In Memoriam: William P. George 1933 – 2014

On July 28th, 2014, my father passed away. He was 81 years old, and went peacefully in his sleep. As you may have garnered from reading this blog, he led a full life, and he did some good in this world while he was here. Heck, I’d go so far as to say that he probably left the world a slightly better place than when he first came to it.

I do not mean to say that he was perfect, because he wasn’t. But then, none of us are, of course. In fact, growing up in Northern Wyoming, as a young boy, then later as a teenager and then as a grown man, with all of these crazy experiences I have been sharing with you on this blog, why, all of that time, my father and I saw eye to eye on almost nothing, just nothing at all.

I realize today that that is probably because we are so much alike.

Growing up, I frequently had your typical teenage angst – girl trouble, a blown engine in my truck, the responsibilities of a 7th Period Bus Driver (see previous posts), and the one thing that I didn’t want was my parents’ advice on any of it. I was a typical American teenager.

But that wasn’t good enough for Dad – he always wanted to help, whatever the problem was, he wanted to help. Part of me sometimes thinks that in some strange way, he needed to help. Problem was, in my view at the time, his idea of “helping” was to simply minimize the problem. Not very helpful to a hormone-ridden teenager with zits on his nose.

Now, of course, I get it. He was trying to get me to see that, “Hey, kid, don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff” (to quote the great Robert Fulghum).

Often, I would tell Dad about whatever perceived teenage drama I was going through at the time, and I would always get the same answer from him – “Well, it’s just a minor adjustment.”

Used to drive me crazy. “Just a minor adjustment.” Great. Thanks, that helps a lot. Only he was right, of course. All of those worries eventually went away like a tumbleweed rolling across the prairie, and usually my worries were just about as inconsequential as a tumbleweed, too, and that’s what he kept hoping I would see.

It’s just a minor adjustment.

I remember one winter morning Dad had forgotten to plug in the block heater on our 1978 Chevy Suburban – a block heater is a small heater mounted to the engine block that is plugged in to an electrical outlet while the car is parked overnight – it keeps the engine oil from freezing. Everyone in Northern Wyoming has one installed on their car, and a “power pole” or outlet to plug it in to in front of their house or in their garage.

It was 40 below zero Fahrenheit (without the wind chill factor) that morning, and the Suburban’s engine oil was frozen solid. Dad cussed up a good old country storm, and I told him not to worry, it was okay, I’d take the bus to school, no biggie. Just a minor adjustment. He didn’t think that was very funny at the time.

When I go back to Wyoming to visit every few years, I always notice the big log-framed sign with the “bucking bronco” logo on it as I cross the state line into Wyoming: “Welcome to Big Wonderful Wyoming – Forever West.”

I like that. The last time I saw that sign, in the rear view mirror of my car as I pointed my Mitsubishi back towards California in August of 2013, it kind of reminded me of my dad. At that time he was still living at home with my mom a lot of the time, and in assisted living the rest of the time. His health was starting to fail, and we all knew it.

But that’s not what I thought of the last time I saw those words in the rear view mirror, “Forever West.” I thought instead of how he used to be – tall, proud, in his cowboy shirts, cowboy boots, and a big 5x beaver skin cowboy hat – he used to be so proud of his cowboy hats. Put him in that 1978 Chevy Suburban with Wyoming plates, and you had a rolling advertisement for Wyoming tourism.

Dad identified with the American Cowboy long before that – he was wearing a cowboy hat and carrying his old Gibson guitar (and a King James Bible, but that’s a whole other story) down the sidewalk long before I was born, when he was on furlough from the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. His favorite singer was country western performer Hank Thompson – you can imagine being picked up from school in the Suburban with the lyrics “I Didn’t Know God Made Honky Tonk Angels” blaring on the stereo speakers.

But, that was dad – truly Forever West.

Who knows for sure what lies on the other side of that dark veil, which we must all pass through at the end of our time on this Earth, sooner or later. I’d like to be able to tell him now that, “Hey, don’t worry, Dad, it’s just a minor adjustment.”

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I guess we will all find out though. But what I do know is that for those of us left behind in my father’s shadow, life will go on, as it must, but for us left behind that will be the most major adjustment of all.

To my father, then, who usually meant well even if I didn’t always see that, and who was many things to many people, but always working for the greater good, I can only say, Happy Trails, Dad, and Forever West.

