Edging West

Adventure + Culture + Environment

Increased Graffiti in National Parks: How Detached, How sad

There was a troubling article in the New York Times last week about the growing rise of graffiti and vandalism in National Parks. According to the article, park officials claim that this escalating trend is hard to enforce, expensive to clean up (especially with ever-dwindling budgets), and fueled, possibly, by social media since violators can now quickly share and gawk at their perversions online. Yet, the social media linkage is only speculative; the cause for this rising issue remains unknown.

I wonder if the cause is a broader reflection of how perceptions of nature evolve over time. Today “being green” is vogue (and I do not mean that cynically), but our “greening” of the world often remains an incredibly industrialized process. People, young adults especially, relocate to high-tech centers, wear recycled, expensive clothing, eat localized food, and worry, slightly, about climate change. However, this ethos does not necessarily translate into a deeper understanding or appreciation of wild spaces. For the complex symbiosis of an ecosystem transcends all boundaries. There is not a single region of wilderness in the entire world that escapes the impact (for good or worse) of modernization. However, nature is instead perceived as an “other” or something far away. The world is compartmentalize and we sever an important perception…and detach.

Perhaps I over analyze? Maybe the attention seeking vandals are beyond any understanding and representative of a fringe counterculture? And other larger issues remain. Development and fossil fuel extraction continues to ring the perimeter of national parks, forming small islands of preservation. Zoos are created instead, and the budgets and personnel needed to manage it are sequestered collateral damage. We also enter a deeply suspicious and cynical era where so many fault the government for all their woes and blast contempt at the very notion of a public good. This all hovers under a blanket of procrastination since major world leaders fail to address epic environmental problems of the day.

The graffiti is an ulcer of disappointment. It is hard to understand. Shifting perceptions and a limited appreciation of nature may warp an individual. But whatever the rationale, these violations are also metaphoric signs of pending pressures and looming dangers from much greater vandals.

As budgets squeeze for the National Park Services, cleanup efforts, like this Arches National Park, will dwindle. Image credit: Andrew Kuhn, Flickr

As budgets squeeze for the National Park Services, cleanup efforts, like this in Arches National Park, will dwindle. Image credit: Andrew Kuhn, Flickr

A More Invisible Security Risk: Air

Statistics can often present a cold and detached understanding of conflict and chaos. At the same time, it offers needed perspective in times of fear. We have experienced a busy year of shattering violence, and the country continues entrenched and emotional debate over gun control and terrorism. Not to downplay the gravity of these layered issues, but an arguably greater danger remains.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an estimated 50,000 premature deaths are linked to air pollution in the Unites States each year. More specifically, the World Health Organization recorded 56,618 air pollution related deaths in 2008. In comparison, just over 11,000 gun-related homicides occurred in 2011, and terrorism, our collective greatest fear, accounted for nearly 40 deaths in the U.S. between 2002 and 2010, according to the Global Terrorism Database.

Gun violence and terrorism are crucial issues to manage, but do they necessitate such a large portion of attention, worry, political capitalization, and dialogue? Let’s take a collected step back and find some perspective, for the battles of our time also include an entrenched campaign to organized our society in a clean, sustainable, and healthy way. It would be great if this too was a patriotic cause, a unified effort, something we applaud when victorious.

One of the most cities in the U.S. for air pollution Image Credit: David Jordan at en.wikipedia

Fresno, CA – One of the worst cities in the U.S. for air pollution.
Image Credit: David Jordan at en.wikipedia

This past December the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a new standard to regulated and reduce levels of soot. The American Lung Association celebrated this new standard, claiming it will prevent 15,000 early deaths a year. This development is significant and just may do more for public safety than so many other security measures that have been designated in the name of.

A Modified World: Sad Realities of Smog

I have never been to China, so it is hard to fully grasp just how drastically commonplace air pollution has become. The darken images and stories of struggle and illness and environmental catastrophe seem beyond reality, almost post-apocalyptic, and depict a grayish, mechanical world. The road to process is a bumpy one, or a choking, smog laden dirge in this case, but with even the most aggressive intentions to shift course it seems depressingly too late at times.

In the meantime, as unregulated economic expansion presses on and attempts to manage the problem now surface, we adapt the only way we can-we innovate an escape into artificial places. In some schools in Beijing the escape is to large domes with air-filtration systems. These children are young astronauts in a sterile, white world of limited sky, without green, color, life, or healthy, real dirt. It is a voyage for survival from a condition, which has already been linked to 1.2 million deaths.

When we do venture outside of this newly manufactured atmosphere, gas masks protect further as a shield to explore and navigate as foreigners, as aliens of earth. A confused world emerges through a lens of soft plastic.

