The Trip to Salem: Southern Colorado — Chicago

The eastbound Southwest Chief, which originates in Los Angeles, rolls into La Junta, Colorado, at sunset.

A near-miss in Chicago: the sleeping car attendant had lined up everyone’s bags on the platform, which is a dimly lit.

I found my carry-on bag, rolled it into Union Station, down the corridors to Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge, and lifted it onto a shelf in the storeroom.

“Why does your bag have a Red Cap tag?” M. asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I didn’t ask for that.”

It was not my bag.

I was just explaining the mix-up to the lounge superintendent when she spotted a man checking in at the door with . . . a silver carry-on bag.

He had kindly brought it for me from the train. He thought it was his.

All praise to Hermes for the quick save.

Last Chance for Chiles


Saturday the 14th — the last chance to eat some chile colorado before heading east for New England cooking. (Tres Margaritas, Pueblo.).

But . . . today’s Amtrak breakfast menu featured a quesadilla of sorts, making that the first time that I had been served green chiles on the train.

A Fire at the Castle

Engine 2, our older brush truck.

It is 5:39 a.m., and the computer-generated voice on the telephone is saying, “We need a response to Bishop’s Castle — report of a structure fire.”

I pull on my jeans and scamper down to the garage. “Structure fire”—that means bunker gear, and so on go the heavy rubber boats, bulky pants with their suspenders, helmet, and the rest.1)Since I live some distance from the fire station, I keep three sets of protective gear at home: bunker gear, lighter “interface gear,” and wildland gear — the Nomex yellow-and-green combination you see on every forest fire. The radio is crackling as the other volunteer firefighters check in with the sheriff’s dispatcher.

Ten minutes later I am behind the wheel of the second engine leaving the station, red and blue lights flickering in the darkness.2)Normally the minimum is two firefighters per engine, but someone else will be meeting me on-scene. No one else is on the road. The lights bounce off reflective road signs, rocks, and snow — it’s my own private rave, minus the music.

The castle, for so it is, perches at the far edge of our 110-square-mile service area, which is mostly forested mountains. In a slow, top-heavy vehicle, it is at least a 40-minute drive, up a canyon, over one divide, down the other side (watch your speed on the switchbacks!), up over another, down again, and up a long pull to the destination ridge.

Firefighters confer in front of the castle, which is untouched.

On the scene, I see that the hand-built stone castle is untouched, as is its gatehouse (complete with portcullis.). The fire has destroyed a two-story stone-and-wood house built in the early 1960s and now used mainly as a gift shop (lots of swords) as well as a small adjacent cabin.

The first department there had come a shorter distance, maybe 20 miles (all uphill), but now the fire is knocked down and they are out of water.3)No hydrants in the woods. They are outside their service district, but have come under the principle of “mutual aid.” Nevertheless, they arrived too late to do more than spray the ruins.4)Visit any rural fire department, and you will hear someone say, “We never lost a foundation yet.”

So we take over, supplied by a county Road & Bridge Dept. water truck — all the messy work of moving debris to extinguish fire underneath or inside it, knocking down parts of the porch roof that were still actively on fire, spraying down some fir trees that were slightly scorched, doing what we had to do.

Metalwork on the towers shows Jim Bishop’s artistry.

And Then Things Got Mythic

Bishop’s Castle (or Bishop Castle) has nothing to do with warlike prelates. It’s more like a  Renn Faire setting without a fair. (That happens up north, closer to the Denver-plex.)

It is the work of one man, Jim Bishop, a Pueblo maker of ornamental ironwork, who has worked on it off and for 40 years. (You can read the history here.)

The style is not medieval-defensive but romantic fantasy, all arches and soaring towers, complete with a giant dragon’s head on top.

Through the death of a son in a tree-felling accident in the late 1980s, through serious illness suffered by both him and his wife, Phoebe, through disputes with all levels of government, he has persisted.

People love it. They love Jim’s story with its whiff of outlawry. They like the by-donation admission too. They shoot bazillions of photographs and put them online. They come from out of state to be married there. They buy swords and daggers in the gift shop — or did until Wednesday.

