share your thoughts: email: or call: 970.247.5786 or 888.839.5732

Bippity Boppity BOO! Happy Halloween!

Donna Stewart is a freelance writer and author of Yoga Mama’s Buddha Sandals: Mayans, Zapatistas and Silly Little White Girls, available at local bookstore, public library, or Barnes&Noble. You can see more of her work at

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Solar Systems: Gas Shortages, Coming Full Circle in the Wake of Hurricane Harvey and the Path of Hurricane Irma, Jose and God?

Part III in a four part series on Renewable Energy 

Ah, the Seventies! Paislies! Poofy smocks! Blondie, Queen and myriad reflectors (aka disco balls) spinning over the heads of bushy-headed, bell-bottom-ringing rockers! I wish I had a time machine so I could go hit just one night at Studio 54—rocking my own paisley-patterned bell-bottoms and fringed leather halter top.  Just one night. 

 I was just digging into the history of solar power in the 1970s and apparently you can’t google anything 70s-related without getting some Studio 54 images popping up in the feed. At first glance it looks like the 70s were defined by wild parties, bad taste, Nixon and the Vietnam War. But take a second scroll and you’ll see a few headlines about something called “The Energy Crisis.

I bumped right up against an article about how in 1979, President Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the White House in reaction to suffering two energy crises over the decade,  but then President Ronald Reagan called them a joke and had them removed when he became president in the next election. A joke? Really? A researcher driven by a touch of OCD, I dove head first into the endless, swirling bog of text.

What I learned was that it wasn’t so much an “energy crisis” or a “gas shortage,” as much as it was an almost complete redefining and restructuring of world-wide power and alliances, and that these, now understated, energy crises had far more of an impact on our world than Freddy Mercury wearing leather britches while cadenza-ing ‘We Are The Champions.’ Cars waited in line for hours at stations, then were sometimes turned away. Signs were posted: “Pumps Closed.” “No Gas.” There was a “Don’t be Fuelish” campaign reminding people to be responsible with their energy usage during the “gas shortage.” In an effort to save fuel, interstate speed limits were dropped to, gasp, 55 mph. Needless to say, gas prices soared. Psst: We might be experiencing something like that again by the time Hurricane Harvey finishes knawing on the oil infrastructure on the Gulf Coast. Today's Thursday, August 31st. Day 4 of Hurricane Harvey's rampage which has so far shut down three refineries and is expected to shut down a fourth today, according to this morning's Wall Street Journal.  

Here’s the thing: Back then, there wasn’t a shortage. Select countries, including the United States, were denied or had their supplies significantly reduced by Middle Eastern suppliers in retaliation for our support of Israel, among other reasons. That’s when we found out what can happen when we become über dependent on something we can’t produce locally. It was also a huge check on Western arrogance. We thought we could strong arm the Middle East by flexing our big money. Turned out we couldn’t. We needed the oil and they knew it. They gave us less oil, then charged more for it. That’s my extremely pithy cliff note interpretation and it’s way, way, WAY more complicated than that. Check out the full story for yourself. It’s fascinating.

One good thing about it was that it sparked renewed interest in terrestrial applications for solar power. That’s when President Jimmy Carter had those 32 solar panels put on the white house.
Through the following decades, slow but steady progress continued. In 1991, President H.W. Bush created the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, funding real research on renewable energy. In 2001, while President George W. Bush was off clearing brush on his ranch, the National Park Service quietly dressed up a white house maintenance shed with 167 solar panels and two thermal solar systems for heating hot water. Since he never mentioned it, not sure Bush ever knew they were there, but still: Yay!

President Barack Obama was far more open about his support of renewable energy. In 2013, White House spokesman, Matt Lehrich, announced, “Continuing President Obama’s commitment to lead by example to increase the use of clean energy in the U.S., the White House has completed installation of American-made solar panels on the first family’s residence as a part of an energy retrofit that will improve the overall energy efficiency of the building.”

