Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Altitude Sickness

My work at the Ecosystem Council progressed.  I expanded the organization’s mailing list in fits and starts.  I composed the annual letters to the half-dozen or so foundations that provided the Council with the bulk of its funds―$5,000 here, $8,000 there.  I learned how to compose a lengthy newsletter online, the bits, bytes, and pixels of which were then sent to a local business that created the hundreds of hardcopies, which were subsequently mailed.  Then, with the help (at no cost) of a retired tech wizard living in Crestone―the quirky, quiet little new-age place was a surprising Zen garden of talent―I created the organization’s first website.  The wizard then explained to me how to get maximum exposure for the Council via a relatively new “search engine” he recommended above all others, something with the goofy name of Google. 

Perhaps the issue of greatest concern during my employment at the Council was a proposed resort―cozily if unimaginatively named “The Village at Wolf Creek”―capable of accommodating 8,000 people on some 300 acres of private land adjacent to the family-owned, modest, and relatively remote Wolf Creek Ski Area.  Surrounded by National Forest land and the ski area, the latter leasing its acreage from the National Forest, the private land was acquired in a 1980’s land swap of alleged shady nature between the National Forest and a Texas land development company: 300 acres of lush forest and wetlands just below the summit of storied Wolf Creek Pass for 1,600 acres of, in the words of one environmental advocacy organization, “degraded rangeland” in the San Luis Valley.  The Council was opposed to the development, which was being bankrolled primarily by a Texas billionaire who made his fortune in automobile sales and communications. 

My job was to explain to the Council’s supporters, via newsletters and fundraising letters, the primary threats this development at the headwaters of the Rio Grande posed, including water, air, and light pollution; traffic jams; and wildlife disturbance.  My job was also to attend and document townhall meetings arranged to discuss the proposed development and to participate in and document fields trips to the proposed development site to examine the development’s environmental impacts.  The Council was aided by various non-profits in Colorado, with the legal muscle provided by an organization based in the chic southwestern Colorado town of Durango. 

The billionaire―a former owner of the Minnesota Vikings football team and Denver Nuggets basketball team―never to my knowledge during my tenure at the Council made an appearance either in the Valley or at the proposed development site.  His partner in the venture, an Austin, Texas, land developer and chief executive of the company that would build the project, represented him at townhall meetings in Del Norte, Creede, and South Fork, towns all nearby to the ski area.  In his late-50’s or early-60’s, this soft-spoken―disarmingly so, I thought―man made an obvious effort to affect a casual, down-home look.  His jeans were faded and his boots scuffed.  His suede outerwear jacket―with fringes!―might have been Ralph Lauren.  But it, too, was cunningly worn and faded.  He had a thick, plump, and curvaceous crown of hair that never quite melded with the straight grain of hair on the sides and back of his head and thus, to me, whispered “hair piece.”  In any event, a perfect “mountain man” for the new millennium, he was rarin’ to seduce any skeptical local.    

Here was a clash that had all the makings of an environmental activist’s dream or a zesty plot of a John Nichols novel: a Texas billionaire who made a killing in automobiles, broadcasting, and sports franchises longing to couple with the modest owners of a ski area―small, but renowned for its prodigious snows and challenging runs―on the top of the United States . . . in order to create a commercial hell.  

The battleground was effectively a combination of Mineral County, which contained the private parcel and the ski area, and, at the nearby lower elevations, Rio Grande and Alamosa counties.  These were the counties to which the development team primarily pitched its project, not only because the project required the Mineral County Commissioners’ approval, but also because the three counties, in the opinion of the team, were “economically depressed” and would thus benefit hugely from the jobs generated by the project.  Opponents of the project countered that the jobs in the completed development would mainly involve low-paying work waiting tables, making beds, and cleaning toilets.  

Another, somewhat peripheral, argument against the project was the possibility of widespread altitude sickness among the resort’s guests.  The planned resort would stand at roughly 10,400 feet.  Altitude sickness was a possibility above 8,000 feet.  Its milder symptoms included shortness of breath, headaches, and vomiting, which prompted on my part comical visions of Dallaseños lined up outside of The Village at Wolf Creek gift shop and convenience store for jumbo bottles of Tylenol, or clutching stylish Village lampposts for dear life as they ralphed, on 14 inches of new powder, the previous evening’s meal of margaritas and fish tacos.  More seriously, acute altitude sickness could lead to potentially fatal pulmonary or cerebral edema, both of which could only be arrested by immediate descent to a lower elevation or prompt oxygen administration on site.

