Get Shorty

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Jesus Malverde, Patron Saint of Narco-Traffickers

Many of us watched with interest the recent, and remarkably anti-climactic, extradition of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to face drug trafficking charges in the United States. He has, naturally, pleaded not guilty. As this news broke, I received no fewer than a dozen messages and emails from my former partners in narcotics enforcement celebrating, to one degree or another, his arrival in New York.

But we shouldn’t celebrate too much. The reality is that Chapo’s arrest and likely lifelong imprisonment won’t do a single thing to change the equation. He was long ago replaced, and untold numbers of people were murdered, in the endless succession drama that plays out in the cartel strongholds of Mexico—which is, quite simply, a Narco-state.

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Meth.  Photo by the author.

The sale and use of illicit narcotics are not, contrary to the legalize movement’s daydreams, victimless crimes. The truth is, as any veteran of the failed “War on Drugs” can tell you, that the traffic in narcotics has a nexus to every other kind and category of crime, from petty theft to homicide—and it has an extraordinary reach. The end user has no idea how many people were maimed, murdered, kidnapped, abused, raped, or tortured, for that gram of crystal meth to finally reach them.

Worst of all may be the relationship of narcotics usage and sales to child neglect and endangerment, the horrific images of which I will spend the rest of my life trying to forget. The damage done by mere users is equally far reaching, whether it comes from property crimes committed to fuel their addictions, or the bottomless list of both violent and non-violent crimes, the wreckage of relationships with friends and family, the enormous burden imposed on the criminal justice system, or the simple cratering of their own hopes and dreams.

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Santa Muerte, Saint of the Drug War.  It is not uncommon to find shrines like these when serving search warrants on dope traffickers.  Sometimes an entire room in the house will be devoted to this shrine.  By giving offerings, narcotrafficantes believe they can thwart the cops.  

But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. The War on Drugs, as it is presently being fought, is an abject failure. It simply isn’t, and probably never has been, effective. When looked at objectively–and I entered that tube as a true believer in the cause–it is an industry designed to fail. Law enforcement will never have the money, the manpower, or the agility to defeat the drug cartels at their own game. Never. The cartels are the most powerful and ruthless corporations on this planet, and they simply devour the competition.

The costs for a single large-scale investigation into narco-trafficking—organizations that operate on the same principle as terrorist cells—can easily skyrocket into the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars. It can take months, sometimes years, to start kicking doors, seizing loads of cash and dope, and putting it all on the table for the big photo-op and back-slapping spectacle that is helpful only for sustaining the illusion of hope in ultimate victory.

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Heroin.  Photo by the author.

For instance, if we arrested 15 people in a big, above-the-fold caper that stretched over multiple states, the mopes were replaced in less time than it took to book them. The case itself would take years to adjudicate, fought every step of the way by cartel lawyers who care nothing about the mopes who were arrested, but are seeking discovery to figure out how law enforcement got wind of them in the first place. Armed with that information, they change tactics, or technology, and drop the defendants neatly into the American prison system, where the American tax-payer pays through the nose for their care and comfort. It is a revolving door of madness.

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Even Tweety Bird has been co-opted by smugglers.  It is a favorite image, for obvious reasons, and an indicator for cops.

Almost no one discusses the violence in places like Chicago in meaningful terms. The street gang violence in that city, where 762 people were murdered last year, and some 4331—many of them mere children–shot, isn’t happening in a vacuum. What we are witnessing is a proxy war between Mexican drug cartels for control of the highly lucrative narcotics trade in that city, and elsewhere. I know that to be true because I’ve sat in a room and listened to wiretapped conversations between brokers in Mexico and their lieutenants in Chicago.

The reality is that outside of marijuana—and even that is questionable in many cases—not one ounce of heroin, meth, or cocaine, are sold in this country without the hidden hand of the Mexican cartels somewhere along the chain. The Mexican cartels exercise absolute control over the narcotics corridors into this country, and its delivery into our cities.

That hidden hand reaches far deeper into American society than many would like to believe. It involves corrupted judges, border patrol agents, street cops, and elected politicians serving at very high levels of government. I don’t offer this as opinion. I know it from direct experience working cases as a task force agent in southern California.

So, while its wonderful that Shorty has been extradited to face justice in America, and anyone who is being honest knows that he is decidedly not some kind of folk hero worthy of respect—a Sean Penn fantasy that is hard to square with facts–I’m having a hard time giving it much more than a shrug.

