An Elk Tale
Barbwire was only two days old when he got snagged up in a local rancher's fence. That's why his name—his original name, his first name—was Barbwire. Maybe an odd name for an infant elk, but then most elk probably don't get named, much less a few names. He was also called "Baby," and "Elliott"—like the elk sculpture in the median of North Angel Fire Road heading up to the ski area. And more than once he was called "Damn It," which he answered to as well as anything else. The rest of the elk herd—including his mother, who lingered by his side longer than the rest of the herd—was forced to leave him there.
That's how I ended up with him. Game and Fish called me at the Girl Scout Camp—we had lots of animals: horses, sheep, goats, pigs, ducks and geese, and a beefalo—and they figured maybe Barbwire could stay there—get stronger, get bigger—for awhile.
"You fellas trying to get me in trouble? I'm pretty sure it's illegal, and probably unethical, to raise a wild animal," I said.
"Not if we bring him to you."
"Not long. Not long at all. Just until we can find him a new home."
About a year, it turned out.
For the first few months, I fed him cow's milk out of a nursing bottle held under my armpit where he nuzzled, sucking so hard he jerked my body around and made my head shake.
He was a crazy, curious little guy, getting not so little every day; he'd follow me around the ranch doing chores, knocking stuff over, always getting in the way. He loved to dig up the garden and trample the flower beds, stir up the horses, and chew on underwear and socks off the laundry line. And he scared the heck out of the kids, rearing up on his hind legs and waving his front hooves, just wanting to play. He didn't do so well with the goats and ducks and pigs, but he soon became buddies with my dog. They palled around all over the place.
One morning after fixing fences, I walked up to the cabin and saw the front door to my bedroom was jarred open. Looking inside, there they were, side by side, lying in the bed. After some cursing and kicking they bolted out of the house and I swear I heard them giggling.
Some mornings, early, hot air balloons would drift low over the pasture, making that loud whoosh sound from the gas burners. That drove Barbwire nuts. He'd kick and buck at the noise, then sit silently as if spellbound by all the bright colors of the canopy. Pilots didn't know what to think either, not knowing the elk below was a pet, not used to animals not scattering below them like they usually did. They probably figured he was "mentally challenged," which he was.
But he seemed happy enough being a general menace on the ranch. As he got older, he got a little bolder and started wandering further from home. Finally, he found town—Angel Fire, just a few miles down the road—and a lot more places to get into trouble. We'd find him hanging out in front of the Post Office, like a lot of other folks do, and at the Mini Mart where James, our town's first mayor, would call, and I'd drive down to get him. Being his surrogate mother, he'd always run up to me right away—like I was the one who'd disappeared—and he'd always come home, one way or another. Usually, I'd stick my left arm out the pickup window and he'd run down the highway, his head under my hand, and we'd turn west onto the gravel road up to the Girl Scout Camp, him acting all the time like it was just another normal day in paradise. Locals pulled over to let us by and we never got pulled over by the cops; they probably didn't know what kind of citation they could give. So they'd just wave.
One fall night I was in bed when I got a call from Zeb's saying my elk was on the porch harassing the tourists. I drove down to find a huge man, who'd had a few, who told me to "stand back, this here's a wild animal, probably crazy with rabies or something." I explained he was indeed a little crazy but was my pet elk, and I just needed to get him home.
That huge hulk of a man sat in the pickup with me "to make sure everything was alright." And after penning up Barbwire, thanking the man and bringing him back, he started crying, shoulders throbbing: "That's the most beautiful thing I ever saw."
Winter, Barbwire seemed to hang around the ranch more, joining us in all the neighborhood sports, but only those without motors. When I'd fire up one of the snowmobiles, he'd do that head shaking thing again and the whirling dervish dance, and skedaddle. Same with chainsaws. He much preferred hockey on the pond although he played cautiously, his footing tentative; or sledding, where he'd just about get run over and tear up the toboggan track. His favorite was snowshoeing and cross-country skiing where he'd follow so close he'd step on the tails of your skis, stopping you dead in your tracks, causing you to lurch forward and crash. He got a big kick out of that—that and post-holing the trail with his hooves so he would be the only one who could go fast.
