Friday, August 15, 2014

Freefall: The Last 2,500 Feet?


In 2003 depression, related substance abuse and thoughts of suicide led me to load my backpack, toss my wallet in the garbage, step off my front porch in Missoula, head north, and spend the next 10-weeks by myself hiking through the most remote, wild country left in the continental United States. It saved my life. Here's how it began:  

  “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
                                                                              -- Helen Keller              
               
As a Force Recon Marine I dove out of planes from altitudes as high as 32,000 feet, night and day, sometimes with full combat gear sometimes without (sometimes right into the ocean, with SCUBA gear attached) from the swamps of coastal North Carolina to the deserts of southeast California, in the scorching heat and humidity of Puerto Rico to the brutally-frigid tundra of northern Norway -- or, as the Marine Corps hymn simply states: in every clime and place. 

And I would tumble, fall, and fly. At least it feels like flying, falling at terminal velocity, speeds of 180 miles-per-hour; a slight tilt of the right hand would turn me quickly right, the left hand would turn me that direction, or I could cuff both hands inward to go forward, or outward to slow my descent. I could hunch up to slow down, or pull hands and legs in to speed up. Place hands and legs together and a missile-like nosedive results, or do flips, or spin, and so on.  By maneuvering in such a manner, a team of Marines can remain together in the sky, and even approach each other and “link up” by locking arms. I once kissed my friend Jim at 10,000-feet above the Earth.   

And as the ground gets bigger and closer, I would check my altimeter on my wrist until reaching a point to “wave off” (a flagging of the hands to warn those above me that I was about to open my chute, so they could move and not crash into me), move my right hand in to the “rip cord” at my chest (making a counter move in and over my head with the left hand, so as to remain in a stable fall and not spin out of control), then pull, rapidly thrusting both hands and arms out, up and forward, like a referee’s signal for a touchdown, tightly gripping the ripcord handle that pulls out the long, thin wire that releases the nylon flaps on the pack, allowing the small spring-loaded pilot parachute to burst free, like a jack-in-the-box, catching wind and pulling the main chute out behind by a cord. The rest, if all went well, happened rapidly – the main chute blossoms open, bringing acceleration to what seems a sudden halt, with such shock at times it once literally jerked me out of my boots over northern Norway  (I got frost bit toes after landing in socks on snow in minus-40 temperatures). And then everything would seem calm, compared to the previous rushing of wind in the ears, and I would gradually steer my way down to the ground, pull down hard on toggles to flare, pause, and land sometimes softly, sometimes hard, depending on the wind, skills and luck. 

At other times, the pilot chute might get caught in the wind pocket in the small of my back (a “snivel” we called it), so I would bang away with my elbow until it caught wind and deployed. Or the main might malfunction, which never happened to me, but if it did, I was trained to “cut away,” or release the main and open the reserve. (“No worries,” my instructor said, “If your main doesn’t open, you have the rest of your life to deploy your reserve.”)  It could sometimes take 1,000 feet or so for the main to open, if everything worked right, and another 1,000 or more to try and rectify things if it didn’t. For this reason, we had a general rule to open at 4,000 to 3,000 feet, and always, always before reaching 2,500 feet; an altitude that shows on the altimeter as red, danger zone – like the “low on gas” signal in a car, only with more severe consequences.   

About the time I was doing lots of jumps, I had a reoccurring dream: I am freefalling, enjoying the ride, when I look at my altimeter and it’s in the red zone, 2,500 feet! I wave off, reach to pull, but I have no parachute on my back. Nothing. At first I am terrified, but quickly calm down. It’s my last 2,500 feet, I figure, I may as well enjoy it. So I smile, and begin doing front flips, and back flips, and then I wake up to the dark silence of the night.

Twenty years later I felt like I finally slammed into hard-packed earth.  My father died. My wife of 14-years filed for divorce. I could no longer focus on the work I used to love, nor any of the activities I used to enjoy. I had spent much of my life feeding secret shadows of shame, guilt, anger and fear until they finally loomed large, like the monsters I imagined in my closet as a kid. I had increasing difficulty trying to resist, deny, hide and suppress my emotional and physical attraction to men. I lost all desire and passion to go on and thought, maybe sometimes it okay to quit, perhaps best to quit. I drove late one drunken night to a trailhead a few miles from my home in Missoula, Montana, to the edge of the Rattlesnake Wilderness, with a shotgun I used to hunt ducks and geese. My plan was to walk a few miles in and blow my head off. Instead, I sat in my car and cried. I thought of my son, then only three, and wondered how he would turn out. I thought of my family. I thought of my friends. I even had the twisted thought; I can hardly hit ducks with this thing. Then I thought of my dream, the last 2,500 feet.  And I thought of my maps. The maps. Maps of the wild country surrounding my home. 

