Why do we look for meaning in just about everything we do? Why do the gods and demons we've created for ourselves hold many layers of meaning, even for those of us who don't believe in them? What is so special about our solitary adventures, and why are they so pregnant with significance?
You know we are suckers for meaning, when even a breakfast cereal can be sold with the promise of triumph, if ingested before leaving the house. Even though the very ideas of value, worth, or significance are concepts we clearly made up, I believe the search for meaning in our experience is baked into the cake of our species...and for good reason. We need stories and fiction to help us feel safe in a world where little creatures like us are underfoot as the giants of chaos and chance, are at play above. We did our best to tip-toe around these Giants, as we navigated our travels in Colorado.
Our destination for our first evening in the state was Boulder, where we would met up with our good friend, Brett Magdovitz. Brett, in addition to being a fun, creative and hilarious father of a 3 year old, is also the guy who officiated our wedding over 8 years ago. We have not seen him since then.
We met up with Brett, his daughter Mabel, and her mother Julie for Vietnamese food. The combined joys of eating vietnamese food and seeing a long-lost friend, were nearly overwhelming for me. I sat in a large booth in the restaurant, anticipating the arrival of our waitress and our good friend, like a small child with a full bladder on Christmas Eve.
When Brett and Mabel arrived, he was only a mere 15 minutes behind the arrival of our waitress, who had taken our order with a mix of obsequious charm and Manhattanite impatience. Our spring rolls were delivered moments before he walked in the door. Being able to finish chewing our first bites, while greeting, hugging and meeting our friend and his daughter was a rare gift for a simpleton like me.
We planned on spending some time with Brett over the next month. Tiffany planned on a week long visit to Memphis, so I had some one-on-one time to look forward to with Brett. Before Tiffany left for the South, we decided to take a little trip to the central and western parts of the state to celebrate Tiff's birthday.
We lined up several podcast guests for the trip ahead of time, starting in Denver. I sent out a number of email requests to various people in the Denver area, to see if I could meet some interesting guests. Some folks were too busy, others did not respond, but one guy was down for the experience, and I'm glad of it.
Jon Ekstrom, the host of 'Jon of All Trades' Podcast, father, entrepreneur, and dedicated cat owner, was willing to chat with us. Before we left town, we managed to sit with him and record our conversation. After researching him, and listening to a few episodes of his show, I felt abnormally prepared for our conversation. What followed was a unique experience for me, as the conversation took the same types of unexpected turns as our more random podcasts seem to take. That episode is available HERE.
I also sat down with Brett's long-time friend and former business partner, Gerrit McGowan. Gerrit was leaving the next day to begin a Phd program in Germany. Our conversation will be out soon.
After spending nearly a week in Denver, catching up on mail, hiking in the hills and mountains of Boulder and Red-Rocks, some fairly expensive work on the van (coolant system leak, and small pump replacement - $900), we headed out of town. Our first destination was the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
On the way to that delightful place, we stopped in a few choice locations. The first was a town called Salida. Salida is one of those incredibly charming little towns which is growing at a somewhat alarming rate, and is practically bursting at the seams with new businesses, and new residents. The town sits on the banks of the Arkansas River, and has a magical feel to it. The river goes from a lazy stream to a serious river throughout the year. During our brief visit, it was manageable, and small children were swimming near the banks.
From Salida, we made our way to the Royal Gorge National Park, near Canon City. The gorge itself is quite spectacular. There are several places to hike in the high desert, looking down on the crazy-deep valley below. The park system built an enormous pedestrian bridge to span the distance between two great cliffs. The Arkansas River flows below.
We approached the entrance to this bridge, and could hear the distant sounds of people screaming as they zip-lined across the gorge in pairs. Above them, a gigantic swing was flinging people crazily forth and back over the edge of the cliff on the other side of the gorge. Tiff and I are not generally interested in zip-lines, but this one piqued our curiosity.
Before we could even get to the door of the building, we could hear Lynyrd Skynyrd blaring over the speakers of the gift shop and ticket sales kiosk. Remember, this is a National Park. I can't help, being a southerner, associating the sounds of Lynyrd Skynyrd with cheap-shit, low cost deals, and a hint of danger, caused by a mix of carney-negligence, and liquor.
I was then shocked to see that, just to cross the bridge, we would be paying over $60 for the two of us. That is not cheap-shit! The zip-line and crazy swing were also prohibitively expensive, and slid right off our radar. We made our own cheap-shit exit to REO Speedwagon's “Roll With The Changes”.