I posted some photos on the fire department’s Facebook page, and they got hundreds of comments, nearly 1,500 shares, and allegedly reached more than 147,000 readers. People love the castle.

Even in a democracy, there is something about a castle. If you crave a “safe space,” there it is. Is it the archetypal family home, where the parents are the benevolent monarchs?

Jim Bishop is a little rough around the edges. Just search “YouTube for “Jim Bishop + rant.

I walk past one of the extra buckets for his skid loader, on which was painted, “YOUR SCUMBAG COUNTY” — and then the rest of the inscription was painted over in a different color. Someone trying to protect his reputation?

A sheet of plywood at the gatehouse was daubed with a rant that began, “Fire bans violate human rights!”5)Or words to that effect. The sheriff had imposed one a few days earlier, when we were having one Red Flag Warning after another. Had the fire happened five days earlier, before the snow, it might have jumped the highway and gone who knows where.

As we work, the undersheriff and a deputy are looking around. The deputy says that the people who reported the fire were “hinky.”6)Also, he said they made a cell phone video of the fire before driving off to find a cell phone signal. Twenty-first century priorities!

He is intrigued by a set of car keys lying on an old generator, and points out a set of tracks that go up to a propane grill behind the castle, walked around, and then came back down. He thinks someone might still be in the area. “Watch your six,” he advises.

That was comforting. And then we do hear two far-off rifle shots, and it is not hunting season.

But despite the deputy’s efforts to create a scenario where the fire was started by some sort of “transients” warming themselves at a different propane grill on the gift-shop porch, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation arson team that came later gave their opinion thus: “Probably electrical.”

I don’t know how this fits with the romantic-fantasy castle image, but there is something “hinky” about that area. Maybe it needs a feng-shui treatment. Maybe it’s just Jim Bishop’s sometimes-chaotic energy.7)In an alternative reality, I think he could be one of those “sovereign citizen” types who dies in a shoot-out with federal marshals.

Even though visitors park right on the highway in plain sight, every summer there are reports of car break-ins. Since no one lives nearby year-around, the criminals must be driving up there themselves and parking there too. Yet they are never caught.

That stretch of highway seems to attract every cut-rate Bonnie and Clyde who want to “head for the mountains” — and it eats motorcycles —  but those are other stories.

I am still learning the energies of these mountains.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Since I live some distance from the fire station, I keep three sets of protective gear at home: bunker gear, lighter “interface gear,” and wildland gear — the Nomex yellow-and-green combination you see on every forest fire.
2. Normally the minimum is two firefighters per engine, but someone else will be meeting me on-scene.
3. No hydrants in the woods.
4. Visit any rural fire department, and you will hear someone say, “We never lost a foundation yet.”
5. Or words to that effect.
6. Also, he said they made a cell phone video of the fire before driving off to find a cell phone signal. Twenty-first century priorities!
7. In an alternative reality, I think he could be one of those “sovereign citizen” types who dies in a shoot-out with federal marshals.

Fire, Fortune, and Fate

The Southern Rockies are in a drought, and fire season has come early to Hardscrabble Creek.

The alarm came on Monday, and as usual, the “fog of war” (which applies in wildland firefighting too) descended rapidly.

I am part of a little rural volunteer department — secretary of the board of directors, sometimes an engine boss, sometimes just a guy with a tool in his hand.

The computerized voice on the telephone said that there was a brush fire at the intersection of County Road ••• and Highway ••. The trouble is, the county road intersects the highway twice, about two miles apart. Which one was I going to?

Dressed in interface gear (for warmth, mainly), I called the dispatcher on my radio.1)The trouble is, the dispatchers all live up in the county seat, and they don’t know the roads in my part of the county very well. “Upper end,” she said.

M. heard me repeat that as I went out the door. Unfortunately, she did not hear the Dispatch supervisor correct the location to “lower end” as I drove away, which meant she was panicked that the fire was upwind from our house. And although I called her ten times, once I could break away for a moment, even landline calls were not getting through due to to an overloaded network. (Thanks, Century Link.)

