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The Best Things
August 11, 2018


A couple weeks ago I decided to scramble up Mount Ida, a relatively minor peak on the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park. As usual I was at the trailhead at the crack of dawn. I made it to Timber Lake, in a pocket beneath the peak, at the fresh hour of 7-ish am.

As is often is the case, I didn’t do any homework regarding the route other than glance at a topo map. I like to keep it simple lots of the time and not over-think it: just go, and let the mountains speak. I figured I’d get to Timber Lake and see a decent way to go up. And I did.

I hadn’t seen a soul that morning. As I climbed up a steep gully from Timber Lake, I figured it was going to be yet another morning of isolation in the high country, even though this was the middle of summer, in Rocky Mountain National Park no less. That’s how it often is for an early bird. You see people all right, but usually later in the day, at a much lower elevations and shorter from-trailhead distances.

I assumed it was going to be only me on top of Mount Ida – well, me and the marmots and pikas. Then, as I rounded the crest, I exclaimed, “What do you know!” A solitary figure was ambling up the ridge-line from the left, which is the way everyone else climbs Mount Ida, I later found out.

I hastened to the top, eager to talk to the dude so I could learn the correct way to climb Mount Ida, for if and when I ever write my sequel to Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes in Colorado’s Front Range. And lo and behold, there was already a second guy there on the summit. Then, as I was chatting with these two guys and eating my sandwich, I heard huffs and puffs, and another guy arrived, followed by another guy.

“It’s a party!” I exclaimed. “How funny! You guys are the only people I’ve seen all day.” It was so interesting to me how we had all converged on the apex.

Then something else funny (to me) happened.

After one of the last two guys caught his breath he said, “I think this is the highest I’ve ever been.”

“Really,” I said. “We’re only at 12,800 feet or so.”

“That’s high for us!” he said, speaking for himself and his friend.

“Aha!” I said. “Are you sea level people?”

“Well, Chicago,” he said. “We’re out here on a two week road trip.”

“Cool. But how high is Chicago?” I asked.

“700 feet?” he guessed.

That’s what seemed funny to me: Chicago, mega-city of the way-inland Midwest, was only 700 feet above sea level. Less than half the vertical of that last jaunt from Timber Lake.

“That is so strange, when you think about it,” I piped up a few moments later. “It’s only a 700-foot drop from Chicago, all the way to the Saint Lawrence River outlet or whatever. I never imagined it was so little.”

The first guy I’d seen that morning spoke up: “That’s why they’re able to get all those ocean-going ships there – through the locks systems.”

I’d never really thought about this. “That’s crazy!” I continued. “Here in Colorado we sometimes climb up 700 feet in a few minutes. It’s nothing.”

“Think about the Mississippi,” said the Chicagoan. “It loses only 1,500 feet from its source all the way across the continent.”

“But that’s less than from here to Timber Lake!” I exclaimed. It had taken me about 45 minutes to climb it, and I’d been going slow.

I’d never really thought about this before. But it’s true; I looked it up later. And for the record, Chicago is not 700 feet, but rather 594 feet, above the Saint Lawrence River outlet, over 1,000 miles away. Furthermore, that water loses almost a third of this elevation in one swell foop at Niagara Falls.

As for the Mississippi, the elevation of the traditionally-regarded source, Lake Itasca in Minnesota, is 1,475 feet – only 80% of the vertical from where we sat to Timber Lake a half mile away. But from Lake Itasca, the Mississippi flows more than 2,300 miles to Baton Rouge.

By then the marmots where upon us, peeking over rocks and looking for an opportunity to get into someone’s bag.

“I remember when marmots were afraid of people,” I said. “Where I grew up in Washington State, they’d see you coming from a quarter mile away and let out this huge TWEEEEET, and then scurry away, squeaking frantically the whole time. I can’t remember the last time I heard a marmot say anything in Colorado.”

“They still do the tweet-and-run thing in the Alps,” the other Chicagoan said. “I was there earlier this month, and they did it.”

By then it was time for me to bid goodbye to my mountaintop group. The clouds were building and it looked like we were going to get the standard afternoon summer thunderstorm. I wanted to be back at Ruby (my car) by then to take a nap. Oh, I’d hike some more, later that day; my favorite hours for Rocky Mountain hiking are actually from about 5 pm to dusk. The lighting then is exquisite.

The first guy was off into the next valley even though the clouds were building. The Chicagoans were road tripping to the Tetons next. I don’t remember where the other guy was going.

As I skipped down through the tundra, I thought of a bumper sticker I’d seen recently that I liked: The best things in life aren’t things.

Like hanging out on a mountaintop. I thought about it again, down lower on the trail, as I watched a beautiful yellow-and-black butterfly lift off of a piece of horse shit. But then again, I have to say I do like thing things too. I like my new hiking boots, for example, which had been very much needed. And lots of other things such as having a house to live in.