From the gorge, we drove down the valley to the town of Crestone. Crestone is unique for being home to the only open air crematorium in the USA. Although we were not visiting for the privilege of seeing human remains turned to ash, we just wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The town was super small, very cool, and filled to the brim with quirky and interesting folks.
I had a hilarious interaction in the small health-food store in the equally small down-town area. I was waiting in line when a young kid in front of me in line, probably about 13 or 14 years old, turned around and said in a monotone voice, “You look just like my dad...except he isn't very tall...and he doesn't have a beard...and he isn't very patient, so I guess you don't really look anything like him.”
I responded with the only appropriate volley I could manage and said, 'How sweet of you to say.'
He chuckled to his friend who was next in line. They turned their attention to the only slightly older kid working the counter and my little friend said “you know, you kinda look like my dad too. Will you buy me this watermelon, dad?” He said this as he laid a basketball sized watermelon on the checkout counter.
The monotone of the young kid was drastically outmatched by the teenager at the counter, when he replied, “I'm afraid not.”
The other kid who was with him apparently had a list of items he had ben tasked with gathering by his actual father, and was only a few items away from completing that task when his father rolled into the store and took over the situation for the boys. The dad quickly handed the watermelon back to my little smart-ass friend, and told him with a look, to put it back. While the dad was paying for the items which had taken the two boys way too long to gather, my friend reappeared and said to his friend's father, “Hey, you remind me of someone.” The dad looked at his son's friend and said, “Who?”
“My dad”, he said.
The father rolled his eyes and took the receipt, saying, “Come on boys, let's go!”
Before leaving the store, my little friend looked at the cashier and at me and said, “Goodbye dads!” and waddled out of the store.
The cashier greeted me with the same monotone and asked if I had found everything I had been looking for. 'I came in for just these few items, and I'm leaving a dad, what more could I possibly need!' My little joke landed flat, and the kid continued to trudge through the transaction without even a grin. When he finished, he completely floored me when he said, “They just grow up so fast, you know?” and grinned ever so slightly. I left the store laughing.
From Crestone, we found an incredible, free-campsite just outside of the Great Sand Dunes park. We parked there for the night, and marveled at the incredibly quiet and cloudless sky, filled with stars and lightly speckled with planets.
I woke up the next morning with full-on altitude sickness. The back of my head, from the sub- occipitals to the middle of the back of my skull was pounding. I felt sluggish, somewhat confused, and strangely hungry and thirsty. We planned on hiking up to the top of the dunes that day, so I started drinking as much water as I could stomach, thinking perhaps I was dehydrated. It didn't help.
We made it about ¾ of the way up the dunes before I turned around and headed back. Tiff is a trooper, and kept hauling up until she reached the highest point. Pelé was over it, and quit walking about halfway down, so I picked him up like a wounded soldier, and shouldered him down the dunes, across a 200 plus yard sand-field, back to the van, where we both drank even more water.
It was strange to be so affected by the altitude, as we were at a lower elevation than we had been for a while. That strange confusion and headache would plague me on-and-off for the next week.
In-spite of the headache, the dunes were quite beautiful. Don't let “dunes” confuse you. These “dunes” are mountains of sand, which tower over you by hundreds of feet! They are themselves, towered over by the back side of the Sangre di Cristo mountains. As Tiff tells me, from the top dune, you can see dunes stretching along the base of this enormous range for miles. People are completely free to wander around the dunes at will, many choosing to do so with specially fitted snow-boards, on which they fly down the steepest of the dunes.
Climbing up these fuckers ain't easy, regardless of how your head feels. Your feet sink into the hot sand, and you earn every foot of elevation gained. The whole experience is one I would like to repeat without the headache, and I highly recommend it to anyone with the ability to appreciate sparse beauty.
From the dunes, we made our way to Durango. Durango holds strange memories for me. As a boy, my father took my sister, his awful wife and I on a trip to the South-West, including a memorable visit to Durango and the Grand Canyon. I had a dream as a child, after visiting Durango, of moving there someday, and living in the back of my used bookstore.
I'll never forget my father making a point of how I should get myself some proper shoes for our journey. At that time, I was riding my skateboard as often as I could. I told my mom I needed some new shoes to hike in, so we went shopping. We settled on what I thought was a fantastic pair of Van's. They were thick, sturdy, and good (in my mind) for hiking and excellent for skating.
I was genuinely proud of these shoes; my first effort of finding purpose-built shoes for something other than basketball. I put in the time, tried on multiple pairs of shoes, and felt certain when I showed my dad what we found, he would be pleased.