Each month, I'd learn from Game and Fish they hadn't yet found a new home for Barbwire, but hearing about his trips to town and how he was turning into a juvenile delinquent, always in trouble, they finally decided he should go to rehab—a newly opened wildlife rehabilitation center in Raton. So one day they came with a padded trailer and rounded him up. And even though he got to meet the Governor when the center opened and made new friends with a couple of mountain lion cubs, I was sad to see him go. I learned later he ended up at Ted Turner's place, Vermejo Park, where he met a few movie stars—fellow celebrities—and ate sandwiches the chef handed him out the kitchen window.
Of course every story ever told about him may not have been 100 percent true. But most were, even the ones that never got told.
On Shovel Racing
It was February of 1984, having arrived in Moreno Valley, just four months earlier. Hired initially to run the retail operations at the ski area, my rental shop staff asked if they could work through the night into the wee hours on Sunday morning. With the help of our pilot and current Angel Fire Ski School Director Robin May, who had arrived from Durango, their request was driven by the "need for speed" and to ready their Modified Shovel for the race taking place the next day. Having no idea how one could or would want to modify a shovel, I viewed with curiosity—after hours of digging it out of its frozen tomb—the carcass of what would be the Rental Shops entry into the competition.
I learned that the modified aspect of shovel racing was no more than basically incorporating the scoop of a grain shovel into the design of this "race car on skis." Frankly, the shovel itself, when applied to modified racing, represented a hood ornament at best, when compared to actually riding a grain scoop down the mountain, but I digress. Calling our entry a bucket of bolts would have been overstated. However, the next morning, with little or no sleep and the obligatory pre-race hangover in full bloom, what emerged wasn't just our "machine" but something, an obsession if you will, that would captivate my imagination, time and energy for decades to come.
It was race day and at the top of "The Bump," AKA "Exhibition," Bert Clemens from the Laguna Vista Bar was serving gallons of the unofficial beverage of this gathering. It was a homemade Bloody Mary called a Bloody Martyr, thus orally delivering the liquid courage needed for many racers to compete in the first place. The beef bouillabaisse tomato concoction did serve to fuel the camaraderie of this annual reunion of speed merchants and I enjoyed it along with everyone else. Our entrant, whose name is not really relevant, quivered on the snow with what I felt was the perfect wax job, made possible through my days as a ski racing technician. On the race course itself, there were no snow walls or catch nets to corral out-of-control racers; and visually, with so few hay bales at the finish line, a racer would have to literally aim their sled to hit one, let alone be stopped from careening out of control into the base area.
Save one ABC affiliate from Dallas, cameras were limited to mostly locals taking pictures, with some standing smack in the middle of the race course and seemingly invisible to the Ski Patrol on hand. The race was memorable, as I seem to recall a drop tank from a B-29 bomber on jumping skis, named "Mud Shark," claiming the first of four world titles, and production racer Sam Wilson continuing his dominance in the Men's Division. Our machine crossed the finish line with the fastest time, but a design flaw in the outrigger steering system, laughable at best, sent both machine and pilot flying at the finish line, the latter being more than a foot from his "scoop," causing disqualification. We did, however, make prime time in the Big D, as our crash made the highlights of "Real People Dallas" and, at least from my perspective, an idea was born.
First thing Monday morning, I marched into the resort president's office and explained that unless safety concerns were addressed or not, there was only one reason, publicity, to risk life, limb and NSAA insurance on modified shovel racing, so subsequently he gave me the reins to do just that. From wind tunnel-tested sleds owned by Indy Race Car teams, pontoon boats filled with water and weighing tons, there was and never will be an event quite like this.
Soon after my inaugural involvement, along with the creation of the Unique Modified Division featuring giant ski boots, cheeseburgers and living rooms cruising down the course, the World Shovel Race Championships helped put Angel Fire on the map. Over the years, after attracting sponsors like Ames Shovels and Budweiser—helped by the return of Bill Burgess, the event's first modified winner, along with his gift of gab—the race drew film crews from around the country to join a throng of annual fans for well over a decade. Shovel Racing has been seen in foreign countries, the most notable being a popular Japanese reality television series in 1992, whose film crew after the race showed their appreciation by buying a round of Bud for hundreds in the base lodge.
