“The Basketball Story”

So, most of you have already heard this story. But I realized that I don’t have “The Basketball Story” actually down in writing anywhere, and it was such an Epic Fail that I really thought it ought to be. And of course, I did promise you this post.

So, for the sake of posterity, if nothing else, I give you “The Basketball Story.”

Remember how I said in a previous post that I suck at contact sports? Well, how are you going to know something like that about yourself unless you try, right?

Fall, 1981. My first year of Junior High. A Phys Ed coach who meant well but was really really misguided in this case approached me and said he thought I might be able to improve my obviously not yet fully developed hand-eye coordination skills if I were to join the Junior High Junior Varsity Basketball Team. This was one year before I discovered Boy Scouts, and had been wanting to do some extra-curricular activities, so I figured, “Hey, why not?”

What is the worst thing that could possibly happen, right?

I actually ended up getting a lot of reading done (even then I was an avid reader) because I was benched for every game, after proving in practice how much I truly sucked at this game. I had this problem with remembering to dribble. And most of my practices usually consisted of catching a basketball with my face (thrown by jerks like the red-headed Jason who clearly did not have a happy home life). Jason loved to trip me, use a basketball as a bloody nose-inducing projectile, push me down, and just generally display all of the fine qualities of a sore winner and a poor sportsman. It didn’t take long before I dreaded practice each week.

But, I had started something new, and I was determined to see it through, at least to the end of the season.

Our Junior High had an 8 year losing streak going with the neighboring town when it came to the Junior Varsity season basketball tournaments. The coach was determined to break that losing streak. Which had a lot to do, I suppose, with why I was benched every game, and Jason was the star center of every game. I went to every practice, but this usually consisted of avoiding Jason’s frontal assaults and trying not to get blood on my jersey, so combined with never being allowed to play in an actual game where there was an audience, I never really learned the rules of the game per se, and never developed a sense for how the game should be played, which by this time was fine by me. I just wanted out by this time, but I had promised the coach, my parents, and myself that I was going to see this thing through.

It was a cold, clear, night in early December.  The night of the Big Season Junior Varsity Tournament had finally come (none too soon for me) and it looked like we were going to break that losing streak with our neighboring town, at long last.

The score was tied, 30 – 30, there was one minute left on the clock. One minute left of the entire season, one minute to victory for someone if we didn’t go into overtime. The next basket would decide the victor, and the outcome of our 8 year losing streak, which was on the precipice of threatening to become a 9 year losing streak.

And then it happened. Jason purposely tripped a kid on the other team, and the kid fell to the floor with an audible thud as both of his knees slammed into the wooden gym floor. The game was stopped as the poor kid had to be carried off the floor. Jason was disqualified for the rest of the season, which was now frozen in time on that big digital scoreboard at 35 seconds. The other team replaced their fallen comrade, and we needed to replace Jason. Our two other alternates were out sick that cold December night, and so guess who was the only available alternate?

The coach patted me on the back, told me to remember to dribble if I got the ball, and to just pass it to someone who knew what the hell they were doing as quickly as possible. Okay, he didn’t say it quite that way, but there was no mistake that that was the general gist of the 10 second pep talk he gave me. Jason played center, so that was where I had to go.

The bell sounded, and the clock started. The ball was out my hands so fast you’d think I had washed my hands with Astroglide.

I will never forget what happened next. The other team had the ball. And then this kid on the other team made eye contact with me, smiled, and threw the ball to me. You could argue that he was trying to cut me a break, but I seriously doubt it. I think, and always will, that he suddenly realized that I was as sure of myself at that moment as a cat in a leaking canoe, and decided to see what I would do with it, putting the game into overtime or more likely just causing a foul.

I caught it. “Okay, here we go,” I thought to myself. “No pressure here, just no pressure at all. Dribble and pass, just dribble and pass, you can do this.”

And then I saw it. Open territory between me and the basket. Like the parting of the Red Sea, players had split on both sides and I had a clear run to the Big Win. In fact, I was pretty sure that there were no opposing team members near enough to me to stop me. I realized that I had to take the run at the basket. I HAD to. If I somehow pulled this off, I would be a small town hero. Like James Belushi in Mr. Destiny, my entire life was about to change to Jock Status and I would be POPULAR if I could just make this one damned basket, and there wasn’t even anyone in my way. Mind you, all of this went through my head in a second.

I had to take the run. I started to move, remembering with all of my concentration to dribble. In what seemed like slow motion, one of my team mates pointed behind me and yelled an almost cartoonish “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!”  I honestly thought he was warning me of an opposing team member behind me that must be on his attack run.

“No way,” I thought. “I’ve got this. He will never make it to me in time.” Out of the corner of my eye I barely noticed the scoreboard.

05………. 04………. 03 ……….

As I ran toward the basket, intently concentrating on my dribbling, I ran to the basket, and with every ounce of my will and concentration, I took the shot.
The ball went in.

02……………..   01………..

BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNNNNNKKKK!!!!!!!

The game was over. You could hear a pin drop in the gymnasium; the only sound was the sound of the basketball bouncing pilotless across the floor and the echo of the buzzer. As the scores on the scoreboard changed, I turned to greet the soon to be cheering crowd and the wild, ecstatic cheers of my teammates as they broke out into “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”

Wait – that can’t be right – the guy running the scoreboard had goofed – the Visitor’s score changed to 33, not ours. Still not a sound in the gym.

