Thursday, January 5, 2012

Bike Trip Gothic, CO to Reno NV: September 2011 (1st and only draft. This Sucked.)

This isn’t what I was supposed to write.  I was supposed to write an entertaining, insightful piece about riding a bicycle from Gothic, Colorado to Reno, Nevada.  But, like the trip itself, writing about long-distance biking seems to look more entertaining and less difficult at first glance.  I found mostly loneliness and monotony on the way through the great desert of the Southwest, and while writing about loneliness can be captivating, writing about monotony is, well, monotonous.  And we’ve all experienced loneliness.  There’s not much I can hope to expand upon that universal feeling, and I’m not writing a touching, tour-de-force novel that expertly portrays humanity’s shared experiences.  So here is the final result of 3 weeks of intense bike riding, and 3 months of writing:  a list of shit I did.

The first leg of my trip was from Gothic, Colorado to Green River, Utah.  While I had put several hundred miles on my bicycle over the summer, I had never done a long distance trip while carrying all of my own gear.  Green River, since I knew the town, and it was a mentally digestible distance from Gothic, was the first checkpoint on my mind’s schedule.  I started out early in the morning from Gothic, the site of the high-altitude field station where I live and work, hung over and already mentally exhausted from trying to organize my life for the next month or so around two wheels and a trailer.  Amazingly, after jettisoning about ten pounds of excess gear, I made it about 80 miles that first day.  Granted, I started at 10,00 feet in altitude and ended up at around 7,500, but still, 80 miles was a bigger push than I expected from myself right off the bat.  I figured I would eventually be doing “centuries,” or 100-mile days, and hitting 80 while hung over on the first day seemed to be a good indicator that my figuring was correct.  However, I still hadn’t gone over my first pass, hadn’t really climbed anything at all.  True, the downhill was exhilaratingly terrifying, but it in no way prepared me for what my body was about to go through over the next few weeks.  I got a good taste of it the next day, though, as I headed over the Cerro summit outside of Black Canyon National Park and into Montrose, Colorado, where I spent the night with my cousins who live in the area.  They gave me a lift to the border the next day, since they were headed that way anyway, and I made it all the way into Green River a day ahead of schedule.  Simple enough, right?  I was tired, but happy, and enjoyed a night of Ray’s Hamburgers and Utah beer.  (Understand, there’s a smiling sort of sarcasm to that.  Ray’s is a dive in Green River that’s great simply because it’s there, and Utah has laws about alcohol that would send any self respecting German into apoplectic shock.)  I had conquered 300 miles and my first stretch of desert.  While hot and sunny, the desert was really a pretty enjoyable place to ride, and if I were to push on like I was and make it to a town every day, there wouldn’t be any problems with water.  And there never were any problems with water.  I only ran out once, much farther along the road.

After Green River, I knew I’d be entering unfamiliar territory.  One of my favorite places in the world is the San Rafael Swell in Utah, and the myriad of desert cliffs and canyons that run through it.  Before my bike trip, I had never been beyond the great mound of sandstone that sits in the middle of Utah like some great, red and white bubble with undulating scars created by the scarce water that falls on it.  This time, I’d be not only riding past it, but OVER it.  First, though, I had to get to the southern end of the edifice, where roads, towns, and rivers converged to make a possible route over the swell.  So I rode.  I rode and rode and rode, past the entrance to Goblin Valley State Park and past Horseshoe Canyon- a canyon that’s now famous since Aron Ralstead chopped off his own arm to escape the desert that I was so blithely riding into.  I had been to these places, but never beyond.  The excitement took hold of me, and I pushed myself hard that day.  Too hard.  I rode my century, and spent the rest of the trip paying for it.  I ended up riding all day without stopping, even through the blistering heat of the afternoon.  Sunburned and exhausted, I crawled into my sleeping bag at the end of the day wondering where I was, who I was, and what the hell I was doing by myself in the middle of the desert.  I hurt, I was already tired of my daily rations that consisted of tuna packets and granola bars, and I was so zonked by the sun that all I could do was cry softly to myself and hope that things would get easier.  Unfortunately, they got harder.