Lately I’ve been having a blast creating some things that are not really material things, since they are in digital format and don’t take up any physical space. A few weeks ago I began working with a voice actor via Audible Creative Exchange to make audiobook of my novel, The Rooster’s Hindquarters. The plan is to release the audio version along with a revamped e-book and a spiffy new cover this fall. What a fun this is turning out to be! The guy who is doing it, Daniel Anthony Carey, has an amazing array of voices. My favorite part of the day these days is waking up to a new chapter or two from him on email, and listening. What a thrill, to hear the life he is infusing into this. It’s like it’s not something I thought up; it’s rather taking on this living-and-breathing life of its own. Cracks me up even though I’m the one who wrote it.

And that’s a pretty cool “thing.”



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The Elk of Oxford Road
July 11, 2018


After hiking more than 200 trails to write Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes in Colorado’s Front Range (which comes out next April), I find it funny that the one and only elk I’ve seen wasn't while hiking on any trail. Rather I see it next to the road while running my normal run, out in the corn and wheat fields near my house.

We’re friends, sort of. She's always hanging out with her two oxen buddies, Chester and Calvin. Often I find her lying down, lounging luxuriantly in the grass, looking entirely nonplussed. She likes to lift her head up and wiggle her ears at me as I run past.

Back in March, a concerned commuter wrote to the local newspaper about the lone female elk that appeared to be fenced into a field at the intersection of Oxford Road and Highway 287. “Aren’t there regulations against this?” the person asked. “It just doesn’t seem right.” The commuter wanted to know if there was anything that could be done to get the elk back to her natural habitat.

This was about the time I got back from an extended journey through Mexico. The Shultz Family Farm is along my running route, and over the past year I’ve had a great time getting to know Glen Shultz and participating in activities at his all-natural farm, which he considers a demonstration farm. Here Glen grows raspberries that are to die for (although this year there will be less; we had some pretty severe hailstorms in June which stripped a lot of plants). Among other endeavors, Glen sells eggs from his open-air chicken yard which have incredibly thick shells and deep yellow, flavorful yolks. Glen is a former GE executive and is is now focused on creating (or re-creating) wonderful soil to grow healthy and delicious food in.

On my second or third run after getting back, unaware of the true identity of the recent arrival, I spied Glen out on the farm and paused my run to go and say hello.

“Like my elk?” he said, grinning and pointing.

So that’s what that tan animal with the long neck was – the one standing in the field next to Chester and Calvin! Up until then I had assumed it was a llama. Glen had kept a llama in the pasture the previous year which I’d tried – and failed – to make friends with during my run. I even brought the llama apple slices one day, but it wasn’t interested.

“How the heck did you get an elk?” I asked.

“She moved in!” Glen said. “She’s been here since January. She probably got separated from her herd, and is finding comfort in the company of other animals.”

Back in March, in response to the commuter’s concern, the newspaper did a little investigating and told the person not to worry. The Shultz fences are not eight feet tall – the minimum you need if you hope to contain an elk. This elk wasn’t a captive; rather she was there entirely by choice. And although it’s true that farmers are required to get an alternative livestock license if they want to farm domestic elk, no law prohibits a wild elk from wandering onto someone’s farm and staying there if she wants.

Local wildlife experts are confident this elk came from the herd that winters at Heil Valley Ranch, an expansive foothills open space about 12 miles west (which is the home of Hike #37 in Base Camp Denver). It wouldn’t be too hard for an elk to get here from there by following Lefthand Creek. Another member of the herd had been struck by a car back in November while trying to cross Diagonal Highway, 3 miles to the west. Perhaps our Oxford Road Elk had been crossing at the same time, and is now traumatized and has no desire to go back.

Trauma aside, I don't blame her one bit. Glen does some pretty neat stuff with his farm. If his pasture grass is half as tasty as his raspberries, how could a lonely elk refuse?

Glen believes the balanced mineral content of his soil is one of the reasons she likes his pasture, along with the relaxed attitude of his three hogs, two oxen, two sheep, and 50-odd chickens. Ample resources abound on the farm for everyone, so no one feels the need to protect their space (except the hogs, who get edgy when anyone enters their sty). Glen has noted that on the occasions when he puts food out for the oxen, the elk clears out because Chester gets gruff. But she always comes back.

“She’s welcome to graze,” says Glen.

Local wildlife authorities have no plans to dart the elk, or tag her, or try to move her. Rather nature will continue its course. Local biologist Dave Hoerath was quoted in March as saying, “Everyone’s hoping that as spring rolls around she may try to migrate back to the foothills to have a calf, if she was bred.”

That’s not happening. We’re in the heat of July now, and the Oxford Road Elk appears to be more at home than ever.