And then slowly, agonizingly, the laughter started in the bleachers, and the and my team became transformed into an angry mob, coming at me with yells of rage. With the confusion of a mime in an opera class, the reality of the situation slowly began to dawn on me.

Apparently in the game of basketball there is something called a rebound. Which was what everyone – except for the kid on my team who had yelled, realizing my intentions – had thought I was actually doing when I sped toward the other team’s basket. Oops. I had just won the game for the other team, the referee counted the basket, and our losing streak to this particular visiting team clicked over to 9 years running.

It was only a Junior High basketball game, after all, and Junior Varsity at that, but at the time it seemed like the greatest Epic Fail in the history of modern sports. And maybe it was – at least in our town, because 26 years later, when I returned to the town for my high school reunion, the town’s Assistant District Attorney, my former high school World History teacher, asked me if I wasn’t the kid who had won the Junior Varsity Basketball Tournament for the other team in 1981.

Some things never change, I guess.

You might think I harbored animosity towards my home town after this incident, but it isn’t true at all. I love the town with all my heart, and I always will, and I forgive that red haired Jason kid for being such a jerk all that year and even for beating me up in the locker room after the game, forcing me to wait in sub-zero temperatures outside for my dad to pick me up, by which time hopefully my lip would stop bleeding.

I just hate basketball is all.

Always have (since a cold night in December in 1981) and I always will. Come to think of it, I really don’t care for sports much at all, a prejudice that I will almost certainly take with me to my grave – I really don’t like sports. (I have a lukewarm fondness for baseball and the L.A. Dodgers, but don’t tell anyone…………)

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to my life, if it would have been any different, if I had made that basket, but in the right basket. While I probably wouldn’t have called my coach later that same night and quit the team like I did, I tend to think that things happen for a reason, that maybe, just maybe, I was somehow supposed to win that game for the other team.

Nah.

A House of Cards

Okay look – I have a really good excuse for not posting for a few days – I was on vacation!  Not to say I can’t blog on vacation, but since I was in the middle of nowhere, it sort of made the idea more logistically cumbersome than was really warranted, so anyway.

I always try to tie each post to Wyoming, because that’s what’s this blog is about! So today’s no different, but in a slightly different way. Today’s post is kind of a public service message. I know I promised the basketball story again, in writing this time, and that post is right around the corner, I promise, but I’m afraid that today I need to go on what will hopefully be a constructive rant.

Without giving too much away about where I work, for those of you who don’t know, I have ended up in a class on global warming. Really interesting stuff. And this was just the first class of many. So I’m stoked. I’m really interested in this topic, so much so that for those of you (or should I say both of you – doh) that have read the novel I wrote, you know that I address this topic at some length in my book.

What I’m on a rant about is that my workplace has gotten an overwhelming positive response to this class – but it has also gotten some negative feedback both internal and external. Some of the negative feedback came in the form of personal attacks on the people trying to educate other people about global warming. Lots of “why are we wasting time with this” types of comments. Lots of “Global warming has been proven a fraud” type of comments.

So, while I am far from an expert in global warming, I have definitely done some research on this (for my book). My research included reading three books on the subject, watching four documentaries, and over 40 hours of Internet research into what global warming is and what it’s not.

So how does this relate to Wyoming? Why don’t you ask someone who lives there if they believe in global warming? You see, in areas like Wyoming where seasonal temperatures cross a broad spectrum, from 65 degrees Fahrenheit below zero in the winter (this happened two years in a row) to 105 degrees in the summer in the 1970s, those temperature spectrums have shrunk. The average annual temperature range there now in a year is from 10 degrees below zero to 115 degrees. The climate in Wyoming has already shifted an average of 10 degrees (I grant you that the two instances of 65 below were cold snaps) and it has been enough to cause animals to migrate out of higher elevations later in the year and has caused an average annual decrease in snowfall in Wyoming of over a foot or more annually. Simply put, people in Wyoming realize that global warming is very very real, because they are living it. This is true of any location that has historically had extremes in differences between summer and winter temperatures. Those places are getting hotter.

But then the naysayers point to coldsnaps in the northeast, and ice storms in the Midwest. Look, they say, record low winter temperatures here and a record snowfall there, they say. Where is your global warming now, they say? And the naysayers who use that kind of logic are missing the point on an almost biblical level. The point isn’t that someone turned up the thermostat and we all better go out and buy tank tops, the point here, the thing that is so obvious that everyone seems to be missing it, is that our planet’s climate is not nearly as predictable and of an ebb and flow nature as it used to be. The entire planet’s climate is destabilizing. And today, I am going to prove it to you.

Here are some fun facts about global warming just to get things going:

Sea levels along the west coast of North America have already risen 3 inches from their historic annual averages.

1997, 1998, 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2012 all had one thing in common: all of these years shattered heat wave records around the world.  July 2012 was the hottest month on record, ever.

In 2012, the polar ice cap of previously permanent sea ice shrunk to its all time smallest size since records on this started being collected.

At current rates of warming, if the trend that began in 1900, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution is not reversed, the Earth’s annual average temperature will rise by between 4 and 8 degrees.

At their current melting rates, permanent glaciers in Glacier National Park in Montana, the Andes, Mount Kilimanjaro, Alaska, Canada, the Swiss Alps, amongst other locales will be almost completely gone in 20 years.

Carbon Dioxide gas, one of the main greenhouse gasses that prevent excess heat and ultra-violet radiation from the sun from naturally escaping Earth’s atmosphere, is present in our atmosphere at a rate over 10 fold of what it has always been for eons, before the Industrial Revolution.

