From mid-May

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So yesterday it’s full-on nasty November transition fall to winter weather, cold half snow, half rain, all blowing sideways. Today it’s “Where the hell are my shorts weather”.

What’s the deal?

It’s spring. Damn spring.

Fall and spring are the tease seasons. One foot in the old and one foot in the new. Like straddling two canoes, we have to be ready to change our balance. One day it might be warm (today and purportedly the next few) and the next it might be snowing.

Do you have skins?

Skinning up the mountain on a bright spring corn snow day is an the Fernie spring experience. You and a few friends. Sitting at Lost Boys with no lift running. The silence. A few camp robbers and the pop of the cork from the wine bottle. On the deck of Lost Boys with a picnic of a random nature. A picnic that includes wine, hot chili, baguettes, cheese and more wine all by chance. And it works. It fits. Perfectly.

It’s all good

All spring

All good.

On Writing–2

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The essay I need to write is to be on place, on literature, on a change in the West from pure extraction to the extraction of spirit and the leaving of the land intact.

How do you tell of a love for the land? A desire to live as one.

I walk. I take a sunset ride with friends and watch the mountains turn. First from white to grey. Then the range gathers a glow reflecting orange pink off the clouds. Now turning grey black with the coming darkness. We rode the river. Up to where the trail splits off the old road and turns back downstream. Floating on full suspensions along the banks, staying with the water running downstream. Up Coal Creek and back to the Elk. To the Brick House for a beer. And home in the dark.

Back at home I continue the search. I pull books of the shelves in my living room.

We live where we live for landscape and seasons, for the place of it, but also for the time of it, daily and historical time.

Here at Eagle Pond, Donald Hall (1990)

Of the more formal poets, Donald Hall is a star. His Life Work is a must read for everyone even half contemplating a life of writing. Like the Real Work by Gary Snyder, the life of a writer is deconstructed and examined without sentiment or prejudice. And it ain’t pretty. It’s fucking hard.

And so I read. Take notes. Bits of this and bits of that. The first lines of a raft of novels. Poems. Patrick Lane. Gary Snyder. Billy Collins. Anne Michaels.

And day was night,
land was sea,
the earth fell out of the sky.

Pillar of Fire, Anne Michaels

And I remember once telling a friend, a student, when writers are stuck they read. It’s pure and simple avoidance.

I say to myself, this is not avoidance, this is research. And continue.

The Timber of Words

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The Timber of Words.

Western writing carries a notion of place. Often this sense of place becomes an essential character in the work.

In recognition of this sense of place, the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute is building an artist/writers workshop on their property just outside of Moscow Idaho. In the spirit of Michael Pollen’s A Room of My Own, this will be a room for creating artistic work. The timber frame building gathered materials from a wide range of fallen trees around Moscow and was formed by Nora Creek Timber Framers. The raising of the building will be on Saturday May 9. 2009. This will be a fun day mixing the intellectual with the constructive trades. Toward the end of the day, John Keeble will join the group for a short reading from his newly re-released Yellowfish. One of the founding instructors at the Fernie Writers Conference, John will add his distinct voice to place the frame.

For those not familiar with Moscow Idaho, the city is a little over three hours down the panhandle of Idaho, about 80 miles south of Coeur d’ Alene. The home of University of Idaho, it’s a vibrant, artistically eclectic town.

The two links for the event are

In keeping with the Fernie Writers Conference intent to foster the cross-border creative community, I thought this raising might be on interest to those who have expressed an interest in the Conference.

on the road

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the other day in moscow idaho

(a gun shop with a reader baord reading)

your wife called
it’s ok to buy
another gun today

what a town

great food and wine at Nectors. outside deck and great company.

more later

To the Maker

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(originally published in the Edmonton Vue and the Valley.)

Once a year, on the occasion of St. Patrick’s Day, I celebrate the Irish origins of skiing. Many do not know the Irish actually invented skiing. The Norse stole the sport on one of their frequent holidays (some called them coastal raids) to the Emerald Isle.

In a small monastery lies a delicate ancient parchment illustrated manuscript I have been granted complete freedom to study and copy. From this revered manuscript I have assembled the tales around the true roots of skiing.