Nowhere to Run

In a previous post I quoted my father as once saying that, the difference between the Rocky Mountains and other mountains in the United States is that when you go to other mountain ranges ill-prepared, you could get inconvenienced. When you go to the Rockies ill-prepared, you could get dead.

I can personally vouch for the truth of that statement. It literally comes with the territory – there are parts of the Rocky Mountains that are so remote that very few humans have ever even been there. A largely undisturbed wilderness like that, too many have found out the hard way, is inherently dangerous, even upon the beaten path.

South Pass, Wyoming

January 1978

We had spent the Christmas vacation with relatives in Los Angeles, driving there and back in that same old ’73 puke green Chevy Impala. I remember I got this huge dinosaur playset that took up way too much room in the trunk, but at least back then cars had huge trunks, so we managed.

To my father’s credit, he took his own advice and was very careful to only drive over mountain areas when the weather forecast was clear and the roads had been recently plowed and salted. Even still, we carried chains, an emergency kit, blankets, a stove, and food. Not doing so in a two door sedan with a family of five on board over Rocky Mountain passes in January (the ones that weren’t just closed for the winter) would be beyond foolhardy.

And yet, there is an old saying in Wyoming – anyone who tries to predict the weather in Wyoming is either a newcomer or a fool.

South Pass is the all-essential mountain pass that connects Interstate 80 with Northwestern Wyoming. If you wish to get from Rock Springs on I-80 to the Yellowstone / Grand Teton area, you almost have to go over South Pass. The pass is really just the lowest point in a high plateau between the Wind River Mountains and the Great Divide Basin. Its elevation is only 7,400 feet, but it remains at that elevation for over 100 miles of high mountain prairie between Rock Springs and Lander. There is little vegetation, and the plateau is completely exposed and susceptible to sudden freak and epic storms at any time of year.

If you find yourself caught in such a storm in the middle of South Pass, there is nowhere to hide, and nowhere to run. You are simply at the mercy of the elements. Coming back to my hometown from Colorado in 2013, my friend and I clipped the edge of just such a storm – a summer thunderstorm. With torrential rain that pounded the car and flash flood waters that sheeted across the highway so that it looked like we were driving down a river, and marble sized hail, we felt lucky to have just caught the edge of it. We were forced onto a side road that took us into Riverton (which was where we wanted to go anyway). Continuing into the heart of the storm out of Jeffrey City (population 10) would have been veritable suicide – I heard later that storm produced golf-ball sized hail at its center.

And that was in the height of summer.

* * *

So on that cold January day in 1978, we started up South Pass out of Rock Springs in the late afternoon (when freak storms most often form on South Pass) with clear skies in every direction and a weather forecast of partly cloudy on the pass.

As we reached mile 45 on the pass, dark angry clouds had gathered over the pass seemingly out of nowhere, and it began to snow. And snow. And snow.

By nightfall the pavement had disappeared under a blanket of snow – the only way to know where the highway was was to stay in between the highway’s snow poles lining the highway on each side for just such occasions. The defroster and wipers couldn’t keep up with the ice accumulation on the windshield – dad slowly plodded the Impala through the quickly accumulating snow at 20 mph with one hand while reaching outside the car through the open driver’s side window and scraping the ice off the windshield with the other hand. At the rate the snow was falling, it became apparent that soon the Impala would lose the battle and be unable to continue through the deepening snow.

We were in very serious trouble, the kind of trouble that was really not very far away at all from becoming a life and death situation.

And then, truly like an angel out of the snow and zero visibility, came the lights of a semi-trailer, slowly, cautiously, trying to pick and force its desperate way off the mountain. It was now snowing so hard – and I wouldn’t have believed such a thing possible if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes – that the ruts in the now deep snow made by the semi were filled in with fresh snow in mere moments. My father planted the front end of the Impala just a few feet from the back of the trailer, his left hand still scraping the ice off the windshield, with the realization that staying right behind the semi before the ruts could fill in with snow was the Impala’s one and only chance to get off the mountain safely. I still remember the whining of the engine and the slipping of the wheels as the Impala rode the truck’s ruts like a train track. Inside the Impala, no one spoke a word.

We left Rock Springs at 3:00 p.m. that afternoon; we pulled in to Lander, safely off of South Pass, at 9:00 p.m. – a distance of 117 miles.

That night, a record six feet of snow fell on South Pass.

