MERCHANTS OF DOUBT

The highest profile people in Washington, D.C., particularly those who (sometimes) inhabit the White House, constantly bring to mind the fine documentary film “Merchants of Doubt,” a story about how scientific misinformation makes its way into the media and then the minds of the general public. In some ways it is an old story, best summarized in the inimitable words of Deep Throat (Mark Felt), “Follow the money.” In other ways it is an entirely new story because the stakes and consequences of a public filled with scientific misinformation are unprecedented in all history.

A couple of years ago an opinion piece by the Denver Post Editorial Board caught my eye. It epitomizes Deep Throat’s wisdom. It begins: “One of the stock charges used by those who campaign to ban hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas drilling is that it endangers groundwater supplies. And yet the pile of studies largely refuting this fear-mongering keeps growing by the year.” One study mentioned refuting “this fear-mongering” was conducted by Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources. Yes, and, according to High Country News, Exxon Mobile in 2010 “…gave the university $5 million to study energy development impacts on western Colorado’s sage grouse, mule deer and other wildlife, spawning 20 new research contracts. Shell, BP and others have also recently poured millions of dollars into CSU’s research. Warner College is named for alum Ed Warner, who donated $30 million in 2005 after making a fortune pioneering hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which has opened hard-to-reach oil and gas reserves worldwide.”

A press release from Physicians for Social Responsibility at that time reads: “A partnership of prominent health organizations encompassing nationwide medical and public health experts and scientists released the third edition of their ‘Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking’ on Wednesday. The Compendium compiles and summarizes hundreds of peer-reviewed studies and other important findings on fracking, showing the significance and extent of the evidence demonstrating risks to public health, air and water quality, birth and infant health, the environment, and climate change.”

Who would you rather have as sources of scientific information about public health, Physicians for Social Responsibility or Exxon Mobil, Shell and BP? It seems obvious to me, but “Merchants of Doubt” is a stunning and disturbing documentary of the history and current practice of how public relation firms working for large businesses pervert truth and deceive the public for profit. “Merchants of Doubt” director Robert Kenner says, all of today’s “doubtmeisters” learned at the feet of the old masters from the Marlboro days.

“I spoke to Peter Sparber, who was masterful at working for tobacco,” says Kenner. “He helped slow down legislation on a slow burning cigarette. He was able to convince people it was not cigarettes that cause house fires, it was couches. He was able to make a law that (requires) chemicals to be put in these couches. It turned out it didn’t prevent fires and it also caused cancer.” Sparber, who was interviewed for the film, told Kenner that if a person can successfully create doubt around tobacco products, they can do it with just about anything. He said, “You could take James Hansen, the leading climate scientist, and I could take a garbage man and I could get America to believe that the garbage man knows more about climate change than Hansen does.”

“Merchants of Doubt” will help the public differentiate between garbage and science. Don’t miss it.

Keep it in mind every time you watch/read about and/or listen to the high profile doubtmeisters of Washington—Donald, Sean, Mike, Betsy, Kellyanne, Jared, Reince, Rex, Jeff, Ryan, Scott and so many others—peddle garbage instead of cleaning it up.

ON PERFECTION

A priest was in charge of a Zen temple garden because he loved the flowers, shrubs, and trees. Next to the temple was another, smaller temple where there lived an old Zen master. One day, when the priest was expecting some special guests, he took extra care in tending to the garden. As he pulled the weeds, trimmed the shrubs, combed the moss and meticulously raked up and carefully arranged all the dry autumn leaves the old master watched with interest from across the wall that separated the temples.

When he had finished, the priest stood back to admire his work. “Isn’t it beautiful,” he called out to the old master. “Yes,” replied the old man, “but there is something missing. Help me over this wall and I’ll put it right for you.”

After hesitating, the priest lifted the old fellow over and set him down. Slowly, the master walked to the tree near the center of the garden, grabbed it by the trunk, and shook it. Leaves showered down all over the garden. “There,” said the old man, “you can put me back now.”