I didn't say anything about my new shoes to my dad, mostly because I was so uncomfortable around him, bringing up subjects of any kind made me feel like a moron who couldn't form a complete sentence without stumbling over thoughts and words like a drunk whose legs are asleep. When we were getting ready one morning for a hike, my dad took a look at me and told me to go get my hiking shoes. My heart sank, and I told him I was wearing them. He came closer, looked at my new favorite pair of shoes, and made the same sort of face I imagine I would make if I saw someone walking around in a pair of shoes made out of shit. “Hmm...” he said. “...I'm not sure what those shoes are good for, but it's not hiking. I knew I should have gotten your shoes for you.”
Of course, I felt like an even bigger moron than usual. There was no way I could have even begun to explain the delicate balance of tread thickness, and the extra stitching on the blended canvas and leather upper which would tolerate climbing boulders and navigating trails, as well as handling the grip-tape on my skateboard. Instead, I ate shit, said nothing, and felt disproportionately awful about my father sharing his honest opinion.
At this point in my life, I wear as minimal a shoe as I possibly can, and would never choose to wear a shoe anything like the one I had spent so much time picking out those many years ago. What hasn't changed is my ability to be overly sensitive to remarkably small-toss stimulus. As Tiffany, Pelé and I walked the streets of Durango, not much younger than my father was when he took us on that journey, I felt that old sense of shame and self disappointment again when I saw a beautiful bookstore, with ladders on rolling tracks, and books stacked high on old wooden shelves.
My heart flooded with some strange sense of regret. It was if I was hearing the door which lead to an unrealized dream, slamming shut in my dumb-struck face. Here I am, in that old town of my dreams, self-fucked by years of being easily distracted, always quick to change direction, chasing impulse instead of ambition, and hiding from the disappointment of authority figures by being willing to get it wrong on purpose. I could hear my dad's words in my mind, “I'm not sure what this kid is good for, but it isn't for working.”
Fortunately, at this point in my life, I have the ability to recognize these moments for what they are; moments of self-doubt, wrapped up in self-pity. When I'm confronted by these thoughts, I tend to lean on other memories, lessons learned from older friends, and the realization that yes, sometimes, in-spite of one's best efforts and intentions, you just buy the wrong damn shoes for the job...metaphorically and physically.
In any case, we ended up having a mostly good time in Durango, and I took the dull ache in my head back to our crazy red house on wheels, and drove it to a place of magical wonder; Mesa Verde.
Mesa Verde is the ancestral home of the Pueblo people. It has been labeled for decades as the home of the Anasazi; which I think is now loosely translated as “those assholes”. It took the archeologists and anthropologists who had been studying the area since it was “discovered” by white people, many years to finally come to the conclusion that the Pueblo Indians, who had been saying so for decades, were correct in saying the area is, in fact, their ancestral homeland. It took the matching of DNA in wild turkeys on the Mesa to the domestic turkeys of the modern Pueblo people to satisfy the scientists who were charged with verifying the claim. Bully for science for finding a complex solution for a simple question, I guess.
Moving on, the place itself is something special. The great cliffs of the Mesa hold the ruins of many dwellings of varying sizes. There are towers built into the cliffs, Kiva's dug into the ground for various spiritual purposes, and what appear to be little homes and pens for people and animals.
There are ladders and stone steps which enable even fairly geriatric and enfeebled folks to clamber down from the top of the mesa and take pictures and touch things which should definitely not be touched any longer.
Our guide was fantastic though, she was a young, super-cute, and delightfully nerdy (I mean that as a genuine compliment) park ranger. She was about 5'4”, and had the sort of voice you might expect of a high school science teacher; the kind of voice which can project across a great distance, and carried the authority one needs when taking on facts about history, physical science, anthropology, and culturally sensitive subjects.
I won't tell you her name, but we totally loved her. Her uniform looked like it had been handed down by a very careful, clean, but much larger sibling. Her hat covered her whole head, and her back-pack looked like it could topple her and leave her kicking her legs like a turtle on its back. When she spoke though, all of her cute, bookish, and lilliputian physicality took a quiet backseat to her command of the facts, and her deference for the venue in which she was privileged to speak as a subject matter authority.
She began by quizzing the 15 people for whom she was responsible over the next hour, on what questions they might have about the place where we were standing, or the people who might have lived there in the past. A series of questions flowed from about half of us (I asked about art), and she remembered each question, and handled them all throughout her narrative, with only a light dusting of some rules, do's and dont's.
We sat with her in wrapped attention, looking into the largest cliff dwelling in North America, as this diminutive and adorable creature guided our minds over time and space; painting a picture, not of noble savages, but of a practical group of semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers who had taken to farming as a viable supplement and eventual replacement for their way of feeding their community.