Speaking of American-made panels, most of the panels currently made in the world aren’t. Fortune Magazine says that, “China is utterly and totally dominating solar panels.” They are the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels at a time where markets are “predicted to expand by 13 percent a year,” according to a December article in Scientific American. The U.S., is a distant third, maybe 4th, which is not where we probably want to be given these recent findings from the Solar Jobs Census2016:

•  One out of every 50 new jobs added in the United States in 2016 was created by the solar industry
•  Solar jobs in the United States have increased at least 20 percent per year for the past four years, and jobs have nearly tripled since the first Solar Jobs Census was released in 2010.
•  Over the next 12 months, employers surveyed expect to see total solar industry employment increase by 10 percent to 286,335 solar workers. Last year the coal industry tallied 75,000 jobs.
•  The solar industry added $84 billion to the US GDP in 2016

So third ain't so bad, but that's assuming we aren't about to get left in the dust by countries giving it their full attention, especially as renewables on the verge of significant advancements. Perovskites, a new material under research at Purdue University and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, could create solar cells that are more flexible, allowing for broader applications, are also cheap and easy to make. Berkeley Labs predicts they could double efficiency, further driving down costs that have just dropped for the seventh straight year in a row. Rumor has it, Audi has partnered with China to produce a solar rooftop “film” that will power ancillary operations for select vehicles, rolling out of the show rooms in 2018.

The real pickle, however, has always been how to store surplus energy for when ‘the sun don’t shine or the wind don’t blow. Tesla’s Elon Musk believes we are on the brink of rapid advances in energy storage so strongly that, in late March, he tweet-boasted he could deliver a battery solution to fix Australia’s notoriously cranky electrical system issues within 100 days – or it’s free. He also predicted the energy-storage market would grow at “twice the rate of the automotive business.” Then, next month, hee, hee, Tesla unveiled its sleek new solar panels that pair perfectly with…the Powerwall, Tesla’s sexy little, stackable battery, that promises to store sun from the day to light the night. Boom!

Do a search for solar power in google news and you’ll see a nice long list of big companies and government agencies signing contracts and installing solar, ahem, systems: Comcast, Audi, The United States Federal Reserve, Corvalis Airport, Indonesia, etc. etc. etc. It’s beautiful. Since the 70s, “we’ve come a long way, baby.”

Now, with nation’s all over the world committing to reduce the use of fossil fuels, some of them taking Musk’s offer seriously, ScientificAmerican’s 13% market expansion prediction might just be sand-bagged. Between that and Hurricane Harvey's decimation of U.S. oil production and the oil shortages expected from that, if we don’t get more into this game…the joke may be on us. You “dig?”

Donna Stewart is a freelance writer and author of Yoga Mama's Buddha Sandals: Mayans, Zapatistas and Silly Little White Girls, available at your lovely, local bookstore, public library, or Barnes&Noble. You can see more of her work at

Friday, June 16, 2017

The One About SEX: Get Ready to be Schooled

The One About Sex: Get Ready To Be Schooled

I think it’s high time I take this recurring question on: Did I or didn't I sleep with Francisco? If you haven’t read my book, Yoga Mama’s Buddha Sandals: Mayans,Zapatistas and Silly Little White Girls, but plan to, don’t read this yet. I don’t want to ruin anything for you. If you have read it, then you, too, may be wondering about this: Did I or didn’t I? How could we not have? After all, there was a lot of steam in that jungle! And no one was looking.

I’m getting a LOT of disbelief, ranging in temperature from amused shock to downright seething and snide (primarily from women. WTF?). To the latter, I want to respond with a snarky, “Just because you would have doesn’t mean I would have.” Or “Hey, he wasn’t my first Hot Pursuer.”

To the more gentle disbelievers, I refer you back to Chapter 2. Remember? I was on my own more or less from the time I was 13 years old, in and out of the custody of a dangerous, lecherous father who used and threw away women like empty beer cans: crush-toss. Before that I lived in an über strict Southern Baptist house of shaming where everything I watched on TV or read in books was sieved through narrow-fine moral filters. I grew up in a modern world but my media was almost completely from the 1940s and 50s. While my classmates played on their Xboxes, I grew up on Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Gene Kelly movies where the heroes had impeccable character and spent whole reams of film chasing the girl and in the end, all they usually got was a kiss and dreamy-eyed adoration. And the girl who was so desperately pursued? She was never a tramp. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. 