I woke up by myself.  Of all the impressions I have left in my brain about this bicycle trip, that’s the one that keeps playing over and over in my head.  Different places, different times, but always I woke up by myself.  There was nobody to complain to, and nobody to tell me to stop or slow down.  So I didn’t stop, and I didn’t slow down, and I kept crying myself to sleep and waking up alone.  And I was in it beyond extraction, too.  The desert, I mean.  My choices were to ride on or abandon all of my possessions and try to hitch-hike southern Utah in spandex shorts.  I chose the easier path.

The next day I rode only 60 miles, the shortest distance of my trip.  I wandered through sand-blasted canyons on little used roads, always uphill, until I made it to Capitol Reef National Park.  I didn’t know the park was there, so it was a bit of a surprise when tumbleweeds and jackrabbits turned into noisy tourists gawking at the sensuous red rock formations that I felt were refolding my brain while I was alone.  This wasn’t an unwelcome surprise, and I stopped by at the park office to call my parents and to try and plan the second half of Utah.  I also found an old orchard that the park maintains, and that it allows visitors to eat freely from!  It was all I could do to not load my pack down with apples and pears.  Even now, I can taste the first golden apple to touch my lips.  I can feel the juice running down my chin in the red afternoon of Utah’s canyon-lands.  If only those moments were more forthcoming, I may have had a completely different experience.  I pushed on to the next town, Torrey, where I blew my entire trip’s budget on a cabin for the night, Mexican food, and a six pack.  Looking back, I still think it was totally worth it.  On top of getting to feel like a human being again, I met a couple of people and got a little social interaction.  My waitress, Lynsay, also ran the Torrey Greenhouse, and I had a fantastic time talking with her and trying her nectarines, peaches, lemon-cucumbers (delicious!), and plums.  I was the greenhouses only visitor, so eventually her husband and dog came to join us, and for the first time in what seemed like ages, I went back to my cabin and fell asleep somewhat content. 

The next day I felt great, and I had topped the swell, so the next hundred miles were pretty much downhill.  I pegged all hundred of them and resumed my life of misery in the sand.  After going through a couple of towns that were barely more than a filling station and a cattle pen, I made camp and got ready to push on to Cedar City, my final destination (I hoped) in Utah, before getting to flat (I hoped) Nevada. 

What followed was hell.  My map was a road map, not a topo, and I was judging my climbs and descents by the switchbacks in the road and the rivers that it followed through canyons.  I had no way of knowing that I was going to climb, and descend, 8000 feet in one go.  I really hadn’t.  It took me two days to get through Panguitch, Utah and up to Cedar Breaks National Monument, where I topped out the highest pass between Colorado and the Sierra Nevadas in California.  The road just kept going up, and up, and up.  It was infuriating.  There were no switchbacks, there were no towns, no alternate routes or indications of humans at all, and all I could do was climb.  Finally, I got to the top and, shuddering with exhaustion and mild heat stroke, took a couple of the only pictures I managed to snap through the whole trip.  Then I grabbed my brake levers and didn’t let go of them for 20 miles.  When I got to Cedar City, my brake rotors were bent and the frame of my beloved bicycle had cracked right next to the rear dropouts- where the wheel attaches.  What little happiness, and what little money I had left were instantly drained.

I holed up in Cedar City for a couple days at a cheap motel run by the only non-white people in the whole Great State of Utah.  Somehow I managed to scrape together enough cash to get the bike frame welded and make all the other necessary repairs to my rig that I needed to get through the rest of Utah and Nevada.  No bicycle can really come back from a cracked frame, and both the welder, and the bike repairman who recommended him were absolutely shocked when I put the wheels back on and the whole thing seemed to work.  Nonplussed by their amazement at their own work, I promptly got stung by a bee and headed out of town.