A few days ago my daughter and I made a barbecued corn salad and headed over to the Shultz Family Farm to hang with Glen and some other regulars, for a potluck that included Glen’s amazing wood-fired pizza. Glen hosts these get-togethers regularly, and brings in speakers to talk about food, health, and nutrition. This is one of the venues where I will test out my talk for Base Camp Denver, prior to going on a 7-city tour with it next April.

As we sat at the evening picnic table beneath a soaring cottonwood tree and ate and talked, we watched Chester and Calvin decide to head up-pasture. The elk, who has remained nameless, although some call her Myrtle, stayed behind at first, looking like she didn’t know what to do. Then she followed the oxen by hopping into the pig pen to take a shortcut. She paused.

Immediately, the hogs stopped their foraging and stood motionless, their ears cocked, their snouts still in the dirt.

“They will quickly escort her out,” said Glen.

It turned out the elk needed no physical encouragement! In the bright orange light of the slanting sun, just before it dipped behind the purple wall of Front Range Rocky Mountains, and under the glaring eyes of the hogs, the Elk of Oxford Road hopped over the opposite fence of the sty and hastened up-pasture to join her oxen brethren.


If you’d like to find out more about the Shultz Family Farm, you can go here.



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Cutting Trail
June 11, 2018


Along with ice cubes going into coffee and butter dish going into fridge, and bedroom windows being cracked open to let cool night air flow in over warm dry sheets, and lawn sprinklers being fired up with the intention of using them as little as possible, comes National Trails Day. It happens on the first Saturday in June; this year it was on the 2nd. When I participated last year it was a real eye opener, and I promised myself that thenceforth the number of days I would spend helping to build trails, in addition to walking on them, would be a non-zero number.

That meant I had to haul myself out of bed on Saturday the 2nd and go. I went to the same place I went last year: Young Gulch, up in the Poudre Valley outside Fort Collins. Fire followed by flood earlier this decade wiped this trail out, and volunteers are methodically constructing a new trail that is raised out of the gulch bottom, one that is going to last.

About 15 of us hiked in about a mile farther than last year, where we hacked out a new bit of trail through a meadow (the opposite of “Leave No Trace”), and then cut through a hillside where we had to boss a bunch of boulders around. All told, at the end of the day we completed about 0.1 mile of trail.

We had a blast! Last year, when I blogged about this for Base Camp Guides, I remarked about how rewarding it was to finish even a miniscule amount of trail. Completing a section seems to give trail-builders – many of whom are dedicated to the activity to the point of addiction, and freely admit it – a great feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction.

This year it felt a little different for me. As I swung my pickaxe to abrade meadow inch by inch, and then worked with my mates to roll and lift rocks and move dirt, I found myself being more into the process than the result. I was there, in the process, and not thinking about or focusing on anything like a finish line. Sure we’d have an accomplishment by the end of the day: a tenth of a mile of trail built (followed by laughs and beers down at the Mishawaka Bar in the canyon). But what it was really about for me was this particular swing of the axe, this roll of the rock, this laugh from my friend who was working alongside me.

I think it’s too easy to get in the habit of always focusing on “getting there.” Always striving to achieve some end goal, reach some finish line, to the point of not being present in and appreciating the process. We can even view the process with annoyance and irritation: like it is some kind of impedance in our lives, something to overcome.

But the process is life! Not the result. Each day is our life’s work. Whether we “accomplish” anything or not.





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(Left: Pete KJ singing at the voice recital of the students of Mary Lou Moore, on May 20, 2018. YouTube clip here.)

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Comitán
May 11, 2018


Sometimes Pam wondered what she looked like to people. She wondered it as she jumped rope in the courtyard of the colonial house in Comitán which was now the parking lot of the cheap ass hotel she was staying in. As the rope made rhythmic skips, the hotel clerk stuck his head out of the office and grinned. Passersby in the street couldn’t help but pause to stare at the sight of an old lady jumping rope.

“200!” she breathed.

That hadn’t been so bad, though she’d tripped on 17, 53, and 87. Probably it was more the fault of the uneven stones than herself. In truth she kind of hated jumping rope.

Sure enough, when the laundry place said 3 PM they meant 3 PM. She arrived at a quarter past and her clothes, though folded, had not yet made it into the plastic bag. On her way home to drop them off before going for her sunset sit in the pruned tree plaza, she maintained a fairly level altitude by walking a zigzag of gridded streets around and between the hills.

The plaza was hopping. Pam sat on a bench as the sun dipped behind buildings and darkness fell. She watched the never ending procession of people walk by who were all default-beautiful.

She had Mexican street hamburger on the brain, and knew exactly where from: a white-and-purple converted van called Burger City parked on a cross street near her room, inside of which two women stood fully upright and team-work the grill.