A Zen story

 

I like this story. It reminds me of Gertrude Stein’s famous observation that “There are no straight lines in nature,” and of what nature is and is not and of how mankind’s idea of perfection destroys nature’s own. It’s an illustration of several things, among them the priest’s narrow (unpriestly?) pride in the beauty and order of his own work juxtaposed with the master’s more expansive appreciation of the inherent beauty of a larger, older and more inclusive edict. The word ‘respect’ comes to mind.

Thank nature for the master.

It is a much older story than this Zen version of it.

Man versus nature. Man in nature. Man in harmony with nature. Man in conflict with nature. Man and nature. Man as a part—and a small one at that—of nature. Man’s obsessive need to make order out of chaos. Man’s neurotic need to control—everything, including nature.

Keeping care of one’s garden is admirable, honorable work, and, depending on the garden, it may provide sustenance for a few people. Tending the garden is the work of survival, and man and nature as equal partners will keep man flourishing and alive. The scientific study of the natural world, the common observations of the common man, the escalating rate of species extinction and the high temperatures of summer are but a few of the plentiful indications that modern man’s partnership with nature is completely out of balance. Despite the moronic ramblings of people in high places who have every opportunity and obligation to know better—people like Donald Trump and most of his administration, George Bush, James Inhofe and others who take an unpriestly pride in answering to a higher father who goes by many names including ExxonMobil—man caused global warming is real, and it is changing the garden of earth in unknowable and irreversible ways. And there is something missing in their concept of perfection and beauty.

The Zen priest who stood back to admire his work and calling it beautiful was, as the old master pointed out, missing something in his own garden that he had made every effort to make perfect. And he was missing something as well in his own self. Though he hesitated at first, the priest had respect and took the effort to lift the old master over the wall so he could shake the tree in the middle of the garden. At the end of the Zen story there is nothing missing from the garden, the priest or the master.

May we all have such respect and do as well and lift the old masters over all the walls so they can shake those trees in the center of every garden until the leaves fall down like nature’s own.

 

POLITICAL QUOTES

“We hang petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.”

Aesop, Greek slave and fable author.

“Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”

Plato, ancient Greek philosopher.

“Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.”

Nikita Khrushchev, Russian Soviet politician.

“When I was a boy I was told that anyone could become President; I’m beginning to believe it.”

Quoted in ‘Clarence Darrow for the Defense’ by Irving Stone.

“Politicians are people who, when they see light at the end of the tunnel, go out and buy some more tunnel.”

John Quinton, American actor/writer.

“Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other.”

Oscar Ameringer, ‘the Mark Twain of American Socialism.

“In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.”

George Orwell, English author.
“I offered my opponents a deal: if they stop telling lies about me, I will stop telling the truth about them.”

Adlai Stevenson, campaign speech, 1952.

“A politician is a fellow who will lay down your life for his country.”

Texas Guinan, 19th century American businessman.

“The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war. Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists.”

Ernest Hemingway, American author and war correspondent.
“I have come to the conclusion that politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.”

Charles de Gaulle, French general and politician.

“Instead of giving a politician the keys to the city, it might be better to change the locks.”

Doug Larson, English middle distance runner who won gold medals at the 1924 Olympics.

“Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of England, considered by many the greatest statesman of the 20th century.

“What happens if a politician drowns in a river? “

“That is pollution.”

“What happens if all of them drown?”

“That is a solution.”

Anonymous misanthrope.

Thanks due, from Aesop to anonymous.

 

 

THE PURPOSE OF PLACE

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important but least understood need of the human soul.”
Simone Weil

“Of all the memberships we identify ourselves by (racial, ethnic, sexual, national, class, age, religious, occupational), the one that is most forgotten, and has the greatest potential for healing, is place. We must learn to know, love and join our place even more than we love our own ideas. People who can agree that they share a commitment to the landscape/cityscape—even if they are otherwise locked in struggle with each other—have at least one deep thing to share.”
Gary Snyder