And yet despite its delicious possibilities, The Village at Wolf Creek controversy lacked the drama that I had anticipated―and, frankly, hoped for.  At the townhall discussions, no punches were thrown, no obscenities were exchanged, no accusations of “tree-hugging” and “rapaciousness,” no slashed tires, no drawn guns.  Try as I might, I could not bring myself to particularly dislike the developer and his frequent sidekick, the project’s “local project manager,” a grinning, chubby-cheeked young man from Del Norte who worked in sporting goods and real estate.  The townhall meetings were always calm, courteous affairs.  

Meanwhile, the technicalities and legal maneuvers of the battle, which I made little effort to understand―that was, after all, Chris’s job―ground on and on and on.  And on.  Much of this Jarndyce and Jarndyce tedium, which proved to be to the opposition’s benefit, was due to the fact that public land surrounded the land owned by the developers, and the opposition was fighting for every single one of the 750 public feet the developers needed to connect their proposed resort to nearby Highway 160.  Why the architects of the original land swap didn’t anticipate this snag was beyond me.  Week after week, month after month, it was nothing but “environmental impact statements,” “public comments,” “higher court rulings,” “lower court rulings,” “judges,” “riders,” “NEPA” processes, “easements,” “collusions.”  No wonder law is so fruitful.

Today, not a cubic yard of cement for The Village at Wolf Creek has been poured.  Meanwhile, the proposed development has an official website, which includes the motto “mountain solitude reimagined.”

Well, one element of the development, at least on the website, has been “reimagined.”  A long-distance photo, obviously depicting idyllic summertime on the development’s acreage, presents a dark-green, obviously robust conifer forest.  However, when I returned to Wolf Creek Pass in the summer of 2018, I witnessed this same acreage, although now rather different in appearance: an acreage―in fact, an entire pass―ashen with trees, thousands of them, dead from beetle kill, arguably the result of a warming planet.  Unless these trees are cut down―or preserved and painted?―this is what residents will see at The Village at Wolf Creek: a conifer graveyard. 

Time to re-reimagine.[1] 


[1] As of 2021, the battle over “The Village at Wolf Creek” is still being waged in the courts. The Council’s website (slvec.org) lists as one of its 2021 goals: “Update the citizenry about the importance of protecting Wolf Creek Pass from unbridled development and keep the public informed about the Federal Court Case that will be decided sometime early this year. Then, respond in an appropriate manner to the Judge’s decision.”


Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

My Valley 9/11

I learned of 9/11 on the morning of the eleventh of September, 2001, as I drove to the landfill in Monte Vista with a load of concrete remnants from our house construction.  Bob Edwards, host of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, delivered the news through my truck’s radio. 

I was horrified by the violence, destruction, and depravity of the event.  Yet despite marinating in the nightmare via radio, television, and the internet, I felt disconnected from it, the Valley so physically removed from New York City, Washington, D.C., and even a field in Pennsylvania, the Valley’s tallest structures grain elevators and sand dunes.  

Still, in the days that followed, the horror managed to manifest itself in a subtle way in our sparsely-populated neighborhood south of town, and a deep, if narrow, way in my imagination. 

9/11 shut down civilian air traffic in the United States for days.  This meant no noise coming from Alamosa’s little airport, a quarter-mile east of our house: no activity among the small private planes and the occasional private jet; no loud buzz of the propeller-driven commuter planes that connected Alamosa with Denver several times a day. 

It also meant no faintly blinking lights and slender, snow-white contrails some 28,000 feet above the Valley floor: the large commercial jet airliners that regularly flew over southern Colorado between far more important destinations than Alamosa.

