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Jackson Hole has the youngest old-timers of any valley in the West. Anyone over 22 who has been here at least three years considers himself qualified to tell a newcomer, “It’s nice enough now, but you should have been here before people like you came and ruined it.” After the subject of billionaires displacing millionaires and wrecking paradise, an old-timers’ second favorite subject is how much worse the weather used to be. To hear them talk, each winter was colder and the snow deeper all the way back to 1911. Before that, exaggerations set in and memories can’t be trusted.

Roger Ramsey was telling me the coldest winter he ever lived through was 1978-79, when it hit 64 below zero on New Year’s Eve and spit bounced. Tires squared, key holes jammed solid, anti-freeze froze, the electricity went out, and several hundred people piled together in a heap in the lobby of the Wort Hotel.

“I’ve been in sixty below temperature and 60 below wind chill,” Roger said, “and trust me, sixty below temperature is colder. Wind chill doesn’t mean squat unless you’re outside naked.”

What I remember about 1979 was the 155 degree difference between New Year’s and the Fourth of July. People who live in states where weather is not the central element of life can’t relate to a 155 degree jump.

Because of a childish prank up Crystal Creek involving a paint-ball gun, a sow grizzly, and the Vice President, Roger Ramsey was recently given a choice between jail and 100 hours of community service. His service entailed going up to Pioneer Homestead where the real old-timers live, and taping oral histories for the Living West in Memory Program which is an NPR show in which myths and legends of the mountains are set straight. We found Caleb Johnstone, T.R. Whitlock, and Betsy Rae McAlester nodding out at a table in the Homestead courtyard, each facing two one-dollar bills, a Delaware Punch, and one of those bruise-colored peanut and sugar patties that are shaped like a hockey puck and have the shelf life of a belt buckle. Roger says old guys eat them for the preservatives.

Roger set up his Radio Shack voice-activated microphone and, as usual, conversation sprang up on ‘How Cold Was It?’

Caleb Johnstone ran his finger bones over a head so bald you could see the separate skull plates, and told us about November of 1951. Here’s what he said:

“They was a flock of sandhill cranes bedded down the night in Christian Pond there and the temperature dropped from forty above to forty below in two hours flat. Froze ever one of those bird legs solid as rebar in concrete. Next morning they was they pitifulest bunch of birds I ever saw. But then, right while I watched, this big old crane seemed to be the boss bird commenced to flapping his wings and all the other cranes flapped their wings and pretty soon the ice broke free from the banks and that flock rose into the sky, carrying the top 18 inches of Christian Pond with them. Looked like a municipal ice rink floating in the air above Jackson as they crossed town and headed south.

“I heard that ice didn’t melt free till the flock was passing over the Odessa, Texas, stockyards where it crashed down in one huge slab. The Texans never knew where it come from, but they had such a mess of pounded meat under ice that they went out and invented the chicken fried steak.”

T.R. Whitlock stared at Caleb with one eye so cataracted it looked like a glowing Ping Pong ball. He said, “Fall of 1951 wasn’t near as cold as late March 1942.”

Caleb came back with the pithiest retort he could think up. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” T.R. said. “That was the spring Molly Van Dyke brought a little bottle of sorghum molasses to the Moran School to pour over biscuits during big recess. To stop the molasses from firming, she kept it under her armpit all morning, but come recess Budder T. Olaf got to teasing her and he threw the molasses bottle and it broke it on the bicycle rack that used to be a hitching post.”

“Does this story got a point?” Caleb asked.

T.R. blinked his Ping Pong ball eye. “After we went back indoors for elocution exercises a grizzly bear that’d just woke up from winter-sleep came out of the woods and took to licking the molasses off that bicycle rack. First we knew of it, that bear busted through the double front door with the rack and my little sister’s ruby red Flexible Flyer bicycle stuck on its face.

“It ran up and down the room, knocking over desks and chairs and the living terrarium with the hibernating snakes and the live iguana. Some of the girls let loose in their pants and what with the doors open that froze the floor slick and the bear fell and slid into the blackboard. Miss Hankfield grasped her Wonder Bread ruler .”

“I remember that ruler,” Caleb said. “It had Wonder Bread Builds Strong Bodies Twelve Ways on one side and on the other they’d written one way per inch.”

“Who’s telling the story?” T.R. said.

Caleb said, “Don’t tell it if you can’t do it right.”