When my parents divorced and I found myself yanked out of the bubble and thrown into a world of chaos, I had to learn fast. I had to learn to watch my father’s every expression for signs he was about to derail and learn how to deflect him if things started going badly. When I ended up on my own, I had to watch out for and “manage” would-be predators. Living under such circumstances, I heard the whisperings of friend’s parents that, poor thing, I’d end up dead or pregnant within a year or two. I also read about kids in my situation in child development class in high school who fell exactly as those parents predicted I would. Somehow (inspiring books, a strong belief in God, a higher-power, and an above-average dose of idealism, etc.), I believed it didn’t have to go that way for me and I’d do my damnedest to keep it from happening.

Not surprisingly, I did end up getting into a lot of trouble, but the trouble I got into was on my own terms, and possibly trying to wrest control of my own life. I skipped school, I drank as much as I could, I smoked pot. I sought thrills. I climbed the outside of multi-storied buildings, danced til dawn and jumped on moving trains. But I kept celibate. For longer than could have been predicted anyway, despite the fact that some friends called me a prude and despite many clever predators.

And there are many predators out there and they seem to be adept at sniffing out vulnerable people. Somehow I was generally able to spot them before it was too late and learned to evade or deflect them. I watched and I learned and I read. One of the most important things I learned, a lesson that I would love to share with more young women, is both a protective precaution and a path to true love: The way to a man’s heart is not through his stomach and, perhaps more surprisingly, nor through his penis. It actually is through his heart. At least for a man of quality. Here’s something else I learned: A man of quality would be willing to wait (for sex) for the right time.

It was a most valuable lesson for me: You could rule out dangerous jerks by simply not sleeping with them. They won’t wait. They self-select out. See ya! I knew I was in danger of making bad choices because I’d read books about abused kids growing up to marry abusers and get involved in all sorts of destructive relationships. I knew I couldn’t necessarily be trusted to make the right decision in these circumstances. But I could develop safeguards, tests for my suitors. Anyway, by the time I’d actually decided to…indulge, I mistrusted everybody, yet at the same time, I was a passionate woman who dreamed of true love, of a hero that would be willing to ‘run the gauntlet and slay dragons’ for the sake of love. My love. Literally, spiritually and emotionally, I needed a dragon slayer. And that man would be willing to wait for when I was ready, when I trusted, whether that took a month or a year. I have no doubt that philosophy has saved me a LOT of trouble and was so ingrained it held up under the tipsiest of circumstances…mostly. And I did find TRUE LOVE, so yay me!

Don't misunderstand and go voting for sainthood status for me or anything. I’m no saint. I’m human and I’ve made mistakes. Doozies. But I can go into those another time. But now that you know a little more about from whence my strength derived, maybe with this little context you can see how a woman traveling alone would be able to abstain even when the heat was on high? Maybe now you can just accept it as truth? If not, maybe you should ask yourself why it bothers you so much?

P.S. If you happen to know Francisco and are wondering, know this: A perfect gentleman with a noble heart. A definite dragon-slayer. Just not mine. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Lightning Strike on Bear Peak (Part II)

To reach the summit, you had to scramble across, and ever up, a talus field. The field was  a steep slope of craggy boulders and rocks, jumbled and piled precariously to a sharp point. I made the final traverse gingerly testing each rock before I put my weight on it. Towards the top, the vertigo effect had my head swimming so I chose to move on all fours for the largest part. 

Here I found a handful of scattered hiking parties taking in the view, drinking water and snacking on Kind bars and packets of trail mix. Again I was struck by how everyone seemed to take no notice of the clouds that were pushing together right over their heads. 

Personally, I’ve heard way too many lightning stories to be comfortable being the tallest object when clouds are about. Why was I the only one concerned? There was a family over there with two children around nine or ten years old, but Mom and Dad looked like they should know what they’re doing, whatever that means. There’s some trail running dudes over there, with iron legs, who probably do this every week. Surely they know, right? No one seemed to care and I was even more confused. Is lightening not as big a deal at this elevation as opposed to the 10,000+ ft. peaks I had been climbing around Durango? I made a mental note to look into this next time I was parked in front of “the box.”