* * *

We still sometimes talk about that night, and how any one of dozens of things could have happened that would have prevented us from getting off the mountain. My father used to be fond of saying that if that semi had driven off a cliff that night, we would have too, and it’s true.

When the truck finally pulled off the road into a motel parking lot with a bar next door, my dad pulled over too. The burley trucker seemed to quiver a bit as he climbed out of the cab. He and my dad shook hands, and the trucker said he really needed a drink. We continued on our way home, getting back much later than we had planned, with a sobering reminder of who is really in charge in places like South Pass.

* * *

Coincidence or not, later that same year my father traded the Impala in on a 4×4 Chevy Suburban with a full off road package that included a winch. That would be the family car until I went to college. I bought it off my dad a couple of years after we moved to California – it had 177,000 miles on it when I got it. It was the best car we ever owned.

* * *

To this day, I don’t much care for South Pass. Like I said, I have driven it, but when I visit I prefer to take the Snake River Valley through Idaho and then over the steep but comparatively short 9,600 foot Togwadhee Pass outside of Teton National Park. You go up, you come down, there are trees and places to pull over, and you are off the mountain and in Dubois before you know it.

I just don’t like that feeling of being trapped – at any time of year – on that high prairie for over 100 miles on South Pass, at the whim of elements that can change without notice, leaving me with nowhere to run.

The Great Colorado Road Trip

When I was a freshman in high school I read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.”  The version of the novel I had bore the novel’s original title, “Goodbye Blue Monday.” I was probably reading a first edition of the novel that would bring a bunch of cash today, but what can you do. I think I loaned that book to someone and never saw it again. Doh.

From about the fifth grade on, I had always carried around a paperback novel, horror, science fiction, a bit of fantasy (elves and wizards and what have you), all 29 Alistair MacLean novels (plus his one super rare non-fiction book I managed to lay my hands on) – pretty much whatever I could find to read if it had a decent plot. Sometimes even if it didn’t.

“Breakfast of Champions,” is an interesting novel. It is set (like many of Vonnegut’s novels) in an alternate universe.  This car salesman is driving across the country to attend an arts festival, where he meets the owner of a burger franchise. The car salesman introduces the burger salesman to the writings of a surrealist author, Kilgore Trout. After the arts festival the two set off across this fictitious country in an alternate universe, and the burger guy becomes obsessed with the Kilgore Trout novels, taking them as literal truth. The burger guy goes insane and goes on a criminal rampage, leaving his travel partner to wonder where it all went wrong. The novel was about how we all have a tendency to place our own expectations upon other people.

This past summer, I drove from Sacramento back to my hometown in Northern Wyoming, then went on an 1,800 mile road trip through most of Colorado with a friend I have known since the first day of Kindergarten. Before I left, I joked how the trip was in danger of turning into a Kurt Vonnegut novel.  (Don’t you just hate it when you’re the only one who gets your own jokes?)   Anyway.

My friend and I have been through a lot together – he was there for The Great Mudball Fight of 1978, he was there at my side when I wrecked my leg and couldn’t walk right for the better part of a year, he was there in the Rock and Roll High School days, we even went to college together for a few semesters before I moved to California.

So, I mean, as road trip companions go, this should have been a no brainer, right? Well, maybe.

And don’t get me wrong – we did get along just fine, but I think we both also got a reality check or two along the way.

DAY 1:  Northern Wyoming to Denver.  Pretty uneventful. My friend, who I will call “Jeff,” was a little frugal about where to stop for gas (he paid for gas and I paid for lodging) but that was okay. We stopped in Chugwater, Wyoming and made sandwiches out of the cooler that I was reluctant to bring along. (The words “we need to be weight conscious, on this trip, Jeff” actually left my lips at one point on this trip. So I’m the C3-PO of vacations, what can I say.)

DAYS 2 & 3:  Denver to Snowmass / Aspen.  Let me tell you something about the Mitsubishi Lancer. I LOVE my car and everything about it. But, it was almost certainly not designed by anyone who lives in the mountains. Around Sacramento, it’s a dream car. But it has a small four cylinder engine, and when going up a 45 mile 7% grade up into the Rocky Mountains, you suddenly feel as if you are pulling a U Haul trailer full of bricks. I’m just sayin. And the car did fine, but we definitely lost some speed and pushed some rpms to get her up the mountain. And this was the first climb of many. So, this day was where I first heard the phrase, “You know, cars like this perform better at high rpms – you’re babying it.”  Or one of 32 other variants of this phrase I heard over the next nine days……. (The car can be driven in Automatic or downshifted manually.)