She told us of atrocity, art, culture, and of the solipsistic white folks who had shoe-horned the past into pre-made narratives. She put all of that into context with the present state of the park's place in light of all of the recent findings, and capitulations of the scientific community. After about a half hour of her answering our questions and unwinding some of the tangled history (both ancient and recent), we were allowed to walk along and view some of this improbably maintained beauty, reminding us once again what not to touch, and where not to go.
Not one whole minute had passed from her last sentence about what not to touch, when one of the bolder idiots in our group climbed into one of the places we were not meant to go and started taking pictures and touching shit we were told specifically not to touch. I saw what our bantam-weight guide had been talking about for the past half-hour, unfolding in real-time. Yet another in a long line of assholes who feel like the rules of the world are meant to keep “other people” in line, was doing something foolish to something precious. Careless and selfish people will continue to screw this place in every way possible, as long as we are allowed to visit.
Seeing this guy do such a stupid and selfish thing, reminded me of my search for the blindspots in my own personality. As I walked around this strange and sparsely reconstructed scene, I thought about the many ways I break rules which I assume were written to keep “other people” in line. My list is long, and I have work to do. Thanks to that frosted-tipped dip-shit at Mesa Verde, I am populating a list of solipsistic behaviors to which I am a devotee, and am doing my best to whittle it down.
After the tour and a hike, we headed down to the bottom of the mesa, making our way slowly to Telluride, to visit our pal, Charris and his family.
We stopped briefly in a town called Dolores, Colorado. Dolores is situated in-between some incredibly beautiful mountains, and a couple of slightly less beautiful highways. We played with Pelé, who wasn't allowed to do much at Mesa Verde, took a bit of a walk along the river which runs behind the town itself, and headed East to Telluride, after a watching a beautiful sunset.
When we drew nearer to our destination for the evening, it got completely dark. We pulled up on a large, private driveway, which we mistook for the road we had been looking for. As I backed up, two men emerged from the bushes, wearing face paint and camouflage clothing, and carrying large compound bows with several arrows attached to them. They scared the shit out of me. Of course, it was just weird timing, as they were at that moment ending their considerable hike from the mountain above, and were only 20 yards from their truck. They had been hunting Elk for hours and were heading back to camp, empty-handed.
Our campsite was fantastic that evening. We were parked right next to a beautiful little river. I got out, said hello to a small camp of hunters near by, walked into the darkness, stripped naked, and got in the cold river. Bathing in the dark in such cold water was the perfect way to end the day. I slept like a baby.
The next day, we drove slowly to Telluride. I had been hearing a noise in the engine compartment of the van which I thought might be coming from the turbo. After climbing up a fairly high pass, I pulled over, popped the hood, and made a cursory search for the source of the noise. I couldn't find anything wrong, so we carried-on. My headache was getting to me again, and I was experiencing some low-level anxiety over the potential issues which could be causing the strange whistling noise I was hearing in the engine compartment.
Telluride, in case you were worried about it, is not a poor community. In fact, I would say it is an extremely wealthy community. The place is clearly magical, and filled with outstanding vistas in every direction. Coffee shops, yoga studios, art galleries, posh restaurants, and quaint little boutiques and hotels line the streets. The neighborhoods in the downtown area are beautiful, and well-kept. Just about every aspect of Telluride is picture perfect.
We got coffee, walked around, visited a thrift store, put some things into a gigantic community “Free-pile”, got some expensive groceries, and left. We were there to see our pal, and couldn't really afford to spend any time or money in Telluride. Next time we visit, we will do it with an income on either side of our visit.
We left town and headed over to the place where our friend Charris Ford and his family are living. The place is magnificent, but is not for public consumption. Regrettably, I can not share anything about that visit, and am doing a bit of rare censorship here. Suffice it to say, we had an incredible visit with the Fords, and were able to record conversations with Charris and his wife, and a separate episode with their sons, Kashius and Phoenix.
After spending several days with the Ford's, we made our way South to Gunnison, CO. We stopped in a small town called Ridgeway, where John Wayne had filmed the movie, True Grit. We had a small meal, walked around, and tried again to track down the troublesome engine noise, to no avail.
The drive from Telluride to Gunnison is spectacular, and highly recommended. When we finally made it to the Gunnison Valley, we could see our destination, looming over the town; the Hartman Rocks.
The Hartman Rocks area is about 14,000 acres of public land, full of rock climbing, hiking trails, mountain bike trails, and ample space for ATVs and dirt bikes to tear-ass over the landscape. The area was once owned by a ranching family, who donated the land to the public. It is incredibly well maintained, and an absolutely wonderful place to camp for FREE!