Until we have some kind of national awakening on the importance of educating, in an honest way, our children about the real horrors of narcotics use, and bend their minds away from usage, the Shortys of the world will continue to find eager customers, continue to exploit them, and continue their rampant plundering and pillaging.

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BookFace

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A couple of moose, Montana, 2010.  Photo by the author.

Last evening, in something of a pique, I decided to downgrade my presence on the Book of Face.  My existence there was experimental–I opened the account for selfish reasons to begin with–an attempt to broaden the audience for my writing–and am stepping far back for equally selfish reasons:  the preservation of my mind.

Once, I wrote a piece for The Nugget News that was derided by at least one reader as “a rant against connectivity.”  Fair enough, though that bent is a misunderstanding of what connections actually are, or at least a failure to embrace their realized potential.  The virtual relationships of Facebook are not to be confused with actual connections because they are, at best, partial.

And why is connectivity, understood in its virtual meaning, so great and desirable anyway?

Rick Bass, for my money one of our finest writers, might have articulated my feelings about Facebook best when he wrote this, in his essay On Willow Creek:  “What happens to us when all the sacred, all the whole, is gone–when there is no more whole?  There will be only fragments of stories, fragments of culture, fragments of integrity.”

And that is what I find repulsive about Facebook.  It exists in fragments, which by their very nature lack integrity.  Memes, short and badly contextualized videos, occasional rants, and always the underlying insistence on the contributor’s absolute and wholly realized righteousness.  It is an endless narrative, endlessly shotgunned into meaningless patterns and entirely lacking the whole.  In fact, I would argue that Facebook works entirely against notions of approaching anything whole at all.  Who has time to look at the whole, after all?  Facebook is, in many ways, the ultimate deconstruction machine, a virtual woodchipper, grinding the whole into meaningless piles.

And lately–timing has never been my strongest suit–it has been inundated by political fragments, shards even, that do nothing at all to solve the difficult equations facing us all, but instead exist to incite the basest emotional reactions–which are then attacked from various quarters by equally fragmentary and even more angry one-upmanship.  Meme after meme, non-sequitur after non-sequitur, the book of face marches one and all into some kind of intellectual and emotional oblivion.

So I need a break.  I realize that it can be a tool, and like any tool it requires some discipline to use it correctly.  Thus far, I have not used it correctly, and it might just be that after some time away I will return, ready for another round of punishment.  Selfishly, I should quit more often, because after making my squalid announcement the sign-ups for this blog jumped.

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Near Red Lodge, Montana

In the meantime, I have found myself with more time.  And I think that is something else that Facebook does, so insidiously.  It swallows time.  It fills space.  We are a culture increasingly uncomfortable with silences, the long pauses, and grasp almost desperately for anything that will fill the contemplative gaps between activities.  We meet more and more people for whom silence, or stillness, exists as a terrifying faraway land, a modern version of the old tales of Gog and Magog, where men grow 9 feet tall and eat their children.  Silence seems to have become the land of the savage northmen.

It isn’t.  A good pipe full of tobacco, a decent book, and a hot cup of tea go much farther in filling those spaces than another round of angry memes about the electoral college, or which politician should be in jail–which is probably just all of them.  So I am looking forward to getting back to that place where I once was…one guy in amongst the trees, toiling in the rain shadow of the Cascades, working each day to make our little ranch productive in a meaningful way, and quietly looking for better ways to live wholly, and with vision, and compassion, on this shrinking planet.

Happy People, Redux

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A trapper’s shack in deepest Siberia

This piece originally appeared in The Nugget News, January 11, 2017.

The great battery of recent storms has made things interesting. Cars are off the road, pipes are freezing, heat pumps are failing, and I’ve got three snowy mounds down in the corrals I think contain horses. By the time you read this, we may have received another 15 inches, which will raise the stakes considerably.

Yesterday, while snowshoeing from the house to the barn, I kept thinking about Werner Herzog’s brilliant documentary, “Happy People, A Year In the Taiga.” The film chronicles the life of fur hunters near the remote village of Bakhta, along the Yenisei River, in the deep Siberian taiga.

They get real winters around Bakhta, and it’s a tough life for the Happy People. They have some modern conveniences, but it’s truly a life without much luxury. They make their own skis, smear a kind of birch-bark porridge over themselves against mosquitos in the summer, charge around the dense taiga on rickety Soviet snowmobiles, fish the river from questionable boats, and in one epic scene, a trapper returns to his cabin after checking his lines only to find it has been crushed by the incredible snow load. It is a matter of living or dying for him to get a fire started against the brutal cold, but he just quietly whistles his way through to solving the problem.

