Monday, March 31, 2008

Hogsback (Durango, Colorado)

We went up--straight up--to the top of this ridge.


Making the final push.

View of the next mountain.
On top.

Descending again.

Great Sand Dunes

Arriving at the Dunes.

Woodlands and mountains at the edges of the Dunes.

Sand and sky.

We went sprinting down one of these ridges.



Darius and Noah.


Rocky Mountains

My camera has been returned to me. Here are a few photos.

We are in small town Colorado.

Road-side view.

View in front of Amicas in Salida.

Crossing the Continental Divide at sunset.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Tap the Rockies

And not by drinking Coors Light. That's gross.

For my four-day spring break, I joined a group headed down towards Southwestern Colorado. Originally the trip was sold as a ski-venture, but the discovery that Ska Brewing, a well regarded brewery in this circle, was headquartered in Durango, along with the arrival of spring weather, refocused the intentions of the trip: Colorado, we decided, is the Napa Valley of Beer. And we like beer.

My camera is floating somewhere between here and Mission, so I will have to steal photos from Marion to document the travels.

I headed out soon after parent-teacher conferences ended on Thursday to meet Kim in He Dog and ride with her to Boulder. Our route took me through Wyoming, a state that I had not yet had time to visit. It looked (at least in the corner we ventured through) sort of like Nebraska. Then we pulled into Colorado, which at this point of the night was amazingly flush with traffic and annoying big-box developments. At this point I was not a fan of Colorado.

Our mission on Thursday night was the reach the pub at the Boulder Beer Company, makers of the well-regarded (especially by Cool Zach) Mojo IPA, and Colorado's first microbrewery. Kim and I left about an hour before the rest of the gang, and we arrived in Boulder around 9 PM. Consulting our directions to the pub, we were surprised to find ourselves pulling into an office park. Upon first consideration, though, I realized that this was a beer company first, and a brewpub second, so the location should not have been a surprise. Nor should have their closing time of 9 PM, either, really. So we had to scratch that one. (At various points throughout the trip I bought bottles of some unusual Boulder beers for later consumption.)

After about 45 minutes of wandering through the CU campus, we finally pulled into a Taco Bell and got directions downtown ("Pull out of the parking lot, take a right and keep going."). There we found BJ's Restaruant and Brewpub. I was a bit disappointed to intuit that the place was a chain, because there were 3 or 4 other possibilities to choose from, but the food was good. With my pizza I ordered the sampler of the pub's 7 standard beers: a blonde (one of my least favorite styles), a hefeweizen (not usually one of my favorites, but excellent here); a pale ale; an Irish red; a brown (they called this one a "Tatonka Brown," a butchering of the spelling of "Tatanka," the Lakota word for buffalo); a porter; and an excellent Imperial Stout to finish things off. Just after dinner we got a call from the others that they had arrived and were at the Southern Sun brewpub. After realizing this was about a 15-minute drive away, we were able to get Kate to pick us up. At Southern Sun I tasted the porter that the group had ordered, and then got another sampler to share with the group. I chose some slightly more unusual beers this time: a Wit that was so heavily spiced with chamomile that it tasted like liquid soap, an interesting ginger beer, a honey ale, and a variety of pale ales. Before it got too late, we found our way to a Days Hotel and rested up for the next day of driving.

The next morning we headed out for the mountains, which looked like this:

After about an hour of driving, we stopped for gas in a small town. It was a beautiful day, slightly cold but sunny, and I was surrounded by mountains. Maybe I liked Colorado after all.

At Russ's recommendation, we pulled into Salida for lunch. We came in on a small local highway, and passed a lot of trailers and run-down houses. The place struck me as a hard-on-its-luck mountain town, a beautiful place still struggling to hang on. Then we got to Amica's, our intended restaurant.

Any town with wood-fired pizza and microbrewed beer is probably doing alright. Turns out if you drive in another way, Salida looks like the decently yuppie ski town it really is. What can you do?

Amica's was excellent though. I had a great portabella mushroom sandwich with a dopplebock on the side. Below you will see the beautiful array of colors that our beers offered:

The fellers posed for a photo in Salida.