The next two days were the happiest I spent on the trip.  My bike was broken, I was broken (and broke,) and really, there was nothing else that could go wrong.  I was about to cross another state line, and finally my body was catching up with my determination to keep going, whatever the cost.  I felt fit and fatalistic- a common thread to many of my life’s transcendental moments.  Heading north out of Cedar City, I was making my way back to Highway 50, the road I had started on, and had to abandon because in Utah, it doesn’t go through any towns.  I guess that’s why it’s called the loneliest highway, but I’m not going to test that moniker, at least not on a bike.  Also, this part of Utah was relatively flat, and pleasant in a non-epic sort of way.  Most of Utah is very epic, with grand edifices and unreal rock formations as far as the eye can see.  This part, however was flat and dull, and that suited me just fine.  It was also during this part of the trip that I met the only other cross-country traveler I ever encountered.  His name was Alan, and he for some reason had gotten it in his head to walk from San Francisco to Boston, pushing a handcart.  We had a nice chat, and for the first time since Torrey I felt like I was actually relating to another person.  That night, I found the only trees in that part of the country- and they were close enough together to hang my hammock!  And I was only 80 miles from Nevada!

I limped into Baker the next day, one of the only clear memories I have of Nevada.  I stayed for free behind a restaurant that caters to cyclists, and met a number of interesting people.  I also helped out in the kitchen for lack of anything better to do, and in return got gloriously drunk on the proprietor’s private Scotch collection.  Somewhere during that time I also got offered a job running the restaurant during the winter months.  I politely declined.

After Baker, Nevada was a blur.  I found out that Nevada, while often thought of as a flat desert state, is the most mountainous of all 50 states, with 54 distinct ranges, most of them directly in my way.  They weren’t high mountains, by any means, and conveniently spaced with about 10 miles of perfectly flat land in between them, but they were still mountains, and I had to climb them.  Somewhere outside of Ely- and I’m not sure if it was 10 miles or 100- my bicycle broke again.  The wheel was coming loose, and it appeared that there was nothing to be done about it this time.  So, I reverted to what I knew and stuck my thumb out, bicycle, trailer and all.  Serendipitously, I was picked up by Keith, who was a groomsman in my friend Kirsten’s wedding.  Weird, right?  Also serendipitously, he was headed all the way to Austin, Nevada, a destination that would cut 3 days out of my trip, had my bike been working.  We pulled into Austin, where he works as an archaeologist under assignment from mining companies who are required by law to check out future sites for any archaeological interest.  I got to hang out and drink with a dusty bunch of archaeologists and learn what it was like to be a real Indiana Jones.  While the glamour of archaeology in movies is obviously exaggerated, these folks looked the part with their giant Bowie knives and dusty, wide brimmed hats.  They also shared a common theme with Indiana Jones in that they worked for people who didn’t want them to succeed.  The companies who paid them didn’t want them to find anything, as any significant finds would limit the possible areas to be mined.  So, their work consisted mostly of trying to glean what little information they could out of insignificant (by who’s rating, I don’t know,) sites and put together some kind of story before all of their data got systematically destroyed.  While I can’t imagine their day-to-day lives in dealing with their employers, I’d guess it must be a pretty frustrating job.  In any case, they were fun, hospitable people, and I’ll certainly be going back to pay them a visit some time I can do so properly. 

After Austin, I limped into Reno, spending the night at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere once before getting there.  When I got to Reno, I pitched camp at a state park in the middle of a howling storm, and waited out the last night of my bike ride.  When I woke up, the Sierra Nevadas lay before me, gleaming white and covered in impassable snow.  This was the end of the line for me and my broken bike.

So that’s it.  I got a room at a Casino in Reno and ate some sushi with a couple of strangers.  I called my friends in California and broke down and asked them to help me get the hell out of the desert- and they did.  In two days time I was getting off a Greyhound bus in Arcata, California and into a car that I had last seen parked outside the Dining Hall in Gothic.  A whole new adventure began after that, but the misadventure of Denny Brown in the Desert was over.  At least until I get another bike.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011



"I am the walrus."


"I am the walrus."


"I am the walrus."

What's that supposed to mean?


"It's my mantra."

Your mantra?  That's a stupid mantra, Denny.  "I am the Walrus?"