We spent two nights in the same spot, and enjoyed every bit of it. The nights were clear, and both sunrise and sunset were spectacular. On our first morning, we headed into town to get a small gift for the podcast guest we had lined up for later in the day; Joe Bob Merrit. The interview was set up by our new friend, Gerrit McGowan, and I had exchanged a grand total of one email and one text with Joe Bob in order to keep our impact on his schedule to a minimum. I'll tell you more about him in a bit.
Gunnison is another great town, bifurcated by a fairly busy highway. It is in one of the coldest valleys in the lower 48 states, and is home to Western Colorado University. The downtown is great, and is bustling with shops, businesses of all kinds, and plenty of places to eat. We stopped by a T-shirt printing shop, to look into getting some MTP T-shirts. We met with a woman named Kirsten, and her incredibly helpful, can-do spirit made us immediately comfortable. When we told her what we wanted, and why we were in town, she lit up even more. “You're gonna interview Joe Bob! He's a neighbor and a dear friend!”
We decided to get Joe Bob a bag of coffee for agreeing to speak with us on such a busy day, and stopped at a fantastic cafe on North Main Street to get fresh roasted beans.
So, why was Joe Bob so busy, you may be asking (assuming you didn't stop reading when I was whining about my dad not liking my shoes)? Joe Bob Merrit is an artist, a small business owner, a small scale gardener, a partner in a loving relationship, and something of a creative luminary in the Gunnison Valley. He is also the guy who builds “The Grump” for a festival in the nearby town of Crested Butte, CO, called Vinotok.
If it helps, think of Vinotok like a coloring book. The lines in which one is meant to color, were drawn out by old-world European traditions, and were sketching out a fall/harvest festival with some themes of death, renewal, and the banishing of one's troubles via a community based, theatrical event. These coloring book lines, instead of being colored-in by those Europeans, have now been fully colored-in and over by some straight-up hippie, quasi-Burning Man, super freaks! In fact, this festival is credited with being an inspiration for the burning of the man himself at Burning Man, as the central theme of Vinotok is the burning of “The Grump”. “The Grump” is an effigy, made to represent some amalgam of troublesome things which have been causing the community-at-large some measure of grief over the previous year.
This year, “The Grump”, as in years past, was built by Joe Bob. We were visitng Joe Bob on a Friday afternoon. The burning of “The Grump” was to happen on Saturday. When we arrived, Joe Bob was not there. Instead, we were greeted by a beautiful woman, with a beehive of incredible dreadlocks on top of her head. This woman was Amanda Sage, Joe Bob's partner in love and art. Amanda was cleaning up their home/art space/compound in anticipation of guests who were arriving in about an hour.
She stopped what she was doing after we gave, in retrospect, a fairly flimsy recount of why we were there at all. She told us Joe Bob would be back soon, and took us on a tour of their amazing property.
The property Joe Bob and Amanda inhabit is something worth seeing. There are studios for making paintings, sculptures, a full wood shop, an area for metal smithing, a yoga and somatic arts studio, a small home, a meeting space, a commercial kitchen, and a converted saw-mill and lumber yard with rail cars, strange and beautiful out-buildings, and a lush and impeccably maintained garden.
When Joe Bob arrived, I was already setting up our recording gear on a bar built on a small trailer called “The Caravan of Chaos and Chance”. I overheard a conversation between Joe Bob and Amanda that, when summed-up, told me that he was not expecting to be interviewed. I felt like an idiot for about 7 seconds. Joe Bob shifted gears on a dime, and rolled with it.
I invited both he and Amanda to participate, and we spent a magical hour and a half, chatting about everything from art, to trains, to their businesses, to the insights achievable through the psychedelic experience. You can here that conversation HERE
After our interview, we made our way back to the Hartman rocks again for a hike and a relaxing evening of sunset and stargazing. The following day, we were heading to Crested Butte to witness the burning of “The Grump”! It was also Tiff's Birthday, and the Autumnal Equinox!
That morning, we had birthday breakfast at a cafe in Gunnison. The town was beginning to buzz at about 9AM, and when we left the cafe, the farmer's market on the next block was open for business. This was an incredible farmer's market. There were, as you might expect, a variety of farmers, selling meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and jams. In addition, to these staples of the farmer's market scene, there were a contingent of freaks! A guy selling hand-made leather costume masks of incredible variety and creativity. There was a lady selling yoga clothing. Another woman was selling hand-made hemp napkins and cloths. I stopped at a booth where a guy was selling magnetic bracelets.