After driving for a few more hours alongside the Sangre de Cristo mountains, we took a break from beer for our first outdoorsy spot: the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

It looks like we're in the desert somewhere. But all this sand is blown right up against the Rocky Mountains. We were at 8,000 feet at this photo, which explains why I was heavily winded after this brief jog. The park includes the tallest dunes in North America, including one with a 750-foot vertical.

Just south of the dunes is one of Colorado's 14,000 footers. Also, Kate is rolling in the sand.

As we were repacking the cars after the dunes, a ranger came over asking if we were headed into the backwoods area. Sadly, of course, we were not. We were headed on to Durango, where Darius' father lives. This leg of the trip took us back up into the mountains and over the Continental Divide. The snow was packed thick:

On Saturday morning we got up early to head out on a supposedly "moderate" hike before beginning our tour of Durango's brewers. Russ and I had picked out the Hogsback trail the night before.

The trail turned out to consist of a very steep climb up a barren mountain. Which I thought was awesome. A few times I sprinted up the very sharp inclines. Seeing how others responded to the altitude, it seems that I am lucky that I stay in relatively good shape.

There were some nice views from the top. Turns out Colorado ain't so bad, after all.

Hike completed, we headed to Durango proper. Flipping through the Durango tourist magazine at our hotel, I found an article that confirmed our suspicious: Durango itself is almost officially the Napa Valley of Beers. A town of 15,000 residents, it produces 15,000 barrels of beer per year, and each of its 4 breweries is entirely green.

Our first stop was Carver Brewing Company. Since they do not bottle or distribute their beer, it was an ideal stop for lunch: whatever we wanted to try, we had to try in house.

Being a completist, I, of course, had to try them all. So here I am with my next sampler. So many mini-beers!

That didn't leave much room on the table for my lunch. If I can remember everything, the selection included a blonde (meh); a raspberry hefeweizen (tart, not sweet, and perhaps causing me to reconsider my bias against fruity beers); a pale ale; an oatmeal pale ale, a slightly creamier variation on one of my favorite styles (we bought a growler of this one to take back to Darius' dad's house); a well-balanced amber ale; an excellent Irish red; a brown; two variations on the same scotch ale, one on keg and on on cask, the latter being slightly less carbonated and with some sour (in a good way) overtones from the cask; a barleywine (first one I've ever tried!); a porter; and a chocolate stout. Quite as an assemblage. Probably the most consistent selection of all the brewpubs we tried.

After Carver's, we headed to Ska Brewing, Durango's largest brewery. And by largest, I mean it is a small office tucked away in the corner of a small town. When we pulled into the dirt parking lot, a crew of ski bums were sitting around in camp chairs enjoying the sun and beer. Inside, the tasting room was about as hip as you would expect from that name. Lots of homebrewing supplies, too. We almost bought a kit to make an American Pale Ale, but I decided it was overpriced. I took a post-sampler break and just took small sips of what everyone else ordered. I bought a few samplers out of this cooler for later consumption, though.

At the end of the day, the trunk of the other car looked like this. Our trunk was not too different.

On Sunday, Russ, Katie, Darius and I decided to take advantage of our last free day in the Rockies for another hike. Russ is serious about his hiking and planned a 10-mile hike that could be extended into a 13-miler or so, if we were feeling great. The first snag in the plan occured when the road we intended to drive down was closed, meaning we had to join the trail about a mile and a half earlier than planned. We struck out from the head of the Colorado Trail, which winds 480 miles all the way back up to Denver. The hike was spectacular: there were still two or three feet of snow packed on the ground, so we were walking over that. By the earlier afternoon, as things started to warm up, the snow started to soften, and my foot would punch down about a foot with each step, which reminded me that I need to get some more waterproof shoes for hiking. We had intended to reach a waterfall when we got to the top of the climb, but we had misread the map, and that would've required tacking another 7 or so miles onto what was already a 9-mile trek. But we ended up pleasurably exhausted.

Those who chose not to join us on the hike spent the day at another of Durango's brewpubs, Steamworks. And by spent the day, I mean they were there for literally 5 hours. By the time we arrived they were very good friends with the waitstaff, and as more workers got off their shifts, they would join us on the deck to hang out. Apparently they have a tradition of doing stout slammers, which consists of chugging 10 oz. or so of their stout. So we did it. Here is the aftermath:

After leaving Steamworks, we had an excellent dinner at a Himalayan Restaurant before heading to bed early so we could make the 15-hour drive the next day without any real problems.

