Common Cause, the nation’s good-government nonprofit, celebrated its 40th anniversary recently at a party in Denver, helped mightily by the humor and smarts of Pat Schroeder. In 1972, Schroeder was the first Colorado woman to be elected to Congress, where she spent a dozen terms focusing on fiscal accountability from the military and workplace parity for women. (She tells some memorable war stories in her book, 24 Years of House Work … And the Place is Still a Mess.) Schroeder said her recent election-season tour of the country was a slog: “It’s poison out there. … I’m having almost as much fun as when I get to empty the vacuum bag.” But the now 70-year-old Schroeder, who used to sign letters with a smiley face, remains upbeat, reports the Colorado Statesman: “I found in my life there’s two kinds of people: the kind … who wring their hands about how terrible it is, and the kind of people who roll up their shirtsleeves and say let’s go get it, let’s fix it.” In Colorado, she added, the people who want to fix things abound, and “I don’t know anybody who can wring and roll at the same time.”
Imagine driving along a highway of glass that’s powered by the sun. Its solar-panel surface melts snow and lights signs from within, not to mention providing power for local utilities. The road would also feature pipes that capture storm water, sending it to filtration systems for re-use. That’s the dream of a Sagle, Idaho, couple, Scott and Julie Brusaw, who recently won the “people’s choice” award in GE’s $50,000 Ecoimagination challenge, which asked participants to build the “next-generation power grid,” reports the Spokane Spokesman-Review. Brusaw may be on a roll. Last year, he won a $100,000 Federal Highway Administration contract to build a prototype of his solar roadway, and now a 12-foot-square model is laid out in Brusaw’s shop. His website,, reveals the complexity and some of the challenges of his design, which incorporates LED lights, solar cells and heating elements hermetically sealed inside layers of glass. Still-unresolved problems involve texturing the road surface so that vehicle tires can get purchase and strengthening the glass panels to withstand the weight of 18-wheel trucks. Meanwhile, Brusaw is looking hard for more funding and dreaming big: “This is the beginning of the end of fossil fuels, we hope.”
In the good-news department, a 30-pound African turtle that escaped from its backyard in suburban Denver was found two weeks later at a feed store, having plodded for 14 miles. Her owner told TheDenverChannel.com that the tortoise, known as Lucy, chose a feed store because she was smart: “She’s like, ‘I’m not eating that outdoor crap.’ ” Seven-year-old Lucy had lost some weight during her hike but was otherwise fine.
As foreclosures increase throughout the West, ex-homeowners slamming the door on the way out sometimes abandon cats, dogs and other pets, including exotic snakes. And then there are the native snakes that slither back to reclaim their turf once the humans are gone. The variety of poisonous and non-poisonous snakes co-existing with subdivisions can make a person nervous — especially those firefighters who are called upon to “do something” to protect the neighborhood. But catching snakes takes some experience and guts, reports the Arizona Republic, and that’s why the Sun City Fire Department asked Daniel Marchand of the Phoenix Herpetological Society to conduct training exercises. Marchand brought along lots of hissing snakes in buckets and boxes and provided long metal tongs to pick up the snakes — safely. Dr. Michelle Ruha, a specialist in medical toxicology, assured the firefighters that people who get hurt often bring the fangs on themselves: “A patient was bitten on the tongue after sticking the rattlesnake in his mouth to ‘calm’ the animal,” she said. “Another patient was bitten on the face after trying to kiss a rattlesnake.”
One man’s pile of rusting metal is another man’s prized possession, at least in central Wyoming’s Natrona County. Take the 73-year-old LaSalle coupe owned by Hank Baures. The heap really doesn’t need much, he told the Casper Star-Tribune, just some new windows, new brakes, a brand-new interior, exterior paint and then some vigorous polishing to shine everything. When all that might happen is anybody’s guess; in the meantime, Baures is not happy with the county’s new found emphasis on enforcing a code that calls for homeowners to clear out unlicensed cars and other “garbage.” “They will need a long time to convince me my 1937 LaSalle is a piece of junk,” he insists. He did not comment on the state of several other vehicles he stores on his land. Other homeowners, however, think any accumulation of machinery and equipment resembles hoarding on a large scale, and they complain that the result depresses property values. County commissioners, uncomfortable at being called “the Gestapo” over the issue, say they hope to find a middle ground.
That wistful Iowa farm boy in the ads for a language-learning software called Rosetta Stone — “He was a hardworking farm boy. She was an Italian supermodel. He knew he would have just one chance to impress her” — now has an opportunity to learn Navajo, too, reports the Daily Times of Farmington, N.M. The company recently released its Navajo language-training program, the result of thousands of hours of work and hundreds of volunteers who provided expertise. More than 100,000 people speak Navajo, but the language is on the decline, with only about 50 percent of young Navajos able to speak it, according to the 2000 census. Traditionally an oral language, Navajo has an unusual syntax. For example, the translation of “The bird is sitting on a tree” is “the bird, the tree, on it, it sits.” A nonprofit called Navajo Language Renaissance spurred the Rosetta Stone software for Navajo speakers.