Modified racing may be gone, but certainly not forgotten, especially by those pining for the event's improbable return, living vicariously for now through the Production Class.
So the next time you're in the hardware store shopping for a snow shovel—and I recommend the #12 Ames Grain Scoop—think about putting your fanny in that scoop. Take a walk or, in this case, a ride on the wild side while repeating the credo of the shovel racer: "Faster, faster, until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death!" But be careful… you might get hooked.
On Downhill Biking
If you go to Angel Fire Resort's website and look up the name Tom Shearon, you'll see he's logged 820,000 vertical feet this summer (up from 526,000 last year, his first year). He's at the top of the leader board with 410 runs. What you won't see is that he's a retired 67-year-old Albuquerque man, and the 2013 summer riding season was still underway.
"I was a little apprehensive when I first started mountain biking, but enjoying living in the mountains and being an instructor at Ski Santa Fe in winter, I quickly fell in love with it," he says.
Originally from Memphis, Tom didn't discover his passion for the mountains until he started skiing at age 45. But already he's earned the nickname "Downhill Tom." One friend noted that between the two sports, Tom spends half his life on ski lifts.
"Unlike skiing, downhill riding requires a lot of upper body strength. I usually start the day out slow, but then often get up to 12 runs by the end of the day. When you start, everybody has to work on basic riding skills. You learn it's easier to be light on the brakes. I go pretty fast now and do catch air sometimes. And of course, I've fallen, but I haven't flipped over the handlebars yet."
Why Angel Fire? "It's one of the top five downhill biking spots in North America. Incredible trails with a high speed quad. Hogen Koesis (Bike Park manager) and his crew have done a fantastic job and plan more improvements, especially for beginners, for next year. They have really got it going. So do Mark and Kalen at the Bike Shop. And being from Albuquerque, it's nice and cool up in Angel Fire in the summer. And I love riding through the aspens in autumn.
"One ride, I came off a berm and had a deer running alongside me. He was literally two feet away; we were eye to eye. I mentioned to someone later that the deer seemed awfully competitive and was told they are 'just territorial.' "
Tom also takes a "Good Samaritan" approach to being on the mountain, helping others with directions, trail selection, and even helping to clean up the trails.
"I meet lots of people. It's a great social outlet."
He admits being retired is an advantage in logging so many miles. "I can spread it out and don't need to cram in lots of rides on one visit up there, because of course you can get pretty tired. I now understand more about rocks and speed but I'm still learning about what older bones do."
Tom laughs when he thinks of taking his helmet off between rides on the lift and seeing a boy point at him: "Look, it's an old man."
But he's got a great attitude about it all and says, "Sometimes, skiing down mountains in winter and riding down mountains in summer, it feels like what I was born for."
Anyone who has spent a good deal of their life outside in northern New Mexico usually has a few tales to tell about bears. One of the last Grizzlies sighted in New Mexico was on a ranch just outside Angel Fire. And then there's the tale about a local guide getting bit on the butt by a black bear.
Local Kay Moore remembers that at the family's Black Lake ranch sometime in the 1930s, her father Bruce Bull loved hunting on horseback, his greyhounds coming along to keep him company and help with the hunt. They came up on a black bear which was then treed by the dogs. Bruce then roped the bear and decided to drag it home. At the house he yelled to his mother to come out and see what he'd brought her.
When she came out, Bruce gave the bear a little slack, and the bear made a charge at his mother before he yanked back on the rope.
"I guess he thought that was pretty funny," Kay said. "Of course he was always a character."
It was only later that he discovered what could have been a horrible mistake: the rope he'd used was frayed, held together by just a few strands.
When asked if she remembers anything else about the bear roping, she said, "Well, I guess we could always embellish upon the truth."