Sadly the trip home did not involve any brewpubs. We considered stopping in Alamosa at the San Luis Brewery, but it did not fit into our plans. I did buy a bomber of their Mexican Lager at a liquor store, however.

Alamosa has been hit by an alarming number of cases of Salmonella over the past few days; it seemed that the municipal water supply was tainted. When we stopped at a gas station to use the bathroom, we found the water shut off and we had to use hand sanitizer instead. The beers stores were taking full advantage of the crisis, though. We passed one, on the way out of town, that gave the perfect solution: "Can't drink the water? Have a beer."

Fair enough.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Today, in a speech that some are already calling historic, Barack Obama cited the above line of William Faulkner's (though he ended up paraphrasing a bit).

The point is that our country cannot so quickly be absolved of what Obama calls our "original sin" of slavery.

[W]e . . . need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

From my lens out here in Indian Country, it is clear to me while slavery might be our country's original sin, it is not our only one. For most in this country, it is easy to forget that once, where our communities now stand, there were other communities, other civilizations. Sadly, many of those Indian communities truly are gone; but not all of them are. And the problems those in Indian Country face, too, can be directly traced to the brutal actions of expanding America.

Obama's speech, of course, was in reaction to the recent widespread coverage of Reverend Jeremiah Wright's incendiary sermons. Obama, once accused of not being black enough, is now being called upon to distance himself from what some call "black anger."

I spend a lot of time on the running website, and it is especially its anonymous message boards. While a self-selected collection of running web-geeks is hardly an accurate cross section of America, the anonymity of the website allows users to express viewpoints that they might not usually.

Some reactions to Obama's speech:

What was disappointing to me is that there wasn't a stronger repudiation of black anger. If and when people are serious about moving ahead, that will have to be left behind. I don't think he can be taken seriously as a uniter until he bridges that divide.

Or this:

As long as there is a segment of the population who wants to feed off of ridiculous conspiracy theories and blame everything on whitey, then there will be no progress for that group. . . . Despite years of welfare, education programs, affirmative action, and other entitlements, black americans for the most part have not been able to move out of the ghetto both literally and figuratively. . . . The notion that there is a white bogeyman out there keeping blacks down is not only laughable, its harmful.


These black Americans stuck in their ghettos are, to commentators like this, the most obvious symbols of this anger. But to call it "black anger" is too limiting, as if it is always emanates from one group, always focuses on another. There is plenty of anger in this community; I have had students curse me out as "whitey"; there have been teachers driven out of my school because of they have overstepped delicate racial lines. But this anger is not a symptom of some racial conspiracy theory, and it emanates in all directions. Nearly every other day, girls at school are fighting viciously. I had a student today whose anger, according to our counselor, was self-directed: he was angry that he could not do the work as well as other students.

More appropriately, then, this might be called the anger of the powerless. And powerlessness knows no racial--or national--boundaries. As Obama has observed elsewhere, "the desperation and disorder of the powerless . . . twists the lives of children on the streets of Jakarta, Indonesia, in much the same way as it does the lives of children on Chicago's South Side or the lives of many children of the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota." In his speech today, he noted that is an anger shared by whites who feel powerless, too, and believe they have lost out on opportunities due to affirmative action for wrongs they and their families never committed.

To call this the anger of the powerless, though, is to give it legitimacy: it is to claim that some are still powerless, to claim that the tragedies of the past are not dead. It is to state that society at large is still accountable for this powerlessness, and that it is not so easy as just telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Not everyone is willing to take that kind of responsibility.


I hate to blame the community for the problems I have experienced at school, but I have a strong belief that the educational problems I have observed on the reservation will not be solved until the families I serve take more responsibility for their children's education. To learn students need to actually be in school; they need to be encouraged to do their homework; parents need to stay in close contact with their children's teachers. None of this happens at my school. Attendance is currently averaging around 60%, at my best guess; if previous experience is any indication, I will most likely see three or four parents at conferences tomorrow night.