It’s at that point in the movie when we understand why it is called “Happy People.” They just are. It’s a mindset, a quiet embrace of their circumstances, a gut-level resilience in the face of daily weather and wilderness hardships that defines who they are. They seem to be happy because they aren’t mentally at war against the realities that surround them. They aren’t imagining sun-soaked beaches in the Caribbean and torturing themselves with comparisons.

We do better when we do that, too.

There is no question that all of this snow, and below-zero temperatures, have brought some hardship. Simple tasks take twice as long, getting anywhere is dangerous, and we can start to worry about things we don’t normally think much about. Ice dams, for instance, or the EM function on a thermostat – which I didn’t even know existed until our heat pump motor decided to unbuckle itself and fall over. Some of our neighbors have reported ominous sounds in their ceilings, and last night one of our dogs growled at snow falling from the trees.

Things can get weird fast when the weather goes wonky.

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Making skis

But the Happy People have far more difficult challenges than we do, and for far longer, and seem to take everything in stride. As Laurence Gonzales wrote in his fabulous book, “Deep Survival”: “The maddening thing for someone with a Western scientific turn of mind is that it’s not what’s in your pack that separates the quick from the dead. It’s not even what’s in your mind. Corny as it sounds, it’s what’s in your heart.”

It seems to be that, at some level, the Happy People of the taiga have made a lasting peace with the notion that the challenges and inconveniences of life are natural, and healthy, and can even be fun. Hunting cabin in the middle of nowhere collapsed? No problem, I’ll just build a little fire and whistle a little tune. It’s hard not to love a mindset – a richly lived nonchalance – like that.

I’m not proposing that shoveling snow off the roof, thawing out pipes, watching three hours of plowing magically disappear, or thinking about the flood I’m certain we will fight off in the barn this spring is fun. But there is certainly a way to bring myself around to enjoying the challenges, to shrug a little bit more in the face of consequences and occasional setbacks that I may not like.

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Horse, meet tractor.  Tractor, meet horse.

And there is, in fact, a tremendous upside to these storms. One of the reasons I’ve embraced this episode of incredible weather is that it has convinced me, after several years of procrastinating, that I need a tractor. More importantly, it has also convinced my lovely bride. I’ve been toying with the tractor notion for some time, throwing the idea up in the air to see if it landed in the need, or the want, box. But perpetual plowing and shoveling has made the decision for me. And so the great snow of 2017 has come like a gift from the heavens, because it convinced me that I both need, and want, a tractor.

And that makes me very happy, indeed.

American Flats

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An Old Haunt, Torn Down

Bummer news this morning from an old friend and fellow denizen of the Nevada desert–they have finally demolished the ruins at American Flats.  To those of us who once tromped around in this amazing and ghostly wonderland, tucked into the hills outside of Virginia City, it comes like a gut punch.

Officially known as the Comstock United Merger Mill, the seven acre complex at American Flats was built in 1922, in order to process gold and silver ore using a technique known as cyanide vat leaching.  Once described as the largest concrete mill in the United States, it was abandoned only two years later.  In the subsequent years it became a kind of mystical playground for successive generations of desert explorers, and a fairly well kept secret, until half of the Bay Area moved into northern Nevada and it was finally taken over by graffiti artists and, undoubtedly, absconding parolees and tweakers with neck tattoos.

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There was no such thing as a tweaker when my college roommate, Dominic Gerbo, and I used to pile into his white VW van–fondly known as Moby Dick–and bomb up the road into the old Comstock Lode country and wander the hills in search of one strange find or another.

American Flats was undoubtedly strange.  If it was not in fact haunted it encouraged visitors to believe it was, and particularly at night, with the wind blowing.  The music made by the wind in that place was occasionally, and abjectly, terrifying.  The complexity of the mill–with its post-apocalyptic ambiance, cold and dark concrete, underground passageways, and strange tunnels to nowhere, left entirely too much to the imagination.

It was dangerous as hell to be running around in there at all, but we didn’t consider that much in those days.

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I had a good friend from Japan, Koichi Yoda, who was attending school in Nevada with a desire to become a filmmaker.  Koichi, whose upbringing in the confines of Tokyo left him somewhat mindblown by the Nevada desert in general, and American Flats in particular, managed to cobble together a script, corral some actors, and make a full-length movie in the ruins.  The film itself was an early, primitive, effort, but I give him high marks for choosing a great location.