I decided to keep my own counsel, and that of my daughter, Nila, who had made me promise not to have my snack until I was back down safe in the car. The air was thick with moisture, something you can really notice if you’ve been living in the desert for 15 years, and I felt at the very least, a downpour was imminent.

Boulders shifted as I crawled across them to snap my summit photos. Later this day, one of those boulders would roll out from under and then on top of Dave Mackey, a world renowned elite ultra-runner. The boulder was said to weigh 400 lbs and took rescue workers hours to get it off of him. His tibia and fibula were shattered, but he’s alive. He was later quoted as saying, “I’ve been so lucky in 20 years of doing this stuff that I’m actually OK with it,” Mackey told a news station.”[1] An incredible man with an incredible story. But that’s not my story.

I got my pics and turned to hurry down to where there was something taller than me besides that guy. As I came down, I passed the gentleman from India who looked surprised to see me heading down so soon and I pointed up and said simply, “Storm.” I wanted to say it to everyone, especially the family with the children. I wanted to shout, “Hey! It’s time to get down, ya idjits!” I passed the family I’d already coached about falling rock and was on the verge of telling them, but stopped myself, still wondering if I was over reacting.

A few rain drops fell on the trail in front of me when I saw a woman coming up the trail. I couldn’t help saying, “Am I the only one concerned about lightning?” The upcoming hiker said, “I don’t think there’s going to be lightning.” To which I said, “Really? Why not?” She stopped hiking, looked up to the sky, and said, “Oh.” Then she shrugged and said, “I don’t think there will be lightning.” I was incredulous. Was the air too thin up here? WTF? Then I shrugged, “Okey Dokey.” and turned to hurry down the trail.

It was maybe five minutes before the clouds unleashed. Rain started coming down, hard. The sky went dark, despite being the middle of the day. Then hail mixed with the rain. I had a hood on my jacket, but I didn’t want it up because I wanted to be able to see all around me. Then BOOM! Lightening streaked across the sky and touched down way too close. It was so close I ransacked those mental boxes trying to remember what to do in the event you were caught on a mountain in a lightning storm. I could only remember a few things: Don’t be the tallest thing. Don’t stand near or under tall trees. If worse comes to worse, squat with your heels up and don’t let anything else touch the ground. But was this old advice or new? Do you stand under rocks? Should you just run? Stand near a giant boulder or get far away from it? And what about the other people up there, the ones who didn’t even think this would happen? Should I go back for them? If I did, what would I do? It didn’t help that we’d just seen The Avengers last night, though my husband pointed out later: I wasn’t an Avenger.

A lightning bolt hit the ground less than fifty feet away. At that point, my limbic system told my rational mind to just shut up and run. So that’s what I did. The rocky stairs I’d just climbed up, quickly filled with water, making one long, slick waterfall flowing down hill. My limbic system shouted, “Out of the trail! Water conducts electricity! If lightning strikes near here again, you’re fried!” Or maybe it just said “Yipes!” But I jumped out of the trail and ran alongside it, jumping rocks and logs, sliding down mudslicked slopes, catching myself, up and running again, driving in my heels to keep some traction, eyes glued to the ground to give my feet warning of holes, rocks, drop offs, slipping on little piles of hail accumulating everywhere. When I had to stop to catch my breath, I did so in the lightning strike squat method, then got spurred on by another bolt of lightning, and sent running again. Talk about Crossfit! I admit it. Part of me was loving this. In a lot of ways, it was just what I needed.

As I tore down the hillside I was counting seconds between thunder claps to determine how close to the eye of the storm. Legs burning. For most of the run, it was only a second or less. Then as suddenly as it broke, the thunder and lightning was moving away. The rain was slowing, and I felt like I could too. It had taken me three hours to hike up, but it only took me 30 minutes to get down to the main trail. 

This is where it gets surreal. I came out of the woods and onto the main trail and it was as if I stepped out of this world of chaos into another dimension. A herd of deer grazed peaceably a little further downhill. It was still raining, but now the rain was soft. I heard feet hitting packed earth and a lone runner rounded the bend, smiled and said Hello, as he ran passed. It was Dave Mackey, on his way to the top of Bear Peak.