"It keeps me going."



You've been climbing for a bit now, man.  This is spring snow, and it's really deep and heavy.  Why don't you take a break?

"No can do.  Long way to go."

Yeah, but this hurts!  Your calves are screaming right now, man!  And there's a couple pieces of dried mango in your backpack you can eat.  


And do you hear how your bindings are creaking?  Your skins are probably coming off too.  Have you checked the-?

"I checked the tip and tail."

These skis are ancient.  I can't believe you're trying to telemark up this backcountry wilderness.  You don't even know how to ski properly.

"These skis are from the '90s."

Yeah.  Ancient.

Swish-wumph...  WUMPH!


Ok.  No need to panic.  Look up. 


Right.  No avalanches coming down.  But what was that?

"Wind slab?"

Must be.  Careful now, man.  Pay attention.



"Skis sound normal on the snow.  Maybe the slab's not very big."

Normal is good.  Holy crap!  Wouldja look at that.  You're about to reach the ridgeline!

"Yeah.  Good thing too, my legs are jelly.  I am the walrus."


"Alright.  Almost.  There.  I.  Am .  The walrus.



The walrus.

I.  Am.  The walrus!


Geez, that wind is howling.  But, hey...  Look...


This is incredible.  This is beauty.  The mountains marching off in every direction, snowy white and luminous...  The wind, swirling through the tree branches, slipping ice crystals under clothes...  Hey!  Don't start crying up here, man!  That shit'll freeze.  Put your coat on.

"Ok.  Yeah.  Coat's on, helmet's on, goggles on.  Let's see... Good to go?"

How many times have you done this dude?  Your boots are still unlocked, and your heel lifter bars are up.  Your skins are still on, and you haven't checked your zippers.  This is downhill, Denny.  In the backcountry.  Get your head in it.

"Oh, yeah.  It's just, everything's so beautiful, and I'm trying to catch my breath-"

Stow it.  You could've taken a break back there in the aspen grove, but you wanted to get to the top.  Now you're there.  Do it right.

"Ok, cinched down bootstraps, bindings are good.  Ripping skins.  Skins ripped.  Backpack on.  Zippers closed. Ready to go."

Then go.

"What!?  Oh.  Right."


"Holy shit.  Holy shit.  Holy shit.  Holy shit."

Breath.  Bend your knees.  Pick your line.  Soon, the trees will disappear, and the only thing left will be the spaces.  You will exist as part of the snow, caressing it, being caressed, losing yourself in the turns.  Twist silently through this place.  Be beauty. 

Now, step to the left.  Drop into the bowl and float...

"Step to the left.  Drop into the bowl and float..."


Friday, March 25, 2011


he swept past her
grooming the night
for the final
sparkling pilgrim
to rush upon
a new moon's
last little hope
for a new direction.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Copper Lake

On Monday I will attempt to ski all the way to Copper Lake.  Again.  Usually easy to hike to; a quick 3 hour jaunt through a gorgeous valley with some fun stream crossings, winter makes Copper Lake a tantalizing distant goal.  I've attempted this ski four times already, each attempt ending in frustration.  I have declared Copper Lake my nemesis.  

Copper Creek Trail starts just below Judd Falls, the now invisible waterfall that brings Copper Creek down into the East River Valley, somewhere just northeast of Gothic.  The trail is not difficult.  It's a well marked mining road that crosses over Copper Creek three times and two other creeks on the way to the northern end of the valley where one can find the amazing high-altitude lake of the same name.  Copper Lake is in a high basin surrounded by evergreen trees, flanked by East Maroon Pass on one side, and the beginning of Triangle Pass on the other.  While in the summer this popular and secluded lake is a great fishing and camping spot, and can be a fantastic spot to sit and reflect in solitude upon nature and man's place within it.  However, in winter the lake is frozen and snow covered, and the trail to it a challenge for a novice skier like myself.  In fact, I'll bet it's a challenge for almost any skier.  So far, I haven't seen any tracks head out that way besides my own, and I'll bet that no human has been there since December, if not earlier.  