On the Zipline
Flying on a zipline over trees down the mountain at Angel Fire Resort, I found myself screaming and hollering with the pure adrenaline rush of it all. I had to take a lot of deep breaths but I love speed and just went for it. By the time we got to the super zip ride, I dared to stick my legs out in front like a luge rider to gain more speed. It was terrifying yet absolutely exhilarating.
I was born in the Netherlands 71 years ago; a totally flat landscape and lots of water. Everybody learned to swim as kids so about the highest thing around was the high dive. Maybe that's why I have always lived with such a huge fear of heights.
My daughter Anelies and I have been traveling together for the past eight years and we always have a blast. She, however, is fearless—no mountains are too steep or high, no water too deep.
On the other hand I love adventure, but am mortified of heights… generally not a good fit. So when she wanted to tackle the ziplines in Angel Fire, I agreed, though it put the fear of God in me.
I remembered a recent trek to the ruins of Tulum, Mexico. Scaling the ruin steps, I felt a huge knot, like a rock, in my stomach. The steepness made me absolutely frozen with fear. I ended up coming down on my butt. While my daughter went up in a nanosecond, I descended sitting down, step by step.
I have always loved speed: taking off in an airplane, driving a sports car, skiing maybe too fast (I often have to rein myself in). And even though I was terrified by the prospect of the ziplines, I ended up loving it, feeling safe and comfortable and loving the rush of the ride. I've gone two more times since and always recommend it to my friends, no matter their age or ability. I tell them "Just do it."
A Favorite Festival
It started simply enough 17 years ago—a newspaper calendar listing: "7 pm Music from Angel Fire concert." We love music, especially country and western, so we decided to go.
Little did we know then that the magic of our first MFAF concert would evolve until we were tightly woven into the tapestry of this organization by the threads of beautiful chamber music, friendships with the amazing and talented musicians, and being part of a dedicated volunteer community that continues to enrich our lives.
While we have always loved many kinds of music, chamber music was never at the top of the list, but the delights of MFAF have changed all that. Each year we think the gifted artistic director Ida Kavafian has created the best series of concerts ever, yet the next year always seems better than the last. Her introductions often give us insights into the concerts we are about to hear.
The musicians wind their way into Angel Fire and we greet them as the friends they have become over the years. They make themselves accessible through shared meals, golf or hiking outings, or encounters around Angel Fire. The young musicians are a real plus, not only for the important work they do in the schools, but also for their amazing talent.
Our favorite setting for the concerts is the United Church of Angel Fire. As dusk settles outside the huge windows of the church, music from composers like Vivaldi, Piazzolla or Brahms moves us to a heightened sense of peace as we watch the moon and clouds ease their way above the mountains. Each year we invite friends to share this special time with us and they have always left thoroughly entranced, and with reservations for the next year,
A simple calendar listing—and, yet, something that has continued to enrich our lives every year. We enjoy our commitment to the MFAF Board, the Guild, and support of the youth concerts. To sum up what MFAF means to us we would say, "A lot of joy, a lot of work and, always, the highlight of our summer."
A Road Trip
Late in September is a great time to get out and really explore the Enchanted Circle. The sky is as blue as it gets, the air is clean and the leaves of the aspens are beginning to change from their verdant green to the iridescent colors of gold and copper color.
Taking the Mustang convertible out for what might be the last time of the year, I headed out with my friend to see what was happening in the Enchanted Circle. We leave Angel Fire at 9 am on a beautiful clear morning and head north toward Eagle Nest. At Eagle Nest Lake State Park Visitor Center, we sit on the deck overlooking the lake to see if we can spot the eagles soaring over the lake. It doesn't take long before we spot an eagle over the eastern shores of the lake, surveying all of his territory. From there we head up the valley to the Elizabethtown Cemetery to pay our respects to some of the founding pioneers of the area and get some great photos of the valley to the south.
Then we begin our climb up Bobcat Pass, toward Red River. Along the way, keep watching your rearview mirror as you are heading up the pass and you will see the majesty of the north face of Wheeler Peak and you have to stop and get a photo. I have this view in all seasons and I just keep taking more pictures to add to my collection.