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Any building, once occupied and subsequently abandoned, feels like a portal into some other world, and American Flats existed like a passageway into several worlds at once.  To wander the place at night, where it was possible to stumble upon a small party with a campfire throwing bizarre shadows in the columns, or to hear shouts echoing through the tunnels underfoot, all while coyotes yipped in the hills, was to somehow exist on simultaneous planes–a hideout in a post-societal collapse, a medieval fortress in a dark and troubled kingdom, and the wild western frontier all at once.

It isn’t hard to see why they finally bulldozed it under, the world of liability being what it is, but for a while the Flats were a quiet monument to the weird and the haunting, and those of us who had the pleasure of wandering among the ruins, figuring ourselves out as we went, will always remember it for the alternative mindscape it once so wonderfully was.

Here is an interesting website, where you can wander American Flats yourself.  It is best viewed on a full screen.  Click on the red targets and stroll around a while, you might have fun.

 

A Meditation in the Barn

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Think Tank on the Figure 8 Ranch

This post originally appeared in The Nugget News, January 3, 2017

I decided to write the first column of the New Year down here in the barn, with the horses and the hay and the barncats.

My wife and I have managed to do a few things right, and this barn is one of them. Aside from a particular stretch of rimrocked desert in northwest Nevada – which I won’t tell you about – it may be my favorite place in the world. The tack room is heated, I’ve got a two-burner stove with a chipped-enamel kettle where I can make tea, and I’ve fashioned this perfectly functional scrap-board desk that suits me fine.

The tack room is a kind of personal think-tank. I can brush aside a few wood screws, old tubes of phenylbutazone, random scraps of leather, and daydream at ease amongst the saddles and four generations of well-oiled tack. I like to sit here and listen to the horses, or lean into the window and watch the dogs run circles around the henhouse while the wind shakes snow from the ponderosas.

It’s not a terrible way to jumpstart a day.

Or a New Year. Like many others, I don’t do resolutions – which are largely a way of lying to ourselves, and later forcing a series of embarrassing excuses – but I do embrace an evolving series of long-range visions, and winter is a great time to indulge a few of them.

Increasingly, my thoughts and energies are focused on building a particular kind of life underneath the noise, a way of navigating where politics end at the edge of our front porch, where we gather more often with friends to feast and play music, where next summer’s garden explodes in outrageous vegetables, and where the obnoxious and heartbreakingly beautiful colt in the third stall starts as balanced and strong as his promise.

It should be – but never is – as easy as that.

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Pen, Pipe, and Tea.  A perfect morning trio.

The first one – shedding politics like an old skin – is the hardest one, but I’d like to get there if only because it underwrites almost everything else. I’d love to pay more attention to raising great tomatoes than which layer of government wants to tax me, tear up the Bill of Rights, or cajole me into yet another Faustian choice. I’d love to focus on flying lead-changes rather than think, even once, about how we’ve achieved a nation addicted to opioids and pharmaceuticals, or ponder the endless geo-political games played by people we don’t know, probably wouldn’t like if we did, and most certainly would never invite over for a barbecue and a beer.

I say all of that in a dreamy way. I’m not at all sure how realistic it is, given my conceits and predilections. I’m more and more certain that our government is merely a faraway monolith, working feverishly, like Las Vegas, mostly at reducing the individual to an “imbecilic dipstick,” in the words of Ellen Meloy. And I’d join Meloy in saying that Vegas and the federal government share another trait, which is a kind of honest and elegant fraud.

One of the finer things about being down here, aw-shucksing and pretending I’m folksy – a reader’s criticism that I absolutely love – is that for a while I can also pretend that politics don’t matter much. And that creates a wonderful illusion right up until one of the mares throws back her ears and squeals at the other one, or the cats leave a dead rabbit in the alley, or our oldest dog pees on a bucket to remind us all who is actually running this place. I can embrace those little reminders with a smile, because the flipside of folksy seems to be a constant and largely uninteresting anger.

Modern living – and maybe its always been this way – wedges us into an endless series of contradictions, a narrow channel with a lot of sandbars, and I guess what I’m striving for in my quaintest visions of the New Year is to reduce that friction, wherever and whenever possible. I’m seeking a less mediated life. I want to love the bulldozer and the trees at the same time, without looking over my shoulder for the next round of mortars lobbed in from one angry insurgency or another.

Of course, we never know where any of this is really going. Just before the New Year I was honored to officiate a wedding for two old friends. It was a small and lovely ceremony underneath a gigantic cottonwood. We were lucky to get a break in the cloud cover and fabulous evening light. And not a day had passed before we learned that two other old friends were getting divorced.