Ernie Atencio, who heads the Taos Land Trust, loves to visit the stunning, high-rise ruins at Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. The park is in a remote part of northwestern New Mexico at the end of a washboard road, and to most of its visitors, the rock-walled city that 5,000 people fled after prospering there for some 800 years is a fascinating conundrum. Atencio has collected some of the more perplexing questions visitors have posed over the years, but he has three favorites: “Why did the Indians always live in ruins?” “Why did they build so far from the road?” And the truly unanswerable, “How many undiscovered ruins are there?”
Idaho statehas self-published a book claiming that the income tax is unconstitutional. He is also a known thief, reports the Spokane Spokesman-Review. He stole timber from state school trust land nine years ago to build himself a log home, claiming a loophole in the law allowed him to do so. And although state courts have called his protest against paying for the timber “frivolous,” he’s fought the case three times over five years, and he insists he’s not paying court costs that have mounted to $15,500. Nevertheless, Hart is probably a shoo-in for a fourth term this November; his opponent is a write-in candidate.
The funniest picture in Montana Magazine’s profile of coffin-maker Willy von Bracht shows him and an assistant putting the cover on a casket painted to look exactly like a giant box of Marlboro cigarettes. This was a “personal project” of von Bracht, whose lively sense of humor informs his business, Sweet Earth Caskets and Cradles, founded 38 years ago in Kalispell. The motto on his van, for example, trumpets: “From the Womb to the Tomb.” Some of von Bracht’s handmade caskets are designed to be used for other purposes until needed; he’s made coffin bookshelves and coffee tables, and one casket even serves as a toolbox in his house. “I wouldn’t be caught dead without it,” he says.
But von Bracht, 64, is deadly serious about removing the funeral business from the hands of paid directors and putting decisions about embalming, burial and a memorial service back in the hands of family and friends. “What folks sometimes forget is that the religious rituals, the words spoken by friends, the eulogy, anything which can be done at a canned, funeral-home run funeral can be done, if desired, at an alternative funeral,” he says on his website, . What matters most at a service, he adds, has nothing to do with Cadillac hearses, fancy caskets or the pinstriped suits on the “transporters”; it’s people gathering to pay tribute to a loved one and to comfort one another. And rather than paying $7,300 for a funeral — the average cost of one in Montana in 2006 — he offers the bargain basement price of $200 for a recycled cardboard coffin. Surprisingly, the most expensive model at $1,400 turns out to be the “old pine box” because of its distinctive color and dramatic wood grains. Von Bracht once worked as a smokejumper and reporter for the Missoulian, but he had to become a lobbyist to crack open the funeral directors’ hold on what happens to the dead. He and members of Missoula’s University Congregational Church worked hard to change state burial regulations so that nowadays, neither embalming or coffins are required, “and bodies can be buried on private land.” Von Bracht says, “You might have a hard time selling your property later, but you can do it.”
There he was, an eight-point buck, stranded on a narrow ledge five feet above Lake Powell. What could two law enforcement officers — one from Utah, the other from the Glen Canyon National Monument — do? They didn’t want to tranquilize the mule deer, so after making it leap into the water, the two men threw two lassos over its head and wrestled the animal into a boat. “We kind of piled on him until I could finally get him hog-tied and get a blindfold on him,” Sean Spencer told the Salt Lake Tribune. Their “fishing for a buck” was successful; the deer was set free in an area without steep cliffs.
You know times are tough in Phoenix when more than 15,000 people cram into McDonald’s restaurants to apply for one of 800 to 1,000 jobs, all of them part-time and most of them minimum wage. The Arizona Republic says the success of McDonald’s new McCafe line of smoothies and frappés has spurred the restaurant chain’s growth.
To the surprise and outrage of some readers of the Mormon-owned paper The Deseret News, the tenor of its coverage of the illegal immigration debate has been reasoned, or maybe even downright liberal, reports The New York Times. But as Mark H. Willes, who runs Deseret Media for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, put it, “Everywhere we looked, the (immigration) problem just seemed substantially more complicated than the dialogue.” Willes, former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, added, “What are the two commandments? Love God and love your neighbor. These people are our neighbors — incontestably, by any definition, they are our neighbors.” Editor Joseph Cannon has taken the brunt of reader dissatisfaction, with one telling him, “You have become a dangerous newspaper, one that I am on the verge of discontinuing.”