She got there and waited her turn, ordered one, and wondered if she should have ordered two, but figured she could always come back. While she waited, she marveled at the execution and its attributes: diced grilled bacon, thick tomato slices, avocado scooped from the rind, jalapeno slices you could always pick off and have still leave their tang, and generous squirts of mustard and ketchup, with a big top bun squeezed down on it. It was more deluxe than she’d seen elsewhere in Mexico, but still the universal rate of 30 pesos.

She got back to her room and, as suspected, the burger was hands down the best street hamburger in Mexico. Absolutely she had to go back for another one, to eat cold for breakfast before going to the jungle.

When she got back to the van it was really hopping. She got into position as best she could, and enjoyed watching the sizzling, spatula-worked masterpieces being assembled.

As she waited, she noticed a short woman worming her way in. First she was behind Pam, then alongside her, and then slightly in front of her. Pam, determined to finish off her weeks in Mexico by being nice to everyone and not losing her temper on anyone, decided to let it go. What did it matter? It was just as well that the woman got her burger first. It was no big deal.

Pam watched the woman’s face in profile when it came time for her to order. She watched the woman’s lips get ready to form a word, and then she watched the word that issued forth from those lips: “Eight.”

“Eight?” said the left-hand burger chef. It was more of an exclamation than a question.

“Yes, eight,” said the woman. “Five normals and three Hawaiians.”

Pam was so proud of herself. She did not haul off and slap the woman. She did not knock any of her teeth out, or even scream her head off at her. She did not shove the woman face down onto the pavement and reclaim her rightful ordering position. Instead, she put her balled-up hands into her sweater pockets, pivoted, and walked away while shaking her head and muttering, “Eight.” On a grill that handled three at a time.

Pam proceeded down the hill to a bakery and bought four chocolate donut balls: three to eat for breakfast, and one to eat when she got back to her room, as a complement to a nice big cup of cactus alcohol.

Rage was the first emotion that entered her mind when she awoke in the pre-dawn darkness. As she lay in bed, she coached herself through her usual exercises of expressing mental gratitude. She spent extra time on breathing, and on the “letting go” section, in particular in letting go of ever eating the greatest street hamburger in Mexico again. She told herself that it didn’t matter, all was impermanence, and she expressed loving kindness to the woman and the seven other members of her family, and hoped all eight of them had enjoyed their hamburger meals the previous evening. Then she visualized the woman standing in a beam of light, and wished her long life and good health.

Pam got out of bed and did her other rituals, which included flossing, and got everything ready to go to the jungle. As she did the final check of the room she crammed the last chocolate donut thingee into her mouth, and rage boiled back up in her throat, which she doused with lukewarm instant coffee.

“How nice,” Pam told herself several hours later as the colectivo van made steep sharp curves of the road down into the jungle. “How nice, that I was not able to eat the greatest street hamburger in Mexico for breakfast. For, if I had, I might be puking all over the interior of this very nice van.”

She knew she was lying. The last time she’d been carsick was when she was eight years old. This was also about the same age that her daughter, Ione, had ceased tossing her cookies in vehicles.

Now, in the rear of the van, was seated an old gentleman who, unlike Pam and her daughter, had never grown out if it. He’d spent the past twenty minutes, off and on, spitting into a plastic bag while conversing with his seatmates….(continued)



***






Publication Update:

Hiking Book:

Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes in Colorado’s Front Range will come out next April. We were planning on December, then realized people might not be thinking much about hiking at that time of year, even though there is a ton of great hiking to do here all year round (which is kind of what the book is about).

The launch will kick off with a party on April 4, 2019, at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver’s LoDo neighborhood. More information here.








New Novel:

Black Volta is getting there! This novel is completely unrelated to the raw fiction I’ve been posting here the last few months, and it will come out about the same time as the hiking book.

As of now the manuscript has been ripped apart by Victoria Hanley, my longtime writing coach. Also, I recently spent an hour discussing it with Jane Siberry, who read the synopsis and gave me her “Jane take.”

Thanks a ton, Jane and Victoria!

I’m looking for one more beta-test-reader, needed in about three months. Preferably someone I don’t know. If you’re interested, please e-mail me.


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A Green Tamale Sandwich in the Sunshine
April 11, 2018


As the sun lowered over the mountains, Pam said, “Let’s have some beers. I’ll buy.”

“No, I’ll get ‘em,” said Grant, and pulled a green 200 peso note out of his pocket, flashing the face of Juana Ines de la Cruz, the seventeenth century scholar, philosopher, composer, and poet of Mexico.

“That’s too much,” said Pam. “You know how change-challenged places are. I have a fifty. I’ll get them.”

When she got back, Grant was holding up his 200 peso note and studying the nun-habit encased face of the Señora.

“I understand she was quite the mind,” said Pam.

“Yeah, too much so, for a woman in her time,” said Grant. “Bishop forced her to stop writing, shut up, and do penance. Then she died.”

“Of the plague, I understand. While tending to her fellow nuns who had the plague.”