Father James cared for a small parish in the heart of the mountains of Ireland (There were mountains in Ireland then, too. How they came to disappear no one knows for sure, but some blame the Norse on holidays for that loss too). It snowed for many days. On Sunday people struggled through drifts of snow to celebrate Mass. And struggled home after. On Monday, the snows abated with a few patches of blue sky. On Tuesday the skies cleared. The mountains stood sheathed in new snow set off by a brilliant bluebird sky. There was not a whisper of wind.

That morning, Father James stood outside his small stone church in awe and wonder at the beauty of the land in which he and his parishioners lived. He vowed to give thanks to the Lord on this wondrous day. Fretting at how he could best give thanks, he decided to climb to the top of the tallest mountain and pray his thanks to the Lord. He figured the closer he got to the Lord, the more likely the Lord would hear the prayers. At the top of the mountain, it would almost be whispering in the ear of the Lord.

So he started out. At times the snow reached his waist. He struggled on, knowing his task was holy. To whisper in the ear of the Lord. After much of a day he could finally see the summit of the mountain. He stopped and stared. It had been some time since he visited the summit, but he did not remember anything but rocks. Clearly, there was some structure or at least some sort of artificial assemblage on the top. He wondered who would have carried something to this height and left it on top of the mountain.

And then, putting the questions out of his mind, he put his head down and began his last struggling steps through the waist deep powder,

At long last he reached the summit. There he found two flat boards maybe ten or twelve feet long planted in the snow on very highest point of the mountain. One end of each board was pointed and bent up. When he pulled the boards out of the snow, he found the other end was square. One side was very smooth and had a groove the width and depth of his fore finger running down the middle. The other side was slightly peaked to the center. In the middle of that side was a leather loop.

Father James held one of these boards in his hands and turned it this way and that way wondering at how they arrived on the summit and what they could possibly be used for? He pulled them out of the snow and laid them flat on the snow with the grove side up. That looked odd. He flipped them over so the pointed end bent up and the leather strap cleared the snow and that looked pretty cool.

Standing looking at the boards sitting flat in the snow, Father James (a thinking and observant man) realized that the leather straps were just about the size of the toe of his boot. He wondered what would happen if he slid the toes of his boots under the straps. Being as curious as a cat, he slid his toes into the straps. As he stood there, he felt comfortable and safe.

A raven flew by squawking. He waved it off. The slight motion of the wave broke the connection of the boards to the snow and the boards, with the Father firmly attached, started sliding down the mountain pointed end first. At first this did not bother Father James. He was an athletic man having played rugby, football and surfed as a lad. And surfing in Ireland in those days was something harsh with real long boards of twenty foot or more and no wet suits in the monster waves of the North Atlantic. None of this warm water wimp surfing of the Hawaiians. So he managed to remain upright although not very gracefully, as the boards gradually accelerated down the mountain.

At this point, it is time to look a little closer at the mountain, just as Father James did at this point in the story. This was a massive peak. On three sides the slopes rose steeply but smoothly to the summit. On the fourth side, the mountain dropped vertically for over a thousand meters. As luck would have it, Father James, standing awkwardly on his newfound boards, accelerated toward this massive vertical drop. Warp speed and serious air time approached soon.

Father James realized he was about to meet his Maker. Wanting to get in one last prayer to set things right, he closed his eyes, lifted his arms to the heavens, called out “To the Maker” and dropped to one knee to pray. The boards swept into a turn and came to a stop. He opened his eyes. Stunned, standing, he looked around. He was still a couple hundred meters from the drop.

Another raven flew by squawking. Again he waved it off and again the boards started down the hill. Again right toward the drop. Calling out “To the Maker”, again he dropped to one knee to make his peace before leaving his world. Again the boards swept into a turn and came to a stop.

He thought about it for only a minute before realizing these boards were a gift the Lord left on the mountaintop for him. That in honoring the Maker with the prayer the Lord saved him from certain death. These must be holy boards.

Standing there he, gave a little push down the hill and started down on his own. Eyes wide open, he lifted his arms. Calling “To the Maker”, he tried paying on the other knee and found the boards turned the other direction. Without stopping, this time he stood, lifted his arms and prayed with the other knee. He turned the other direction.