I have an old friend, now in his 80s, who has lived since he was a child on the same piece of land in a beautiful valley of a western state framed by mountains. I once wrote a letter of congratulations to him “For remaining rooted in place….There are few people in our culture who have this sort of good fortune, and having such deep roots has allowed you to grow in certainty from young agile boy with a smile looking for the next adventure to old, bionic-kneed man with a smile looking for the next adventure.” During the years from childhood when his home was nearly 10 miles outside town to the raising of his children to playing with his grandchildren that town has grown and surrounded and made a cityscape of the landscape of his youth. Still, his sense of place has allowed him to keep his priorities in order, his integrity intact and his sense of humor in operating shape. He has retired from a teaching career and has a sufficient but not extravagant lifestyle, and when a real estate developer offered him $14 million dollars for his property he turned it down. My friend said to me, “What would I do with $14 million? Move to Sun Valley and buy a condo? I like it here. I always have. This is my place.”
My friend’s wisdom is both informative and inspiring, as are Weil’s and Snyder’s.
A person rooted in place has a different experience and understanding of that place and thereby the larger world than one who is passing through to make the next step on the ladder of upward mobility, looking to crash as gently as possible after falling off that ladder, moving to the next job, following the restlessness of disaffection to the next layover or being pushed off place by rising prices. Place as used here is not to be confused with property and it need not be a particular dwelling or tiny or humongous parcel of land within either landscape or cityscape. Roberta McKercher’s place was Hailey, Idaho in the home where Ezra Pound was born. Mary Jane Conger’s is Ketchum, Idaho where her family has lived for three generations. John Muir’s was the Sierra Nevada. Another old friend, writer/photographer Peter Miller’s is Colbyville, Vermont. Jane Goodall’s is Tanzania. Han Shan’s was Cold Mountain. The Dalai Lama’s is the Potala, which he has not seen since 1959. And Gary Snyder wrote of his place, “I set up my library and wrote poems and essays by lantern light, then went out periodically, lecturing and teaching around the country. I thought of my home as a well-concealed base camp from which I raided university treasuries. We named our place Kitkitdizze after the aromatic little shrub.” There are those who are only at home and at peace with themselves (and committed and attuned to place) in the mountains, others on the sea and still others upon the rivers that connect them. For Wilfred Thesiger it was the southern Arabian Desert. In the late 1940s he was one of the first Europeans to even see what was then known as the Empty Quarter, and he titled the book he wrote about his experiences and sense of the place “Arabian Sands.” One description of Thesiger’s work reads, “It is a book of touches, little things—why the Bedouin will never predict the weather (“since to do so would be to claim knowledge that belongs to God”), how they know when the rabbit is in its hole and can be caught. It is written with great respect for these people and with an understanding that acknowledges its limits. With humility.  Fail the humility test, and the desert will surely kill you.” Today the Empty Quarter is filled with oil wells, Land Rovers and people passing through with a notable lack of sense of place or humility.

It might be said, Fail the humility test of sense of place, whether the place be a plot of land, a river, mountain, sea or neighborhood and it will surely kill at the very least some essential part of the soul.
If you have a sense of place, treat it with respect. If you don’t, start looking.

karma

Karma is the universal law of cause and effect. It has been called the law of moral causation and is fundamental to Buddhist thought, practice and understanding of the world. The concept of karma was central to Hinduism long before it was incorporated into what we now know as Buddhism, and it is best understood as an organic process rather than as an imposed system of justice. Karma usually takes longer than justice to manifest, but it is absolutely immune to political/economic/social influences. Unlike justice, karma is inescapable. Karma can be earned or paid for, but it can’t be bought or sold. Karma is neither a bartering system nor “an eye for an eye” transaction.

One way of thinking of karma is that the deed (original action) is the seed of a fruit that will eventually grow and ripen and fall upon the one responsible. It must be morally good or morally bad to produce its fruit, and since the ripening of karmic fruit generally takes longer than a single lifetime the effect of the original cause is not manifested for one or more rebirths…..thus the endless cycle of existence known as samsara which continues until one reaches enlightenment or nirvana. That is, the concept of karma is big mind, long term, universal thinking, not the small mind of I, me, my, mine, individual, separate and personal fate.

An action, or original cause, can be one of body, speech or mind. The karma of just a thought that is not spoken aloud or acted upon is determined by the intention of the act. Intention causes a karmic effect to arise. Intention is cause. Even if never acted upon the intention in itself is enough to create a karmic effect, and while bad deeds produce bad karma good deeds produce good karma or ‘reward.’ In karmic terms, present intention, present thought, present action are in some measure a consequence of past intention and are in a greater measure the determination of future situations.