I could go on all day, but you get the idea. The planet is heating up, and fast. This does not mean we are all going to fry, however, on the contrary, it may actually mean quite the opposite. And here we come to the Grand Irony of Runaway Global Warming: one scientific model of global warming suggests that the ultimate outcome of this if something is not done is a new ice age.

You heard me. The ultimate consequence of unchecked global warming could quite possibly be the return of the glaciers to their levels at the end of the last ice age. By the way, the bottom edge of that level of glaciation would run through America’s corn and wheat belts.

Lets’ break this down so this makes sense. I know it sounds contradictory, but this is exactly what the Desalinization Model of Global Warming suggests could happen.

One of the naysayers’ favorite analogies is that if the ice cubes in a glass of water melt, the water in the glass doesn’t rise, it stays the same, and the temperature of the water stabilizes once the ice is melted. Therefore, global warming doesn’t exist. This is an actual argument against global warming. Leaving alone the fact that that equation is a bit different in salt water, and the fact that the top 100 feet or so of the polar ice cap is actually accumulated snowfall that became permanent ice, let’s examine that analogy again with one twist: now that the ice has melted, let’s add about 10 more ice cubes to the glass. What happens to your water level in the glass now?

The permanent land based ice packs in Greenland and Antarctica, together constituting 70 % of the Earth’s fresh water, is currently melting at record levels that a few years ago even scientists who were extremely concerned about global warming said were impossible. In the last 10 years alone, chunks of ice larger than New Hampshire have broken off of the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica and floated out to sea. This has happened at least 7 times that we know of. In the same 10 short years – 10% of Greenland’s permanent ice pack – gone, running into the ocean. This will do two things – because we are talking about trillions of tons of fresh water, this will make the world’s oceans slightly less salty. And of course, it will raise sea levels. Some estimates say by 20 feet by the year 2030. That would be enough to permanently flood many coastal cities.

In the southern Atlantic and south Pacific Oceans, a heat exchange takes place on a daily basis – As the sun rises and sets, cool deep waters rise as warm tropical surface waters sink. This natural heat exchange regulates the oceans’ temperatures. The single factor that most influences this exchange rate besides the sun is the water’s salinity. Because salt changes the density of the water, the saltier the water is, the faster that warm surface water sinks, causing that heat exchange engine to run faster. Conversely, if the salinity of the water were to be reduced, it would slow down this heat exchange. This temperature inversion in Earth’s  southern oceans helps to generate surface winds in a predictable pattern as well as create a current in the oceans that carries colder water north. The winds generated are called the Trade Winds, which are largely responsible for the stability of warm, tropical climates just south of the Equator. The water current generated is called the Gulf Stream; it runs up the eastern coastline of South America and on to the Caribbean, and finally to the coast of the southern United States, where it meets colder waters coming down from the north.

In the north, the same type of temperature inversion causes a south bound water current called the North Atlantic Current, exchanging cold polar waters down to meet the Gulf Stream. The North Atlantic Current also helps keep in check a northern high altitude wind system that constantly circumnavigates the globe in the northern latitudes – the Jet Stream. Where the North Atlantic Current and the Gulf Stream collide, they also connect, creating a “conveyer belt” that is constantly exchanging cold water for warm, and cold air to warm air. Where the two meet is a natural “turbulent zone” – this is why hurricanes are always generated in the waters just north of the Caribbean Sea – it’s where the temperature clash is the strongest, and the energy released as nature tries to balance the two forces creates powerful storms.

That, in a nutshell, is how our planet’s climate works. It’s a pretty neat and stable system, and has been for a long, long, time.

Unless you were to change the salinity level in the southern oceans.

Which of course is exactly what is happening as giant chunks of Antarctica’s permanent ice shelves continue to fall off of that continent, into the ocean, and melt. The same thing is happening in the north as land based ice in Greenland continues to melt at record levels.

The salinity that controls our planet’s entire climate is changing as fresh water is added to salt water by the trillions of tons. It is a scientific fact that if the salinity changes enough, it will shut down the temperature inversion that drives the Trade Winds, the Gulf Stream, the North Atlantic Current, and the Jet Stream, and the whole mess is going to come crashing down on our heads like a house of cards.

If that were to happen, polar air and southern air and water would meet in unpredictable ways all across the globe as the global climate collapsed. This would generate unpredictable storms of a magnitude never witnessed in recorded history. As the Jet Stream Collapses (the Jet Stream is a hugely powerful wind current that maintains at around 40,000 feet altitude) it will be pulled to the ground by the destabilizing polar air and as the North Atlantic Current shuts down. As the Jet Stream comes to ground level, it is theorized that it could create a vacuum in the atmosphere strong enough to pull small amounts of Tropospheric air at the edge of space down to the ground. The temperature of Tropospheric air is close to Absolute Zero, about 450 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. This could explain why Wooly Mammoths have been found flash-frozen in ice with berries in their mouths and in mid-stride. The last time this happened was the beginning of the last ice age, about 100,000 years ago, ending about only 10,000 years ago. We are not due for another ice age for a long time (they seem to happen about every 300,000 years). Unless we were intelligent enough to create enough greenhouse gasses to cause an “artificial ice age” out of whack with the planet’s normal rhythms.

Could it really happen? How much desalinization (adding fresh water to salt water) is too much? How bad could it get? These are questions with no answer, except perhaps to say that we will probably know when it happens that something is very, very wrong.