Two of our engines were coming, but being closer, I arrived first. Some neighbors were poking at the fire with shovels, but two houses and a detached garage were in its path. Tense voices on the radio told me of the engines’ progress — it is a three-mile pull uphill from the station, and diesels don’t warm up fast.

Send the brush truck up high to “attack from the black,” I told them, and bring the tactical tender (which pumps a lot more water) down to the county road.2)Some people would call that a “tanker,” but out here we use Forest Service lingo: “Tankers fly, and tenders roll”

They did so, and before long, Chad D. was dragging a hose uphill toward the flaming oak brush behind the garage, two other volunteers assisting, while I started the pump and charged the line. In moments, our fortunes changed. We saved all the structures — and we looked good when “mutual aid” engines from two neighboring departments arrived twenty minutes later.

With the chief on the scene, I could call the dispatcher and say, “The incident commander is now Chief M., and his call sign is XXX.” Big relief.

The incident dragged into the night, and the waxing Moon was rising. Standing on that hillside, I could see scars from other fires. At least 33,000 acres have burned within a mile of my home since 2005.3)That is to say, one edge of the fire was a mile away or closer.

We have been fortunate, M. and I, but there is a psychic toll. When I went home on a supper break, she was a bundle of nerves, not sure if she was supposed to evacuate (for the third time) or not.  Dog(s) . . . computers . . . favorite boots . . . we know the drill.

The Wheel of Fortune. From Two Graces Gallery, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico

On the file cabinet near my desk, attached by a magnet on its back, is this rusty sardine can-and-glitter icon of the Tarot card of the World. And on the iTunes playlist when I started writing was Dead Can Dance’s “Fortune Presents Gifts Not According to the Book” (linked at the top).

I think that song is profound in a Pagan way.

Obviously, as a Pagan I do not buy into the Heaven & Hell model of the cosmos. I was exposed to the pop-culture version of Karma a long time ago, and while I think there is something to it (“The Universe rewards a right action” — does it?), you cannot look at karma as a savings account where you deposit good deeds and withdraw good fortune.

And Fortune. Or Fate(s), if you prefer. Even the gods submit to the Fates.

Driving towards the fire, I was thinking, “Is this another big one?” No, it was not. But what about the one that will come after it?

I’m a Pagan, and there is no miraculous Savior. We go out there and do our best, but even the gods submit to Fate. Meanwhile, as one of the Old Ones said,

Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.

Thought must be the harder, heart the keener
Spirit shall be more — as our might lessens.4)In a military situation, I suppose that that is what you say after you call in an air strike on your own position.

Four volunteers and a brush truck versus fire and wind. That’s my lying-awake-at-4 a.m. worry about how it goes.

O Fortuna velut luna statu variabilis,
semper crescis aut decrescis.

The Moon rises as we walk through the burnt brush, squirting embers with a hose or breaking up a smoldering stump with a pulaski tool.

How long can this life go on?

Notes   [ + ]

1. The trouble is, the dispatchers all live up in the county seat, and they don’t know the roads in my part of the county very well.
2. Some people would call that a “tanker,” but out here we use Forest Service lingo: “Tankers fly, and tenders roll”
3. That is to say, one edge of the fire was a mile away or closer.
4. In a military situation, I suppose that that is what you say after you call in an air strike on your own position.

A View of Hardscrabble Creek

The real Hardscrabble Creek

Last summer, when we had some flooding on Hardscrabble Creek, I sent a video to a friend in England, who replied that he had assumed that “Hardscrabble Creek” was a literary invention.

Not so. I have a simple and literal mind, I will admit that.

The green trees are ponderosa pine. But are they the scopulorum variety or brachyptera? Since I consider myself a Southwesterner residing in the former imperial province of Nuevo México, I vote for the latter. (This map supports me.)

Pentagram Pizza: The Second Generation

1. I like to point out Pagan writers who are doing more than “how-to” writing, so click over and read Kallisti’s piece on “Some Reflections on Being Second Gen Pagan/Polytheist.”

Most of the issues boil down to how different it is to grow up within something versus convert to it. Unlike many adult converts, I had to deal with religious bullying in the rural Midwest as a child.