We see little and hear less. Languages change. Words are muffled through ventilators, mumbled and void of intonation or expression. Masked away is humanity.

Of course this is during the worst of days. Winds change and the blanket moves, dissipating into a greater cumulative mess. Yet, the sky returns and the sun emerges long enough as a glimpsing reminder of past life and future possibilities and aspirations. We can still return to earth.


Image credit: Bobak Ha’Eri

Lessons from the Manhattan Project

I have an entrenched bias: I believe that a critical study and evaluation of history is necessary for understanding and grappling with where we were and what we aspire to be. Although  nuanced in countless ways and perceived and debated to serve whatever purpose, our history breaks and flows in a constant direction of almost scientific quality. The evolutionary spirit bends towards justice, peace, and democracy.

Current times seem violent and conflicted, but we should take solace knowing the days of long, epic wars of world powers clashing (hot or cold) seem over. That evolutionary spirit is one of progress. Children grow up today not fearing nuclear annihilation as they did in the 50s and spend less time hovering under desks. Gone too, the era when nuclear testing was a sideshow attraction where tourists rented top floor rooms in Las Vegas hotels to gawk at mushroom clouds glowing and rising in distant deserts of sand and glass.

And we should keep learning. Today NPR reported that the US Congress considered national park designation for three sites pivotal to the Manhattan Project. This too should be viewed as a sign of progress-an indication that we transcend a darker past. Although the initial bill failed, proponents hope for a retry. There is a chance these sites will become a national park in the future and it should be designated so, not as a means to glorify or sanitize our history (as was stated by critics), but as a call to action-an opening for healthy debate on how to engage and reconcile our past. Or maybe a reminder of how we came so close to losing it all?

* * * * *

Years ago, traveling the dry side of the Sierra Nevadas, I visited the Manzanar National Historic Site in California, one of many designated Japanese internment camps used during World War II. American citizens spend long winters in this high desert locked away without Due Process. American citizens!

A shack of Manzanar

A shack at the Manzanar National Historic Site.

Today much of Manzanar is left for ruin. It is a dilapidated, shadow city of abandon, rundown shacks in perfect rows,  beaten hard against long years of open sun, wind, snow, and sand. Rusty metal scraps scatter the site, along with occasional broken shards of glass from old windows.

Metals scraps left in the yard.

Metals scraps left in the yard.

Despite the standard visitor center, the National Park Service leaves much of the site, by design, to decay slowly, untouched. They strike a perfect balance and succeed, reverently, in managing this site and commemorating a wayward era of compromised principles  I suspect that the National Park Service would do the same with the Manhattan Project National Park. And we should keep learning.

Near the visitor center.

Near the visitor center.

Returning to Red Rocks

 Part II – On Climbing, On Changing

I have always struggled trying to explain rock climbing to non-climbers. The specifics and processes are easy to convey but the “essence of” much harder. It is like trying to explain the reverence of warm sun or Debussy’s Clair de Lune. It just feels right, and you know why. The best of moments, always, are when a zone of comfort melds safely with the ascension of new physical achievements and possibilities on the cliff. The mind then focuses meditatively. It is a place of peace, of calm. It is finding clarity among great friends within wild, divine, transcendent places.

If I walked away from it completely I would also be at peace. I have far from accomplished all that there is to scale. In fact, I have only scratched the surface. I am young but feel a greater sense of responsibility to calculate my risks more acutely than ever before. At times this new reality clouds that very zone of focus and rich enjoyment. The objective instead becomes one of obsessive worry-a biologic quest of survival. My climbing in recent years has drifted more often into this realm, and I sometimes question the purpose.

One short pitch up I again grappled with climbing in the existential. The zone of clarity fleeted to fear and worry. The belay station was less than ideal, the rock quality imperfect, and my own confidence rattled by a tougher section and the possibility of not finding fitting gear later on. This is a common quandary for any climber on lead, but the difference is how the quandary is channeled.

“Goddammit, I don’t know!” I spouted frustrations and repetitively checked the gear I placed. “Yeah, that’ll hold…or will it?” “Fuck!”

This is supposed to be a relaxing vacation, right?

“Fuck it dude, let’s get lunch in Vegas.” George was quick to advocate a retreat. I was frustrated.

Isn’t he supposed to be talking me through this thing?

I had a similar experience on Devils Tower over a year ago. The haunting panic had returned. If I was to retreat I had to do it now. After one more move I’d be past the threshold of normal escape. I had a decision.

I can’t hang on this under-cling in this corner forever!