For years I had studied the maps, intrigued by the notion that I could walk off my front porch in town and walk all the way to Alberta through the most remote, wild country left in the continental U.S. and only cross three main (paved) roads. It was a fantasy, a journey of the mind, until that inebriated night I drove to the trailhead with a 12-guage. At that point I thought:   

What the hell. It’s the last 2,500 feet; what do I have to lose?  



Freefall
by Dave Stalling
For years
I fed illusions
Of flying high
Until the ground grew frightenly close
Terrified, I suddenly realize
I am falling
Leaving the womb
Like leaping from a plane
Begins a tumultuous freefall
There are choices:
Remain frightened, out of control
Or get stable, and enjoy the ride
Until we meet the end
(And we will)
As sure as sky meets earth
Best to see it all now
Long before impact
While there is still time
Precious time
To enjoy an exhilarating ride
And make the most
Of the last 2,500 feet
So I will flare, flip and tumble
Through clouds and clear skies
And pretend I am flying, sometimes
Though I know better
But it still brings me joy
It’s my jump, my journey, my fall
I’ll do it as me, not to please others
Critics and skeptics be damned!
Who cares what they think?
They don’t even know
That they too
Are falling fast


For more, read "Grizzlies Made me Gay"

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Long Ago Hunter Today: Seeking Humanity in Our Wild Roots

While hunting in the remote Tatshenshini Provincial Park along the British Columbia–Yukon border, my friend Bill discovered the headless but mostly well-preserved remains of a fellow hunter, frozen for more than 550 years, who had been exposed at the foot of a melting glacier. “Kwaday Dan Sinchi,” he is called by First Nations people, “Long Ago Person Found.” His clothes were made from the skins of 100 ground squirrels. He carried dried salmon, a medicine bag and hunting tools. He likely fell into an ice crevice and froze to death. Fortunately Bill didn’t suffer the same fate, but if he did, would another hunter find him 550 years or more from now? Unfortunately few places remain as wild as the Tatshenshini, where humans can hunt as Bill and Kwaday have.

The “hunting hypothesis” of evolution suggests that hunting literally made us human in the sense that the development of tools and capabilities to kill for meat and defend against predators allowed our early ancestors to wander from the safety of trees, expand far and wide, and eventually start walking upright. Scholars debate the details, but I feel no need for evidence. I know I am a hunter and always will be. As Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux said, “When the buffalo are gone, we will hunt mice, for we are hunters.”   

Scholars debate the details, but I feel no need for evidence. I know I am a hunter and always will be. I was born a hunter, just as I was born gay. The two elements of my life are intricately woven together through nature and nurture and anchor me to my wild roots.

I particularly love elk. I spend all the time I can in elk country around my home in Montana, year-round, hiking, backpacking, and snowshoeing, observing and admiring elk. And each fall, I head into elk country with the intent to kill one. I like to think I’m a vegetarian of sorts, living off the wild grasses, sedges, and forbs that grow near my home. Most these plants are not palatable to humans, so I let elk convert them to protein for me. Perhaps someday I shall travel through the digestive system of a grizzly and fertilize the vegetation elk eat: Seems only fair considering all the elk I’ve killed and eaten.

In his essay, “A Hunter’s Heart,” Colorado naturalist and writer David Petersen summarizes it nicely:

Why do I hunt? It’s a lot to think about, and I think about it a lot. I hunt to acknowledge my evolutionary roots, millennia deep, as a predatory omnivore. To participate actively in the bedrock workings of nature. For the atavistic challenge of doing it well with an absolute minimum of technological assistance. To learn the lessons, about nature and myself, that only hunting can teach. To accept personal responsibilities for at least some of the deaths that nourish my life. For the glimpse it offers into a wildness we can hardly imagine. Because it provides the closet thing I've known to a spiritual experience. I hunt because it enriches my life and because I can't help myself … because I was born with a hunter’s heart.

From a young age, I found comfort being alone in wild places. Once, during a ten-week solo backpack trip, I watched a sow grizzly and her two cubs 100-yards or so upwind of me. She was lying down, resting, keeping watch of her young ones as they wrestled, rolled, and chased each other in the grass. The cubs ran and pounced on their mom a few times, and she nudged them away with her snout. When one cub tried to suckle her, she swatted the youngster with her powerful paw and sent the startled cub rolling. Then she got up, walked over, and reassuringly licked the cub until all seemed well in the world.