“I like that: fellow nuns. It sounds like a Monty Python sketch.”

“Or the lady who used to deliver our mail back home,” said Pam. “My daugher Ione always called her the male woman.”

After a few seconds of not being able to think of a comeback, Grant said, “Let’s say this was your last 200 pesos. What would you spend it on?”

“You mean besides another pack of Emperador nut cream cookies?”

“That’s only twelve pesos.”

“Two packets of nut creams.”

“Okay. Keep going.”

“Well, I’d have to get me an elote, and have them to put extra mayo, cheese, and pepper in it.”

“In a cup or on the cobb?”

“Does it matter? Cup,” said Pam.

“Okay, 159 pesos to go.”

“I take it I have transport to border?”

“As you wish.”

“How many pesos did you say I have?”

“Make your next purchase and I’ll tell you.”

“Green tamale sandwich,” said Pam. “The problem is by now I’m full and it will get cold. I hope it doesn’t get stale by the time I eat it.”

“Is that all? You still have 146 pesos. Is food all you can think of?”

“Well it’s hard to find a good bottle of mescal for 146 pesos. So I suppose I’d take the rest and distribute it around town in five peso increments, to whoever looked like they could use it. How about you? What would you do with your last 200 pesos?”

“Pretty much the same as you,” said Grant, “Especially the green tamale sandwich. Except I’d get several, and wrap them up real good and eat them over several days. I’d also get my shoes shined, and my laundry cleaned and folded. And then have a bunch left over to donate. Such are the simple pleasures of life in Mexico.”

“Such as they are.”

“The morning of the day I met you," said Grant, "I was getting my green tamale sandwich from a cart vendor on a side street near the Zocalo. It was such a bright and clear morning -- and cold! Unless you were in the sunshine, that is. There were these two guys sitting and eating their tamale sandwiches near the cart. They were sitting on a curb or a stair or something, and I wanted to sit next to them because they were sitting in the sunbeam where it just felt so warm and pleasant. But there wasn’t enough space for a third person to sit with them. After looking around some more, I realized that these guys were sitting on boxes of shoe shining equipment. These guys were shoe shiners! And not the ones with the established chairs in the Zocalo, mind you. These were the mobile hustler street shoe shiners, the hardscrabble ones.”

“I get what you’re saying. What we crave the most, and take such pleasure in, is but a shoe shiner’s breakfast,” said Pam.

“That’s it,” said Grant.

“I think we can be grateful we know how to appreciate such a thing. Inequality is so asymmetrical in its effects. Think of all the other visitors – the tourists – who will never enjoy a warm green tamale sandwich for breakfast on the street for 13 pesos. And think of all the others who would never consider roaming around Mexico, like we're doing, due to some deep, collective, imagined, totally ill-informed fear.”

“Wasn’t that old couple selling the tamales lovely? The pair who were operating the street cart near our van station in Oaxaca? The old guy with the big stomach and hat and white apron and smile, serving it up, while his wife took the money so he didn’t have to stop and put a plastic bag over his hand to touch it. They were quite a team.”

“What I love,” said Pam, “Is how the men in Mexico do so much of the cooking, and proudly, with a smile. It isn’t like that in so many other countries.”

“But what did you mean when you said inequality is asymmetrical?”

“I was talking about the effects of inequality. Maybe you and I are different. I hope we are. We can find joy in a shoe-shiner’s breakfast. A lot of our cohorts cannot, in fact more than a lot of them, they—”

“Hold on there, lady. Cohorts? What cohorts?”

“I’m talking about us one percent,” said Pam.

“Ha! Then you aren’t talking about me!”

“I’m not? Are you sure? If you’re taking into account the whole globe, I bet I’m talking about you. If not the one percent then maybe the one point five or two.”

“Okay, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt,” said Grant. “So what were you saying about ‘us’?”

“For a lot of ‘us,’ we are doing fabulous if we can at best feel indifferent about our ultra-cushy circumstances. But a lot of ‘us’ can’t. Far from it. We are worried and anxious, totally unsatisfied with how much we have and scared that it's not enough, and that it will decrease or go away, and we are deeply unsatisfied about how we compare to people who are higher up and have more, so much more.”

“Of course we feel the lack!” said Grant sarcastically. “How could we not feel it? The disparity between the bottom and the top of the one percent is huge.”

“Ha ha. My point exactly. The impact of inequality is asymmetrical.”

“You mean the fact that wealth is so unevenly distributed, and concentrated in a tiny smidgen of people at the top instead of in the middle of the population?”