“Mrs. Hankfield reached across the bicycle rack and cracked that bear on the nose. It ran clear out the back end of the coat closet and into Pacific Creek. Carried a good number of jackets with it, but lucky for us my sister’s bicycle fell off. We got away with a flat tire on the front.”

I couldn’t help myself. “So, what happened to the bear?” I asked.

“Nobody knows,” T.R. said. “There was stories going around of a bear with a wide set of iron teeth terrorizing the DuNoir that spring, and in late June a cabin maid at Lake Hotel found the bicycle rack out by the dude corrals. It had a pink tongue stuck to it.”

Roger Ramsey turned a whiter shade of pale.

“That’s not the end of the story though. A year later Molly Van Dyke marred Budder T. Olaf and for forty-three years she made him pay for that molasses, every night and every day, till the good Lord finally said Enough and called Budder T. home.”

Betsy Rae spit something green on Roger’s Nike. “Cold is one way to judge a winter,” she said, “but I prefer snow as a gauge of harsh.” Betsy Rae claims to be 112 and there are those who believe her. She is considerable older than Caleb or T.R. That much is true. More than eighty years of working outdoors in Wyoming has turned her skin the color and texture of a snapping turtle.

“Nineteen and twenty-two,” she began. “The tallest building in Jackson was the four-story, two-hole outhouse behind the Clubhouse there on Center Street.”

She spit again but this time Roger was ready for her. She said, “The men of our town were too lazy good-for-nothing to shovel snow so they’d just let it drift over the first floor, then open the door to the second and so on until mid-April when the snow started back down and so did the men.”

She poked Roger with a scaly fingernail. “That Christmas, your great-granddaddy Jug Ramsey — who wasn’t no more account than you are — rode his mule Frankie in from the upper Gros Ventre. Jug left Frankie out back in a howling snowstorm and went inside where he got caught up in an all-night domino tournament. Whiskey was involved. And a crib girl from Elk.

“The next morning snow had piled up neck high to a Mormon bishop, as they measured it back then, and Jug couldn’t find his mule. He looked for two days until he became convinced Frankie had died and been buried in a drift. Everyone said Frankie would turn up in the spring, so Jug headed home up the Gros Ventre before the next storm.

“What Jug and no one else knew was Frankie had somehow taken shelter in the first floor of the outhouse. Snow piled up so deep that winter four floors wasn’t enough. They ended up cutting two holes in the roof and stretching a canvas tarp for privacy. When spring finally did come the snow melted down floor by floor until folks noticed an odor worse than usual.

“I’ll never forget the sight if I live to be 115. Frankie was packed in there so tight they had to peel off all four walls. People came in from miles to see that donkey, and the Police Gazette even sent out a photographer. The men never used that outhouse again. The next year they not only built an indoor water closet but they let responsible women join the club.”

Like a fool, I asked, “Did the Gazette run the story?”

Betsy Rae nodded. “You betcha. Right on the front page, they had a picture of Frankie looking for all the world like an eight-foot Fudgesicle with hooves instead of a stick, and the headline there read: Jackson Men Can’t Tell Ass from Hole in Ground.

Silently, Caleb and T.R. pushed their dollar bills across the table to Betsy Rae. Roger turned off the tape recorder and said, “I’d rather go to jail.”

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A couple years ago Randolph Proust, his lovely wife Chelsey, and their children Lester and Brittania camped at Lava Creek Campground in Yellowstone National Park. One hot afternoon, after lunch, a young cinnamon-colored black bear wandered into the campground and commenced to pop open various bear-proof trash receptacles. Randolph decided he would get a cute photo by smearing Sioux Bear honey across Lester’s lips and chin.

“Think cuddly thoughts,” Lester’s mother said before sending the boy off to bond with nature’s wonder.

The next day, when interviewed by the Jackson Hole News and Guide at the Lake Hotel Hospital, Mr. Proust said, “I didn’t dream the Park Service would allow bears to roam freely if they weren’t tame. My kids were raised on Berenstein Bears, Brother Bear, Bear in the Big Blue House. We came to Yellowstone to watch Yogi and Boo Boo steal picnic baskets.”

Randolph’s daughter clutched a Teddy Bear to her chest and cooed, “Winnie the Pooh bit off Lester’s nose.”

I thought of this story the other day when I ran into Roger Ramsey at Hard Drive Café where we was skimming back and forth across the internet, searching for happy-go-lucky dairy products.