This guy, for sure, was a freak. I liked him immediately. He was a tall, bearded weirdo with wild hair and crazy eyes. He was still setting up his table with an ingenious metal display system which kept his magnetic bracelets from ending up in a ball in the middle of the table. He started with a startlingly vague question, “Do you have any trouble with pain?”
When my eyes landed somewhere in the milky way of crazy which, I guarantee is swirling at this very moment in his eyes, I couldn't find any other answer but 'yes'. He reached out for my arm and sweetly said through his strange teeth, “let me see your wrist.”
I did as he asked, and his long, thin hands gently cradled my wrist as we somehow managed to simultaneously walk around to the front of the table while snapping one of the bracelets onto my left wrist with a satisfying click. “Do you feel that?” He asked.
'I don't think so? I don't really know.' I said.
“Well, it takes about two weeks, or so to really feel the difference, I give a two week, money-back guarantee with every purchase.” The swirling crazy was beginning to take on a familiar form to me, and I was back in my element...almost. I did still have traces of that headache I'd been dealing with since the sand dunes. The idea of a headache being the result of the lack of magnets in my life seemed just funny enough to make me want one of these crazy bracelets! I liked the way they looked, I did like the way it felt on my wrist, and I had been wanting to try out the placebo effect on myself in some measurable way. All I needed to do was get myself convinced that this would really work!
Unfortunately, the more time I spent in this guy's atmosphere of maddness, the less likely I was to be convinced of the healing powers of magnetic frequencies, lined up with my own polarity, and blah, blah...'I'll take it!' I said, and off we went. How sweet a guy am I to get myself a bracelet on Tiff's Birthday? Well, I tried to get her one...she declined.
On the way to Crested Butte, we were told about a spot to gather up clear spring water which gushes year round from the side of a hill. It was only a few miles out of the way, and in a beautiful valley. We stopped when we found it, filled our tanks, showered there, and drank about a gallon of the coolest, cleanest and best water we've had on this journey so far.
The Town of Crested Butte is another gem. We heard that there are great changes in-store for this town, but those were not on our minds when we arrived. The impending festival was our focus. That, and getting something great to eat for Tiff's birthday.
We took a long walk with the dog, up and down almost every street in Crested Butte. There was a definite buzz in the air around the upcoming celebration, and people dressed in what I can only describe as neo-pagan chic were beginning to wander through the streets.
Pelé was actually tired, so we walked him back to the van for a little rest, and Tiff and I headed off to a pizza place we had seen on our walk. The place was fantastic. We had a giant salad, and a pizza unlike any I have had before. The crown jewel of the pie was the roasted figs and savory balsamic drizzle. The crust was perfectly crispy and chewy, and the blend of cheese, herbs and spices in the sauce was second to none. If you visit Crested Butte, do yourself a favor and go to “The Secret Stash” for pizza.
When we left the pizzeria, the festival crowd of neo-pagan dancers, drummers and revelers was beginning to thicken. People wearing elk antlers, furs, leather sashes, and aspen sapling branches on their heads we twirling around to a steady rhythm, pounded out by several drummers. There were wild yelps and cries at random, and women wearing nothing but bikini tops and leather skirts were dancing with hoops and sticks which would be on fire once the sun went down.
On the sidewalk, pushing a big black beach cruiser, and wearing a wide brimmed hat, we noticed Joe Bob, smiling at the crowd of people dancing in the closed off city street. We caught up with him, and he invited us to join him at the staging area for “The Grump”. We followed along, happily. As we walked away, the group began its first foray into one of the local restaurants, where they were greeted with free drinks...it took a few hours for the throng of nearly 100 people to make their way up the street through the many restaurants in town. The crowd was making their way to a temporary stage where the “Trial of The Grump” was to be held after sunset.
Joe Bob took us to a back alley, where “The Grump” was waiting on a large metal rolling table. As I said before, “The Grump” is usually built to represent some amorphous figure, representing the variety of things which have been fucking with the community for the past year. This year, however, “The Grump” was a very specific character. A large wooden man in a blue suit, arms akimbo, with tiny hands, wearing a comically long red tie was standing before us. Where one might expect to see an unruly and possibly synthetic mop of yellowish hair, a large metal sculpture of weapons made from scrap, fanned out above the effigy, like a peacock's feathers. In the center of this, a long, broad-sword protruded into the sky. The body was shot through with several metal arrows. The face of the figure was painted onto a square block. Each side of the block had a face. One was a skeleton with strange sun rays beaming out from behind, another was clearly the angry and puffed up face of the man we all know to be the subject of this effigy. I'll spare us all the writing of his name.