Those were the first two linked turns in the history of skiing.

At the end of that day, the village looked up the mountain wondering if their priest had lost his mind as he swept down the mountain lifting his arms in praise, hollering “To the Maker” with each sweeping turn. They gathered and marveled as he told of leaving to become closer to the Lord. Of climbing the mountain and how the Lord placed these holy boards on the summit for him to find. How believing he was about to die, he dropped into prayer and the Lord taught him to turn and saved him one more time.

And that is the story of how skis were given to the Irish. Of course in time, with a lack of understanding of the thick brogue so many speak, the turn lost the original “To the Maker” and became simply a “telemark” turn. But it does not diminish the fact that every telemark turn is a manner of prayer and puts one closer to our Lord. And that is why all Tele skiers are just a little more holy that the rest.

Year to Year

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Year to Year

A couple weeks ago the State of California informed farmers the delivery of irrigation water will cease for three weeks in March. Reservoirs are low from the last two months of literally no rain. Drought grips the state again. Much of California’s water comes from snowmelt. Rain the valleys and snow in the mountains over the winter. Neither occurred to any real extent so fat this year.

In the mountains, this drought leaves hard snow. Almost racer chaser snow. Long looping high speed GS to Super G turns become the norm. The “Legendary Powder” of Fernie takes on the mythic characteristics of King Arthur’s Court. Legendary in precisely the same manner.

Last winter was average in total, but instead of scattered big dumps, we received a steady diet of 10 and 20 cm daily deposits. My routine last February–first light I’d open my curtains and look out at my car parked at the curb. If the Thule kayak racks and their blue pads were covered, I was skiing. I’d bang away on the little white box to finish the imminent deadlines and everything else could wait until later in the day. There were a handful of days over the month of February and the first couple of weeks of March that I didn’t hit the hill early. They were a mix of too imminent a deadline and/or having to demonstrate I really cared enough about a project to show up for a 10 or an 11 o’clock meeting.

It was a great winter.

This winter runs as a contrast to the last. From the end of December to the beginning of March we received little snow. A few skiffs ran through town. The most 10cm over night. In Fernie, that’s a dusting.

Now the pattern has changed again. The clouds hide the peaks and snow falls in quarter sized flakes. The snow of right at 0. It slants across the window backlit by the streetlight.

No matter how deep the racks are buried, tomorrow will not be a morning on the hill. I’ll sit writing, watching the snow and wondering how it is, knowing the next day, Tuesday, I’ll be up when I want.

Rabbit Rabbit

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Rabbit. Rabbit.

In college I went out with a girl who, on the first of each month, slid out of bed, stood straight up, said “Rabbit. Rabbit.” out loud and then flopped back on the bed with her arms outstretched. She believed if ‘rabbit rabbit’ was the first thing said in the month, you received good luck for the whole month.

In the years since, some months I manage and some months not.

Today, I rose and started toward the kitchen to make coffee. Remembering it was the first, I stopped, walked back to the bed, said “Rabbit. Rabbit”, and flopped back on the bed and wondering if this would be a month of good luck. In an elemental fashion, rabbit rabbit connects with luck and future good will with the same validity as a horoscope or a card reading.

I read a couple horoscopes every month. One detailed. One pretty fluffy.

I think of Laurie often. As we age, we wonder about the paths we take. Twenty years after graduating college, while helping my mother cook dinner, she looked at me and said, “I always wished you’d married Laurie.”

I laughed, and without thinking replied, “Me too.”

So March 2009 is a rabbit rabbit month

Our snow drought broke a few days ago. More is forecast. A pdf of the first pages of the book showed up in my email Friday. Registration for the Conference starts this week. All the stars seem aligned.

Rabbit. Rabbit.

I wonder how it will do?

A Writing Life-1

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A writing life-1

So I am stuck.

8 am on a cloudy half-snowy day. The streets melted yesterday and now are a sheet of ice under an overnight skiff of snow. Only a skiff. A tease. When we are looking, hoping for meters. The piece I am working on lacks a cohesive structure. A thread or theme. Yes, Angie, I look for themes, too.
It’s a ski piece on waiting for snow. Early season training. And waiting for the mountain to open. We’re a week late opening now as it is.