So the kind of anger that many of my students and their parents have does, as Obama states about the African-American community, keep them "from squarely facing [their] own complicity in [their] condition," from realizing how the drugs they take and the gangs they join only exacerbate their troubles.

But, as Obama states, "the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races." To blame "black anger" or "Latino anger" or "Indian anger" for the struggles in poor urban and rural communities is simply the inverse of the anger being condemned: the anger throws all blame on "white America" and our response throws it right back. That volley will never end.

If these issues are to be solved, it will require someone stepping out of that cycle of blame. Someone--anyone, the privileged or the poor--taking accountability for the problems, and working patiently to solve them while waiting patiently for the "other side" take accountability, too. One person (one student?) at a time.

Or, to put it in Obama's words:

It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sheep Mountain Table

The Badlands are aptly named: they are bad. I did a Google search for "Sheep Mountain Table," where Kim, Matt, and I went hiking yesterday, which netted me the following image:

It also netted me the notes of a court case detailing the death of a 17-year-old who fell from a ledge and the story of a successful search-and rescue operation after a drunken man stumbled who had fallen from a ledge at Bombing Range Overlook.

Then there is that name right there: during World War II, the U.S. Air Force seized some land from tribal members for use as a gunnery range. According to a ranger I met this summer, 99% of the ordnances have been cleared. "But you should NOT go exploring out there," he cautioned.

I don't think we were within the gunnery range. But it's boundaries aren't clear to me (nor, apparently, were they clear to some of the bombers, as a church and post office in Interior "received six-inch shells through the roof," according to Wikipedia).

One of the facts in the deposition for the court case I mentioned is that "There were no warning signs posted in the area and no gate prevented access to the road leading up to the top of the table." In "Desert Solitaire," Edward Abbey argues for the removal of pavement and warning signs and railings in our national parks. The wilderness is a dangerous place, and we should keep it wild.

I tend to agree. Which is why we set out down the crevice of that very same table, gingerly following the path of erosion through the rock and dirt to the valley at the bottom. A month or so ago, Zach and Darius found shell casings in a similar area, but I didn't see any: I came across a few sets of fossilized teeth, a lot of bison turds, and--the sole evidence of the goverment's foray into these lands--a few small pieces of scrap metal, rusted and covered in dirt.

View Larger Map

Saturday, March 15, 2008

St. Patty's Day

I spent the night in Rapid City. Kim left her car parked on Main Street and this morning when we were trying to make our way back there, on every corner the road was blocked by police. Soon the sound of bagpipes alerted us to the fact that it was Rapid City's St. Patrick's Day Parade. There was an assortment of participants: people in pick-up trucks tossing out lollipops, guys dressed up in Leprechaun suits handed out Tootsie Rolls, and a greenish-looking firetruck tossing more candy. My favorite was the grown man in what amounted to an oversized toy car, about the size of his body, which he was capable of driving (and from which he handed out even more candy). Spectatorship was thin, and within 5 minutes the crowd had dispersed, and we got in the car and drove away.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Animals in Road, Part 3

10:25 AM, ~10 miles east of Wanblee: flock of around 12 large wild turkeys walking leisurely across the road.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Small Towns

On Tuesday I stopped by the post office to mail out an application to an internship. I was in a bit of a hurry because I was on my way to an interview in Mission. After I had paid for a document mailer and postage and had gotten back into my car, I remembered the materials had to arrive by Friday. So I had to go back in and pull everything out of the mailer and switch over to the Express rate. As I was doing so, I thought about the postage I had already paid, and thought "oh well, it's a couple cents. . . No time to try to get it back now."

Today I was checking the mail and there was an unposted envelope in the box with my name on it. I figured it was the confirmation of my application being sent. But it turned out to be 32 cents of stamps with a sticky note saying that it was reimbursement for the postage I hadn't used.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


I learned recently that Allen, South Dakota is the single poorest community in the United States. It's somewhat hard to conceptualize. To me, Allen is no different from any of the other communities around here: it's where I go to do free laundry, or where Shannon goes to get kale for her soup (Kate keeps her fridge well stocked). Then again, all I really know is teacher housing.