“We got plenty of good climbing in already,” George offered. He was right. Full days of climbing preceded, along with hours of scrambling through canyons to vibrant cliffs and towers.

It’s easy for you to say, you’re not the one being humbled!

Years ago I would have pulled through, and I would have been fine. But life changes, attitudes change, the zone of clarity shifts. I started a family.

I bailed. I was low, but George was right, and understood, and supportive for the right reasons.  And I was right. I went down. The balance was off.

Getting back down, Pine Creek Canyon


I was not low too long, however. We drown Spanish tapas with sangria in Vegas and reflected on the day, past days, the future, culture, food, music, politics, and family. Life is rich.  I am not ready to box the climbing gear. I’ll go back, but each trip is a reminder of how much I love the pursuit, and a reminder of how much more I love getting back to the ground.

Returning To Red Rocks

Part 1 – The Scene

Las Vegas is a strange place. It is an improbable alien of a city, a post-historic city, a re-conceptualization of space and location. The old conventions (proximity to resources or ports) are no longer relevant. Instead temperature, visual aesthetics, and the idea of isolation and fantasy rule. On a recent flight to this thirsty city I was contemplating this and reminded of the lesser known Neil Young song, Peaceful Valley Boulevard, which is a quite literal history lesson on western expansion:

The wagon train rolled through the dusty canyon
The settlers full of wonder as they crossed
A gentle creek where two old oaks were standing
Before the west was won there was a cost
A rain of fire came down upon the wagons
A mother screamed and every soul was lost.

Change hit the country like a thunderstorm
Ancient rivers soon began to boil
People rushed like water to California
At first they came for gold and then for oil
Fortunes were made and lost in lifetimes

     (Later in the song, Young covers climate change, electric cars, and forewarns-just a hint-of an environmental apocalypse)

But I was not en-route to wander concrete fabrications, study the city, or contemplate Hunter S. Thompson drug fevers, visions, or theories on the American Dream. I was again headed for Red Rocks,  a paradise of sandstone cliffs, canyons and superb rock climbing, and I have been traveling here since 2001. Then the drive from the suburban outskirts was approximately 30 minutes.  Now it is under five. Rows of houses (many still empty, some unfinished) stream right up to the boundary of the Red Rocks Conservation Area, forming an obvious line. A casino (sharing the same name) is near this edge, along with the Desert Sportsman’s Rifle & Pistol Club, a free shooting zone.

With my friend George, I drove out to the climbs and claimed, somewhat cynically, that this place, this city, “Represents a void of American culture”.

George returned, “Or is it representative of everything that is American culture?”

This was getting too deep for a climbing trip! We continued down the road into the afternoon sun. Our plan was simple: a 45 minute hike into First Creek Canyon for a short three pitch climb. I had already intended to pawn the hardest pitches of climbing on to George, and I was sure that George already knew this. We have been climbing together for over 10 years; certain things go without saying.

We found the trail-head and unloaded our gear for sorting. A man in his early 60s drove up to us and rolled down his window. He was tan with silvery hair and glowed of wealth. Retirement was easy on this fellow. “Why are all these cars parked here?” he asked. “Is this a free shooting zone?”.

“No,” I replied, “We are going rock climbing.”

Red Rocks and the haze of Vegas

Wanting More: Thinking about the Presidential Debate

The presidential debate was a dizzy shotgun of policy (the sidestepping and/or noodling around information) and rehash of the timeless and tedious exchange over tax policy. With the growing and serious environmental and societal challenges facing the next century, that conversation seemed somewhat removed. That is not to say the discussed topics are not vital, but they are often all we ever hear. Measured citizens seem to agree: tax reform is inevitable, entitlement reform is a given, Romneycare and Obamacare are more alike than different, and creating jobs-ever the mantra-a must.

The theme of the event was the economy, and the topic of energy naturally and swiftly recited (on both podiums) with usual tokens: clean coal, natural gas, some green, domestic oil. And energy independence, also the mantra, as if we didn’t live in a globalized market, spouted. But where was the inspiration-the opportunity to redefine a new society geared for longevity? Even some in China, as described by Thomas Friedman in his recent column, have begun to recognize the need for a new understanding of sustainability.

Our plans include some investments here, deregulation there, and short-term visions of incremental change. Where is the revolution? Not a green revolution, for that trivializes the gravity of it all, but a seismic shift in thinking-a holistic revolution! One not centered on “more” and getting “more”, cheaper, but on the shared sacrifice of making hard choices and banding together around a shared vision of long-term prosperity. A new life-style. New values, that really are as old as time. Where is our “go to the moon” moment?  We are starved for a renaissance of public works and long-even more-for an increased cultural value placed upon sound corporate citizenry.