This is not to say that karma is absolute determinism. It is not. Karma, at least in Zen practice, might best be described as the intention to pay attention without judgment or desire to influence the situation to one’s ‘advantage’ or to avoid pain. Karma determines the manner of rebirth, the situation one is born into, but it does not determine the intention or action and response to that situation. Both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ karma keep one in the cycle of existence—samsara‑‑and the way to end the cycle of rebirth is to refrain from both good and bad deeds. That is, the way out is enlightenment.

So, we are either caught in samsara or we are enlightened. Take your pick.

In some Zen centers morning service begins with a verse: “All the karma ever created by me from the beginningless greed, anger and delusion born through body, speech and thought I now fully avow.” That is, the first step is to acknowledge and accept responsibility for who we are and for the circumstances of our lives. Such acceptance is to be open to the universe and to realize that present conditions determine subsequent conditions. When we deal with our own, personal situation or the violence, ignorance and social/economic injustices of society, our intention is to lessen our own suffering and that of all beings and to encourage others to do the same. It is worth remembering that so long as we are in samsara we are dealing with these matters, with karma, every instant of our lives. The inescapable and ancient law of karma is that positive actions produce positive results and negative actions produce negative results, truths we cannot escape.

In closing, I am reminded and wish to remind you of the words of the Dalai Lama: “My religion is kindness.”

WIND RIVER UNIVERSE

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

John Muir

 

Those oft-quoted but not often enough pondered words of John of the Mountains come to mind when I think about the Wind River Range of Wyoming. Every Winds climber experiences those qualities and all are altered by them in subtle and significant ways. Whether they take a 40 mile roundtrip trailhead to trailhead one day ascent of Gannett Peak or free the North Face of Mt. Hooker in a day, the experience transforms them differently‑‑but no more momentously‑‑than less ambitious endeavors like the Northeast Face of Pingora or the North Face of Haystack Mountain.

The Winds have everything climbers and other humans could ask of a mountain range, and each visit leaves us more complete. The unique character of the range includes 40 granite peaks above 13,000 feet, alpine forests, 7 of the 10 largest glaciers in the lower 48, more than 2000 lakes‑‑and a serrated topography that even Joe Kelsey, the John Muir of the Winds, hasn’t fully explored. On a clear day, the surface of Lonesome Lake reflects the sweeping silver walls of the Cirque of Towers, a glacial polished mirror to the climber who cares (dares?) to gaze into the reality that rock is more durable than but not immune to the transitory human touch and take that reflection back to the larger world.

 

My first and favorite Wind River outing in 1972 gave me a transformative personal experience guiding a woman named Elizabeth who had escaped the Nazis by crossing the Pyrenees in World War II and who taught me a new dimension of all we mean by the word ‘freedom,’ and one of my best climbs with a then new and now old friend and climbing partner Sibylle Hechtel. A third gift of that trip was a dream I had one night camped by Lonesome Lake in the Cirque of Towers. I turned the dream into fiction as vision or hallucination (but it was a dream, honest) in a short story titled “Medicine,” previously published in Mountain Gazette:

He lay exhausted in the afternoon sun, his eyes resting on the great, broken east face of Warrior Peak. His vision moved slowly along the large vertical crack systems and intersecting, diagonal lines. One detached slab near the top of the face seemed like it would fall any instant, it could not last another winter and spring thaw. He imagined sitting in that spot for thousands of years, long enough to watch Warrior crash apart, piece by piece, until nothing remained but a mound of rock that once was a mountain. He pictured Warrior as it would eventually be, a rubble heap of broken rock, continuously reducing itself into smaller and smaller particles. Even mountains are returned to the sea.

When he superimposed this image over that which his eyes saw as the east face of Warrior, a strange thing happened. He saw a zigzag pattern of unbroken movement flowing up the fractures of the face. He perceived an endless mass of people jammed together on the same path. Some were carrying big loads on their backs, others in their hands; some carried nothing while others had carts drawn by animals‑‑men, women and children, all struggling to progress. The pathway of people moved like a river, a flowing stream of light comprising all mankind, every man and woman carrying their own loads up the same strenuous path, together. He watched it a long time, filled with compassion.