  But, we made it to Snowmass no worse for wear, and everything was just amazing (I wanted to close my eyes on the chair lift).

Image

And maybe I was, babying it I mean, but still, bounding up the mountain at 9,000 rpm just to see if we could didn’t seem like a good idea to me………..  I’m just sayin.

DAYS 4 & 5: Aspen to Montrose, CO.  Our next stop was something I had been wanting to see for a while – Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It’s basically a gouge over half a mile deep in places in the Earth’s crust, carved out of solid rock over millions of years by the Gunnison River. By this I think we were both duly impressed. We both seemed to like the town of Montrose a lot (only 15 miles from Black Canyon) as well. 

Image

 

Days 6 & 7:  Montrose to Telluride, CO. Telluride is at 9,500 feet on the valley floor, so you can feel your lungs working for extra air a bit – especially when you’ve been living at near sea level for 25 years. We rented mountain bikes, took the gondola up to the top of the mountain, and rode the bikes down the mountain. The shop told us each bike they rent gets new brakes once a week. 3 to 4 runs down the mountain basically smokes the brakes. And these were high end bikes. Image

Jeff took the double black diamond runs (advanced expert level) but I would have none of that. I took the green run (beginner) which turned unceremoniously and without warning into a blue run (moderate) at which point I hit a curve wrong in the trail, the front wheel went into a rut and the rear wheel decided it wanted to be in front, and I was instantly wearing a mountain bike. (They make you wear full helmet and armour, so I was fine.)  Jeff went over the handlebars on the double black diamond run, and decided to try his bike on too.

I made it across the open area of pointy rocks on a dramatic downslope without crashing, I was proud of that. Then I saw a 2 foot fall on the other side of a tree root just in time and hit full brakes. I ended up doing a forward wheelie at the bottom of that drop, teetering on the edge of disaster, finally bringing the bike back down, and landing on the cross bar instead of the seat. Ow. So, with a slightly unamused groin, I elected to dismount and walk the contraption up the next short but steep hill. Halfway up the hill I slipped on some loose shale and did a spread-eagled face plant in the rock and dirt, the bike coming to rest on top of me to add insult to injury. I was going to have to remember to make an appointment with my masseuse when I got back to Sacramento.

Days 8 & 9:  Telluride to Mesa Verde National Park. This we both loved. For Jeff, the guided tours included ladder climbs and scaling vertical rock faces with only a chain to hold on to and shallow steps cut into the rock. Oh, I got to do that too, it’s just that I think Jeff enjoyed that part more than I did.

Did I mention that I’m not the biggest fan of heights? Did I further mention that every single stop on this trip involved staggering heights? Did I still further mention that I was solely responsible for the planning of this trip and so really had no one but myself to blame? Sigh. Regardless, Mesa Verde National Park was pretty danged cool. The pueblo ruins there are amongst the oldest in North America.

Image

Day 10: Time to head back to Northern Wyoming, where I would spend another week playing video games, reliving my adolescence and childhood a bit, visiting the house I grew up in and the Blockplant, talking to people in town, and just basically wandering around in what to me was a bit of the Twilight Zone. Heck, I even rolled down the windows of my poor abused Mitsubishi, cranked Night Ranger, and took a few Mains for old times’ sake.

It was a fantastic trip. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have any misgivings about the trip beforehand once it was all planned. But we went, and the “Chevron vs. Loaf & Jug” economy gas discussions and the “How many rpms are you doing right now” discussions not withstanding, we got along great for the most part, got on each other’s nerves a little (as is to be expected on a trip like this, I think) but above all else we kept it real, and let our lifelong respect for one another guide us most of the way. 

I realize now that Jeff is a very different person from who he was in 1988, and guess what? So am I. And that’s the way it should be – I think we had both forgotten that a little, which is easy to do on a 90 minute phone call, but not on a 10 day road trip.

If I had any regrets about the trip, it would only be that I didn’t let Jeff drive, as I had intended to, and I know he enjoys mountain driving. I’m afraid that after the 32nd rpm comment, I became a bit overprotective of my little Mitsubishi. Ah well, such is life I guess.