“That is not what I mean at all,” said Pam. “I’m talking about the effects of the inequality that you just described – how it makes people feel, regardless of where they are on the spectrum. As I say to my daughter Ione, money doesn’t buy happiness. It gets you about halfway there. And I always follow that up by saying that’s a huge deal. It’s hard to be happy if you are always worried about food or where to sleep and how to physically survive. Add to this your knowledge of your place in the world, compared to people who are able to enjoy so many more things, and I think it’s pretty clear that inequality causes a lot of pain, heartache, and distress for people who are below the midpoint. Even if they can get respites and moments of joy in things like the smiles of friends, or a warm green tamale sandwich in the sunshine. But as I say to Ione, money gets you only halfway there. You have to figure out the other half of being happy all by yourself, and that might not be easy. If inequality was symmetrical in its effects, it would mean that all the people in the upper half would feel the opposite of the pain, heartache, and distress, in opposite proportions, that their counterparts feel.”

“But they don’t?”

“What do you think? Do you?”

“Sometimes.”

“That’s why I think we are lucky,” said Pam. “Maybe we are different. But think of all those people at the lower end of the top one percent, or top three percent or whatever, unsatisfied and distressed with their situation. Our cohorts.”

“So what are you saying? What's your point?”

“I’m saying that inequality sucks for everyone. Even for the top point-five percent and the top point-one percent. For all of the distress it brings poorer people who are hard-pressed, it brings precious little joy to those at the top.”

“So maybe everyone would feel better if things weren’t so unequal.”

“I’d venture to guess,” said Pam. “I sure as hell wish we could try it out and see.”



To be continued


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San Cristobal de las Casas
(a prequel)

March 11, 2018

Matteo looked down on the steps and counted 21 from where the street cut across; the 277th overall. Red-painted mortar gleamed from between the stones of the wall next to the steps. This was where he and Elisa were sat when the silver Volkswagen pulled up, fifteen years ago.

He was cutting an old man's hair in his uncle’s barbershop in San Cristobal when the message arrived. A little girl about seven years old came in and handed him the note, while a four-foot tall woman in local dress and twin braids waited on the sidewalk. He opened the note and got a rush of excitement when he saw it was from Elisa: Meet me tonight on the hill. 9:00, on the steps beneath the church.

It had been six months since their trip to the jungle. He’d almost given up hope of seeing her again. He’d never been with a woman his same age before, let alone one who was ten years older. But it didn’t matter. He knew that it would be difficult for them to be together unless he joined the Movement, but that required an invitation. Up through their last day in the jungle he’d held out hope, and knew what he’d say if she asked. But she didn’t ask.

Instead she walked with him out of the jungle, to the village, where he boarded a pickup truck to Ocosingo.

“When will I see you again?” he asked before getting in the truck.

“Some months. It is dangerous for us to be seen together, even here, let alone on the outside.”

They hadn’t discussed it in detail. She had infiltrated a pro-government paramilitary group, and was pretending to date the commander in order to collect intelligence. His name was Jorge and he was not a nice guy.

“Jorge is dangerous,” she said. “Eradicating the Zapatistas just his hobby. He has other businesses.”

Matteo finished the old man and cut a few teenagers’ heads. He couldn’t wait for 9:00 to arrive. When he shut the barbershop, he walked down Madero Street with a spring in his step. He got to the plaza with fifteen minutes to kill and sat on a bench, and watched the people and shoe shiners and food cart vendors. Then he walked to the hill.

Excitement built as his familiar steps came into view. As he began to climb he counted. He couldn’t help it; it was a reflex. Up to now he'd always escorted girlfriends to these steps, especially after dark. But Commandanta Elisa could more than take care of herself.

He grew nervous as he passed the 200th stair and began the final approach to where the street cut across. He gazed at his watch in the moonlight: 8:57 He jogged up the broad straight steps, and then the final triple set of sideways steps to gain the street. “256,” he said through his breaths.

There she was. In silhouette, a huddled form sat near the top in the moonlight near the church doors, covered in cloak and a derby hat. He knew it was her. He ran to her, and even in his excitement he could not stop counting. “277!” he breathed as he took her in his arms. “I have missed you.”

He leaned back and regarded her serious face in the moonlight.

“I came to warn you,” she said. “I should have written it in the note. But I needed to see you, so that I could make sure you understand what I have to say.”

“My darling, what is wrong?”

“Also, I wanted to see you one last time.”

“One last time?" said Matteo "But why?”

“It is Jorge. He has found about me, about us. Somehow this information was leaked from the jungle. I don’t think it was anyone inside the Movement. Perhaps it was someone from the village.”

“How do you know? Have you seen him?”

“Thank goodness no. He will try to kill me if he sees me. I obtained the information from a source who saw him in a bar, raging that his woman was a cheat and a Zapatista.”

Matteo didn’t know what to say.

“I must go underground,” she continued. “I must go to the jungle. And you must leave Chiapas. If Jorge doesn’t know your identity already, he will find it out. He will try and kill you too.”

“Leave? But where would I go?”

“Far from here. Tuxtla is not good enough. You must go to Mexico City, or farther.”