It slowly began to change from movement to form, like the creation of understanding itself. That which was flowing up a steep, winding path formed itself into a human hand, a fine, beautifully formed hand, palm up, with long, graceful fingers extended and together, thumb relaxed and not quite touching the first finger. It was the hand of man and everything he had ever seen and known and touched and loved and felt and cared about was in that hand. As soon as he understood this all that remained before his vision was the East Face of Warrior.


I took the gift of that dream back to the larger world as reminder of something we all know but fail to ponder with enough effort and focus: that the hand of every human holds the earth within it and the hand of every climber brings and then leaves more than new climbing routes, slings, bolts and other manufactured protection. On any busy summer day, at what I once referred to but no longer can as ‘pristine’ Lonesome Lake it is not unusual to find two or three dozen campers, not all of them climbers. What they (we) leave depends on their (our) level of consciousness of being hitched to everything in the universe, including unpacked out shit and toilet paper buried or not, carelessly or uncaringly abandoned garbage, campfire ash from easily gathered wood that will no longer be available to rejuvenate local soil, the impact of millions of footsteps trampling vegetation and making hardpan of porous soil on and off the trails.

When I first wandered the Winds climbers and other visitors were still few, and winter erased most signs of their passing. Within the span of a human life 45 years is huge, but in the time that is hitched to everything else it is miniscule. Today the snow pack melts 16 days earlier than it did in 1972 and it will continue to vanish earlier and earlier each year. The environmental integrity of every mountain range is degrading with as yet unknown consequences as a result of human overpopulation, overproduction and overconsumption fueling the rising temperatures of Earth. Some countries and peoples are suffering the violence of climate change more than others. America drives those changes more than most nations and so far suffers less, but eventually the ecological degradation will visit all countries and all peoples.

I cannot imagine how climbing standards will accelerate in the next 45 years but assume they will keep pace with the increasing velocity of environmental squalor and unwelcome change that will meet climbers when they enter the Winds and that will accost them again as they exit back into that larger world. What I like to think about is that any solution to the man made global warming crisis that affects everything to which we are all hitched is in the hands of humans. The approach to climbing as pilgrimage. Environmental activism as a mission. Improving lives through living our own lives in a sustainable manner. Educating the ignorant about retreating glaciers and melting snow and encouraging simplicity as a (partial) solution. I think the holy Wind River Range which has given us so much would be honored, grateful, relieved and reciprocal to such a hand from its climbers.

Don’t you?

 

TWO (TO?) TRUMP POEMS BY LITO

I wanted to put something here this week before the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States changes the world in so many unimaginable, unbelievable, unsavory ways. I wanted to express how embarrassed and ashamed I am that my country allowed this to happen, and how determined most citizens are to unite in opposition, prevail against and overcome the man who is neither my president nor representative of my values. My old friend Lito Tejada Flores recently composed two poems that speak for the best and, since Hillary Clinton won the democratic vote, majority of Americans. Thanks, Lito.

 

(Un)happy Holidays
 
No one’s ready, no one’s eager,
In fact, we’re all a little afraid.
It’s happened before, that’s the problem,
A would-be strongman, & crazy promises,
 
& crowds of believers, blind believers.
Christmas cards at the post office,
Every day, same as always—
But it isn’t the same, is it?
 
Merry Christmas? Maybe, why not?
But we can’t say: Happy New Year
With a straight face. We shake our heads
 
In disbelief, knowing it’s true.
It isn’t *Kristallnacht* either, not yet,
But it isn’t over. It’s up to us . . .
AND
Trump
 
Must be that ill wind blows nobody no good,
Must be what somebody wanted, so many wanted,
Must be too late now to change their minds,
Must be a plan B somewhere, another option . . .
 
No, there isn’t. Must be what we deserve.
So where’d we go wrong? What did we do? What
Didn’t we do? Didn’t help, bailed out the banks
Not the little guys who believed those banks.
 