Attached to “The Grump”, were garlands of shiny paper boxes, dangling from it's outstretched arms. A few of these boxes were open at the top, wherein a few people were depositing hand-written messages; their own personal “Grumps”. I was compelled to write one. 'I never hated you. You break my heart with your work. But I offer this as an exorcism of my fears, not as an indictment of you. Thank you for the confusion.'
I felt a little conflicted when I saw this effigy, but I was in awe of the great work which had gone into building it. Joe Bob was a true artist. Amanda arrived with a paper plate, a paint brush, and some orange paint. A ladder was produced, and she climbed up to paint-in the necessary orange tone for the face. When she was done, I noticed, dangling in a mini-effigy, a mushroom shaped little penis. The petite penis was still raw wood, so I asked Amanda if perhaps the curtains should match the drapes?
I was handed the small paintbrush, and was told, “You do it!”
I took the brush, and coated the little phallus with a generous coat of the same orange which had so recently been applied to the face of the effigy. When I stepped back, I couldn't help but feel a little bad about what I had just done. I was participating in something which made me feel like I was feeding a monster, not slaying it.
The atmosphere of the event was still somewhat light, and many of the participants were happily tripping on mushrooms and LSD. We didn't take any, but I did smoke a few puffs of pot, and bundled up in my coat against the fall chill which was fast aproaching as the sun dipped behind the West Elk Mountains.
As soon as the sun was fully set, and darkness was upon us, about 25 beautiful women, tipsy and or tripping, still wearing little more than bikinis, skirts and carrying hand crafted staffs and other items, arrived to help usher “The Grump” to his trial. Many others arrived as well, some dressed in robes, others carrying large torches, and “The Grump” was underway.
Before the throng departed, a tall, beautiful young woman approached me and a few other guys standing around and said, “Hey dorks, hold this, I gotta pee.” With that, she handed the man closest to me a large wooden staff with a garland of feathers, aspen leaves and an elk antler at the top. The unusually tall nymph was right, we looked like dorks. We looked especially dorky holding the strange object, which was soon handed to me as the other guys felt uncomfortable standing around with it. I didn't care, and agreed that she had, in fact, found a bunch of dorks capable of holding her staff while she relieved herself.
When she returned, she looked into my eyes, her pretty face, painted in black and white striped patterns, pupils the size of dinner plates. Her gaze was strange and powerful, her breath smelled like apples and whiskey. She took the staff, steadied herself, let out a wild coyote-like yip, and ran back into the throng. I laughed out loud at the whole thing, and my unease was temporarily relieved.
We followed the procession for a bit, then cut around to a different vantage point to watch “the trial of The Grump”. On the stage, a play was conducted, involving a variety of characters, including a dragon woman, a night, a green lady, a jury, and of course, “The Grump”. I didn't completely follow along, mostly because I was distracted by the slightly mob-like scene in front of the stage. Torches were ablaze, and hundreds of people were shouting; “Burn The Grump!!!”
I'm certain the play was meant to portray the end of summer, the coming of winter, anticipation of spring, and the banishing of one's grievances in the process. All I could focus on though, was the fact that I was in a crowd of people shouting for the death of something. Even though “The Grump” was an effigy, I felt like I was betraying one of my moral tenants; never be a part of a mob.
As expected, “The Grump” was found guilty, and must be burned at the stake for his crimes. We headed over to the pyre (an empty parking lot where several pillars of wood with metal sculptures in the middle of each one were positioned around where “The Grump” was to burn.
When the throng of tipsy and tripping revelers arrived at the pyre, a few more words were spoken, and “The Grump” was set ablaze. For all of my misgivings about participating in the event, the fire was quite beautiful. The crowd began backing away from the pyre as the flames grew in intensity. Several bags of gasoline had been placed in strategic locations, and localized explosions of flaming gas made great fireworks. We stuck around until the effigy was little more than a burning stump...the metal crown of weapons remained intact.
I'm not sure how you feel about the person whom “The Grump” was meant to portray; I personally find him to be an abhorrent and wretched example of the very worst aspects of our culture – celebrity worship, wealth worship, rivers of information a mile wide, but one millimeter deep, cruelty, bitterness, pigheaded intolerance of “others”, the identifying of “others”, and abject stupidity. However, I truly do not hate the man. I would like for the man to go away.