In Red River, we stop in at ShotGun Willie's for lunch and then hop on over to Frye's Old Town to visit. This place has been around forever and has some of the neatest souvenir items to give to friends and hold as keepsakes of your vacation.
Heading down the mountain from Red River, we come to Questa and stop in to see how the refurbishing of the old Catholic Church is going, finding that the parishioners have done a great job of rehabbing their old church. Outside of Questa, heading to Taos, we have to stop at the Red River Fish Hatchery and see all of the fish they have in the big ponds; all of them destined to be put into the cold waters around Northern New Mexico.
As we head toward Taos, there is discussion of stopping in Arroyo Seco at The Mercantile and getting an ice cream cone at Taos Cow Ice Cream. My friend has to drag me out of the Mercantile because they have so many "neat" gizmos and gadgets of the past. Heading on up toward Taos Ski Valley, there are many more photo ops and we see a small herd of mule deer as we enter the parking area at the Ski Valley, just kind of hanging out and greeting everyone coming and going from the Ski Valley.
Back on the road, we have to make a stop at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge before heading into Taos. The light from the sun in the west is great for taking photos of the Taos mountains. Now it is time for some refreshments and possibly an early dinner, so we head to Antonio's, behind the Taos Plaza. A great outdoor patio with outstanding guacamole and just about any Mexican dish you can image and sometimes they have evening entertainment.
Now we head toward the Taos Canyon and make our way back to Angel Fire. But the evening air has a little nip, so the top comes up on the Mustang. We take our time because the mule deer are out in the lower part of the valley and the elk come out in the upper part near Valle Escondido. As we top Palo Flechado Pass and head down, the lights of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Peace and Brotherhood Chapel shine brightly and the stars are beginning to show up for another clear and cold night in Angel Fire.
As a young boy, Victor slept some nights under the cover of a buffalo robe on the porch of his grandmother's house. There, under the darkness of the robe, he read a boyhood book of adventure with a small light. An icy Midwest wind ran across the fields at his farm blowing dirt and cold at him; but like his family inside, he was tucked in, protected by the heavy robe, often waking under snow in the morning. He would be protected for a while, but could not be protected from what life was to hand him. One day, out from under the weight of that robe, would emerge a highly evolved man that grew and settled into greatness—Dr. Victor Walter Westphall.
A man's story can have many beginnings and endings. For me, his story began 24 years before his death. I had come to interview him for our small town newspaper in the mountains of New Mexico. As I walked into his small, book-lined office, he jumped up from his desk and started doing a series of chin-ups from a bar stretched across a door frame. He lifted his small, muscular body up again and again, hoisting himself up as he would do his whole life. I thought he might be mad. Later I would learn it was a release for his immense life energy.
His biography is only a glimpse of his life, compiled by Pat Mendoza, a Vietnam veteran, after digging through boxes of background and countless interviews, trying to unearth the bare bones of his story. In many ways, Victor's life spanning most of the 20th century was ordinary; but it was what he would do with it, how many lives he would touch, that was extraordinary. Raised with two sisters by a tough, optimistic, intellectual mother and an ingenious, scrappy father, Victor was educated in a one-room school house. The lessons took; all of his life he loved learning about the world and his singular place in it; he learned lots. His roots on the Wisconsin farm taught him toughness, how to work hard, and to dream of possibilities off the farm. His college years expanded his vision, taught him to focus. His athletic prowess taught him discipline. His business ventures taught him how to survive. His wife and two sons taught him how to love deeply. His tour in the South Pacific of WWII taught him wisdom and humility. And his son's death taught him how to rise out of grief and heal others.