Weren’t kind enough, generous enough, didn’t care,
Because we were okay, not really, but just enough,
Not our brothers’ keeper, or sisters’. Too busy to care.
 
And what did we learn? Nothing compared to what
We’re about to learn. No one gets a pass this time.
Must be what we needed to wake up. Can we?

BACK TO THE BASICS IN THE BACKCOUNTRY

The number of skiers and snowboarders who climb up on their own power in order to slide down snow covered backcountry slopes has grown significantly in recent years. Many of these climbing skiers/boarders also ride ski lifts and slide down groomed runs some of the time and others haven’t ridden a lift in years. A few have never been on a lift. This cultural/athletic phenomenon is as evident in the Wood River Valley as in the rest of the skiing world, and the reasons for this are varied and personal. One oft quoted explication came from Pepi Stiegler, Olympic gold and silver medal winner in alpine skiing who directed the Jackson Hole alpine ski school for many years. When asked why he and other alpine skiers are spending more and more time in the backcountry, he replied, “It’s like it was in the beginning. It’s pure. Skiing in the backcountry is like going home.”
Other motivations include economic (lift tickets are expensive), a search for solitude or at least quietude, the physical benefits of a good workout and the mental/emotional profits of a day away from the madding crowd(s) in a pristine environment. Going home, at least to those for whom skiing has been a foundation for rich, rewarding, healthful lives, is a return to the basics in much the same spirit as eating the fare from your own home grown organic garden. It costs less money and more effort to grow, but the results are healthier for body and mind than the less arduous and more expensive alternatives.
For several reasons beyond the scope of this writing there is more terrain easily accessible to Idaho’s Wood River Valley backcountry skiers/boarders and fewer people using it than in any other major ski area in western America. As a result the local backcountry skiing/board scene is relatively quiet, both in the hills and in the bars. In contrast, on a busy weekend the backcountry chaos on Teton Pass between Victor, Idaho and Wilson, Wyoming will see hundreds of people, feuds and dented fenders over the limited parking, lines of climbers on the way up and few lines left after 10 a.m. on the way down and recognizable as home only to those from very large families. Even the social media obsession of the Go Pro/Facebook generation has not (so far) brought such attention and congestion to the vast backcountry terrain surrounding the Wood River Valley.
Some (not all) zealous purists among local backcountry regulars can be tight-lipped about their favorite lines and peaks and how to get there, considering those of a more communicative nature déclassé. Such zealous purity inspires words not usually printed here to describe those who use helicopters to access their favorite backcountry lines, though, in truth, some of those same puritans have been known to use snowmobiles to cross the long, arduous and monotonous flats to approach those same lines.
Still, the word gets out about the best, most easily accessed backcountry areas, and anyone with enough interest in local backcountry pursuits to acquire the proper equipment, attire, attitude and energy to return to the basics will quickly discover enough skiing/boarding in the Wood River Valley to last a lifetime.
After all, it’s like going home and is where I live in winter.
 

NOTES OF AN OLD SKI BUM

 Bum
Noun
1. A person who avoids work and sponges on others; loafer; idler.
2. A tramp, hobo, or derelict.
3.Informal. An enthusiast of a specific sport or recreational activity, especially one who gives it priority over work, family life, etc.: a ski bum; a tennis bum.

“When you are enthusiastic about what you do, you feel this positive energy. It’s very simple.”
Paulo Coelho