My first attempt was in December, with John and Ira before our Texan friend headed out of winter to go play in the Grand Canyon for a couple of months.  We had a happy ski up the valley one afternoon, the three of us taking turns breaking trail through the fresh snow.  Luckily, the first stream crossing was snowed over in places, and being the largest of the crossings, that meant that the rest of them should be covered as well.  All was right with the world as we laughed and joked on our way north.  We made it as far as the last crossing, where tired and hungry, we decided to take a break, take some photos and have a snack.  After sitting down for a while, we decided to turn back home.  Fresh tracks leading downhill, a setting sun, and an endless winter stretched out before us all seemed to make Copper Lake a hazy, distant goal; certainly not something we needed to conquer right then.  So, with little disappointment we headed home.

That was to be the last time that I attempted the Lake with these friends, and perhaps my best chance of reaching it.  It would be Christmas before I tried my hand (or my feet if you will) at Copper Creek Trail again, and the next trip was to remind me just how brutal winter can be.

I set out by myself a few weeks later, early in the morning to avoid having the sun set on me.  The ski started wonderfully, if a bit chilly, and I made it to first crossing within a short 30 minutes.  It was there that I realized that in the middle of winter, the sun is far to the south and its light doesn't reach Copper Creek Valley until after noon since there are great big mountains in the way.  No matter, so I would ski in the shade.  What could be the problem with that?  The problem was that I chose the morning after the coldest night of the year for my ski.  After a bone-numbing -34 degree night, I was skiing in unbroken snow that wasn't getting any warmer sitting in the shade.  My boots were moving through frozen water particles that were well below a safe temperature.  After only a couple of miles, I could no longer feel my feet.  By the time I got to the last crossing, things were bad.  I can only recall a vague sense of wanting to cry every time I shifted weight from one foot to another.  There was no pain, no feeling at all really.  While determined to make it the last mile or so to the lake, I decided that the best thing to do would be to go back home.  Frustrated and reeling, I turned around.  When I got back home, my feet were frozen through.  Black, purple, and yellow, they emerged from my socks like frozen sausages being peeled from their casings.  I won't describe the pain and the fear that went into thawing them, and into trying to ascertain what kind of damage I actually did, but I will tell you that I still have all my toes, even if they don't feel anything anymore.    

 A few weeks later around Christmastime, Jonathon, a friend of mine who I met here years ago, decided to come for a visit.  After an eventful ski in from town, Jon decided that he'd rather use snowshoes to travel around for the remainder of his visit.  My feet had healed, and the memory of frostbite was fading, so the day after Christmas we strapped on some snowshoes (a very pale and somewhat retarded cousin to XC skis if you ask me) and again attempted the trail to Copper Lake.  Now this time I made another mistake.  While not crippling in the physical sense, this mistake was still pretty crucial.  I didn't inform Jonathon of where we were going.  I had it in my mind that we were attempting Copper Lake.  He thought we were going up past Judd Falls for some pictures.  To make a long, and rather beautiful story short, we again made it to the final crossing before Jon admitted his fatigue, and his lack of preparation for such a long hike.  I realized then that I had made assumptions about a place and a trip that he had absolutely no knowledge of.  Thanking him for putting up with such a long endeavor, I turned around again.

A few weeks ago I tried again.  This time, armed with food, water, emergency foot warmers, and the conviction that this time would be "it," I set out again for the seemingly mythical waters of Copper Lake.  The day was beautiful.  It was warm for the mountains in winter, the sun was out, and I was in my stride.  After months of skiing, my legs and arms were up for the challenge, and more.  I made it to first crossing within minutes.  I made it to the final stream crossing within a couple of hours.  Things were looking good indeed.  At the last crossing I stopped to have a snack and rest myself for the intense uphill battle that was to follow.  I remembered from several hikes that the last portion was the most difficult, winding steeply through the trees to reach the basin that held Copper Lake.  After my snack I started forward again.