“I know I’ve heard of Mr. Cheddar Curd.” Roger’s teeth gnashed in determination. “I just can’t find him. Look at this. There’s a Japanese anime starring the Tofu Twins. I can use that.”

I ordered a half-caff, extra dry, soy vanilla cappuccino and came back to Roger and his computer. “Why are you Googling anthropomorphic cheese?” I asked.

“Because Maurey rented Finding Nemo for Scarlet and now she refuses to eat fish?”

“Maurey or Scarlet?”

“Scarlet. Maurey never would touch my trout.”

Maurey is Roger’s wife. Scarlet Gilia is their six-year-old daughter. Roger calls her Scarlet and Maurey calls her Gilia. Maurey is an ovo-lacto vegetarian and Roger is a hunting guide. It’s a marriage made on the second ring of hell.

“Maurey did it on purpose. All those cute little fish and crustaceans love their families and friends, and the evil humans want nothing more than to slaughter them. What does she think fish eat if not each other?”

“My theory is Disney characters live on fruit juice and Dove bars.”

“Maurey’s got Scarlet so she won’t eat any food that sings and dances. It began with the stupid pig in Charlotte’s Web. Then Benny the Bull from ‘Dora the Explorer.’ She hasn’t touched lamb since the damn thing followed to Mary to school one day, and don’t even get me started on Bambi.”

This was interesting. I sat beside Roger and watched him fly from cartoon site to site. There were hundreds of them. “So Scarlet won’t eat anything other than vegetables?”

“I nipped that in the bud. Went to the library and checked out a video called “Veggie-Tales.” It’s a bunch of Christian cucumbers and tomatoes and the like, teaching each other values. Scarlet sleeps with an artichoke heart now. She’s been cutting out little velvet skirts and blouses for her carrots.”

“How about apples and oranges?”

“I downloaded a Fruit of the Loom commercial. She’s got nowhere left to turn except macaroni and cheese, and as soon as I find Mr. Cheddar Curd, I can put a stop to that.”

I tried to see the logic in Roger’s logic, but it zipped right over my head. “Why are you trying to starve your daughter to death?”

“I’m not trying to starve Scarlet. I’m showing her those idiot kids’ shows have given everything a personality. I’ll drive her back to Happy Meal burgers, like a normal child. Look at this site.”

Roger stopped on the Boohbah Home Page. Boohbahs appear to be colorful amoebas with deep, creative emotions capable of expressing joy and sadness. “Better not show her that one,” Roger said. “Lord knows what she might swear off.”

He switched to Thomas the Tank Engine, which is a show about selfish, jealous, bitter trains who treat each other like human beings. “It’s not just animals,” Roger said. “There’s a new show on Disney about talking screwdrivers. It’s ripped off a PBS show where a front end loader cries when it doesn’t get its way.”

“Bob the Builder.”

“This baloney didn’t exist when I was a kid. You never saw the Three Stooges worrying about a cream pie’s self-esteem.”

“It’s been going on forever,” I said. “John Ruskin called it the Pathetic Fallacy.”

“Somebody got rich selling pet rocks. I wouldn’t call that pathetic.”

“Back then pathetic didn’t mean politics or sports or anything it’s used for now. It meant empathetic. Ruskin had a peeve against angry clouds or majestic mountains. He said no matter how much it rains, the clouds are never angry. A cloud is nothing but a cloud. The river is not an old man. Tumbleweeds don’t tumble because they are laid back.”

“What’s that got to do with forcing a rare rib eye down Scarlet’s throat. I won’t have a daughter so arrogant as to remove herself from the food chain.”

“Ruskin’s was a worthless complaint. Writers couldn’t write without the Pathetic Fallacy. Humans couldn’t be human. Ancient Greeks thought the sun, the moon, the oceans, even the earth itself were all gods who behaved like dysfunctional families. Even us modern types created God in man’s image.”

“Not the other way around?”

“Everything is personal to humans. That’s what sets us apart from the monkeys.”

Roger yelled, “Eureka!”

“You understand my philosophical treatise?”

“Chuck E. Cheese! She’ll never eat macaroni and cheese again.”

“Isn’t Chuck E. a mouse?”

Roger leaned toward his computer and peered at Chuck. “Oh, yeah. Can’t let her find this one. She already goes hysterical at the sight of D-Con.”

“What if your plan doesn’t work?” I asked Roger. “What if you’re creating an anorexic? Girls today have enough neuroses without thinking their lunch is getting in touch with its inner pasta.”

“I see the light,” Roger said.