The above scenario is not something I or anyone else dreamed up. It is a solid scientific theory based upon careful scientific measurement and observation by some of the world’s brightest minds – much smarter than me – all I am doing here is repeating it. I have just very briefly described the Desalinization Model of Global Warming, and it’s worth thinking about.

Global Warming is not made up, and it is not a hoax. Just ask my hometown. It is very very real, and it is already happening all around us. If we do not start taking drastic measures to reduce our CO2 omissions on an individual, local, state, national, and international basis, then we could be robbing our grandchildren of their right to inherit a world in which they might have any choice in the matter. It’s worth thinking about.

Global Warming:  So what can I do?
– If you don’t need a gas guzzling truck or SUV, then don’t drive one. (Yes, we’ve all been hypocrites on this one, myself included.)

– Turn off lights, heaters, and air conditioners when you aren’t using them.

– Given their limitations, electric cars are not the greatest car if it’s your only car – they don’t do road trips that well. But maybe next time you are shopping for a daily commute car, a hybrid or an electric might be the best choice. I myself am committing to purchase an all electric vehicle for my next car, if I ever wear out my Mitsubishi, that is……

– Recycle, recycle, recycle

– Buy post consumer recycled products.

– Reward companies that “Go Green” by buying their products.

– Eat lots of beef – fewer cows mean less methane in the atmosphere.

(Yes, that last one was a joke. I decided this post has gotten wayyyy to serious).

– Above all else – educate yourself, and talk about global warming with your friends, family, and neighbors. If you meet someone who thinks global warming is a crock, don’t call them names, just try to help them see the facts.

– Remember – people crawl into their shell about this and deny it because it’s upsetting. We are doing real damage to this planet, and to ourselves, and this is provably true by scientific facts.

It’s time to stop.

 

 

Let’s Join the Work Force! Or How Not to Drive a Tractor

So, the Horse Trek (see previous post) was not only a right of passage in a way, but it was also re-affirming – I had tried something new, and it turned out that I was good at it.

If you’re lucky – you’ll find a solid handful of these things throughout life – things you are good at and really love to do. You will find, as most people do, that as you get older, the list of things you are bad at keeps getting longer, while the list of things you are good at stays relatively the same. I guess the trick is to pick one of the things you’re good at and find a way to make a living at it. For me, that’s happiness.

So for me, the list of things I’m good at then is horsemanship, flying an airplane (believe it or not), driving, writing (c’mon – back me up here), cooking, talking to people (I’ve always had the gift of gab) and figuring out puzzles.

That last one I’m only sort of good at, but I included it because I combined my problem solving skills with my writing and people skills to end up as a government analyst. Not exactly a glamorous niche in life of course, but I enjoy it, I’m good at it, and it pays the bills.

Now let’s be fair – I should also tell you the things I’m not so gifted, or basically suck at. Math. I can do it, but I hate it, and it hates me. Contact sports. Most people think I have some sort of psychological hangup about sports because I was never included in them growing up, but the truth is that I just suck really badly at them, and then there was the famous Junior Varsity Basketball Incident. (I’ll tell that one in my next post even though by now most of you have already heard that story a few times). Gambling – I lose almost every time. Chess. I love the game – but I’m not hard to beat – try losing to a TRS (Trash) 80 Radio Shack Computer chess program for a blow to your ego. Playing the guitar. I enjoy it, but I have to admit that my guitar playing sounds a little like Freddy Krueger playing a harp. I’m just sayin. Fence building. I can honestly say that no fence I ever built is still standing. You can expand that one to anything in the construction realm, actually. You wouldn’t want to live in a house I built. I’m just sayin.  Oh, and driving a tractor. Don’t want to forget that one.

Now wait just a darned minute – didn’t I just say that I’m a good driver? And yes, yes I am, but only with things that are meant to be driven on a road. I am convinced that tractors are fundamentally flawed by design. They just have a really bad tendency to not keep all of their wheels on the ground, in my experience.

Spring, 1985. I was going on 16 years old, and it was decided that the 8 bucks a week in allowance I was receiving would come to an end in the interest of me getting some sort of job. Time to enter the ole’ work force – no more lazy dog days of summer for me. Sigh. It wasn’t long before I was riding my bicycle to ranch homes (if you are envisioning the scene in Napoleon Dynamite where Napoleon runs all the way to a house in the middle of nowhere to find his uncle, you are pretty danged close) to mow lawns. My first paying lawn job – I mowed our lawn at home all the time with our self-propelled push mower, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one – was on a 2 acre lawn that required the use of a John Deere lawn tractor. Pretty simple machine – handle forward to go forward, all the way forward to go faster, backward to back up, and another lever to drop the mowing deck. Anyone could do it, the machine is simplicity itself.

What the John Deere Lawn Tractor New Owner’s Manual fails to mention is that 95% of the machine’s weight is balanced on the rear axle. Drop some grass catcher bags on the back, fill them up, and you have to drop the mower deck just to keep from doing a wheelie. The manual – and yes I read every word of it – does not mention this at all. I really think it would be more appropriate if Page 1 of the manual bore the following disclaimer: “THIS LAWN TRACTOR IS PRONE TO DOING SUDDEN WHEELIES BECAUSE THE WEIGHT IS UNEVENLY DISTRIBUTED! DO NOT TAKE OFF SUDDENLY AND UNDER NO CURCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU BACK IT UP TO A CLIFF.”