I made it only 10 yards before I came upon the place I had hoped to cross.   The river was open.  The past few days had been warm and glorious, great for playing outside, but also great for melting the ice and snow that was supposed to be covering the river.  Instead of a dubious covering of snow, I looked down into a ravine and saw running water and rocks.  This is not the correct medium for skis.  I spent an hour skiing up and down the length of the creek looking for a place to cross, but it was all steep, all open, and all very dangerous.  Once again, this time for a reason beyond my capabilities and preparation, I had lost.  I turned around and headed home yet again.

So tomorrow, Monday 28 February, I will try again.  We've gotten lots of snow, temperatures have been moderately low, Ira is back, and the weather should be nice.  The trail will have to be broken, but with two skiers trading off that responsibility, we should be able to make decent time and not exhaust ourselves too much.  We'll pack a lunch, some extra socks and gloves, and once again head up into a valley who's indifference towards humans should be a clear warning sign that I do not belong there.  However, humans have a tendency to go where they don't belong, and knowing the risks, my sense of adventure will not let this one lie.  I'm going to steal an hour from Mother Nature to look at Copper Lake.  I'm going to go once again to the wintry solitude of the upper valleys, and this time I will be victorious.  Why, you may ask.  Well, in the words of mountain climbers everywhere- because it's there.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The History of Gothic Part III: The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, or It's a Bug's Life

In September of 1911 a man by the name of John C. Johnson was riding a narrow gauge train over the continental divide at Marshall pass, his first trip to the western slope.  He was on his way to Gunnison, Colorado to help start the Colorado State Normal School at Gunnison.  Originally a school with the sole purpose of training students to become teachers, the Normal School has since evolved into Western State College.  Not only was John C. Johnson instrumental in the history of Western State, but he underwent his own evolution through the years he spent in Colorado, and the impact he made on the Gunnison valley in general, and Gothic in particular, has been huge.

Dr. John C. Johnson

Far from having an academic family history, John C. Johnson was born to Swedish immigrants living in a house made of sod on the eastern plains of Colorado.  While I have friends who have an earnest passion for reconstructing the lifestyle of poor farmers, I'm sure that young Johnson was eager to escape the life of toil in agriculture that wedded people to the land.  Of course, the son of a farmer wouldn't be used to having things in life handed to him easily, and John C. Johnson took the lessons of hard work he learned from his family and applied them routinely to his life in academia.  In 1911, after graduating from the Normal School in Greely, Johnson hopped on a train to Gunnison to start another school.  On September 12, the Normal School at Gunnison was fully operational.

Now, "fully operational" a century ago meant something a little different than it does today.  Today, Western State College has a huge campus, a proud (but losing) football team, and many other organized sports teams. They offer classes in Holistic Shamanism and Outdoor Recreation, as well as your more conventional standards like Business or English.  In 1911, the doors opened to 13 students.  Sports teams were non-existent, and terms like Holistic Shamanism probably didn't even exist in the English language.  John C. Johnson was instrumental in changing all of that.

He started with the sports teams.  Within two years, he personally organized the first basketball team and football team.  Johnson rented an old church and converted it into a gymnasium, since for strange and complicated reasons the gymnasium at the college had a ceiling only eight feet high.  How the engineers of the late 19th/early 20th century could build a transcontinental railroad, but fail to make a gymnasium big enough to actually play sports in is something that confuses and perversely delights me.  In any case, the problem allowed Johnson to exercise his brain and his social skills while looking for a way to exercise the body.  Johnson, also the coach of the school's fledgling teams, somehow managed to obtain everything the school needed for a sports program; from a building, to backboards, to opponents.  Also immediately popular, and foreshadowing the eventual economy of the Gunnison valley, was the ski team Johnson started in January of 1912.

Between 1911 and 1928, Johnson served as coach, faculty, and then dean of the Colorado State Normal School, which became Western State College in 1923.  Also during that time, Johnson made the trek up to Gothic, and fell in love with the East River Valley. He had been operating the Rocky Mountain Biological Station in Taylor canyon, under the supervision of Western State College.  By 1927, however, the political climate in Colorado was changing, and due to a change in leadership in both the state and the school, Johnson found himself a target of the Ku Klux Klan, and both his position at Western State, and the RMBS were terminated.  These were dark times for Western State College, but out of them came the birth of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic.