When the various aircraft resumed operating, I couldn’t look at them, or even our vast and normally tranquil Southwestern skies, in the same way.  Not that I’d ever swooned over human flight, but aircraft of all sizes and designs were suddenly no longer one of our crowning achievements of applied science; no longer things of grace and speed; but rather weapons, predators, death deliverers.  And the skies over southern Colorado and northern New Mexico were no longer the benign home and playground of light, cloud, wind, and precious rain, but rather potential battlegrounds, cielos del muerto.

In time, however, aircraft in the Valley became friendly again.  And so, too, the skies over the Valley, aided, for me at least, by a cosmic event some two months after 9/11. 

At 2:00 A.M. one emerging November day, I awoke to my alarm, put on four layers of clothing, and sat in a folding chair in our backyard in 16-degree weather to watch the southern Colorado sky bristle with meteors―the annual November Leonids, dust- and marble-size debris from the comet Temple-Tuttle entering the Earth’s atmosphere at 155,000 miles-per-hour.  Under normal circumstances, the night skies over the Valley―especially in the dry, crackling-cold late fall―presented a glowing net of stars that fairly shouted.  Meteors were an added attraction, and, just as the newspapers had predicted, the Leonid shower of 2001 was the most abundant in three-and-a-half decades. 

I watched the Leonids tickle wildly the southern skies.  Some flame-outs were the briefest pale striations, others were slushy green belts that seemed to hold forth for several long seconds. 

And it was as if these emissaries from an incomprehensibly older and larger world were reminding American skies: You are not home to hijacked airliners, F-16 scramblers, suicide bombers, drones, and cruise missiles.  You have been, are now, and will always be home to us

An hour later, I returned to my bed and enjoyed the warmth of a vast, old blanket with a new pattern.

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Dismount

My visceral dislike of “dirt bikes”―essentially, all-terrain motorcycles―and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs)―four-wheeled, motorized means of transport designed for a driver and, at most, a single passenger―on America’s public-lands trails was born one day in the early 1990’s. 

I was backpacking a trail ascending to La Cueva Lake in northern New Mexico’s Carson National Forest.  A dirt bike―snarling, smoking, spewing stones, and trailing clouds of dust―overtook me as I climbed.  Evidence of dirt bikes―and, likely, ATVs―was everywhere on the trail: pulverized earth, exposed roots and rock, damaged and destroyed vegetation.  Such machinery had created a five-foot-wide thoroughfare of destruction where, decades earlier, there was surely a lovely, tranquil path of moist, intact, nutrient-rich earth; wildflowers; grasses; and rungs of pine duff not much wider than the girth of your average fly fisherman.  By the 90’s, however, America was well into the era of “multiple use,” the holy grail of the off-road-motorized crowd, and the surrender of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to that religion. 

At times while making my way to La Cueva, I deliberately left the trail to walk on a nearby parallel path, probably the original route that had been similarly chewed up and spat out by machinery.  The Forest Service was obviously attempting to heal it, as it was crisscrossed in a most unnatural way with limbs and branches to discourage traffic of any kind.  Yet even with 45 pounds on my back, I managed to dipsy-doodle comfortably over and around the obstacles―anything to get me off that dusty gravel chute.  Eventually, the spruce, aspen, and tranquility of little La Cueva Lake settled my nerves.



Thus, I was curious and, frankly, a little puzzled when, one June day, Chris asked me to represent the Council at a two-day “training event” for ATV and dirt bike operators. 

Aren’t ATV’s and dirt bikes the Council’s sworn enemies? I wondered.  But I didn’t verbally question her request.

The event was held on National Forest land near South Fork, Colorado, the headwaters of the Rio Grande, a 50-minute drive from Alamosa.  I commuted to the event both days. 

The first day, the participants met at a place called Beaver Creek Canyon.  Some 25 people, mostly male, were present.  The participants included the instructor, an ATV enthusiast and member of the Mesa County, Colorado, Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team; Colorado State Parks, Bureau of Land Management, and National Forest Service employees from around the state; an employee of an ATV “touring” business located in Texas Creek, Colorado (an arid, lovely place in the Arkansas River drainage where I once did a memorable car-camp); an employee of a dirt bike dealership in Denver; a staff attorney for an ORV (off-road vehicle, another name for an ATV) organization; and Roz, an environmentalist and colleague of Chris’s from the Boulder, Colorado, area. 