Pivotal to the Westphall family story, and it is a family story, was the death of oldest son David, killed in an ambush, leading his men through the jungles of Vietnam near Con Thien—a life and death Victor himself wrote "transcends the ordinary, transcends the average." This too would be true of Victor's life. For out of the ashes of his son's death was born the nation's first memorial to Vietnam veterans, a healing center for one of our country's most painful wars. It is difficult to separate the man from the memorial, a memorial designed to "honor all those who lost their lives in Vietnam." It has become much more, a tribute to "the living, the dead, and the maimed in body and spirit," for us all. Veterans of all wars and their families found in Victor a deeply caring father figure. All who come to the memorial near Angel Fire are deeply affected and many have a story to share. Over a million visitors have walked through the doors, often haunted, then somehow healed by the stories inside. And central, of course, to the raising of that memorial —sitting bird-like, winged, on a hill overlooking a valley—is a family unwilling to be crushed by grief, perhaps guided by divine providence, dedicating their lives to "peace and brotherhood."
That same divine hand would years later lead Victor—still wrestling, always wrestling, with the huge cost of war—on a trip back to Con Thien, an 82-year-old father following the footsteps, now grown over but very much there, of his son.
All who met Victor, friends powerful and small, considered it a privilege to be touched by him, to come close to his compassion, his huge reserves of wisdom and emotion, his strength and belief in humanity. While inside he wrestled with endless struggles, at the core of his heart Victor was a man of peace. His nature was to give, always to do it with grace and tenacity. He painted for us pictures of what a blessed thing life can be. All who try to describe him stumble, capturing only a sliver of the light cast by his broad strokes here. Still, we try.
"He seemed always to have been old and wise," someone said.
"If he wasn't a saint, he was as close as anybody would want to get," said someone else.
But he was no saint, simply a portrait of what a man is capable of being.
Some, using more words, come close:
"You have provided many of us with an example of devotion and love on a scale that turns tragedy into triumph."
"Surely we do have the cynical among us but even more surely we have those capable of discovering in your act of grace reflected something transcendent that brings to any sensitive spirit a rare moment of being bathed in pure light.
"Courage it takes to fight through anguish to erect such a memorial: 'All the young men gone,' with souls to know, will find the enormity of their sacrifice echoed in your labor of love. And their presence will be felt…"
Victor himself could not fully capture his light in the many books he wrote: "I have learned to be mild and meek in general, but to roar when a roar is advisable." All of his life he roared best when railing against our last resort, our greatest weakness, to slip into war.
"I have no axe to grind, except to make the world a better place to live while I am here and after I am gone," he wrote. That he did; and it was his axe to grind. All he could do was hold a mirror up to ourselves—challenging us all to be better and lend our hand to "the revolution for peace."
Later in his life, true to his training as an historian, Victor often wondered about his place in history. Would he be remembered for creating the memorial, as a thinker, visionary, dreamer, doer? Or for one of his eight books, inventions, world records? As a soldier, father, husband, teacher, healer? Prior to his death in July 2003, there was a move underway to nominate him for the Presidential Peace Award, the highest civilian honor in the land. That honor may never come to be. But if you were lucky enough to know him, you knew he was deserving, for just his sacrifices alone, of any honor given him.
"These hands have aged so much these last years," he told me, standing behind the wheelchair he pushed around. He was trying to resurrect a lost memory about his beloved cat Smokie. Shaking his head at himself over unforgiven forgetfulness on a detail of his life's story, humble to the end. Even though you could feel the weight of the buffalo robe he had spread before him. He watches now, quickly, over our shoulders, listening to his story as we, like children following their father on a trail trace the trail of a 20th century hero, a hero for peace.
The following email came from a student who had decided to leave Moreno Valley High School after his Junior year and entered United World College for the last year of high school. He wrote this to a teacher who is very exacting in her expectations of students.
"So, I realize that it's been a while, and that my very existence may well have slipped entirely from your consciousness, but I'm gonna go ahead and use the beauty of social networking to restore my amazingness to your, already nostalgic, I'm sure, mindset.
Ok, no, but seriously.
Despite how amazing life is at UWC (United World College) in Canada, I do occasionally feel a bit of nostalgia for the trailer-park lifestyle at MVHS, and that's kinda why I'm writing. I really hope you pass this on to the other teachers, particularly Barb and Jacque who both requested that I stay in touch, which I'm doing an admittedly poor job of.