The important thing is that not only are Jeff and I still friends, but our friendship got a big boost by the trip after all was said and done – we’re probably right now as good of friends as we ever have been.

No one was driven to any crime sprees, nor did we read any surrealist novels or attend any art fairs. Sorry to disappoint, Mr. Vonnegut (RIP).  

But of course we didn’t – the mutual respect and understanding that you can’t change or program people, but don’t you just know that life will make a fine job of that by itself, were missing between the two characters in the car in “Breakfast of Champions,” and that, I like to think, was Mr. Vonnegut’s original point in the first place.

 

Oktoberfest

Well, I’m back. I have not posted on this blog all year, and I don’t know why, really. Busy? Sure, that’s part of it. Working too hard?  If you are one of my bosses, then yes, every day. And I don’t think, as I said in my last post, that it’s that I’m out of good stories, because I’m not. Out of inspiration, that certain writer’s magic that happens when a writer gets “in the zone?”  Well, maybe, but I hope not. So, rather than make excuses, with your permission I’d like to simply pick up where I left off, and we’ll see if we can’t make this a regular thing, again.

Oh, and to those of you who actually requested that I get back on here and pump some life back into this blog – thank you. I like to think of myself as an inspired writer, but you, my readers, are why I do this after all. So let’s go.

How about some coming attractions first?  Think of this as my promise to you of future posts that will be worth reading. I went back to my hometown for a few weeks this past summer, I want to tell you all about that. (That will be a pretty long post).  I want to tell you about The Wizard’s Den, about the Toyata and the dining room chair, about Batman and the willow tree, and about the flumes. So those are all wherethebleepiswyoming posts coming your way soon, and I promise not to disappear on you again.

Much.

So here it is – coming up on the end of summer, labor day weekend, and my favorite time of year, fall. And in my town, growing up – this particular point – right at the end of summer with school about to start – meant one thing and one thing only – Oktoberfest.

One of the things I may not have told you about my hometown yet was that it was founded by first-generation German immigrants, around the year 1900. To this day, the town has a healthy population of German descendants. This inherited German culture played itself out in the form of the Oktoberfest during the first week of September nearly every year I lived there, which by the way was from 1972 – 1988.

The first week of every September, the town’s Community Hall, which looked conspicuously like a converted aircraft hangar, was transformed into a crowded hall of beer-swilling townsfolk, German folk dancing, sauerkraut, and cabbage burgers. Now if past experience in relating all of this is any indicator, you just went, “Cabbage what?”

Cabbage burgers. Hollow, baked bread pockets made with slightly sweet dough and filled with spiced beef and boiled cabbage. Often times with some German cheeses thrown in as well. Yum. I could eat these things all day, next to Italian food (my all-time favorite, which is odd since I don’t have any Italian blood in me but I do have quite a bit of German) cabbage burgers are one of my favorite foods.

And there was this little German hut on a trailer that looked like it had somehow been hijacked from Bavaria, where you could buy buttons, mugs, suspenders, lederhosen, and other items of classic German culture. (Lederhosen are very heavy leather shorts that go down to the knees, and have suspenders attached to them to keep them from plopping immediately to your ankles while engaging in German folk dances in these affronts to sensible fashion).

The Oktoberfest was a week-long affair, and the oom-pah music and general buzz of conversation and celebration could usually be heard for blocks. The Oktoberfest was the only time of the year the town ever had any traffic to speak of.

And with good reason. People would come from all around the state to attend our town’s Oktoberfest.

One guy put the whole thing on each year – it was his sole passion. Like a self-made German Beer Garden version of Santa Claus, each year he transformed the town for a week into a German folk festival that brought in tourism dollars from all over the state.

Like I said, this went on every year – the last one I attended was in September 1987, out of high school for four months by then. In the summer of 1988, I moved to California. I heard that the guy who had always put on the Oktoberfest passed away from natural causes that same year, and a decades-old local tradition quietly died with him.

In 2006, a pile of oily rags were left in the kitchen of the Community Hall. They smoldered to combustion, and the dry, old timbers of the Community Hall went up like balsa wood, causing one of the worst fires in the town’s history. The Community Hall was completely destroyed. Luckily, no lives were lost, and the Fire Department saved the surrounding buildings, preventing a much larger blaze.