Then it struck me: I had spent so much time alone in the wilds because in the wilds I could truly be myself. In nature there are no societal-created norms, judgments, and expectations. Everything is what it is. A grizzly might judge me as a threat or feast but doesn’t care who I fall in love with and sleep with. I was drawn to the wildness and freedom of wild grizzlies while denying and suppressing my own wildness and freedom. Like the grizzlies, I am what I am. I accepted myself that day while watching those magnificent and tenacious animals. In a real way, those bears helped save my life. I am truest to my own nature in wild places among wild animals. And the more time I spend in the wilds, the less I want to be just a visitor and the more I want to be intimately connected to the wilds. So I pick and eat wild huckleberries. I catch and eat wild trout. I kill and eat wild elk.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Wildlife and wild places preserve truth of reality, of life and death, and of our primeval connection to this Earth. To deny that is to deny ourselves; to destroy it is self-destruction. To embrace, understand, and accept it is to embrace, understand, and accept our own innate nature and wildness.

But to think that hunting from an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) armed with high-power rifles, scopes, and other technology resembles our hunting ancestors is akin to thinking that an arsenal of modern semi-automatic weapons resembles our colonial Patriots armed with muskets—and somehow equivalently needed to launch a Tea-Party-like rebellion against the improbable event that our government (armed with aircraft carriers, fighter jets, tanks, drones and nuclear warheads) turns against us. We hang onto the past without grasping today’s differences. As Aldo Leopold once put it, “Our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides, but they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history, to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”

We apply space-age technology to a stone-aged pursuit.

We hunters raise money to fund state fish and game departments overseen by politically appointed commissions (made of mostly of ranchers and hunters) who too often pressure agencies to lead us away from wildlife management to something more resembling animal husbandry, with a focus on producing more elk and deer for hunters to shoot. The good news is that many hunters rally around efforts to protect what little remains of our wild places, which benefits all species—including non-hunted species and fellow predators such as mountain lions, grizzlies, and wolves. But it seems a lot more hunters want roads and ATV trails punched into our wilds; want wolves killed off because they think they’re killing all “their” deer and elk; fight against efforts to protect the wild places that sustain the wildlife we hunt; and deny the human-caused changes in climate that melts glaciers and exposes ancient hunters. Most modern-day hunters are as detached from nature as the rest of society, and so we naively, ignorantly, and sometimes maliciously kill what sustains us.

And that, too, is part of being human.

Hunting is a significant ingredient to what made and makes us human. It is also, in large part, why hunting exposes all aspects of human nature—the good, the bad, and the ugly.


Note: This essay was originally published by the Center for Humans and Nature as part of their series, "Does Hunting Make Us Human?"  Here is the link: Long Ago Hunter Today

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Of Hunting, Elk and Sex Lines

I recently pulled a few consecutive all-nighters struggling to write an overdue essay for the Center for Humans and Nature. I had (as is typical of me) procrastinated on far too long. The topic: “Does Hunting Make us Human?” I started the piece with an anecdote about a friend of mine who -- while hunting in the remote Tatshenshini Provincial Park along the British Columbia-Yukon border -- discovered the headless but mostly well-preserved remains of a fellow hunter from long ago who had been exposed at the foot of a melting glacier.  “Kwaday Dan Sinchi,” he is called by First Nations people, “Long Ago Person Found.”  

But I couldn’t remember how old the remains were.  I had written a story about it years ago for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Bugle magazine. So I decided to call my friend Dan, the magazine’s editor, to see if he could look it up for me. Since I did not have Dan’s phone number on me, I decided to call the 1-800-CALL ELK line to reach the Elk Foundation and ask the receptionist to transfer me to Dan. 

Although I spent ten wonderful years as the conservation editor of Bugle, and I think Bugle remains the finest hunting-related conservation magazine out there, I always feel a bit awkward calling them. I’ve had a falling out of sorts with the organization, and have vocally and publicly had a few strong disagreements with the current leadership, particularly with their harsh stance against wolves. I have since been banished from writing for Bugle and shunned by much of the staff.  When I call, I feel a bit like I need to do the over-the-phone, verbal equivalent of wearing a fake nose and glasses and and disguise my voice for fear they’ll hang up on me (admittedly pure paranoia on my part).  

Nevertheless some good friends I respect work there, such as Dan, and I was desperate for the information.

So I called 1-800-CALL ELK.   

Or thought I did. I was so exhausted I apparently dialed 1-800-CALL EEK.   