Brief update on my life: I'm coming to the end of my two years here. I've already permanently finished a couple of classes (Spanish and Theatre—Please let Ms. Colenda know I got full marks in Spanish.) I don't know how theatre went, but fingers crossed. I'm also taking English (getting full marks, thanks to you, Sterny,) Marine Science, Math and Philosophy. Exams are about a month away but I've already been accepted to colleges. If all stuff with financial aid goes well, I'll be attending Brown in the Fall, so keep your fingers crossed for some really generous financial aid offers. There's really a lot that I could go on about regarding life here, it would be a conversation worthy of several hours of writing, and you would end up with a small autobiography, so I won't do it here, but I'd love to keep in contact.
Anyway, there's a reason I'm writing this to you guys, and it's mostly because the other day I got all nostalgic about MVHS, and I really wanted to send something along to thank you guys. We had this big discussion in the community about people who came to UWC from third world countries, but stay in first world countries and never bring their education back to help their homeland. Now, obviously I'm not trying to call MVHS a third world country. I wouldn't dream of it, but here's the way I see it. At MVHS, we take a lot of flak for being alternative, not having buildings, not following regular curriculum, being downwind from the dump, and occasionally having the parking lot searched by police, but I have to say that not once, in my entire two years of UWC did I ever feel unprepared for the academic challenges I faced. Of course, they weren't all a walk in the park, but they were manageable. I really do feel as though I owe MVHS, particularly my teachers, a lot for that. In a situation like the poorly funded and under recognized one that we had, the dedication of the staff at MVHS was really important to somebody like me. You guys have a lot of dedication to the students that pass through the doors of that school, and looking back on it the other day, I really realized that. So, yea. Thank you. Thanks a lot, because I know I've never been happier than where I am right now, but I also realize I wouldn't be here it if wasn't for the commitment of the teachers I had behind me at MVHS.
Sterny, I'm now speaking directly to you, and I really want to say thanks for writing one of the letters of recommendation that got me into this place, for pushing me in my writing and for making English class just that much more amazing. I'm planning on majoring in Creative Writing and Theatre Arts at Brown and, well, I'll just have to let you know how that goes, I guess.
Well, that's about all I got. Today is one of those rare sunny days that exist in Canada and I'm off to enjoy it. Please just accept the appreciation that I'm sending your way. Like I said before, I've never been happier than where I am, and I can't say that I would be here if it weren't for you.
Hope the AP Lit. kids are keeping you on your toes. Don't let them get too comfortable. All my best, and thanks again!"
On the Movie Set
I spent two days this summer working as an extra on the set of the new movie version of The Lone Ranger. The movie is largely being filmed in New Mexico on a special western town built just west of Albuquerque. Some scenes were filmed near Durango, Colorado, and some in the Angel Fire area… actually, some scenes filmed within walking distance of our house here in Angel Fire! For the the cast and crew party—the company rented the entire country club—Johnny Depp's band played as well…Son Cameron is working as a waiter at the Sunset Grille, the closest restaurant at the Resort Hotel which is crammed full of crew—all good tippers, I am informed…
The ad soliciting extras was sent out through our local chamber of commerce… height, weight, shirt and pants size… plus picture. I sent the best picture I ever took—my campaign poster photo. Two days later I got a call from casting asking me to show the next day in Albuquerque for fitting… when I walked in the costume warehouse, the two casting reps welcomed me by name (told you that was a good photo). After filling out the inevitable paperwork, I was escorted into a fitting room where my period clothing was hanging. Everything fit—nearly perfectly… even the shoes! Everyone was so nice. The clothing lady told me how distinguished I Iooked in my outfit as she led me to makeup. There I was fitted for side whiskers and sent back to the fitting room for a snapshot for their files.
Another amazing thing about this burgeoning adventure is how quickly everybody in Angel Fire seemed to know about it. When I drove back from my fitting in Albuquerque, son Jake and a friend rolled into my office and positively interrogated me about the process. I stopped at the grocery store and the check out lady knew where I had been. Even my wife, Linda, and Cameron seemed entranced. At Village Hall I was promptly surrounded by most of the ladies who worked there. Small town, big news.