Colorado could not have been a better location to forge this conversation. Not only is it geographically center, but representative of our transitioning energy economy and the challenges, impacts, and successes of related technologies. It is also representative of the major global challenges of the next century: climate change, water resources, food resources, and population growth. Critical conversation and mediation of all these interwoven topics are integral to the future and the future economy for that matter. Lets begin that debate!

Chimney Rock: A Short Reflection on Sacredness

A landscape reveals many faces. It is understood in many ways and interpreted to serve many purposes. It shifts and weaves in and out of perceptions-perceptions that vary depending on culture, philosophy, or religion even. Humans have always and continue to ponder this reality. Often, the reality or decision to conserve aligns with a shared sense of beauty or wonderment. Universally, we recognize beautiful landscapes. It is a sense, having an almost indescribable, mystic origin. How do we really know? Where does that understanding come from? The Grand Canyon is understood as a world treasure, but the austere, desert ranges of Nevada left (historically) for nuclear testing. Land kept and land used. Heaven and hell.

But, an appreciation for beauty (and justifying actions) can also transcend beyond that simpler norm into a deeper, layered understanding of place. The Chimney Rock Archaeological Area of Colorado holds this truth. It is a land tapestry filled with history, spirituality, and richly perceived by many as a “sacred place”, a place of religious gravity. For that reason, and others, the site becomes a National Monument this Friday.

(Joe Hanel, for The Durango Herald, covers specifics of the upcoming declaration)

Reminded of Aqua Prieta.

The Devils Hwy: A True Story, by Luis Alberto Urrea, is not a new book; it was released in 2004. For whatever reason it was unknown to me until seeing a recent interview with the author on Moyers & Company. Ergo, I read the book and am glad I did.

In January of 2005, on a rock-climbing trip to Cochise Stronghold, Arizona, my friends and I drove across the border to explore. It was raining, the desert was wet for once, along with the large granitic domes, and our climbing on hold.

Getting into Aqua Prieta was simple: you drove in. No checkpoints, no customs. No one is worried about those heading in. This remote corner of the west is far removed from the resort complexes; we found industry instead, along with rows of shops with trinkets and boarded, broken liquor stores and motels. The local tavern keepers were curious as to our situation, especially after learning we were not off-duty Border Patrol. They were friendly. We were an oddity.  Few Gringos travel to the northeast corner of Sonora.

The cross back was complex: you waited. Long lines of cars, longer searches, with rickety concession stands and zealous salesman to pass the time. Open market. Small boys, on foot, pattered the dusty way, trying to sell candies and snacks, their version of a lemonade stand, except the stakes were higher. One boy even went for it, in front of dozens of cars and a small army of Border Protection Officers. He ran and he climbed a fence and landed in a narrow, dry drainage made of concrete. It was the void between. He raced higher towards the next and final fence. He did not get far. It was a daring act. He was barely a teenager, but old enough to understand urgency. He made a choice.

Sonora/Arizona Landscape

I still wonder if he ever crossed. Maybe he ventured (risking his life) deep into the deserts and through the mountains and canyons that transcend this political line? I hope he found what he was looking for. The landscape and our desires have little to do with our structure; it is the same on both sides. In The Devils Hwy: A True Story, Luis Alberto Urrea looks, importantly, beyond the borders and conditions we create and into the human condition-that universal search for a better life.

A Continued Destiny

The Western image is one of prosperity and self-reliance. When Clint Eastwood swaggered onto the Republican National Convention last week it was to images and sounds of the lone gunfighter-a commander of place and situation. Regardless of political persuasion, it is hard not to embrace (if only slightly) this western myth and how it was so immortalized by painters in the beginning, and John Ford later on. That myth is a simpler understanding of the world, of right versus wrong, good versus evil, and trials justified by faith and destiny. It is one of wild futures, needing to be grasped, staked, and tamed, person, land or otherwise. That mantra has carried our conflicting history and continues on. It is our success as a nation and our darker conscious too.

Monument Valley, the icon of Western image.

Today that relationship with land is more complex, but at the essence embodies a similar timbre. Leaders of the political arena (bi-partisan, too) recognize that the last great frontier is energy. Of course the great irony is this exploration is not for national self-reliance, but contribution to a very global market and highest bidder. Regardless, conservation, a very conservative ideal at its core, escapes discourse. Instead, the narrative is driven by rugged expansion and the quest for more. The 2012 Republican Platform embodies this Western image perfectly, and advocates  “an all-of-the-above diversified approach, taking advantage of all our American God-given resources”. Once again it is a destiny, a Manifest Destiny, a continued rationale for how we understand and interact with our land.