Then I heard voices behind me and turned to see a couple of spotlessly clean trail runners who were talking about the latest coffee shop to open near Pearl Street as they ran past me, without a second glance, at this terribly muddy woman stumbling out of the trees, still shaking. I saw two other figures come out of the trees in front of me. It was two guys I’d seen on the hike and they looked just as shaken. We fell in together walking back to the cars, talking about our experiences, and how weird it was to come out of the woods back into basically a City Park, everything calm and safe. We exchanged lightning etiquette, none of us sure we had done any of the right things. When I came to the parking lot, I paused just before the trail turned to parking lot, and looked back up at Bear Peak, now swathed in a peaceful gauze of low hanging clouds. Again, I wondered if I should have gone back to see if anyone needed help. I’m still wondering.

Post Script: I checked the news and to my relief, the only casualty was Mr. Mackey, who overturned the boulder on top of his leg. Not that that isn’t tragic, but I was relieved to see no listing of children struck by lightning, or people tumbling down slick cliffs to their death. 

I looked up what should be done if one is caught in a mountain lightning storm and all of the sites basically said, just don’t be there. Apparently, if you hear thunder, you’re already in danger of lightning that can strike ten miles from the clouds where they originate. The definite don’ts: don’t stand under or near tall trees. Don’t be the tallest thing in your area, DON’T stand under rocks or boulders. Don’t take shelter under a picnic shelter or any building that isn’t grounded. The safest place to be is a grounded building or a car. Stay out of water. RUN until you find good shelter, unless you might tumble down a cliff. DON’T use the lightning squat method. 

This was just a day hike up the hill from a big city, but isn’t it marvelous how easily adventure can find you? “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road and, if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

[1] Runner’s world.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Lightning Strike on Bear Peak (Part I)

Photo Courtesy of Layne Lawson

I hadn’t thought much about what I’d set out to do, but getting struck by lightning certainly hadn’t been part of the plan. Recently relocated to the Denver/Boulder area from the wilds of Durango, Co., mainly I just had to get into the woods, alone, and feel ground stretch out beneath my feet. The clouds were already hanging over the peak, and if I were in Durango, I would have resigned myself to a coffee shop with a good book.

Unfortunately, my opportunities for woods were a lot less on the Front Range and the wilds were definitely more urban in nature, so to speak. But, seeing as how I was already at the trail head with a bottle of water, my down jacket, and a rarely-issued full day’s pass from Mommy we go!

Since the move, all of my wilderness survival knowledge had been packed away in various mental boxes (like many other items gone MIA after the move), de-prioritized as less important to the challenges I now faced in the Big City. Besides, there seemed to be plenty of outdoorsy, and I thought therefore, hip to mountain ways, heading up, despite the clouds. Maybe they were just a thin band on the brink of breaking up?

Since I was alone, I moved at my own pace, head down, driving ever upwards and, I hoped, away from the crowds. If there was one thing I’d learned in Boulder, you can drop most of the crowds by just picking something steep…unless they’re the Boulder diehards, and there are plenty of them to fill the trails, too. Mt. Sanitas, for example, is a nightmare for the trail hound that hopes to enjoy the sounds of the birds. If you don’t keep your head down and your decision to summit that hill ASAP as your priority then you have to deal with this sound incessantly: “Excuse me, on your left.” “on your right,” as the ‘Born to Run’ converts charge up to plant their flag and compare their latest footware purchase with that of other “conquerers.” Dear God, it’s maddening. 

Anyway, so the crowd heading up Bear Peak was both lighter and seemed less poser, more appreciator, even though it’s a steep ass climb and about 4 or 5 hours…depending on who you is. I just wanted to get up into what actually felt like real woods, and not just a pretty city park. I wanted the raw, and I’d heard that if I hiked up there, I’d be in it, just a short 30 minute drive from my house. I was pretty resolute. And it happened. I slowed my pace not only because it got steeper, but because I came to a place in the trail where I had that feeling I so enjoy about the wilderness, like I was in a place so pure I could breathe it through my pores. 

My eyes stopped studying the terrain just in front of my feet looking for ankle twisters, and wandered over the lush green hills I was walking within, electrically sighing under the powerful neural massage. 