EEK indeed! Instead of hearing an expected, pleasant greeting from the Elk Foundation receptionist I instead heard the automated voice of woman seemingly trying to sound sexy:

“Welcome to America’s hottest talk line. Ladies: To talk to interesting and exciting guys for free, please press one now. Guys: Hot ladies are waiting to talk to you! Press two to connect for free now. Ladies: Press one now. Guys: Press two now.”

There was no option to press three for guys wanting to talk to interesting and exiting guys for free. Maybe it’s a right-wing, homophobic Christian sex line. But even so, you’d think they’d at least welcome the closeted ones among them -- and I am certain there are many.  

So I hung up. Likely a good thing; I do not need more excuses and distractions to procrastinate.

I dialed 1-800-CALL ELK again and got it right the second time around, got hold of Dan and he found the number for me. 

By the way: Kwaday died 550 years, presumably from falling in an ice-crevice while hunting -- long, long before there were 1-800-SEX lines.  

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Time to Step up and Help the Montana Gay Men’s Task Force: We Can’t Afford to Lose It!

Budget cuts could mean less opportunities
for free and anonymous HIV testing
When I first began testing the waters outside the fortified walls of my closet 13 years ago I felt scared, confused, tormented and alone. I had thoughts of suicide. I thought for sure I would drown. I recall a depressed, drunken night on a trip to Denver when I engaged in unprotected sex. In my naivety, I felt for sure I would die of AIDS. I had no one to turn to; no one to talk to.


Based in my hometown of Missoula, Montana, the Task Force is led by gay men – men who had been where I was, had felt the way I did, could relate, emphasize and provide help and support. I felt safe privately and discretely consulting with their professional and dedicated staff; I attended gay men retreats they put on; I learned about HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections and diseases; I learned about safe sex; I felt relieved to have access to free and anonymous testing the task force provides for men like me who have sex with men, conducted by men like me who have sex with men. I trusted them. I still do.

Without them, I would not be as confident and comfortable with myself as I am today. I might not even be alive.

I’m not the only one.

“It’s difficult to measure how many people we have helped, and how many diseases and infections we’ve prevented,” says Task Force Director David Herrera. “But there is no doubt that we have.”

No doubt indeed! Considering that Herrera has been involved in HIV prevention, testing and counseling for nearly 30 years I have no doubt the people he has helped, including me, number in the thousands.

Where would people like me be without the Task Force? Unfortunately, we may soon find out.

A victim of sequestration (automatic federal budget cuts put into law by the Budget Control Act of 2011) Herrera may have no choice but to reduce services such as retreats and outreach efforts. With cuts in federal funding the Task Force budget just took a $20,000 hit. And that’s the second wave of cuts. “We’ve lost 50 percent of our funding in the past 3-4 years,” Herrera says. “And we’re already operating on a bare-bones budget.”

The cuts come at a time when the Task Force has greatly expanded its cadre of well-trained counselors who provide testing, support and community-building throughout Montana, including among Two-Spirited people within indigenous Native American tribes and in rural parts of eastern Montana where diseases such as Gonorrhea are on the rise. Although sequestration is effecting organizations all over the nation rural states like Montana are experiencing the largest cuts.

“This is a time when we should be expanding our efforts, not eliminating programs,” Herrera says. “But there is limited federal dollars, so we are now cutting up the pie rather than adding to it.”

It’s a risky thing to do, and could prove costly.

“The cuts could ultimately cost more than they save in both money and lives,” Herrera says. “It’s a lot more cost effective to prevent HIV and other infections and diseases than it is to pay for treatments for people who become infected.”

What can be done? Herrera has several suggestions: Contact Senators Jon Tester and Max Baucus, and Congressman Steve Daines, and demand that federal funding for HIV prevention, testing and counseling be restored. Also contact the Montana State Health Department and Governor Steve Bullock and demand that state funding be made available for these critical programs. (Two employees of the Task Force, Chantz Thilmony and Christopher Gehring, recently received well-deserved Governor’s Awards for their tremendous outreach efforts to help prevent HIV infections in Montana).

In the meantime, personal contributions from all of us can help keep the Task Force afloat. Donations can be made through the Tasks Force’s website: www.mtgayhealth.org, or mailed to:


Montana Gay Men’s Task Force
P.O. Box 7984
Missoula, MT  59807.

I plan to make a donation as soon as I finish writing this; I urge you all to do the same. 

Let’s step up and support the organization that has long supported us. We NEED the Montana Gay Men’s Task Force!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Coming Out a Hunter

Note: This essay was part of a series of "coming out" stories for the Advocate in celebration of National Coming Out Day. It was published in the Advocate on October 10, 2013.