“You’ve discovered a way to use your brain?”

“I’ll write a diet book. It’ll make millions of dollars.”

“Are these the same millions you made off of self-cleaning barbecue sauce?”

“Nobody ever lost a dime selling weight loss schemes. I’ll call it the Yellowstone Diet. We’ll turn South Beach into a Trivial Pursuit answer.”

“Or Jeopardy question.”

“Every woman in America will clamor for my DVDs and CD ROMS.”

I finished my cappuccino and dug a finger into the bottom foam. “So, what are you selling exactly?”

“Tapes and movies of happy food groups. Living lunch. Whenever a woman puts anything whatsoever in her mouth, we’ll convince her she’s murdering Tinkerbell.”

“Or whoever.”

Roger grinned. “Whomever.”

P.S. Someone finally explained to me that 🙂 is code for openness to a sexual adventure. I’m going to have to rethink my relationship with a whole bunch of you readers out there.

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Throughout the 1970s and into the early 80s, I spent my summers and falls living outdoors, illegally, on National Forest land. The first few years, I lived in a tent, then later a homemade Cheyenne tipi. Nowadays, what we did is called homelessness. Back then, it was living in the woods. Millions of tourists paid big money to sleep outside like me. The only difference I could see was they had an indoor bed (and bathroom) to go back to.

The plan was to make enough money to move to town for the winter. Come September and October I found a job with a guaranteed lay-off so I could claim unemployment for six months and write a book. I wrote four unpublished and unpublishable novels this way, until the breakthrough in 1987. I turned 35 living alone in a backpacking tent up on Crystal Creek, reading Saul Bellow by flashlight light.

There were two years — ’77 and ’78, as I recall — where the only work I could find in the fall in Wyoming was in big game processing. I became an elk skinner. I had to wear a hairnet and a hard hat. The hairnet was because I hadn’t cut my hair in a dozen years and the boss was a redneck. The hard hat was because the elk hang on meat hooks that could cold cock your ass if you didn’t watch where you were going.

I wore a chain link belt with two knife sheaves and a slot for my sharpening steel. Big Mickey Mouse boots. We had a large barrel where all the bones and scraps and cigarette butts and the occasional Coke can went for the animal byproducts man to pick up every Friday. To this day, I can’t eat anything that lists byproducts as an ingredient. Can’t even feed the stuff to my dog. People speak admiringly of Indians who used every bit of a buffalo when they killed it, but those Indians were wastrels compared to the modern meat industry. Indians didn’t use the glop found inside the lower intestines.

Deer and antelope are easy to skin. They peel like a banana. Elk and moose are harder because the muscles are attached to the hide, which is why they can do that skin flicking maneuver to shake off flies. I don’t recall skinning a buffalo. There weren’t that many around back then. I did sleep under a buffalo robe for a few winters. They aren’t like blankets. As your body heat warms the hide, it forms a soft shell around your body, like a leather glove. Or a warm tortilla. Quite comfortable, especially if you can ignore the tiny bugs in the hair.

I only skinned one bear. Most hunters kill bears for the hide and head instead of the meat. They think a nice bearskin rug in front of a crackling fire will make them irresistible to women. Here’s advice to those of you who would like to get laid on a bearskin. Make sure you’re the one on top. Hollow bear hairs up your butt are not conducive to romance.

Skinned bears give me and lots of other people the heebie-jeebies. A skinned bear looks remarkably like a child, say, ten years old, dipped in candle wax. A child with a slightly humped back and no head. It’s the fingers, I think, that make them so disturbing. A skinned bear’s hands and feet could pass for human, except the feet are on backwards. The big toe is on the outside. Personally, I could live the rest of my life in peace without ever skinning another bear.

I say I took the job out of a lack of any other work in Wyoming in the off-season, but the truth is I became an elk skinner because I thought it would look cool on a book jacket. Ten years before my first publication, I was already aware of marketing. It’s the same reason I worked trail inventory for the Forest Service, buffed belt buckles, and sold Popsicles out of a truck that played insane music from loud speakers mounted on the roof, but not the same reason I became a Chinese cook. I went into egg rolls from desperation as opposed to publicity.

Skinning elk affected my attitude toward hunters in general and hunters from Pennsylvania and Texas in particular. As a rule, the animals I skinned and boned were much more beautiful, noble, and deserving of love than the foul-smelling drunks in DayGlo orange vests and camo pants hovering in the background, bragging about the rite of passage into manhood they’d passed through by killing. Elk are smarter than other animals, including many people, and they mourn for their dead loved ones. I have seen an elk hang out around the body of a family member for days.