2. Norse settlers cut down most of Iceland’s sparse woodlands. Restoring them appears to be harder than it is in other ecosystems. Note to the New York Times, “Viking” is a job description, not an ethnicity.

3. Last weekend M.’s and my old home of Manitou Springs held its annual coffin races. They started right after we moved away, but we met in Manitou, bought our first slightly-more-than-tiny house there, and have lots of memories.

The [Manitou Springs Heritage Center]  will be the starting point of “ghost tours” featuring “spirit guides” who will show people around town for 45 minutes, stopping at sites where actors will play out tales of the colorful past.

“Manitou was full of witchcraft,” [Jenna[ Gallas says. “Not that it is anymore, but I think people still like to believe ooky-spooky happens here, and if we’re gonna celebrate Halloween, we’re gonna do it in Manitou, where the freaks come out every day.”

What is this “was,” Ms. Gallas? Yes, we did our part in the 1980s. Rituals upstairs in the Spa Building? You bet. Rituals outdoors downtown around the mineral springs? Those too. I have to think that someone else has carried on!

4. The obligatory pre-Hallowe’en news feature, this one from the NBC affiliate in Washington, DC.

Images of witches being veiled in darkness, casting spells over cauldrons endure, but a new generation of Wiccans and witches have established growing communities in D.C. and across the country.

Yada, yada. But this good:

“[Hallowe’en is] a celebration of the witch. You can have sexy witches, you can have scary witches, but it’s still a celebration of the witch. Even if the witch isn’t shown in a positive light,” said Stephens, a 37-year-old Wiccan who also practices witchcraft.

Hey, Baby, What’s Your Sign? Want to Check Out my Van?

It is a fact in journalism that some things never get old. Stories about today’s young people are evergreen: Are they hopeless screw-ups? Do they possess a brilliant new world-saving vision? Or both? Or neither?

Live long enough, and everything recycles, like platform shoes (they were popular in the 17th century too, not that I remember that far back). Here is a piece on “Why millennials are ditching religion for witchcraft and astrology.”

Astrology has been debunked by numerous academic studies, but Banu Guler, co-founder of artificial intelligence powered astrology app Co—Star said the lack of structure in the field is exactly what drives young, educated professionals to invest their time and money in the practice.

Take out the word “app,” and that sounds like the early 1970s to me, another “tumultuous political time” (Vietnam War, resignation of President Nixon, etc.)

And speaking of the Seventies, when I knew people who did it, here is a snarky piece in the New York Post titled “Meet the pretentious millennials who romanticize living in vans.”

Twenty-four years ago, calling your car home was Plan Z. Now it’s a generation’s greatest aspiration.

Copiously illustrated with photos of beautifully restored VW campers, both air-cooled buses and water-cooled Vanagons, the article would produce a predictable result from M., who still laments that we sold the 1984 Vanagon camper that we owned from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.

“I could put it up by myself!” she would say. #Vanlife.

And so she could, but the only mechanic in Nearby Town who would work on fiddly European fuel-injection systems had been about to retire.1)He was a treasure, though, and people knew it. I would walk into his shop, where the radio was always on the classical music station, and there would be an Aston-Martin or a Maserati. “I had no idea that anyone in [Blank] County owned one of these!” I would say. “Oh yeah,” he would reply.

So I sold the Vanagon to a guy up in Fort Collins, thanks to the Internet, and got something with four-wheel-drive. Volkswagen did make an all-wheel-drive Vanagon, the Synchro, and while fishing in the mountains last June I found a nicely restored example parked at a trailhead.

I complimented the owner on his van, and he launched into a list of all the systems on it that he had rebuilt. “You have to be a mechanic,” he said.

No, thanks. On the old VWs, maybe. Nowadays I do some work on my old Jeep CJ-5, and everything else goes to the pros.

If you hanker after an older VW bus or Vanagon, I think the the place to be is New Mexico, where both they and people who will work on them seem to end up.

And, since you asked, Gemini.

Notes   [ + ]

1. He was a treasure, though, and people knew it. I would walk into his shop, where the radio was always on the classical music station, and there would be an Aston-Martin or a Maserati. “I had no idea that anyone in [Blank] County owned one of these!” I would say. “Oh yeah,” he would reply.