Having learned the pratfalls of being involved in an institution that was subject to the whims of policy and politics, Johnson was determined to continue his work in biology free from the fetters of a government funded institution.  In 1928, with the help of his wife, Vera Adams Johnson, he started renting some buildings from Garwood Judd (who may or may not have had the right to rent them) in Gothic, and established the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.  With Aute Richards, A.O. Weese, and L.A. Adams, John and Vera Johnson incorporated the lab, and began the exciting, but often tedious work of documenting the biological processes that occurred in the high mountain valley.  Through the years, Johnson put much of his own money into the non-profit lab, buying standing buildings and renovating them, building new laboratories and cabins, and conducting painstaking research.  While for most of its history, the lab has been hanging by a financial thread, Johnson's spirit of putting his own sweat, blood, and money into the lab has persisted to this day.  As recent as a decade ago (before complicated building code regulations were being enforced) researchers and staff  would still come together to build the newest house, outhouse, or community structure that was needed.

The RMBL has, over the past 90 years, amassed some of the most important long term data sets the scientific community has at their disposal.  Year after year the "bugologists" would come up through Gunnison and Crested Butte to research everything from the behavior of marmots (large rodents that live in complex social groups,) to wildflowers and the insects that pollinate them, to stream ecology and, more recently, molecular biology.  Having information about how a population of animals lives for 50 or 60 or 70 years is a gold mine (see what I did there?) for biologists.  Being able to track populations in relation to climate, food sources, and predators gives a very good picture about what is really happening in the world around us.  It can even give us insights into ourselves.

I sat down with the director of the lab, Dr. Ian Billick PhD, to talk about some of the applications that come from spending years with his face in the dirt looking at the minute processes that make up this ecosystem.  He brought up an interesting example to illustrate how the natural world can show us a mirror into our own lives.  Apparently, insects in a stream will act differently when trout are feeding.  This may seem intuitive, but a "fear" mechanism, just like anything in science, must be documented and proved before it's considered valid.  Anyway, the insects responded not only to predation, but to the potential of predation, to the "fear" that now governed their lives, since trout were around.  This draws interesting parallels to our own society, and to how we're governing ourselves in the wake of the September 11th bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001. There is scientific evidence that indicates that regardless of actual death, populations will react to a predatory situation with fear, and change their behavior accordingly.  More people die from smoking each year than died in the WTC bombings, yet that act of terrorism has governed the very principles by which we live for a decade now.

The RMBL has always been on the cutting edge of science.  There have been numerous instances of conflicts between the "Old School" and the "New School" within the lab as science and technology have changed over the years.  Out of these robust discussions, and from the research of dedicated scientists, the lab has been instrumental in our understanding the world, our impact on it, and the consequences of that impact.  Michael Soule, the founder of Conservation Biology worked here for a while, and the revered (by some) Paul Ehrlic, author of "The Population Bomb" has been a member of the lab for decades.  The idea that organisms evolve constantly, in response to each other, has been explored here, indicating that evolution is a process and not a road to a predetermined "perfect" end.  With over 1300 peer reviewed publications coming from the lab, and innovative experiments like a warming meadow kept at a few degrees warmer than its surroundings to imitate climate change, the lab has been instrumental in furthering our understanding of how this crazy world actually functions.

The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory at Gothic

Science is constantly changing, and it has always been a struggle for the lab to change with it.  Without the funding of a large university or the federal government (which also frees the lab from political agenda,) the lab must rely on individual donors, fund raisers like the annual 4th of July Marathon, and grant money to continue operation.  Through these funds, the RMBL continues to move forward.  In 2011, a new building with state of the art laboratory space will be built, and there are plans to construct a visitor's center soon.  The business model of the lab is evolving, and interaction with the non-scientific community is increasing as our world shrinks and our links to each other become closer, more immediate, and more urgent.  The future of the lab rests on the shoulders of the people who come to work here, and relies on the blood and sweat of its members, as it has since John C. Johnson started buying buildings in 1928.  Having met and worked with lab members, these students and scientists from around the world, I'd say the future looks pretty bright.