I think, no matter what arrows you fire upon it, this beast will not fall. This beast does not feed on praise, it is fed by attention. To hurl insults, arrows, fire, is to misunderstand the beast. This beast is weakened by a lack of attention. I feel like we built an altar of worship, or a statue of praise, disguised as some sort of voodoo doll. The devil's greatest victory is to make you think that hating him will kill him. It may sound childish, naive, or disgustingly platitudinous, but love truly IS the only answer here.
We left the gathering as the crowds dispersed, counting the whole experience as a good one, my inner conflicts not withstanding. We made our way, in the dark, a few miles up the Kebler pass, to a free campground and I laid down next to my beautiful birthday girl, happy to have love so close by.
In all, I am glad I was there. Vinotok is about so much more than I have laid out here. I’ll say this, the burning of “The Grump” is not for the weak. Perhaps that is why it troubled me so much. In any case, I’m fortunate to have been there, and I would go again if opportunity presented itself.
The next morning, we were nearly overwhelmed by beauty as we took the pass down to a town called Paonia. The aspens were turning, as were the cottonwoods, lighting up the pass like some sort of yellow and green flame at the end of a birthday cake candle. We stopped again and again to take photos.
The road wasn't too nice though. We bumped and rattled our way down the pass, until we hit real pavement. Within about a minute of the winding and bumping coming to an end, Pelé very calmly vomited in Tiffany's lap, effectively blowing out the candles. It wasn't too bad though. We stopped, cleaned up, and moved on. Laundry was next on our list of things to do anyhow.
That afternoon, I replaced our air filter, did a few more tests on our turbo, and on the water pump, in an attempt to track down the noise which had been plaguing me as we drove around the state. No dice. The noise persisted.
We met up with one of Charris's friends, Johnny Keenan, to record a podcast episode with him. Johnny is a true character. We really enjoyed hanging out with him on his bus. His episode will be out soon!
Later in the day, we caught up with Charris at another friend's home, overlooking the town of Paonia. Brian and Meghan, Charris's friends, have a beautiful home, and two hilarious and fun children. Brian and Charris were less than 24 hours out from an ayahuasca ceremony, which was performed at a local church. We talked a bit about it before his experience, and I was keen on hearing from him his take on the experience.
We pitched-in on some chores around the house, watched the sunset dramatically over the mountains to the west, then gathered together for dinner under the full moon. The moon was framed beautifully by the West Elk Mountains to the East, and moonlight lit up the fertile valley of Paonia, and glistened off of the Gunnison River.
We talked about a number of subjects before getting down to brass-tacks with regards to the ayahuasca ceremony. Brian and Charris both shared bits of their experience, but mostly I came away with the sense that the experience is intensely personal, worth the effort, and it most definitely requires an effort.
We said our goodbyes that evening, and drove about an hour outside of town, as Tiffany would be flying out from Denver, and we had a less than a day to get back, get her ready to go, and drop her off at the airport. We also needed to get to a hospital in Denver to visit our friend, and podcast guest - Ricardo Serpa. We actually ended up on an interstate...a rarity for this journey so far.
Our first stop in Denver was to the hospital. We met Ricardo's beautiful and kind wife, Nicole, and entered the room to find our friend, in bed, but all smiles. The “all smiles” bit is significant. The reason for Ricardo's hospital visit was an intense and life threatening tooth infection. He had to have an emergency surgery about 12 hours earlier...and yet, he smiled when he saw us. That smile brought us both so much joy, for so many reasons.
We talked with Ricardo and Nicole about his surgery, his journey, our journey, their kids, and probably way too many topics. We finally made ourselves stop talking, so he could rest and recover. Tiffany would not be seeing him again before he left for his home in Miami, but he, Nicole and I made plans to hang out again before they left.
Before Tiffany flew out of town, we spent a little time with our pal Brett, and got just enough sleep to wake up totally tired when we got to the airport. After dropping Tiffany off at the airport, Pelé jumped immediately into her empty seat and fell back to sleep. Both Tiffany and I were looking forward to a week apart, she was looking forward to seeing her family, I was looking forward to being alone. We both got our wish!
So, what meaning am I to find in that bit of our journey through Colorado? Is there a message there about friendship? Perhaps I am meant to think about how absence makes the heart grow fonder? Maybe I should be reminded not to take things so seriously, like I did with my shoes in Durango? Or maybe, the real meaning in all of that criss-crossing the state is that I am one lucky guy. I think I personally attach meaning to things, because without it, I might not be as comforted by the fact that the true meaninglessness of life is what makes it bearable to live through? Who knows...I certainly do not!
Oh yeah, that engine noise...I'll tell you about it in the next journal entry. Spoiler alert...the news ain't good.