The first day of shooting, I drove to the (very) small town of Ute Park, halfway between Eagle Nest and Cimarron on NM State Highway 64 arriving fifteen minutes before my scheduled 7 am show, checked in with costumes, and was told to go eat breakfast. Oh my goodness…the food! The sheer amount of the food was impressive but the quality was incredible. My two favorite breakfasts are huevos rancheros and eggs benedict…well, I had them both. Plus fresh salmon. Plus some of the most gorgeous fruits—organic of course—on the planet. Stunning. This was just the beginning. Food was everywhere all the time. Amazing. I was so impressed that I got up at 4:20 the next morning to get to the set earlier so I could take my time and eat a good—and extensive breakfast. Linda thought I was crazy but then she didn't get to see, much less, taste the on-set food… lots better than my normal granola bar and a Yoplait…
The people were so nice! Professional, energetic, and polite. Extras are at the bottom of the talent totem pole and yet everyone was so friendly to us. The director was Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean 1-3; Rango). He took pains to welcome us and explain in short sentences with little words exactly what emotions he wanted from us. He was quite encouraging during each of the multiple takes. I was impressed by his decisiveness, ability to express his vision, and the way he handled people. He is also handsome and rich so you want to hate the guy… but he was so nice…
I got into period costume (long sleeve shirt, stiff collar, cravat, suspenders, and itchy herringbone wool pants and long tailed coat). Had to run by make up who put grease in my hair, then sent me over to the facial hair experts for my side whiskers. When I walked in the trailer, I recognized the guy in the other chair as Armie Hammer, who plays the Lone Ranger. Very pleasant chap. Big, tall, handsome. Quite bright… we chatted a bit. He thanked me for my service in the military! Same thing on Tuesday morning… he walked in while I was in the chair and he was gracious enough to pretend he recognized me. Good actor! We talked about Bolivia and the effects of high altitude on humans (Ute Park is a little lower than we are here in Angel Fire, about 7,800 feet, I think). With my Abraham Lincoln top hat, I looked like Ebenezer Scrooge. The facial hair lady decided to curl my mustache, changing me from a distinguished gentleman into a distinguished looking roué.
The part of the movie that I am supposed to be in is dated May 1869. All the extras are clothed for the period. The kids dressed out wonderfully—their attire reminded me more of a Charles Dickens movie than a western. The adults looked right out of the era. One of the jarring moments of the two days was to see another of the extras sitting out in the sun, dressed to kill in a hoop skirt and flowered hat, reading her Kindle Fire.
The most overwhelming memory is of the size of the logistics. Hundreds of people milled about, dozens of parked trailers, semi trucks, and vans, golf carts zipped through a tent village crammed into a small area. The tiny village of Ute Park, a former stagecoach stop, had never seen such activity. Reminded me of some of my Air Force deployments.
Another similarity to deployments is the classic "hurry up and wait" orientation. We sat around all dressed up for hours… then we were placed in our (classified) location on set where we stood around waiting for the crew/director/stars to get ready. Our job was to scream in terror on cue, beseeching the Lone Ranger to save us…pretty hard for me since I was having the time of my life. But I screamed along with everybody else during repeated rehearsals and, ultimately, repeated takes. So many that my throat was sore and almost raw by the end of the day. The shots were carefully calculated to include the magnificent Cimarron Palisades in the background. Most of our work was done on a cool and rainy Monday; Tuesday was hot with less work. And more sitting around. After almost every scene, all of us hairy guys were directed to the facial hair people for adjustments. They were very concerned about authenticity, obsessed really.
We worked with Armie and Johnny Depp's stand-in. On Tuesday morning we worked with both stand-ins. In the afternoon, Johnny showed up. There was a ripple through the crew as Johnny got out of his black Chevy Tahoe in costume and make-up. The energy level went up. It was quite interesting to see everybody's reaction. Johnny is pretty buff. I suppose he decided to work out knowing that he was going to star in this movie without a shirt. He also went out of his way to be nice to us pond scum... as I said, this was a wonderful experience for me. I am now a solid movie fan, especially of the three principals in this movie—Johnny, Armie and Gore.
See you at the Academy Awards!