Happy Independence Day & Blessed Be


The Stars and Stripes, a Colorado craft beer, and a Ripley’s witchcraft museum goblet. This is actually the summer solstice celebration, I reckon, delayed two weeks.

I’m kicking back after driving one of my department’s fire trucks in Nearby Town’s 4th 0f July parade. Here is a picture of one of the units pre-parade. Kids and an early Farmall Cub. You couldn’t pose that.

What Is Wrong with Large-Scale Ritual?

Maypole procession at Colorado’s Beltania festival, 2011. (Photo by Robin Vinehall.)

When it comes to large-scale ritual, the traditional Wiccan circle does not scale up well. It was made for a small-group mystery religion, where twelve or thirteen people really is the maximum.1)OK, maybe up to twenty or so, but that is more than enough, especially if they are skyclad and all waving athames.

That Wiccan circle, as far as I can tell, was based on the magic circle of the ceremonial magician, designed to hold one, maybe two, possibly three individuals—but usually just one. And as many teachers will tell you, the magician’s circle was supposed to give the Bad Stuff out, whereas the Witches’ circle is supposed to keep the Good Stuff in.

But like a balloon that can be inflated only so far before it pops, the magic circle seems to lose cohesion when it grows too big. Its fabric tears, and, for all I know, the Good Stuff leaks out.

It may still worth with large groups as a way for a maximum number of people to have a good look at some theatrical event happening in the center. Make a son et lumière production out of calling the Quarters—that helps when you have a large outdoor gathering.

On the negative side, I have attended large rituals where people brought folding chairs to sit in because they knew that they would wait a long time for anything to happen—for the oracular priest to make it around to where they sat, for instance. It was deathly dull.

Last month at the Heartland festival, held at a 160-acre site with a network of internal gravel roads, I saw a small procession passing ahead of one of the main evening rituals. I perked up at that, but the participants were more like camp criers: “Come to the ritual.”

No no no no no. The procession should BE the ritual—for most people. That is when you bring the gods out of the temple and take them down the street. It’s interactive, and it involves the bodies of the participants. Let everyone join in! Consider what is done in India or in Catholic countries and urban neighborhoods on certain saints’ days.2)Saints, gods, what’s the difference. We are trying to raise energy.

Instead of the procession being a warm-up act, I modestly suggested to two members of the Sacred Experience Committee (in other words, the ritual producers), it should be the Main Event. Idols! Musicians! Costumes!

If a more conventional ritual follows, that’s fine, but don’t expect everyone to come. But bring the procession past their campsite and entice them to join it because it is loud, colorful, and physical.

I remember one New Mexico festival in the late 1980s where the rituals were pretty good—maybe because the group was not too huge. But then one evening a handfasting was announced, and the campers spontaneously grabbed torches and lanterns and drums and flutes and processed behind the officiants to the site—and there was more “juice” in that procession than in the official circle-style ritual.

I’ve attended a few Pueblo Indian rituals since my dad used to drag me down to Zuni when I was three, and I have noticed something: The tribes don’t expect everyone to participate. The specialists—the appropriate religious society or priesthood—will perform both the hidden parts and the public parts—dances and so on. Many people will just be spectators. The important thing is that the ritual is performed for everyone’s benefit, whether they pay close attention or are off seated on an adobe wall eating watermelon or chatting up a potential romantic partner.

Likewise the old-time Pagans had used processions as a major large-group activity. Sometimes they ended, for example, at a sacrificial altar, and then the specialists took over. (Everyone ate later.) They did not make everyone sit in rows inside a temple—most activity took place outside the temple. Making you stand or sit around indoors while the specialists do their thing is the Christians’ mistake.3)Yes, the liturgical churches—Orthodox, Catholic, fancy Anglican—will give you visualization exercises etc. to do during the service, and there are postural changes—sitting, standing, kneeling—in some churches, but it is not what I would call movement.

Right now, we are in the middle of summer festival season in the US and elsewhere. Tell me what you see. Are people getting away from the “Let’s just make a big ol’ circle and call the Quarters” model? There has to be something that works better.