There were a couple of other hikers I leapfrogged with over the day; a couple who recently moved from New Hampshire, and another solo hiker, a gentleman from India. I lost the New Hampshire couple early on, but me and the fellow from India walked through the woods, he either 100 yards in front of me, or a hundred yards behind, depending on who needed to pee, both of us staring awed into the world in which we walked. I can only assume that being in this place, at this time, must feel like a spiritual homage to everyone who makes the traverse, but maybe it’s just me. I felt I was walking within a holy place. Huge boulders, some two stories high, glowing green with mosses and ferns, mingled with the sweet smell of rich earth and the lushness of the trees, bushes and flowers. I felt like brushing myself gently against everything, gathering the scent as an infusion I wanted to have move right into my heart. Then the climb got steeper.

At one point, I gazed straight up and caught a glimpse of another hiker's heels disappearing over the crest and, realizing the trail was to get steeper yet, I surprised myself with an excited squeal. I wanted as much challenge as the trail was obliged to bestow and seeing the trajectory of the trail through the disappearing hem of a fellow hikers shorts, I was a kid seeing her favorite ride at the park.

This is the benefit of not being able to get into the woods any ole time I had a hankering for them: When I did get into the wild, be it pine, pinyon or sandstone, I was euphoric, and as you may have noticed, euphoria is hard to come by. It’s no wonder I didn’t notice the darker hue of gray on the under belly of the clouds building over head, nor heard the distant rumble of thunder rolling through the canyons, or that earthy scent in the air you smell just before it rains. 

What did finally catch my eye was the number of decapitated trees and a whole swath of forest reduced to ghostly charred spikes, most likely from lightning-caused fires. It was at this point I started asking people coming down if they’d seen any signs of lightning. Most of them seemed surprised by the question, and answered, “Well, no, but I wasn’t looking either.” This was very confusing to me, because the dark clouds over head were almost within finger-brushing distance from the peak, if you were tall. Around Durango, no one probably would have been here as most people are well versed on wilderness safety out of sheer necessity and generally if it looks like a storm, stay down. Most wouldn’t have risked a summit, even on a little 8,500 ft peak like this one, with storm clouds like that overhead. Why didn’t I know better? Well, I’d been having some adjustment issues to moving to a city and I was confused by what I was witnessing around me. I wondered if maybe the same rules didn't apply here because the actions of so many of my peers ran contrary. And yea, I wanted to tag the peak. I’d been climbing for 3 hours and didn’t want to turn back just at the summit. Actually, I believe that’s a familiar line in outdoor literature. 

I came to another steep face where you could see the trail switchbacking, when a boulder, followed by an end-over-end log, thundered down the mountain past me, slinging rocks and mud in all directions. I heard the people above remark, “Oh! I guess it was there to keep us from going this way.” I made a Marge Simpson groan and stepped up my speed so I might have a word with the hikers who’d just sent a bludgeon practically down on top of me without so much as a “Heads up!” I wasn’t mad, just fully aware of what could have happened had I been fifteen feet further along the trail. I hated to be “that” hiker but I felt an obligation to let them know the proper etiquette in this situation.

It didn’t take me long to catch up to them: A middle aged couple with their teen-aged daughters, all of them outfitted as if they’d just had their wallets hijacked at REI. I smiled and said, hello, then explained how I didn’t want to be “that” person, but that I felt obligated because what just happened could have really gotten someone—me--hurt or killed, and I wanted to let them know what to do if it happened again. I explained that if you send rocks, even small ones, down a steep mountain like that with a switch-backing trail, that you needed to yell, and I mean YELL, “ROCK!” They were nice about my meddling and even said, thank you, and I hiked on up the trail feeling like the biggest ninny on the planet. If we all earn trail names, as we learned about in Cheryl Strayed's Wild, then I just earned the nickname of Trail Ninny. I can’t help it. A born risk-taker, ever since my daughter was born the world has filled with sharp pointy objects, and I’ve had difficulty learning how to turn off the monitor. Was it my business to say anything? Yea, I stand by that. Sharing that info may just save a life some day. But I still feel like a big ninny. Anyway, onward Ho. (to be continued)