As she spoke, Matteo felt his stomach tighten. Life was hard enough in his homeland, with the economic situation the main challenge, more than discrimination. But to look like he did, and survive on the streets of Mexico City? He had no people there. He could not think of how to begin.

“Even Mexico City will not be safe,” said Elisa. “Jorge has connections and he will likely find you there.”

“No. I cannot go to Mexico City,” he heard himself saying as he hugged her. “Think about it. He isn’t interested in me. It is you he wants to harm. You don’t need to worry about me.”

Elisa hugged him back and spoke into his ear. “I am sorry I have put you in danger, Matteo. But what I say is true. Jorge is an evil and irrational man. Once he becomes angry, he only knows of one way to deal with it. He is after me, it is true. But he will kill you before he kills me, so that he can increase my suffering. You must leave as well!”

“Then let me come with you to the jungle.” There. He’d said it.

She released him and squeezed his hand. “That is not my decision. If it was I would take you with me tonight. But the others must agree, and they will never agree under these circumstances. They want to trust you, Matteo, but they are not able to. For all they know it could have been you who leaked the information.”

What she said stung, but he knew it was true.

They remained sitting on the steps, holding hands, discussing what to do. A half-moon crested the wooded hilltops across the city. Elisa was not concerned for herself; she had grown up in the Movement and lived most of her life in the jungle. It was Matteo she was worried about.

“It would be better if you left the country. I know people who can help you.” She took a slip of paper from her pocket with two names and telephone numbers. “Either of these people can help you. Just tell them it was me who directed you to them. It will cost you money, but the job will get done correctly.”

As Matteo tucked the slip of paper in his breast pocket, he heard a rumble. A silver Volkswagen Beetle pulled up on the street below and screeched to a halt.

“Run!” yelled Elisa, as the muzzle of a gun glinted in the car window.

Matteo leapt as shots fired and bullets ricocheted off the steps. His ear stung. He zigzagged, and looked for Elisa, and spied her on the other side of the wall from the steps, making for the trees beyond a small cluster of corn stalks.

“Go a different way!” she yelled, and dove into the trees as the dirt from an impacted bullet jumped up in front of her.

He ran up the last few stairs as more shots fired and his calf stung. He sprinted around the side of the church and past it, to the forested hillside behind, where he dove into the trees and crawled until he found a concealed place next to a large rock.

Blood streamed from his stinging earlobe and soaked into the shoulder of his sweater. He pinched it, and with his other hand rolled up his pant leg and felt his calf. It too ran with blood. But he was okay. For as much of a murderer as Jorge was, he was a rotten shot.

He hoped Elisa was okay too.



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Cradle of Humanity
February 11, 2018


Santiago Apoala is a village on a mesa at the head of a valley in Oaxaca State in Mexico, sitting at often chilly 6,500 feet. A stream runs through it and irrigates fields of corn, wheat, and beans. Fig and pomegranate trees complement the pines. It was a center of Mixtec society, pre-Hispanic, and for good reason: this is the setting of the Mixtec creation story.

Here is where two trees growing along the banks joined their roots and branches, and from their union emerged the first woman and man. It’s understandable that this would be considered a place of emergence, what with the startling Morelos Canyon outside of town. The space between its soaring, vertical gray walls is only about 10 to 15 meters across.

If you backtrack through this porthole passage, and keep hiking, you reach a veritable eden of grassy hillsides, gurgling water, and oak trees draped in phantom moss. Before man and woman, the gods lived in peace and harmony here, at “The Place Where the Heavens Stood.” Here is where the deer god Puma-Snake and the deer goddess Jaguar-Snake raised a hill above the all-encompassing waters and built palaces. On top they laid a copper axe with its edge pointing upward, and on this edge the heavens rested.

Two of their sons, Wind-Nine-Snake and Wind-Nine-Cave, were particularly skilled. They could shape-shift into an eagle or a snake, or become invisible and pass through solid matter. They made a garden of flowers, fruit trees, and herbs, and tilled the earth and burned tobacco and prayed to their ancestors to let more earth be freed from its water covering. To strengthen their prayer they pierced their ears and tongues with flint, and sprinkled the blood onto the trees and and brush.



“Mixtec” comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word meaning “cloud people.” As for what the Mixtecs called themselves over the eons, the names varied, and mostly translated to “people,” with an association with rain. It’s interesting how names given to distinguish a people are often not what they called themselves. The Ute Indians of Colorado, for example, didn’t call themselves Utes; the Spanish did (or “Yuta,” which possibly meant “meat eaters”). The Utes rather referred to themselves as “people.”







In alternative news, the Volkswagen Beetle is still going strong in Mexico!

Sadly, they are no longer being manufactured. The last ones were produced in June of 2003. A Mariachi sang the farewell song “Las Golondrinas” as the final one rolled off the assembly line (renamed the Hall of Sorrow) and was crated for shipment to the Volkswagen museum in Wolfsburg, Germany.