Okay, maybe not quite that specific, but you get the idea. I was just getting the hang of not doing a wheelie on the thing when starting forward when the farm’s owner drove up to me to inform me that his daughter had come home the previous night from Antone’s (a popular steak house and bar outside of town) and had accidentally driven her coupe over the barrels I usually dumped the grass clippings in, so why didn’t I just dump the clippings over the edge of that little cliff (about 35 feet down) on the edge of their property into the small ravine below. No problem.

The next time the bags were full, I raised the mower deck and sort of drive-bounced the machine over to the edge of the property and backed a seriously ass-heavy tractor up to a cliff. It is possible that with the hot sun beating down on me I was suffering some mild dehydration, which is the only excuse I can think of for not thinking things through here.
The soft earth underneath the rear wheels caved in from the weight, dislodging the grass catchers only partially, and sending the nose of the tractor skyward at a 45 degree angle, the whole mess teetering precariously on the edge of the cliff.

The owner came out of his house to see his $3500 tractor looking like it was being prepared for orbital launch and the grass catchers dangling off the back of the tractor like potato sacks caught in the wind. And me having abandoned ship, spread-eagled over the front of the tractor trying to keep it from falling backward into the ravine.

The owner did two things very quickly: brought over his GMC pickup with a tow chain in the back (you know this couldn’t have been the first time this had happened) and simply wrapped one end of the chain around the trailer ball on the truck’s bumper, and the other end around one of the tractor’s front wheels, and dragged it to safety. Not up to OSHA standards, to be sure, but it got the job done. The second thing the owner did was to fire me. Sigh. On to the next summer job, I guess……

Later that same summer, I ended up working in a field with my best friend, putting up barbed wire fences (never get talked into doing this, by the way), digging trenches, tilling fields, etc. Just general field hand work. One day we had to drag some uncut double railroad ties from point A to point B. We didn’t ask where the boss had gotten the railroad ties, we didn’t want to know. Suffice it to say that Point A wasn’t very far from the tracks. Great, not only are we breaking our backs in the sun, but now we’re accomplices too. So we tried to get these ridiculously heavy wooden beams into the bed of the truck, but the truck bed was 8 feet and the beams were 16. It just wasn’t going to work. So we called the field boss, and he said use the tractor – there was a chain behind the seat of the pickup – we could use the tractor to drag the ties to Point B, which, if I forgot to mention, was in the middle of a muddy field. One of us had to stay on the ground and help guide the ties, and the other would drive the tractor.

Now look – I am not trying to rip on the John Deere Company here, I’m really not. The truth is, they make the most dependable and longest lasting tractors. Or so I hear. I just don’t know what they thought would happen when they put two gigantic wheels on the back and then a single wheel on the front that looked like a training wheel off some kid’s bicycle. I’m just sayin.

So I get on this big farm tractor and manage to get it going (this one wasn’t quite as simple) and we get the ties wrapped up in chains and hook the chain to the tractor’s tow hook, and off we went. These tractors will just go anywhere. Right across a field of gooey brown mud. I’m tellin’ ya. Until, of course, you hit a sinkhole and the whole affair goes into the Earth nose first and lists to starboard 45 degrees or so, then, not so much.

The owner came out, saw his tractor sticking ass-up into the air, the nose and training wheel buried solidly into the Earth, and fired me. My friend was nice enough to take me home. I don’t even know how they ever got the tractor out.

I did eventually find a job I liked and was good at that paid pretty decent – driving a school bus, but that, as you know, is another post.

Like all of us, there are things I’m good at and things I suck at. Driving a tractor, it would seem, is in the latter category for me. Although to be fair, I still think their design is questionable. I’m just sayin……

Horse Trek

Sorry it’s been a few days since I posted – life just seems to have that way of interceding on these things sometimes though, doesn’t it? Anyway I hope my readers (all 7 of you from my last count – heh – c’mon, spread the word people!) haven’t missed me too much, I’ll try to keep this up a little better. And as always, thanks for reading!

So, yesterday (Saturday, Sept 8, 2012) was the 46th anniversary of Star Trek. Not too many shows go back almost half a century and have such a huge following today, especially when the show that started it all only ran for four seasons. Anyway, that sort of gave me the idea for the title of today’s post.

The other day, a friend of mine who still lives in my hometown in Northern Wyoming texted me a picture from East Tensleep Lake. I remember East Tensleep Lake well, because I once rode a horse across it.

East Tensleep Lake is the sister lake to the much larger West Tensleep Lake, which is at the main trailhead and parking area for most of the Bighorn Mountain Range and Bighorn National Forest. If you want to hike in the Bighorns, you more or less have to go to West Tensleep Lake. So West Tensleep Lake is a hugely popular spot in the Bighorn Mountains, people camp at the lake, the trailhead to all hiking destinations is right there, and for the faint of heart that require a room instead of a tent, Deer Haven Lodge is 8 miles down the bumpy gravel road back to the main highway.

East Tensleep Lake is about 15 miles away from its sister lake. It doesn’t get a fraction of  the visitors its sister lake does. Which makes it kind of a nice, a sort of halfway kept local secret. The lakes are named for Tensleep – the little stop in the road of a town at the base of the Bighorns before you start up through the winding Big Horn Canyon and the switchbacks. But make no mistake – Tensleep has been there for a long time, since the days of the old west. It was once a Native American camp that settlers and mountain men were allowed to use as a stopover and a waypoint, ten nights (or “sleeps” in Native American translation) from Fort Laramie by horseback. (Today, that’s about a 6 hour drive.)

The photograph my friend sent me brought back those memories from the Horse Trek, and the time I rode a horse across a lake.