Informal is an apt description of most people I would consider ski bums. Their lives, at least while on skis and in many but not all cases off, are filled with enthusiasm, simplicity and positive energy. Except for a few fortunate trust-fund recipients, all the ski bums I know or know of work at least as much as their more formal, mainstream non-or even anti-ski bum brethren who do not ski as often as they might like. No ski bum is accurately portrayed with the more derogatory (formal?) definition of ‘bum’.
Au contraire.
The life of a ski bum both on the mountain and off is filled with effort and there is neither time nor space for loafing, idling or hopping trains, though in truth there are a few derelicts in the ranks. While the term ‘ski bum’ is of recent origin, it is inconceivable that the enthusiast who gave skiing priority over many other aspects of life has not existed since the invention of the ski sometime around 5000 BC. In modern ski culture there seems to be a perception that the ski bum is a recent phenomenon, but this is not true. In North America the first high profile ski bum was Snowshoe Thompson (1827-1876), though there were surely others. From 1856 to 1876 Thompson carried mail across the snowbound Sierra Nevada in winter on his homemade 10 foot long 25 pound oak skis. He made the 90 miles from Placerville, California to Genoa (then called Mormon Station), Nevada in 3 days and the return in 2 days. He made the journey 2 to 4 times a month for 20 years and was never paid for his efforts. Every ski bum reading this can relate to Snowshoe’s enthusiasm, positive energy and the simplicity of his solitary life in the mountains between Placerville and Genoa.
So, by the time I was old enough to determine my own priorities the lifestyle of the ski bum was a well established if unacknowledged tradition in North American skiing, and so it remains. In 1957 Ron Funk, Tony Perry and I lived together in one small room of a residential home in Aspen while we trained for alpine ski racing. I don’t remember the rent, but somehow $25 a month each sounds right. One of our (and others) money saving strategies involved daily lift tickets which cost around $10. At that time in Aspen lift tickets were attached to the ski pant zipper by a small, metal, detachable keychain. One of our group would buy a ticket each morning, attach it to the pant zipper, get on the lift, detach the ticket, insert it in a spare glove tucked inside the parka and drop the glove to a waiting fellow ski racer at the first lift tower who would then repeat the process. And repeat. It required a lot of effort, attention to detail, inconvenience and imagination to be a ski racing ski bum in the 1950s. We traveled together in full cars to share gas expenses and sometimes drove all night between races to save the cost of a bed. As I wrote in “Night Driving” about a 1959 (when gasoline sold for 25 cents a gallon) nonstop trip from upstate New York to Reno with Don Brooks, Redmond Wilcox, Gardner Smith and Renee Cox (later Gorsuch): “At around two in the morning we pulled up to the back entrance of my parents’ tiny Reno apartment. We had been on the road for sixty-five hours. We unloaded about twenty pairs of skis from the rack and stored them in a corner of the living room. My fellow passengers immediately crashed on the floor in sleeping bags, but my fatigue wouldn’t let me sleep. I showered, put on clean clothes and took a refreshing walk along the Truckee River. When I got back, I joined my mates on the floor, and I slept the sleep of colored dreams. In the morning I loaned Brooks enough money for a bus ride to Portland and saw him off. A week later he returned my money, paying me from his first check. Gardner hung around a couple of days, and when Reno made him nervous, he moved on down the line. Red stayed a bit longer and then just disappeared one day, driving off into the Northwest (I think) in his trusty black Oldsmobile. I got a job on a newspaper in Fallon, commuting 120 miles a day six days a week. Richard Nixon was going to try for the presidency in a year. It was a long summer.”
By the early 1960s Sun Valley had become my ski bum home. At that time Sun Valley was still owned by Union Pacific Railroad and many jobs within the company included room, board, a lift pass, some money for partying and other necessities and time to ski several hours a day. As a ski racer with friends in management I had the good fortune of some advantages, and I was able to work as a bus boy, pizza cook and bartender, prioritized according to training and ski racing schedules. One of my roommates in the Sun Valley dorms was the irrepressible Bobbie Burns who was in the process of revolutionizing freestyle skiing with his flamboyance, enthusiasm, energy and unbelievable skiing skills. Another year I lived for free with Funk in the small Ketchum home he owned in those days. One year Mike Brunetto and I rented a two bedroom basement apartment in Ketchum, though we both worked for Sun Valley, so we could have more personal space, privacy and comfort than the dorms allowed in those times between skiing and working. Mike later became one of the most respected ski designers and manufacturers (as did Burns) in the business. He worked for Head, Dura-Fiber, Lynx, The Ski and K2 before starting his own ski companies, RD and then Wolf Ski which were made in Sun Valley. Wolf Ski business hours were 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and from 2:30 p.m. until whenever the day’s work was done in order that the staff, including Brunetto, could ski.
In 1963 I took a job in La Parva, Chile as a ski instructor (and which taught me to teach skiing), included round trip transportation from the U.S., a few dollars and time off to train and join Funk and C.B.Vaughan for the speed runs in Portillo.
In 1964 I had the opportunity, which included a free plane ticket, to go to Europe and race for a month. I took it and at the end of the month decided I wanted to stay in Europe. I cashed in the return portion of the plane ticket and spent more than a year skiing and racing in Europe, working in the Kneissl ski factory in Austria, working for a spedition (moving company) in Germany and teaching skiing on my own in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.
When ski racing ended for me in 1965 I returned to America and took my first real job as a ski coach in Heavenly. For most of the next 30 years I earned much of my living coaching and teaching skiing (and writing about it, of course). My enthusiasm for skiing has never waned and I still manage between 100 and 140 days a year on skis, some of them in the backcountry. The purpose of my priorities was always to stay on skis. That’s what ski bums do, stay on their skis.
It’s very simple.