A friend of mine who still lives there told me that in September of 2011 someone bought that old Bavarian hut on a trailer from the town storage, and took upon the responsibility of resurrecting the town’s annual Oktoberfest. It really did do my heart good to hear that. But then, I was always a sucker for nostalgia. I really hope it works out……

One of the things about the Oktoberfest, like I said, was that for me it really taught me about the town’s roots. At the beginning of the 20th Century, people sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in steam ships and started across the Great Plains any way they could – sort of after the Oregon Trail days and way before the great Westward migration brought on by the Great Depression. Most came by train, with the advent 30 years earlier of the first transcontinental railroad in North America.

And some of them settled in this desert valley between mountain ranges to carve irrigation canals and a new life out of the scorched, barren land.

All I can say about that is that those folks were made of sterner stuff than me.

So that’s how the town got started, mostly by German immigrants like I said. I don’t know exactly when the first town Oktoberfest was, but I know it goes back at least to the late 60s. 

And for one week a year, the town celebrated its roots the only way it knew how – tradition.

And so it goes. I would really like to see the Oktoberfest be resurrected, it’s only right, and the town deserves it.

I have some related posts for you on this subject – next time we will talk about the Tyroleans. Then after that I want to tell you a story  – a story I like to call One Day After School I Learned About War.

If you’re reading this (again) thank you for sticking with me in my absence, and thank you for asking me to write again. We’ll talk again – soon!

 

 

The Truth About Santa Claus

 

 

Spoiler Alert – Don’t read this to your kids!!!

Well, here it’s now been nearly two months since my last post. No excuse for that, is there? At first I thought it was because I had run out of my really good Wyoming stories – the stories that make my time in Wyoming sort of unique – that’s what this blog is for, after all. But then I realized that wasn’t quite it – I had only told you my favorite  stories from my childhood and adolescence. There are many more good stories to be sure – I just have to make sure I don’t let this blog devolve into stories about the year we had goose for Christmas instead of ham. I mean seriously.

And speaking of Christmas, we just unwrapped another holiday season, didn’t we? Thank goodness. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in saying that the holidays always seem to come with not only holiday cheer but also a certain amount of a special kind of trepidation. We have to plan the time, the place. The food. The gifts. The money for all of this. Try to get bargains online or at the stores. The shopping, I mean, my God, the shopping.

Because of all of the tragedies in the news this year, all the 2012 doomsayers, etc., I guess I had a bit of a hard time really getting in to the holiday spirit this year. Normally, I’m the guy who is first to give out the Christmas cards, and play Christmas music as I trim the tree and wrap the presents. It has been noted that as the resident atheist, I am frequently the one in the office with the most holiday cheer of anyone, which I might add is just sad, people. Anyway, this year, I don’t know, it just all felt kind of forced.

Not like when we were kids. I really do believe that old saying that Christmas is for kids. Those years of roughly 1 – 8 in most young lives when we wait for Santa to work his magic on Christmas Eve, and the mystery and joy on Christmas morning when we find that he has – that’s the true spirit of Christmas, isn’t it?  Joy and innocence. Maybe that was the thing this year – it seems like there was less joy and innocence this year, didn’t it?

Sort of like as a nation we woke up on Christmas morning and caught Mom putting out the last of the presents and realized that my God, you mean there is no Santa Claus?

Well, we all have to go through that realization, at some point, don’t we?

A young relative of mine still believes in Santa Claus. He’s 12. Seems a bit late, but then I think, you know what? Who in the hell are we to take that away from him? If the kid wants to go on believing in magic for another year or two, then you know what? What’s the harm? An extra year of innocence in a child might just make a difference somewhere along the line, you know?

I myself was 9. Well, 8, but 9 was the official year I finally found out The Truth About Santa Claus. It would have been 8 and that would have been that, except that on the Christmas Eve when I was 8 and finally realized that the jig was up, wouldn’t you just know that the jolly old elf would show up on our doorstep. Seeing is believing, as they say.

Christmas Eve, 1977. Looking through the Montgomery Ward catalog (the nearest shopping mall to my hometown was over 150 miles away) at some of the cool toys that company sold I noticed that the order numbers were circled in ink for the very Tonka farm toys I had specifically asked for. I wondered, if Santa was magic, why did he need order numbers? I always thought he just used the catalogs as a visual aid for what kids wanted. The dude had his own workshop, so why did he need order numbers? And how did Montgomery Ward get all of those presents to the North Pole? Or did Santa just stop by the Montgomery Ward warehouse on his way? Something was up.