I take a shower. I set the dishes from the last day (or maybe two) in the sink in hot water and dish soap to soak. I make a cup of tea. I boil water in a small saucepan, add oatmeal, letting it cook. It’s unprocessed organic oatmeal. In ten minutes, I take it off, plop it into small bowl, slice off a slab of butter, drop in a spoonful of brown sugar and fill the bowl with milk. I think of cold days in Palo Alto (not so cold) when my mom would tell stories of growing up on the prairies of Saskatchewan (very cold) and how oatmeal kept them going on the short walk to school. How they always put in butter, real butter. How we always had butter. Real butter, because my grandfather owned a creamery.

I think back to the early days of skiing as a child. Foggy days with streetlight only half visible in the still dark mornings as we leave to drive into the Sierras. Waking hours later on Donner Summit with the snow sheds covering the railroad tracks across the valley, granite walls and a blue bird Sierra sky. To ski for the weekend.

And I find my link. My theme. The preparations of those days. The wait and the first day on the mountain.

Edge of the Void

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On the Edge of the Void.

(This piece appeared in the Feb. Fernie Fix)

On the afternoon of December 14th, Cory Brettman rode the Silver Queen Gondola rising out of the town of Aspen 3,267 feet to the summit of Ajax Mountain. At the top, he skied off to skier’s right, passed through a ski area boundary gate and entered the Richmond Ridge “side-country” of Ajax Mountain.
With the advent of open gates on ski areas, there is an in-between zone that has become known as the “side-country”. Not true backcountry, side-country is frequently skied terrain close to the ski area. Not patrolled or controlled, side-country is the casual backcountry.
Cory and I go way back. For years we lived in Breckenridge where he skied on pro-patrol and eventually became one of the top snow control folks on the mountain. He skis like a panther. Smooth. Strong. Nothing seems to faze him. Terrain. Conditions. Visibility. He simply skis.
On off-days we climbed. A lot of ice and a bit of rock. One Fall he went down to the Yosenite Valley returning with a string of great climbs and even better stories. Close to twenty years ago, he moved from Breckenridge to Aspen where he carried on as pro patrol and continued snow safety work.

We live on the edge of a void. Hold your finger and thumb together, just touching. Hold them in front of you. That is the distance between this life and the void beyond.
What you believe doesn’t matter. A life after death. Heaven. Hell. Nothing at all. Or a reincarnation reflecting your acquired karma in this incarnation. On the other side lies a void.

Our valley gazed into the void this week with the death of eight snowmobilers. An avalanche buried three of a party of seven. Two were quickly pulled out and all turned to working to extract the last buried member of their party. Soon joined by four more, they worked feverishly together to rescue the last man. Another avalanche dropped off the mountain and buried the entire group. All of them. One man managed to break free. He uncovered another lying close to the surface. Together they found a third man and started to uncover him. Another avalanche roars off the mountain, they run for their lives leaving the half uncovered friend pleading, “Don’t leave me”. He is buried a third time. They rush back, unbury him completely and help him to the surface of the snow.
In a quick search, the sole transceiver they locate is the signal from the last man still buried in the first avalanche, now covered by a second and a third. They leave believing the area too dangerous to stay while hoping a GPS 911 signal has been received by the outside world.
As they reach the edge of the bowl, the whole middle of the mountain’s face lets loose and roars down running across the area where only minutes before they stood. As they watch, where they had been standing, and the snow under which their friends lie, is buried once again. This time by a wall of running snow 15 feet high and half a kilometer wide moving at maybe 90 kilometers an hour. Turning again, they continue walking down the very track they rode in on not so very long ago. Maybe 30 or 40 minutes earlier.
Their lives. The lives of every person in the valley changed in one way or another. Husbands killed. Father and son killed. Brothers killed. Buried. In a moment. Helping. One still buried and 10 trying to get him out. Eleven buried. Two get out. One partially uncovered and then buried again. He is finally pulled out. The three walk away.
They have stood at the edge of the void. The point there the thumb and the forefinger touch. The point where there is no space, none, between life and death.
And they walked.