Sales had been declining for years, and not helped by certain rules that said taxis in Mexico City couldn’t be more than eight years old, or have only two doors. The latter seems like a reasonable regulation, but come on, only eight years? That’s but a blip in the life of a Beetle.

Which means, of course, that the roads are still well-populated with charming, classic Beetles (though not as taxis). Sometimes you might feel you’ve stepped back into the 1960s in the USA. It makes you want one, and bad!

The good news is you can have one. A car not-approved-for-sale in the USA only has to be something like 25 years old before it can be imported.

So come on down, find someone who can bear to part with their 1993 Beetle, and buy it from them. The main problem is that you'll have to get it to pass emissions. After that you’ve got it: a 1965-style roadster to chug around in for another decade or two!



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Full Circle
January 11, 2018


Happy New Year! I wish you all the best energy for the coming year, and hope you are looking forward to it as much as I am.

I’ve got my work cut out for me, but I am going to be publishing two new works in 2018!

First and foremost: I have a new novel. I drafted the raw words for it in fall-winter of 2016, while I was traveling in Ghana and Vietnam. Then, into a drawer it went shortly after the turn of 2017, as I spent the year walking and writing Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes Along Colorado’s Front Range.

When I finished hiking in October, I pulled the novel out of the drawer. I set up a room in my house, a little blue room about 10 feet square. I put a table in the center, and a chair, and that was it. I arrived every day at about 5 AM and stayed for about 4 hours. The rule was that I couldn’t work on anything except the novel in that room. If I needed to do something else, I had to leave the room to do it.

Success! On December 31, I wrapped Rev. 3 of my new novel, Black Volta. I feel good about it. And into a drawer it goes again, until my longtime editor and writing coach Victoria Hanley comes on board in March. My goal is to have it on the “also by Pete KJ” page when the hiking book comes out.

As I mentioned, I finished hiking for Base Camp Denver in October (though I still hike once a week; I can’t help it, I can’t stop). Originally I thought I might need two summers to do all the high-altitude hikes, and thus the book was slated for publication in mid-2019. The date is now moved up to December, 2018! We are heavily into the editing process, and the map and book designers have begun their work.

How did I come to write this hiking book? It was an interesting process that began in the spring/summer of 2016. My life had evolved and my gut was telling me to return to the mountains, and go hiking every single week like I did when I was younger. So I did. It was the first summer I had done this since my early twenties. It was mesmerizing.

Then in fall and winter, I traveled. It was a working trip. While I cranked out new fiction words every day, I also sent a minimum of 5 queries a day for my previous novel, The Rooster’s Hindquarters, trying to sell it to a conventional publisher.

I was in Ghana in November of 2016, writing query 101 of 111, when a scary orange lunatic was elected president of the USA. I don’t know about you, but for about a week I could not eat. The only food I could keep down was chocolate, and fortunately Ghana makes good chocolate. So for a week I ate chocolate and tried to stay as busy as possible, and I redesigned my website. When I got to the “About” page, I wrote that I was an actor, singer, and hiker. Simultaneously, Imbrifex Books of Las Vegas requested the full manuscript of Rooster, and rejected it the following day with some nice comments that indicated they’d actually read it. And the publisher wrote, “Your novel isn’t right for us, but I went to your website and saw that you are a hiker and that you live in Colorado. Would you like to write a hiking book about Colorado?”

I told him I’d get back to him after the New Year. My initial reaction was, “No way.” But then I remembered an awesome piece of advice I’d received a couple years back, haphazardly (as tends to happen), and it went like this: “Sometimes you will be asked to go through doors that you might not, at first, think you want to go through.”

I got back to the States in December and started thinking: Write a hiking book? Wait a minute. I love to write. I love to hike. I live in Colorado. Of COURSE I will write this book.

We cut the contract at the end of January, and I started walking. And the year proceeded like a dream.

Now I can see that I was meant to do this all along. It’s the buzzing, energetic feeling you get when you come full circle.

I began hiking seriously when I was in my teens. You could not keep me out of the Cascade Mountains, near Seattle, when it was summertime. I tromped ALL OVER them. And I had two bibles: 101 Hikes in the North Cascades, and 102 Hikes in the Alpine Lakes, South Cascades, and Olympics, published by the Seattle Mountaineers, written by my heroes, Ira Spring and Harvey Manning.

Last month my publisher and I started talking about the maps. Instantly I thought of Ira and Harvey’s books, and particularly the very lovely and effective “route diagrams” they contained, which were drawn by Helen Sherman, a friend and neighbor of my grandmother.

I’d long misplaced my dear old bibles. Thank goodness for Amazon! The books are now on my shelf, – the original versions from the 1970s – back in my life to guide me as I finish writing a 101 Hikes book of my own.

Thank you Ira, Harvey, and Helen!



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