Armed with my new and I must say very strong suspicions, I finally confronted my mother about this. She assured me that Santa just used the order numbers to make sure he made the toys each kid wanted and didn’t make any mistakes. That didn’t explain the circled order numbers or the bookmarks in the Montgomery Ward catalog, though. I just wasn’t convinced. The more I thought about it, the more this whole Santa Claus thing seemed like a big sham. Surely our parents would never perpetrate such an elaborate hoax on their own children though. I had to confront Mom again about this.

So I did. How did Santa fit toys for hundreds of millions of children in his sleigh? That would have to be a pretty big sleigh. And why would Santa deliver toys to children in really poor countries whose children didn’t even have enough food? Just saying “He’s magic” wasn’t washing. The more one asked questions about this whole Santa Claus business, the more the whole thing just fell apart like a cheap paper doll. But mom insisted that Santa was real, and he was magic.

Mom brought in the big guns and decided to have dad talk with me about this. The conversation that followed has become a favorite family memory.

Dad: “Now son, your mother tells me you have some questions about Santa Claus.”

Me: “Yeah Dad – there’s no way one man could do all of that in one night. I don’t care if he is magic. There’s just no way. And I know  he doesn’t need order numbers out of any catalog.”

Dad: “Son, you’re old enough now. You know that there is no Santa Claus, that he’s make believe, don’t you?”

Me: “Yeah dad, but don’t tell Mom, she still believes.”

What can I say? I guess I was a little slow on the uptake back then. But there it was. 8 years old. And hit with the cold, cruel realization that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and never did. The Santa in whose lap I’d sat in earlier years at the Outdoorsman Sporting Goods store in town was just a local farmer in a cheap suit and a fake beard. Dammit.

Later that night, I was mulling all of this over with a Pepsi as we read the Christmas story out of the family Bible and sang Christmas carols while stuffing our faces with homemade fudge and Christmas cookies.

That can’t be right – sleigh bells, outside. Louder now.

At first it seemed like I was the only one who heard it, even Mom kept denying it. But then they got so loud that it couldn’t be ignored. There was no doubt about it now – multiple sleigh bells were approaching the house.

We all rushed outside to see what was the matter.

If I live to be 100, I will never forget what I saw outside in the snow. A full red sleigh adorned with sleigh bells, pulled by eight reindeer bigger than life. The sleigh was full of presents and bags of candy and fruit. At command of the sleigh was old Saint Nick himself, larger than life.

You just can’t argue with proof like that. Santa Claus was real.

“HO! HO! HO! MERRRRRRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!!!” Santa absolutely bellowed as he got out of his sleigh and bounded up to the front door, his arms full of a fruit basket and sacks of candy for us kids. To say that we were excited would be putting it mildly – we were beside ourselves with holiday joy and Christmas magic. As we closed the door to the freezing Wyoming winter, Santa waved goodbye, wishing a Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

I would say that was about as close to a Christmas miracle as I ever managed to get.

What had actually happened was this: One of the older farmers from a farm a couple of miles away had taken it upon himself to gear his horses up to this old sleigh that he had and had decided to fix up and paint like Santa’s sleigh. Some fake antlers attached to the presumably humiliated horses’ heads, a few empty boxes wrapped up like presents, the town Santa suit, and some homemade fruit baskets and bags of candy, and you had a Santa that Warner Brothers would have been jealous of. He had delivered candy to all of the houses and farms with children within five miles of his farm – probably about 10 homes in all. He did it to spread Christmas cheer during a time when the country was in a recession and there were probably a lot of kids in town that weren’t getting much for Christmas. Course I learned all of this later. I also heard he got a nasty cold from doing that, even though he had on layers of insulated clothing beneath the Santa suit. That Christmas memory was probably one of the most cherished Christmas gifts I ever received.

Trouble was, oh, my parents had the worst  time after that convincing me that Santa wasn’t real. That’s a pretty tough sale after Santa and all of his reindeer pull up to your front door in a red sleigh full of presents and hands out bags of Christmas goodies.

By the time the next Christmas rolled around and I was 9, we had gotten things all ironed out and I had finally let go of that part of my childhood. My parents asked my brother and I not to tell our younger sister, since she still had a few years of Christmas magic left due her before it would be time for her to realize that the only real Santa Claus is the one that each one of us creates within ourselves to share with others during the Christmas Season.

Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year to Everyone!!!!