Cory dropped into a little chute called Powerline.
At eight that night concerned friends called search and rescue. He’d not showed up for dinner as planned. The Aspen Ski Patrol found Cory, one of their own, a little after nine. The slide was small. Only three feet at the fracture and dropped a couple hundred feet. It threw him into some trees and buried him. One ski broke the surface of the disturbed snow and he was found by probing close by. He was skiing alone without a transceiver, probe or shovel. Just dropping in for a quick shot.
He left a wife of almost two decades, a five and an eight-year-old daughter. And changed the meaning of December 14th for a host of us forever.
Over the years, maybe Cory skied that little side-country chute a thousand, two thousand times? I have the same favorite duck-into spots. A host of them in Breckenridge. And several here newly found in my few years on this mountain.
Familiarity. Complacency. Comfortable. Easy.

We forget the distance between the thumb and the forefinger, just touching, at the very edge of our vision.
I already have a reason to remember December 14th. My daughter’s birthday. Now I have another reason to remember that day. As we age, individual dates stack up like books across a shelf with remembered lives. Some still here and some gone. All mixed up.
The platitude “They died doing what they loved” is only that, a platitude. Trite. Meaningless. It speaks nothing to the life that was lived, the life lost and the lives left behind now moving on alone.
Waking, we start the next day, wondering “Why them?”
And me?
On December 14th Cory dropped into a chute on Aspen Mountain. On December 26th, I became the oldest living member, the oldest male, on one side of my family. On December 28th eleven men rode into an alpine bowl and forty-five traumatic minutes later three walked out.
We live on the edge of the void.

The Streets of Fernie

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The Streets of Fernie
I live in a town where a skateboard is considered a reasonable and viable form of transportation.  In the summer and on warm fall days, long boards share the road with mountain bikes, townies, the occasional road bike, SUV’s and a small smattering of ‘normal’ cars. Normal in the sense of cars most of North America buys but the sort that really will not work in a town receiving 11 metres of now every winter.
The skateboards run in two sorts.  Long boards preferred for the move around mode.  Two and a half feet to four feet long, these fairly stiff boards are stable platforms for moving fast and quickly around town. Hills are their forte.  Long, fast hills.
One of the earliest proponents of long boards was Jim Bowdin of Breckenridge.  In the late 70’s, a Summit County Sheriff busted Jim going 55 in a 25 mph zone down Buffalo Road, operating a toy on a public highway and several other equally absurd charges.  The Judge Tucker, simply amazed Jim survived, tossed the whole deal.
The other boards are shorter and more at home in the skate park than barreling down a hill or down the highway.  With turned up ends, relatively flexible, they bank off planters, curbs and the occasional bench.  And still they find their way into the street and weave between the SUV’s and bikes.
On any warm day in Fernie, it is common to find a couple boards standing in the line-up at Freshies waiting for a coffee or chai.
Our bikes are another story.  Commonly, your mountain bike is worth more than your car. Easy.  So it’s not wasted rolling around town on simple errands.  At the end of a ride, you might end up at the Brick, locking your mountain bike to the rail, but for the most part, for around town, you ride a townie.
Townies come in a wide variety of flavors.  Old beater mountain bikes are common. Better yet, classic pristine early mountain bikes.  Old balloon tire likes are a premium and seriously sought after. Any 30-year-old bike holds high status as a townie.  For those without the patience to search out a classic townie, there are retro townies spouting up left and right.  A combination of classic styling and modern lightweight construction, the retro’s are becoming the bike of choice for swinging into Overweightea’s for a quick bag of groceries or dropping downtown for a beer late in the day.  Baskets and saddlebags make them serve a dual purpose as transportion and haulers.
I know winter is close when walking downtown, a dreadlocked Quebecois skates quickly by, on her long board.  Waving in passing, she is chased by her black lab mix with two white toed feet. Tiny, maybe 5 foot 2, and slender, she’s a seasonal cat driver on the mountain.  We’ve walked downtown together in snow storms and walked toward our homes after shopping at Overweightea’s talking about the conditions, news and whatever comes up.  I still don’t know her name.  Simply that she’s my harbinger of winter and the snows to come.
And any day now, she’ll be walking, her dog carrying his leash in his mouth as the falling snow hides the mountains surrounding our valley.