Spring, 1983. I was in 8th grade, my last year of Junior High. I had been in Boy Scouts for two years by this time. Remember that semi-sadistic scoutmaster from previous posts? Same scoutmaster. But I kid – while his methods may have been a little off-kilter and leaning into The Twilight Zone, I am actually being facetious – we all loved our scoutmaster, and that was mostly because Dennis had turned Boy Scouts into a place where he transformed boys into men. He did that by challenging the scouts to push their limits. In short, Dennis made scouts what it was always meant to be.

In my two years thus far in scouts, we had gone on countless campouts, where Dennis’ ghost stories always had a way of getting out of control (stay tuned – I’ll talk more about that this Halloween).  Heh. The campouts were always a blast. Dennis once led an Escape From Boy Scout Summer Camp near Yellowstone National Park by piling 17 scouts in his Bronco and taking us all to Yellowstone. He loved kids, he loved being a scoutmaster, and it showed. He also had a way of breaking the rules – but only a little.

So I come to our weekly scout meeting one evening (I still remember that they were on Tuesday nights!) and Dennis tells us that he has planned a trip that only veteran scouts (yay me!) would be allowed to go on. The trip was strictly volunteer, would cost money to go, and had the potential to put us in harm’s way, thus requiring full waivers from our parents. In other words, the kind of trip today that most parents would go, “You want to take my kid where?  To do what?  ARE YOU INSANE???”

Maybe a small part of him actually was, I don’t know. But if so, it was in a good way, and we loved him for it. I have come to refer to the trip that followed as the Horse Trek. The plan was this: leave by horseback from West Tensleep Lake, and head up though the alpine lakes up there to cross the timberline and on up to the Three Sisters Lakes, Bomber Mountain (the site of a WWII test airplane crash – the plane is still there) and on to the spine of the Rocky Mountains on the Continental Divide, and finally to the base of 13,167 foot Cloud Peak. And then back down. It was a proposition that would leave most grown men with serious reservations, and he was asking Junior High kids to do this. It was a trip that should only be attempted by a seasoned horseman who has handled horses in steep, rugged terrain and is familiar with mountain survival techniques and dealing with wildlife encounters. These things I was not. For these reasons, Dennis stated that any scout who completed the trip would automatically receive their Horsemanship and Mountaineering merit badges – two really hard ones to fulfill the requirements for.

The trip was set for the third week of June. So, I went home and sold it to my mom, who thought the trip was a great idea. (Mom understood something that most do not – if you let your kids put themselves in harm’s way just a little – they might grow up to be responsible, dynamic adults. )  And so, out of a troop of 17 scouts, two of us accepted the challenge, myself and Harry. Harry lived on a small ranch with horses, mules, pigs, and other livestock, so he had a bit of an advantage over me, but I loved horseback riding – what little of it I had done – and was only 14 and thus invincible, and so it was set for the third week of June – just Dennis, myself, Harry, and two horses and a mule.

No, the mule wasn’t for packing supplies as I first thought, this was Harry’s noble steed, King Arthur, a good foot or more shorter than the two quarter horses. Joe was Dennis’ steed – a retired race stallion. My steed was Sox – named for her white Clydesdale – like tufts around her feet. My mom rented Sox for me from Dennis for the trip. Sox was a strong quarter horse mare with a bit of an attitude. She and I got along famously, but she didn’t seem to like Dennis much, as evidenced by the fact that she nipped him on the shoulder one morning. This did not go over well.

The trip was set to last 5 days – a record for scout campouts except for summer camp. We would be responsible for the care, saddling, and feeding of our own horses. As luck would have it, my mom and dad actually had a western saddle from our own short foray into horse ownership years earlier, so I used that.

We got up to West Tensleep Lake at about 9 am the first day, and started unloading the horses (and mule) from the trailer. Did I mention that I was the only one on this trip with minimal horseback riding experience?  I want you to remember that. And we had to get it right the first time – mistakes like a loose saddle on a steep and rugged trail up the side of a mountain are not funny and could spell disaster. Dennis showed me what to do once – then I was expected to do it without complaint. We set out for the first stop – the picturesque Lake Helen, about 7 miles up. This would be our late lunch break if all went well. Our camp for the night if it did not. As it turned out, things did not go well, and the trip was almost over before it had barely begun.

At 7,500 feet (Lake Helen is at 9,900) we ran into trouble – snow – and lots of it. More than we expected for late June. Summer in the Bighorns is basically July and August. The first snow falls in September at those altitudes. A little snow never hurt anybody, but by the time we made it to Lake Helen – which was still mostly iced in – the horses were bucking to avoid getting stuck in the six foot snow drifts, and I was pretty danged proud of myself for not getting thrown from a bucking horse. I could almost  hear the Theme From Rawhide playing in my head as the horses demolished the snow drifts with strong kicks of their rear legs and I held on for dear life, moving with the horse the way Dennis had taught me. And dear God – poor King Arthur just had to fumble his way through the snow trail blazed by Joe (lead horse) and Sox. Did you ever see a mule at a snow camp or a ski area? There’s a good reason for that.

So, we had a decision to make. Pressing on was out of the question – on the other side of the lake the drifts were ten feet in places – we had to turn back. So rather than cancel the remainder of the trip, we decided that we would head back to trailhead and set up camp at West Tensleep lake. From there we would day trip to different destinations throughout the Big Horns, a plan that Harry and I were both all for.