The purpose of the first day’s event was training in the safe operation of a “quad,” still another name for an ATV.  Eight quads were provided for our training.  They were militant, muscular, Jurassic, open-aired vehicles of steel and plastic with tires bearing tooth-like treads. 

The event was conducted on a half-acre “practice area” carpeted with summer-ripening grasses.  As an operator, I was fitted with goggles and a massive safety helmet, the combination of the two instantly expunging the surrounding forest and spiriting me to the asphalt, brick, and checkered flags of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Then, “Mount your machines!” bellowed Kenton, the instructor. 

So much for subtlety, I thought. 

Although superficially cordial, I was already fighting with every fiber of my body the fact that I was at this event.  Meanwhile, I didn’t know who or what compelled Roz to attend, but she seemed to indicate that she, too, felt rather out of place.  She was clearly nervous about “mounting” and operating one of the quads.  Still, I was grateful for her presence and camaraderie.  I never doubted she shared my distaste for this machinery.    

Around and around we all drove, with varying ability, on the “track” we were quickly excavating, our snorting, grunting quads pummeling the grass and soil and raising dust.  When he wasn’t showering us with a lot of mechanical jargon, Kenton advised us to always “look four or five seconds ahead” as we ripped through the primeval, and “accelerate when making sharp turns.”  

On his own vehicle, he demonstrated such acceleration, and I bristled when I saw how much additional terra firma that little maneuver disturbed.  But, to his credit, he reminded us to practice “courtesy” and “cleanliness,” stay on “established trails,” and avoid impacting “virgin soil and vegetation,” although I seriously doubted how honoring that last request was even possible given the brute force of these machines. 

At the end of the day, we dripped dust.  Meanwhile, a third of the acreage on which we held the event was effectively trampled and clearly bore an eight-foot-wide circular dirt track: the Rio Grande National Forest’s newest sacrifice area.



The following day we gathered slightly closer to South Fork, at the Tewksbury trailhead.  Far more people attended this event, which dealt with the operation of my old friend, the dirt bike.  Some 50 males and a half-dozen females, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, arrived―from where, I had no idea―on their bikes: motorcycles with heavy-duty, sophisticated shock absorbers and more tires bearing formidable, hungry teeth.  All were dressed in tailored-for-cycling shirts and pants―many in electric colors―helmets, boots, gloves, and what appeared to be Gothic breastplates.  Although all were theoretically there to learn about “managing the sound” of two- and four-stroke motorcycle engines, I sensed the greater motivation was the chance to show off their Mighty Morphin Power Ranger finery and their machines, and, of course, to get down to the business of conquering the “multiple use” Tewksbury Trail. 

An allusion to warfare joined sexual innuendo this day when Kenton, observing that some important guests had yet to show up, declared them “missing in action.” 

Then, Kenton proceeded to advise the warriors to avoid “modified pipes” and install “spark arrestors” to dampen the noise of their machines and thus better enjoy the sounds of the forest, including presumably the robins and ravens that chattered―in protest?―on the limbs and branches directly above us.  I could almost hear the attendees salivating when Kenton informed them, to my astonishment, that the Rio Grande National Forest had 800 miles of trails available for motorized use.  When the subject of respect for “virgin soils” came up, I heard one Power Ranger snarl, sotto voce, to another about the “damn posy-pickers.” 

No mystery there. Roz and I exchanged looks.

At the conclusion of the instruction, there was a collective sigh, bikes were mounted, bandannas were raised to mouths and noses, clouds of blue smoke materialized, and the Power Rangers funneled into the entrance of the Tewksbury Trail to once again commune with nature.  No off-road roto-tillery was provided for Roz and me this day, so we slunk to our respective on-road motor vehicles and bade one another goodbye. 

I knew one was supposed to “take only pictures” when one was in our National Forests, but I couldn’t resist picking a few dusty posies for my wife before climbing into my truck. 