The definition of sport is a game where both sides can win or lose. Hunting lions with a spear might be a sport. Hunting elk with a gun is slaughtering meat.

Although, the whole ethical question isn’t as black or white — good versus evil — as the two sides of the argument would have you believe. The truth is, vegetarians don’t have the power or motivation to save a species like a person out to kill the individual members of that species. If not for duck hunters, there would be very few ducks. Rich, white guys protect duck habitat purely so they will be able to blow their little brains out. To a lesser extent, the same goes for elk and trout.

After several years of being conflicted on the whole killing thing, I discovered my bottom line when I was driving the Antelope Flats Road and I cam upon two men, one kneeling and the other using his pickup truck bed as a base, blazing away at three panicked elk who were running for the tree line. And, at that instant, I hated those men on a level I’ve never hated anyone or anything before. It was so unfair and such a waste of beauty. The intensity of the hatred shook me. So, I came to know where I stand on hunting.

P.S. I took my wife and daughter to Romeo and Juliet Sunday. I don’t guess I’d ever seen the whole play, although of course I knew the story. That Romeo was a total creep. First, he’s so sick in love with Rosaline he’s ready to die, then he switches to Juliet, who is only thirteen and doesn’t know men will say anything to get to a girl her age. Her father is terrible, her cousin is jerk, Romeo’s friends are like frat boys in heat. The friar is stupid as a fence post. All the men are bad and the women are various levels of wonderful — just like in my books. I’m starting to think me and Shakespeare have more in common than a tendency to write sonnets.

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I would like to be remembered as the man who invented the word gazillion. Not that I did, but most people given credit for creating things didn’t. I would encourage you to tell your friends that Tim Sandlin coined the gazillion.
Which isn’t what this blog is about. This blog is about evolution.
On our way to Yellowstone the other day we came upon a major bear jam up around Pacific Creek. A couple hundred cars were pulled over and the display of photo equipment was truly impressive. There were lenses the size of bazookas aimed at this mother grizzly and three cubs that appeared to be grazing out in the field. I know, you are thinking grizzlies don’t graze, but it sure looked like they were eating grass. Maybe it was for the same reason my dog eats grass — so they could crap indoors.
Anyway, the token idiot from Utah wandered out in the field for a close-up. Suddenly, the interesting nature lesson became one of those Darwin Award deals. All the hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment left the bears and moved to the idiot. I blame YouTube. And those TV shows of Stupid Human Tricks, or Nature Gone Wild. Any tech weenie with a cell phone can get rich selling tragedy to network news now, so nature itself takes a backseat to the chance to make a buck.
People were saying, “God, I hope she just rips his arms off instead of killing him outright. It’ll make for much better footage.”
I told my daughter the man was committing suicide and we might be able to watch. All these comments about his brainless, stupid, Utah-like behavior were made within hearing distance of the man’s wife and kids. After a bit, the woman herded her children back into one of those pickup trucks so big it takes six tires instead of two to keep them on the road. And the cab is big as a limo. They idle loud as an airplane. The boy was playing some kind of handheld game where he got to kill people, which is modern life for you. Kids are more interested in wasting electronic humans than watching their dad buy it from a grizzly bear.
The bear stood on her hind legs and looked at the guy, but she never charged. The crowd was disappointed.
She did pick off a jogger a week later. Bit him in the ear and shoulder. People who live in grizzly country don’t call it jogging. We call it trolling.
A photographer in Yellowstone was mauled the same day as our near but not quite adventure with the idiot. The guy in Yellowstone was two miles from a trail and three from a road. The bear ripped out his eye, and the guy walked three miles with his eyeball hanging off the side of his face. I think. The news story said the bear ripped out his eye, and another story said doctors spent so-many hours putting his eye back in, which means he either carried his eyeball in his hand for three miles or it was hanging by mucus or whatever off his cheek there. Both make an interesting image.
I wonder if he could see out of it. I read that Frenchmen who were guillotined were able to see for around three minutes after their head popped off their body. I don’t know how the scientist who figured this out figured it out, but I suppose it’s possible. The eye and the brain are both there together. You could see until oxygen became a problem. It would be fun to write a poem under those conditions.
Back to the title of this little piece: Last year a woman from Texas sprayed her kids with mosquito repellant then did the same with bear repellant. Results were about what you would expect.

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