That was a long but kind of neat day. We all settled around the campfire for goulash and smores. Dennis sent Harry back to to the Bronco (it was parked across the meadow about a third of a mile away) to get the axe for chopping firewood. Harry, who was a cool guy and capable enough with King Arthur but was otherwise a bit on the clumsy side, came back with the axe but not the truck keys. He was careful to lock the truck, so the keys were somewhere in a two square mile meadow. Great. After some after-dinner flashlight hunting as the sun set on our first night of the Horse Trek, we found the keys, miraculously, and Harry got a harsh and to be honest well-deserved chewing out from Dennis – mistakes like that in the Rockies sometimes just don’t cut it.

The Rocky Mountains are home to unbelievable wilderness and scenery, but they are intolerant of mistakes. It has to be right the first time in the Rockies, Dennis always said. My dad once told me the difference between the Rockies and other mountain ranges in the United States is that in other mountain ranges when you are not prepared you could get inconvenienced. When you go to the Rockies ill-prepared, you could get dead. I tend to think there’s some truth in that. Still, losing your keys isn’t really the end of the world, and we ended up finding them anyway. Harry went into his tent and cried the rest of the night. I know Dennis felt bad about that, as he and I stayed up talking for hours that night.

Second Day. The Boy Scouts of America strictly forbids firearms on scout activities, but Dennis broke that rule and had a Winchester repeating .44 – .40 rifle with him. There are times when prudence supersedes the rules, and this was one of those times. No one, parents included, had a problem with that. So the first order of the day was for Dennis to check the rifle and load it up on Joe with his saddle (the horses were tied up with us at camp).

We saddled up and set out for East Tensleep Lake. By the time we got there around 11 am, it had started to rain lightly. When you are in the mountains on a horse and it starts to rain, you suddenly understand why cowboys had cowboy hats. If memory serves, my folks bought me a cowboy hat just for this trip, and now I was glad to have it. The trail around the lake was super slick and muddy, and we wanted  to keep going. East Tensleep lake is a pretty small lake, and since most of the snow pack higher up had not yet melted, it had not yet received its seasonal allowance of spring runoff. For this reason, the lake was exceedingly low. To my amazement, Dennis guided Joe out into the middle of the lake and started across. It turned out that the lake was so low that we could see the bottom, and the water only came up to the horses’ thighs. We lifted our boots out of the water and rode our horses across the middle of a lake. The Rawhide Theme started in my head again.

SPLASH!!!!!!!
I looked behind me and saw Harry wading in the lake and four hooves sticking out of the water. Oh, for the love of…….

I circled Sox back and threw Harry a rope from my saddle. Harry got the rope around King Arthur’s head and managed to get him upright. The Rawhide music in my head was pretty loud now. Thankfully, mouth to mouth resuscitation was not necessary. The mule belched out a throat full of lake water and let out a clearly unamused “EEEEEE – AWWWWW!”  To Harry’s credit, he pulled that mule, splashing and dog paddling (both of them) across the lake.  They were soaked to the bone by the time we got to the other side, but only my boots got wet.

We built a fire to get Harry dry, and after a long delay, continued the day’s ride up into the Bighorn National Forest Primitive area. It was here that Dennis demonstrated another important rule of horsemanship – when you dismount and leave the reins in the saddle, the horse might still think it’s “go” time and trot off without you. After watching Dennis run after Joe going  “Joe!  No! Come back here you stupid son of a…!” for a second, I urged Sox on, headed Joe off, and grabbed his reins. Just seemed like the thing to do at the time. Dennis thanked me. The Rawhide music was really loud now. We finally headed back, and Harry decided to brave the muddy trail rather than going for another swim. We had a pleasant camp dinner, cooled down and brushed the horses, nobody lost the keys, and Day 2 of the Horse Trek ended under a sleepy Wyoming mountain sunset.

Day 3. Water re-stocking trip back to Deer Haven Lodge. 8 miles of gravel road, which meant reshoe-ing the horses. There was absolutely no reason we couldn’t have just taken the Bronco and made an hour roundtrip affair of this, except that Dennis didn’t want to lose the parking place he had the Bronco and trailer in. Fair enough. So we set out for the main highway on the gravel road via horseback.  We got to the lodge uneventfully, but the foot bridge across the large stream on the trail just before the lodge was closed for repair. Dennis didn’t want to take the horses on the highway, so we splashed the horses across the stream and the Rawhide music started again – softly.

SPLASH!!!!!

I looked behind me and saw Harry’s head and shoulders bobbing in the stream like a buoy, behind a trail of bubbles and a pair of mule ears sticking out of the water. Oh for the love of…………

But it was a warm and sunny day in the canyon, so we just decided to let the horses graze for a bit while Harry dried out again. Joe and Sox each bent down for a mouthful of grass. King Arthur bent down for a mouthful of grass, pulling Harry in a very neat forward somersault over the top of his head. Harry landed on his back in the meadow. Dennis had forgotten to mention to let go of the reins when the animal bends down to graze. I sort of figured this one out for myself, but you know, different strokes….. Dennis and I started laughing hysterically, pausing long enough to make sure Harry was all right. I almost fell out of the saddle myself, I was laughing so hard. Harry was quickly becoming the comic relief on the trip, albeit unintentionally. I thought he ought to have gotten a merit badge for that.