Notes   [ + ]

1. OK, maybe up to twenty or so, but that is more than enough, especially if they are skyclad and all waving athames.
2. Saints, gods, what’s the difference. We are trying to raise energy.
3. Yes, the liturgical churches—Orthodox, Catholic, fancy Anglican—will give you visualization exercises etc. to do during the service, and there are postural changes—sitting, standing, kneeling—in some churches, but it is not what I would call movement.

The Story of Three Athames

I have owned three athames in my life — or more precisely two athames plus a new knife that may well become one.

There is a story in here of changing Craft practice.

Actually, the first athame was simply my wooden-handled Mora hunting knife, not in the photo.1)Those wooden (birch?) handle models are long gone, replaced with synthetics. Mora knives still give good value for the price. I cleaned the first deer that I ever killed with it, and it still rides in one of my daypacks.

1 — Then one February 28th in my mid-twenties, I went rabbit hunting on the Pike National Forest west of my home in Manitou Springs, Colorado. I know it was February 28th because that is the last day of the season, and I wanted to get out one more time.

As I recall, I saw no rabbits, but while walking through the woods I found an antler-handled knife.2)Made in Spain by Muela. Of course I picked it up. Of course (being a relatively new Pagan) I thought it was a sign. Some god or daemon had given me a ritual knife — terrific!

I walked on — and then I found a cup — an aluminum cup of the kind that come with campware cooking sets.

“This is too much!” I thought. “Where is the pentacle?” (No need to ask about a wand; I was in the forest, after all.)

No pentacle appeared, but I felt somehow honored all the same. The gods or simply the universe had tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You’re in.”

That knife was my athame for several years, and I will still use it sometimes; otherwise, since it takes an edge, it makes a good “white-handled knife.”

2 — But a new teacher entered my life, and he had different ideas about how magic worked. He and some engineer buddies postulated that maybe magical energies were on the electromagnetic spectrum . . . somewhere. They experimented with psionic “machines” that were said to amplify mental energies, psychic healing, fields of protection, and so on.

He suggested removing all ferrous metal from the ritual circle, and — if you were indoors — turning off the electric power for the duration.

So I had to replace the stainless steel (inox) athame. The high priest of my coven (a different person) found me a piece of very hard bronze. I took it to the HP of another coven, who was also an SCA fighter and an armorer — I would put his articulated steel gauntlets, for example, up against any from the 14th or 15th centuries.

He ground and polished this bronze billet into a full-tang leaf-shaped blade. The crystal in the hilt was my addition — it might help, who knows?

I made some other changes in my practice, becoming more aware of bodily energy flows. And I just liked the idea of bronze. Ah, the Bronze Age. Thuban was the North Star, and those were Shining Times.

Ritual. Long memories,
houses built on poles,
mountains, glaciers, trading parties
of tattooed men and women, faience beads,
packs filled with poppies, tin, and amber
threading through a pass.
Hammered bronze knives. Helen,
mixing her potions,
the blue Aegean stretching
like a storyteller’s breath.

Dale Pendell, Pharmako/Poeia, Revised and Updated:
Plant Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft

Maybe that was not what my teacher had in mind, but it is where I drifted.

3 — Last year at Yule M. gave me a flint knife. I know where she bought it, at a trade fair in Taos, New Mexico3)Where, coincidentally, I am writing this blog post, and it was made just down the road by Charlie Acuña of The Stone Edge (say it). For three months it has been sitting on my desk while I think about it.

But where has my practice been heading? More and more to the local level. I have written a little about paying attention to Tlaloc, our regional god of the hydrological cycle, for example. I’ve been working with volunteer crews to clear fallen logs and other debris from Hardscrabble Creek, before the run-off from a large burn scar upstream causes flooding in our communities, which gives me plenty of time to think about the spirit of the creek while adjusting the saw chain tension.

Am I moving backwards from the Bronze Age now? It’s all just dreams and talking to the plants and animals. Doing certain feral things. Letting so much fall away.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Those wooden (birch?) handle models are long gone, replaced with synthetics. Mora knives still give good value for the price.
2. Made in Spain by Muela.
3. Where, coincidentally, I am writing this blog post