There is a side to me I don’t share with everyone. It’s certainly nothing I would mention on a first date. I often feel self-conscious about it, and worry others will not understand and will harshly judge me based on stereotypes.
I am a hunter.

I can understand people's disdain for hunting. As the environmental writer and activist Edward Abbey once wrote, "Hunting is one of the hardest things even to think about. Such a storm of conflicting emotion!"
I love elk. They are magnificent, mysterious and powerful animals. I spend all the time I can in elk country around my home in Montana, year-round, hiking, backpacking, snowshoeing, observing and admiring elk. And yet, each year I head into elk country with the intent to kill one.  I like to think I'm a vegetarian of sorts, living off the wild grasses, sedges and forbs that grow near my home. Most these plants are not directly palatable to humans, so I let elk convert them to protein for me. Perhaps someday I can travel through the digestive system of a grizzly and fertilize the vegetation that elk eat: Seems only fair considering all the elk I've killed and eaten. We're all part of this land.

In an indirect way, I became a hunter because I am gay. From a young age, I found comfort being alone in very remote, wild places. In the wilds, there are no societal-created norms, expectations and judgments – everything is what it is. A grizzly might judge me as a possible threat or feast, but doesn’t care who I love and sleep with. The more time I spent in the wilds, the less I wanted to be just a visitor, and the more I wanted to be intimately connected to the wilds. So I pick and eat wild huckleberries. I catch and eat wild trout. I kill and eat wild elk.

I hunt to experience a fundamental connection with nature, because we must all kill to eat, and eating elk nourished on native grasses and forbs has as low an impact on the environment as any of the alternatives. Even eating soybeans and soy-based products supports an agricultural industry that displaces and destroys wildlife habitat to grow a non-native plant, requiring irrigation, pesticides, herbicides, fossil fuels, trucks, roads and industry to be shipped around the country. Not to mention the thousands of deer and other wildlife killed to protect valuable agricultural crops.

Everything we do has consequences. Whether we choose to eat vegetables or meat, store-bought food or homegrown, cattle or venison, we all contribute to the death of animals so we can eat. I choose to eat wild elk. And the money I spend in pursuit of these wild animals, through license fees and excise taxes on hunting equipment helps protect the wild places that sustain them and sustain me. It's the most efficient, environmentally sound and sustainable way I know to live in this somewhat arid western landscape we call Montana. And the countless days and hours I spend pursuing elk through the rugged mountains in the wilderness area where I hunt have provided me with a keen understanding and awareness of these incredible animals and their habitat, which has fueled a passion for the protection of wild elk and the wild places they roam.

I am growing increasingly angry over the ongoing loss of crucial wildlife habitat from human subdivision and development; the people who want to mine and drill our last remaining wild places; the people who deny and evade critical topics such as climate change, and the people -- and a society -- that seems to put greed, profit and money above all else. Throughout the West, homes are rapidly replacing critical elk and deer winter range, calving and fawning habitat and migratory corridors. Not only elk and deer suffer, but all wildlife that depend on that habitat, including everything from wolves and trout to grizzlies and pine martens. My love for wild elk provokes a strong desire to protect their habitat; That desire is fueled, in part, by my passion for hunting and the meat that sustains me.

Hunting has a large ugly side, to be sure, which seems to be growing larger. I sometimes feel like an anti-hunter who hunts. Far too many hunters reveal a disturbing lack of knowledge of, or concern for, wildlife and wild places and actually promote efforts to erode and degrade our wildlife and last remaining wild places. They are as detached from the wilds as most Americans are, and increasingly replace knowledge, skills and effort with technology and other short cuts; They selfishly do everything and anything they can to boost their egos and overcome insecurities by killing other creatures; They fear and hate wolves, they fear and hate grizzlies, they fear and hate wilderness, they fear and hate the wilds; They fear and hate to actually hunt. They just love to kill.

I can think of no better lifestyle than roaming wildlands as a participant of nature, taking responsibility for the deaths I cause, and securing my own sustenance. In his essay, "A Hunter's Heart," Colorado naturalist and writer David Petersen summarizes it nicely:

"Why do I hunt? It's a lot to think about, and I think about it a lot. I hunt to acknowledge my evolutionary roots, millennia deep, as a predatory omnivore. To participate actively in the bedrock workings of nature. For the atavistic challenge of doing it well with an absolute minimum of technological assistance. To learn the lessons, about nature and myself, that only hunting can teach. To accept personal responsibilities for at least some of the deaths that nourish my life. For the glimpse it offers into a wildness we can hardly imagine. Because it provides the closet thing I've known to a spiritual experience. I hunt because it enriches my life and because I can't help myself . . . because I was born with a hunter's heart."