Apparently the day’s activities tuckered the old mule out too, because about halfway back to camp, the mule stopped and would go no further. He was just done. And there wasn’t even any water ahead.  He just planted his feet and refused to budge. Now you know where the phrase “stubborn as a mule” comes from. It was finally decided that Dennis and I would ride on ahead, and Harry would lead King Arthur back on foot. I stayed behind with Harry at first, but I just couldn’t make Sox walk that slow. I finally went on ahead, and we didn’t see Harry for another four hours, by which time Dennis and I had the grilled cheese sandwiches and coffee ready.

After dinner, I asked Dennis about Joe’s days as a race horse. He told me that Joe had been raced around the country on the semi-professional circuit, then ended up in Northern Wyoming, at which point Dennis had purchased him. Dennis added that I would likely never ride a more powerful horse, if I cared to give him a try. I asked if he was serious, and Dennis then said, “I’ll tell you what, cowboy. You think you can handle him, you take Joe a mile or so back on the road and tell him ‘Full Up.’ Say it loud. And you’ll see. But don’t blame me if you fall off – you’ll be going a darn sight faster than you ever have on a horse.”

So, being stupid and invincible, I grabbed Joe’s saddle. I did as instructed, then got Joe stopped and turned around on the road. I gave him a good solid nudge with my boots and said sternly, “Joe – FULL UP!”  If you’ve never ridden a stallion at full gallop, you should try it sometime. Joe’s gallop delivered as promised, and I had to fully concentrate on moving with him to avoid being bounced right out of the saddle. One problem – he wasn’t responding to my signals to slow down as we quickly approached the trailhead. There was a car at the end of the trailhead that I became convinced Joe was going to jump. He instead just jumped the wooden foot-high parking barrier between cars, thundering into the meadow and jumping a ditch I didn’t even see. I FINALLY got him under control, and brought him back to camp to cool him down and brush him. And I learned something else about horses that evening – a horse that senses that you are not fully in control will often stop listening to you.

Day 4: We headed back into the Bighorn National Forest Primitive Area. We were only about an hour in on a new trail when we came to a fallen tree blocking the trail. Dennis and Joe took a short gallop at it and jumped the obstacle gracefully. Sox and I were next. No problem. (Rawhide……..)  Then King Arthur took a run at it.  (Have you ever seen a mule gallop?  There’s a reason for that.) He landed squarely on his face and threw Harry directly into the bushes. Luckily, the mule was basically unhurt, seeming to have a resistance to his own folly. I really think that King Arthur gave Harry his best effort, the problem was just that this was seldom good enough.  Harry stood up, brushed himself off, unzipped his fly, and urinated in the bushes. This threw Dennis and I into complete hysterics again, with the observation from Dennis that King Arthur had scared the piss out of Harry. Poor Harry.

We pressed on – and most of the wildlife we saw on that trip, we saw all on that day. A black bear stomped quickly away from us. Mule deer are everywhere up there, of course. We ran into a moose, which also tried to quickly  get away from us. In the late afternoon we came to a quiet high alpine clearing. The horses stopped at the edge of the clearing and brayed – their signal to us that there was something in the clearing they didn’t like. (One of many things I learned on that trip – horses are very intelligent – more so than I think they get credit for sometimes. Mules on the other hand…….. well, I must really give King Arthur an E for Effort.) As Dennis and I scanned the ground for possibly a rattlesnake or badger (horses hate both of these) a large grey and white timber wolf, larger than a Saint Bernard, walked out into the clearing from the other side, lowered its head, and glared at us. The wolf was about 50 feet from us. Dennis unbuckled the rifle case on his saddle and retrieved the Winchester. For what seemed like a long time, we stared at this lone wolf, and it at us. It then turned around and trotted off into the woods it had come from. We sat at the edge of the clearing for a moment, both to give the wolf some space, and I think to contemplate the majesty and rarity of what we had just seen. We pressed on, not seeing any further sign of the wolf or any other large animal except for deer, until we reached the high timber line, at which point we decided to head back for camp. The day ended uneventfully.

On the final day of the Horse Trek, we took a short ride around West Tensleep Lake, then broke camp and loaded the horses into the trailer. When I got home, I had 5 days of dirt, mud, and general scruff on me. My mother ordered me to proceed directly to the bathroom. She talked a bit with Dennis, who said that I had been a quick study with the horses and had acted beyond my years a couple of times (like when I retrieved his horse for him, but this went unmentioned). He also said Sox and I had gotten along like old pals, which we had, but then mom always said I have a way with animals anyway. (With the exception of cats, this is actually pretty true of me.)

Mom asked me if I’d had a good time, and I said that I did. But where to start…… well, I’d tell them all about it after a nice long, hot shower.

But what I couldn’t really articulate, to her or anyone else, was an overwhelming sense that something had changed inside of me. Something big. Like I had just done a lot of growing up in the last 5 days because I’d had to. And I knew Dennis well enough to know that this was probably intentional. To me, that’s what the Horse Trek will really always be about – a right of passage into adulthood, into becoming a man. I like to think so, anyway.

The next Tuesday, Dennis had Harry’s and mine Horsemanship and Mountaineering merit badges ready, and presented them to us in a ceremony in front of the troop. We left out, officially at least, Harry’s trip status as the comic relief.  I left scouts a year later as I moved into high school and started that awful Freshman year when I wrecked my leg.

But I had done some growing up, and so I just dealt with it.

Years later, in college, I actually took a basic horsemanship class at the University of Wyoming at an off-campus ranch, a semester before permanently moving to California. The instructor asked me why I hadn’t asked to be allowed to take the intermediate or advanced class – she said my skills with a horse left me with little to learn in the beginner’s class.

Rawhide.