 

DHARMA TALK: Which comes first, spiritual practice or spiritual experience?

It is a chicken/egg question, but one worth asking because it provides insight into the path of each individual practitioner. It is, in my view, a private question that may or may not have a clear, definitive answer and which the individual may or may not choose to share with others. In this talk I choose to share some of my answer with you. Both question and answer will lead to further questions (and answers) and will inform and illuminate each person’s practice.

For instance, is watching a spectacular sunrise a spiritual experience? Why? Is being taken to church against your will as a child spiritual practice? Why?

What has led so many of us, whose entire western culture spiritual tradition is Judeo-Christian based, to the spiritual practice of Buddhism? Spirituality is an inherent aspect of every human being, but each person’s concept of spirituality, spiritual practice and spiritual experience is different.

Religion was not part of my upbringing. My father was an atheist, my mother an agnostic who was baptized a Catholic on her deathbed, though so far as I know she never set foot in a church except to attend weddings and funerals. My religion was the outdoors, but as an English major I studied several religious traditions from a literary perspective and my college advisor taught a great course entitled “The Bible as Literature” which I did not take because at the time I associated it with the Elmer Gantry, evangelical type of hucksterism.

Fortunately the ‘60s happened, and like many others I embraced psychedelics and the consciousness expanding ideas of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) as if they were the path and guides to Nirvana. They weren’t, but they were a first step to spiritual experience and I am eternally grateful to them. For a few years after that introduction to spiritual experience I studied the ideas of Meher Baba and then practiced Transcendental Meditation for a couple of years before becoming, spiritually speaking, aimless, rootless and disconnected.

Though I read many books about spiritual matters and was particularly interested in Buddhism from an intellectual perspective, for all those years after the ‘60s I didn’t have a practice until I became a Zen student and took my vows of refuge in Buddhism through the Jukai ceremony in 1988. When I took those vows I was acutely aware that an experience I had in China eight years earlier, one I can only call spiritual, had directly led me to Jukai.

In one of my old journals from that time I wrote about that experience.

From my journal: “June 30, 1980. Peking (Beijing), China….Each day here has magic in it. Yesterday at the Temple of the Azure Clouds something very strange and special happened. The Hall of the Luo Han has a group of 508 five foot statues made of gilded wood. Each is a different face and character, and I think but do not know for sure that each represents a different aspect of Buddha nature. As soon as I went in there I felt something beginning to happen and as I walked around in there I found myself separating from the others. I wanted to be alone, for my mind and awareness was shifting into that plane I sometimes reach in special moments. Difficult to describe that place, but it’s something like being stoned on a heavy dose of acid, having x-ray vision into time. It started with one of the statues who caught my eye, and the eye that caught mine was not dead, not wood, not paint. It contained the living spirit and it did not frighten me. And then as I looked around all the statues began to radiate the soft gold color of holiness. The whole room was alive. Each statue has its own spirit and living presence and message and reason, and yet they are all one and the same. I was filled with energy and deep and abiding peace. I was home. I could have stayed there forever, except that is not my path in this life. I walked the aisles and enjoyed my vision and learned all I could and only left when I felt I might be hanging up my mates. I would like to go there again in my life. It is a place of power.”

So, for me, I can say with certainty that spiritual experience comes before spiritual practice.