The more I think about things, the more I begin to suspect that despite my best efforts, I don’t have a single answer. Maybe I don’t even want one.

So for now, in the quiet of this lovely morning, I’m just going to sit down here in the barn, listening to the horses eat, and sipping tea from an old Police Foundation coffee mug. I might even light up my pipe and fill the air with the sweetest smoke. I can sit here happily for a long time doing that. And anyway, it’s cold outside and there is always plenty to do.

A Hunting Story

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Sunrise, near Hampton, Oregon

This piece originally appeared in the Nugget News, November 1, 2016

Last week I went elk-hunting with some friends, out past Hampton, in the big and mostly empty desert and juniper country.

We were an odd collection of hunters, precisely the kind of guys that columnist Victor Davis Hanson calls “alienated Americans.” Which is to say, slightly cynical, brushed by, but mostly tuned out from election hysterics, from popular culture, and harboring a kind of bemused pessimism about what the future holds.

For us, hunting is both religion and ritual. It is a way of reaching back and finding something in ourselves that defies the entitlement gyrations that seem to surround us. It is a way of slapping ourselves back into reality, of acknowledging that nothing good comes easy, and embracing a deeper sense of kinship and community that is the inevitable result of working together to achieve a common goal. In this case, the goal is food.

I like hunting with generations older than my own, guys who have been at it long enough that they aren’t trying to prove something. Men who have been to the wars, done their bit in the salt mines, and find a mostly unspoken solace and meaning in that oldest of human activities. We aren’t horn-hunters. We hunt for meat, and for the respite it gives us from what Hanson calls the “harsh voices” and “grating beat” of contemporary culture.

And there is nothing quite like being out on the country at dawn, when it is just waking up, quietly glassing the coulees and bluffs, nurturing the warm anticipation of a stalk, and knowing that a good hunt will provide healthy food for our families and friends.

We were out on the ground early on opening day. It had rained all night in our camp, one of those Old Testament desert-drenchings where you cease noticing the rain – until it finally stops. Heavy gusts of wind bullied our spike tent and water dripped and hissed down the flue of the little three-dog stove. We warmed a pot of chili on the stovetop and shopped hunting strategies for the morning, each of us imagining our bull out there in the dark, bedded down in the junipers or moving through the rocks.

Sometimes you just know. All night I had been hugging a kind of premonition. Something was telling me that I had rung the bell, read the book, and lit the candle in the proper order, and that I would have a bull down early. I can’t say why I knew it, I just did, and so only an hour into our hunt that vision came true.

At first I thought it was a cow. But the play of morning light, the angle, the distance, all conspired to hide his horns. I glassed again, the bull stepped forward, and my senses shunted the way they do when those inescapable physical realities take hold of our bodies. Time slows down. We get tunnel-vision. Our hearing plays tricks.

He was a young bull, maybe three. Where he went down in the sage it was hard to find him, but we did, and then took a few minutes to honor him, because that’s what we do. We don’t hoot and rant and caterwaul like television jackasses. The young bull gave his life to enrich ours, and without that respect and acknowledgment, I wouldn’t want to be a part of any kind of hunt.

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Food for family and friends.  A grateful hunter.

A great morning soon got better. As we worked, doing what was necessary to pack the bull out, a pair of F-15 Strike Eagles came screaming in over the desert from somewhere, the jet-wash rolling like thunder in the overcast. They played in the box directly over us, showing off perhaps, and having seen us, three guys out in all that desert, decided to treat us to a low-level, full-burner run directly overhead, so close you might reach up and shake hands with the pilot.

I was lucky. Back home, my wife was preparing a feast for a gathering of friends down from Alaska, and up from California. She had indulged my need to hunt, and I had promised I would be home, meat or no meat.

Somehow, and it truly is a miracle, I filled my tag, broke down my camp, delivered the bull to a processor, and made it home before the guests arrived.

And so what I think may have been the most perfect day of my life kept getting better. The food was great, the wine was flowing, the company magnificent, and then the guitars came out. We ate, we drank, we sang great songs, and our oldest dog wandered around in canine ecstasy.

I think that’s how we begin to defeat this alienation, this creeping cynicism some of us are experiencing. How we reach back and pull out the best parts of us and share them with each other even as the world keeps spinning faster and we are launched off in a thousand directions. Aren’t we all hunting for something like that? Things that bind us together rather than drive us apart?

It seems we always win if we slow things down, turn things off, harvest our own food, go acoustic, and just spend time together as our forebears once did in the caves of Lascaux, singing, feasting, and telling stories in the flickering light.