Johnson, by the way, returned to Western State College in 1966 after a 38 year absence.  He died in 1973.

"In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them."  -Aldo Leopold, Conservationist.

If you'd like to make a donation to the lab, please follow the link below.

Bibliography for The History of Gothic

1. Johnson, John C. Jr. and Dorothy Johnson. Recollections of W.S.C. and R.M.B.L.  2000.
2. Vandenbusche, Duane. The Gunnison Country.  Gunnison, CO: B&B Printers, 1980.
3. Haase, Carl Leroy.  Gothic History.  1971
4. Wolle, Muriel Sibell.  Stampede to Timberline.  Denver, CO: Sage Publishing, 1949
5. Billick, Ian.  Personal interview.  December 2010.
6. "Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory." Available at  December 2010

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's snow...

Do you long for something that you can't define?  Are you looking for answers to questions that may not exist?  I'm in a contemplative mood, and I hope you'll excuse me if I use this forum to get some free-form thinking done.  Hey, if you don't like it, please fuck off.

I know I promised an article finishing up the History of Gothic with the RMBL this week, but after several aborted attempts at beginning it, I decided to just leave it alone for another week.  Don't worry, I've got some really neat information tucked under my hat, and I will finish what I've started.  It's just that I happen to like detours, and asides, and all the little things in life that kinda keep people from getting to the point.  So enjoy (or ignore) this particular aside, and the sensation of letting words carry you to nowhere.

The isolation is palpable.  Other humans in this valley seem to push its edge and press against this isolation like it's a bubble.  They get close and I can hear them talking to me.  Shit, I can even make them laugh sometimes, and we can share a genuine smile, but the bubble never pops.  It's like seeing someones face all squished up against some used plastic wrap.  We can have a good time, but I sure as hell ain't kissing those lips.

Now, I don't mean to say that what I'm experiencing is extraordinary, or even that unusual in the scope of human existence.  Many people have lived in greater isolation than I, and have even thrived in those conditions.  I just wonder how they dealt with it.  I've worked hard the past few years, and have made some friends that should last for a lifetime.  I can't connect with them right now though.  As hard as I try, and as convenient as technology makes things, when I speak to people that I've shared my life with, it feels hollow and fake.  Sometimes the feeling is so palpable that we'll cut the Skype conversation short, or communicate in terse, happy sounding emails that don't actually say anything.  I'm only complaining a little bit, really I'm just trying to comment on this phenomenon.  Under no circumstances would I admit a weakness of character, and cry to an anonymous world about my own petty problems.  Certainly not.

What is it about certain people that they absolutely MUST seek out adventure?  I know that for myself, it's not an option.  I don't sit around thinking "well, should I climb that mountain, or should I find a job?"  That question is easily answered, and I promise it doesn't end with an application and an interview.  And it's a valid comparison too.  Climbing a mountain takes a lot of individual effort, very little conversation, almost no physical contact with other humans (if you're even climbing with others,) and a very personal sense of reward.  Working a job establishes one's place in society, exposes him to other people, and requires stability of place and personality.    Is the difference part of an established societal description?  Is it as easy as comparing introverts to extroverts?  Or "turned on" people and mindless sheep?  Or slackers and hustlers?  Somehow I don't think so.

Whatever the differences are, it is true what they say: no man's an island.  I can't confirm this, but I'll bet that even the most hardy of mountain men, the most intrepid of explorers, and daring adventurers all feel loneliness.  The desire for human contact is intense, and is a part of anyone who's ever had a mother, who wants to mate, or needs some help with something.  As for me, it all applies.  I miss my mother, I'm going crazy without a mate, and  I could really use some help from time to time.

I love my mountain solitude, and aside from the growing loneliness, I'm happier than I've ever been.  The natural beauty, the peace, the opportunities, and a certain something mystical all call to me, and I've answered.  Now, if I can just learn what I need to learn, and share it with everybody else...