The per capita income in Allen is $1,539. It would not be hard for me to blow through that money in a weekend. In fact, when my car needed repairs, I did. The median income for males in Allen is $0.

Wanblee is 59th on the list, with almost three times the per capita income of Allen. Fourteen other towns in South Dakota make the top 100, all of which are on or near reservations. The rest of the list is filled with other reservation towns in other states, border towns in Texas, and scattered rural communities across the country. A map of the country's poorest county's makes this pattern clear: Rez towns, border towns, Appalachia, Mississippi Delta--and then just a few scattered outliers. (Shannon County, the bulk of Pine Ridge Reservation is the 2nd poorest county; Todd County, which comprises the Rosebud Reservation, is number 5; Jackson County, where I live, is number 23--though half lies off the reservation. Five of the ten poorest counties are in South Dakota.)

The smallest town on the list has a population of seven (it's in South Dakota!); only one town has more than 10,000 people--and its over twice the size of the second largest community on the list. That rural places dominate the list is no real surprise: I'm sure there are seven people clustered in every major city that have a per capita income less than Aurora Center's ($4,700), but they do not have the distinction of forming their own town, and therefore their own census designated place.

But to discredit these rural people is unfair. I live smack dab in the middle of a red patch above; I would have to drive seventy miles to make it out. And I'm lucky that I can make that drive. Most people here can't. And we're lucky that we have a high school here, not just for the education, but for the jobs: what sets us apart from Allen, and from Wounded Knee, and Parmelee, and Porcupine, and all the other towns I know of just a little below us on the list, is that we have a high school, and therefore a few more jobs, and therefore a few more dollars. But plenty are left jobless, with few models of success available. Unlike the city, there is no starkly different life just a few miles away--only more poverty.

What is striking to me, though, is how little I notice it all. I live in teacher housing; my neighbors, like me, are the lucky few with jobs. I rarely have business in Old Housing, across the highway, and so rarely pass through it. People come by my house selling all kinds of items--dreamcatchers, kittens, elk antlers, government commodities, or even just asking for gas money--but not for their intrusion, I could pretend I lived in some other small town, struggling but fine. I have satellite television. I have wireless internet. I have organic peanut butter--I have kale from the poorest place in America. And I still, after two years, have very little idea what lives my students are living.


Jossi is highly entertained that I have a run called "Trashpile." The view approaching the trashpile can be seen above.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Lost Identities

For the first time in a long while I felt like runner: walking through the Minneapolis airport a month ago, tight for space, I laced my running shoes to a strap on my backpack. They bounced awkwardly and had to check, again and again, that they had not fallen loose, until they became an unforgettable presence to me, and, I thought, an obvious emblem to others. For what kind of person, passersby must have thought--at least in my imagination--, would care so much about shoes but a runner, someone who could not even afford to miss a day (never mind that I ran only once on that trip)? For years I had been committed so thoroughly to the sport that I felt I exuded some kind of runner's aura (or maybe it was just the gauntness of my cheeks); when I was visiting Amherst as a senior in high school, I took great pride when an athlete on the cross country team told me he has picked me out, when he saw me at a prospective students' banquet, as a runner. Form met function: I was living my athletic purpose so thoroughly that it was written in the lines of my body.

Somewhere in the last year, as long runs have given way to days off, the intensity of that aura has faded. I will always run, a few miles here and there; I may even try my hand (and foot) at a few more seasons of true, two-runs-a-day fitness. But without a team at my back, it is something I will never really do again, not so completely. Sixteen-milers and quarter repeats have ascended, like too much else, into the realm of daydream and nostalgia.

And a pair of shoes, conspicuously placed, were enough to bring that all back: to live again, for a few minutes, in that treasured persona.

I am now, quite possibly, on the eve of my South Dakota journey: on Monday, the final quarter begins, and with a dozen or so weekends left, I am mentally prioritizing the adventures still to complete. Hustling through the airport that day, reminded of what I had left behind, I wondered: what, in turn, would I be leaving here? When I go home--if I go home--how long could I play the cowboy, weatherbeaten and venturous, sleeping in tents and on couches, discovering the ways of the world? And, no athlete and no adventurer, what would be left of me?