On the drive home, I reflected.  I knew Chris wasn’t a gearhead.  She had told me as much, and I recalled seeing on her car a bumper sticker that read “THE HUMAN BODY: THE BEST ALL-TERRAIN VEHICLE.”  I thus concluded that the purpose of my attending this two-day smoke- and dust-fest was simply to increase the visibility of the Council with Colorado’s public-lands managers―who, I was willing to concede, had legitimate uses for off-road-vehicles in their day-to-day work―and to develop a kind of Don Corleone “keep-your-friends-close-and-your-enemies-closer” relationship with the off-road-vehicle zealots. 

Still, I couldn’t resist returning to Ed Abbey, specifically a 1984 entry in his published journal: “One punk slob on a dirt bike makes more noise [sic] takes up more space [sic] inflicts more damage than a hundred horsemen or a thousand walkers.”

Sadly, by 2001, Ed was well into permanently “missing in action.”  



Colorado, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Finally, Ecodefense

Teaching opportunities at Adams State dried up after one year, and I once again looked for work. 

One afternoon, while emptying the mailbox at the end of our driveway, I found a note left by Wayne, informing me that an Alamosa “environmental organization” was looking for an office manager. 

My interest was immediate.  I assumed this organization, at the very least, dealt with issues of wilderness protection around the Valley.  Here, I thought, was an opportunity to go beyond simply waxing romantic about wilderness and actually engage in the nuts and bolts of defending it.

I phoned the number included in the note and spoke to Chris, the director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council.  I’d never heard of the organization.  We agreed to an interview.  

The interview with Chris and a Council board member was conducted at the Council’s little office located in the building of Alamosa’s public radio station.  The two shared with me the Council’s mission, and my original assumption about the organization was correct.  There was the inevitable question of what got me interested in environmental advocacy, and I mentioned my years of hiking and backpacking in the Southwest, membership in the Sierra Club, and master’s thesis celebrating the various landscapes of New Mexico. 

I felt good about the interview.  However, a week went by without hearing from the Council, so I phoned it, inquiring about my status, and Chris offered me the job.

The Council’s office was small, dank, and dusty.  Daylight dulled by sheets of plastic―the poor person’s “storm windows”―filtered through the two large glass windows hung with faded curtains.  Two massive recycled wooden desks were there for me and Chris.  On mine sat a personal computer. 

The Council was incorporated as a non-profit several years prior to my hiring.  Chris, who came aboard about six months before me, and I were its only paid staff.  The organization’s board included a physician’s assistant, a woodworker, and a respected Alamosa artist who painted landscapes in oils when he wasn’t working, during the growing season, for a Valley lettuce company.  The Council’s main goals were building recognition and credibility in the Valley and securing legal advice. 

I initially worked 25 hours a week, answering the phone, researching and adding names and addresses to the organization’s mailing list, writing grants, preparing the minutes of the board meetings, representing the Council at events of environmental interest in the region, and documenting the organization’s field projects.  I often worked alone, as Chris commuted to the office from her home in Crestone, an hour’s drive, only twice a week.  The independence and solitude suited me.

Chris was a classic representative of certainly one slice of the Valley’s population.  Some ten years younger than I, she arrived in the Valley―from exactly where, I did not ask―with her husband two years before me.  A native of Cleveland, Ohio, and a college graduate, she told me that she worked briefly for, of all things, one of David Letterman’s Late show incarnations―in what capacity, I never asked.  She was a hale and solid woman who eschewed make-up, her cheeks rouged by the Valley’s sun and wind.  She would have looked at home on the coasts of Ireland.  Her long hair, un-styled but not unkempt, often arrived at the office still damp from a shower.  Her clothes were casual.  Many of them might have been purchased at a Valley secondhand store.  Her running shoes were worn.  She was relaxed and irrepressibly upbeat.  From the start, she frequently sought my opinion on a wide spectrum of matters, and I had rarely felt so valued in a new job.  

Somewhat to my dismay, however, there wasn’t the slightest bit of drama at the Council office during my initial months of employment.  There were no challenges to timber sales in the national forests of the mountains surrounding the Valley.  There were no phone calls griping about threatened fish and game habitats or polluting businesses.  The office rarely had visitors.  The phone rarely rang.  Indeed, I realized that the Council was truly unknown.  Nonetheless, I quietly went about my job as if I were still the scrivener at the instrument repair company in Denver a quarter-century earlier.

However, things began to get more interesting when, one day, Chris assigned me some field work.