(and to all a good night……..)

Once Upon a Forest

So last weekend I went to the Muir Woods north of San Francisco with a friend. The Muir Woods are a national monument – old growth 1,000  year old redwoods. Magnificent giants so close together that sunlight barely filters down to the ground. Neat.  It also reminded me of the time a friend of mine and I went hiking in the badlands.

Let me explain. East of the town I grew up in is a sizable range of badlands between the town and the Bighorn Mountains. Badlands are aptly named – they are hills all bunched together with no top soil – just hard-pan hills with little to no vegetation and full of rattlesnakes, scorpions, and various lizards, maybe a bobcat or two. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Badlands National Park in South Dakota, that’s what they look like. Here’s a picture actually taken northeast of town, not far from where I grew up:

I remember a time or two growing up there when a moose or elk had strayed out of the Bighorns and had gotten itself lost in the labyrinthine badlands.

Well, one day in late May of 1983 (I would have been 13 going on 14) my friend John and I were bored and decided to ride our BMX bicycles to the base of the badlands, which are obviously in close proximity to the town (as soon as you leave the river valley the town is in, and head east, you have to drive through 30 miles of badlands before you get to the base of the Bighorns). At the base of the badlands,, which now loomed right in front of us like a wall of sentinels, we found a cave. It petered out quickly into less than a crawl space, so we didn’t spend too long exploring the cave – school had just let out for the year, and it was getting just warm enough for rattlesnakes, so we definitely needed to be careful. We had brought along  John’s Crossman air rifle just in case – one could never be too careful in the badlands.

At some point on this little adventure we decided it would be kind of cool to climb the highest nearby peak of the badlands – rising perhaps 1,800 feet above the valley floor. The climb proved to be very  steep, treacherous, and arduous. So much so that we considered giving up the idea at one point. But neither he nor I were born quitters, so we pressed on. In places the climb was at a 30 degree upward angle, requiring us to lean forward as we made our way to the top, to avoid falling down the barren slope. We had no mountaineering gear with us – just our hiking boots (or waffle stompers as we used to call them) the air rifle, our youth, and that certain inner grit that really does seem to be born out of living in a place like that.

After several hours, we made it to the top, and the view was absolutely amazing. We could see half the Big Horn Basin, it seemed, in that clear, dry air, as well as the entire town. In the other direction we had a magnificent view of of the Big Horn Mountains, now unobstructed by the badlands. As payoffs for day hikes go, it doesn’t get much better than that.

At the top was a small plateau,and upon this plateau was a forest.

Or at least what had once been a forest.

We came upon a scene that is rare indeed, and something I have never really forgotten. We were standing amongst fallen trees and logs and stumps – many of the stumps were easily as big around as those redwoods in the Muir Woods – only this forest, or what little was left of it, had long since been turned into solid rock by the hands of time. We had stumbled across an ancient and undisturbed  petrified forest, millions of years old. Where we stood had once been a thick, deciduous (possibly redwoods?) forest. As the Earth changed from a time well before man, the forest must have withered and died, and this small section of it must have been covered up by clay and sediment and thus petrified over eons, and as the clay eroded slowly away over the millenia, it left these fallen logs and giant tree stumps forever preserved in solid rock.

Even at that age, we knew what we were seeing was an exceedingly rare privilege, one that few (if any) in the town probably even knew about.

I wanted to tell everyone about it of course – the born writer in me was screaming to – but John objected to this. He thought aloud, “What if people come up here and bust everything up or spray paint it or something?  We might be the first people to see this in 100 years, man.”

He was right. And so we made a pact to never tell anyone about it. And for 30 years, as far as I know, neither of us ever has. In fact, I have never spoken or written of what we found that day until just now.

While I am not saying exactly where it is, I thought maybe this blog was as good a place as any to finally mention it.

The petrified forest near my hometown is, in any event, inaccessible by anything but foot, and it is a dangerous and taxing hike. But it’s also a remainder of the wonders that are all around us, which are often mostly taken for granted, or worse, overlooked completely.  Which is too bad, really, because small wonders like that petrified forest are also subtle reminders of how very little time, in the grand scheme of things, mankind has been wandering around on this planet, and of the fact that we are nothing more than tenants here.

30 years ago I made a promise to never tell of the petrified forest. Today I am breaking that promise, because it feels like it’s time to.

I hope I’m right.

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.