There’s no doubt that the college town of Boulder has grown all too familiar with fire, thanks in part to those young people — and there are some 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Colorado — who have a developed a strange tradition: They ignite couches in front yards or in the street. There’s been “a steady rise in flaming furniture,” reports the Boulder Daily Camera, with this year’s total at 22 so far. We’re guessing, though, that the smoke and fear generated by the recent Fourmile blaze, which destroyed 169 homes in the Boulder foothills and sent hundreds of families fleeing for their lives, will dampen the 20-somethings’ interest in watching sofas go up in flames. Meanwhile, the Fourmile Fire revealed a new twist in how future wildfires will be fought in Boulder’s canyons. For the last three years, a New Jersey-based company has been selling private fire insurance to homeowners in 14 Western states, including Colorado. The Camera says that for a considerable chunk of change, policyholders of Chubb Wildfire Defense Services can contract for their very own firefighters, who will dash to any (insured) inferno in a fully equipped truck. Each home gets personal attention, although Chubb’s success rate during the Fourmile Fire was less than 100 percent: The 13 firefighters who provided private fire protection saved a total of 10 homes, while three burned to the ground.
A droll short story by Las Vegas native Bliss Esposito is included in a recent book aptly titled Dead Neon: Tales of Near-Future Las Vegas. Here’s the opening to “Kirby and the Portal to Hell”: “When they discovered that the portal to Hell actually was in Las Vegas, no one in town really was all that surprised. ‘I mean,’ said a local in one newscast, ‘where else would it be? I just hope it doesn’t hurt the housing market too much.’ And in fact it didn’t. After years of a steadily declining economy, entire neighborhoods going into foreclosure, banks closing left and right, major casinos laying off anyone who wasn’t locked into a union, Hell was exactly what Las Vegas needed.” Editors Todd James Pierce and Jarret Keene dedicated Dead Neon to their children, “who with any luck will not inhabit a city of dark dreams.” The book is published by the University of Nevada Press, Reno.
Baptizing stand-ins for dead people doesn’t seem like a hazardous activity, but Daniel Dastrup of Las Vegas recently sued The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for medical expenses after injuring his back performing about 200 baptisms on Aug. 25, 2007. Lowering volunteers into a pool all day apparently became arduous: “The then 25-year-old claims some of the young men and women he completely immersed in water in the name of the dead weighed as much as 250 pounds,” reports the Salt Lake Tribune. Dastrup says he wasn’t allowed a break, though he twice asked for one, and the day after he performed the baptisms, he could not sit up. A church spokesman had no comment on the case.
Noelle Lafleur, 7, who serves cups of free juice to skateboarders near the Guy Coles State Park in Ketchum, is definitely ambitious, but perhaps she has not yet mastered the finer points of capitalism. When asked why she serves juice for free instead of charging for it, Noelle told the Mountain Express that “she ‘gets more customers’ that way.”
Ranchers in Canada have found a novel way to spice up their product. In British Columbia’s Okanagan region, they’re pairing red wine with grain for their animals’ last 60 days, and yes, it seems to work. The cattle relax and “moo a lot more with each other. They get really chatty,” says Janice Ravndahl of Sezmu Meats. Actually, the booze is added in order to improve the taste of the beef, not the mood of the beef-provider. Ravndahl finds that “the marbling is finer and the fat tastes like candy.” She adds, “You don’t get any better than steak and a wine. We just start a bit earlier.”
Billings Gazette reporter Diane Cochran decided to personally test her state’s voter-initiated Medical Marijuana Act recently, timing exactly how long it took to get a doctor to recommend the use of pot. Eight minutes was the answer, courtesy of an Internet consultation, but according to the executive director of the pot-advocacy group, Montana Caregivers Network, even that was “too long.” The former surgeon Cochran spoke to failed to take a medical history, but he did offer some advice. He advised her not to smoke the marijuana she purchased — since smoking anything is unhealthy — and he recommended choosing a storefront run by people who have experience growing marijuana illegally, because they “have a lot of knowledge about it medically.” Montana’s pot permissiveness will no doubt cease in 2011, when many legislators say they’ll try to tighten up the law; meanwhile, undercover investigators say they’ve gotten licenses for medical marijuana a lot quicker than reporter Cochran. “The ones I’ve gone to, it’s been a minute,” said Mark Long, narcotics bureau chief for the state.
In other Montana news, a Missoula couple who lost their cat flew in a Feline Finders team from the East Coast “to track down the elusive puss,” reports the Missoulian. The team consisted of Rio the hound dog and handler Lisa Bukowcyzk, who says she understands why cat owners would spare no expense: “They’re their babies. Your child might have four legs and fur, but it’s still your child.” Sadly, despite a $1,000 reward and the best efforts of tracker Rio, the chances of finding Ricky, a 7-year-old Himalayan, seemed slim. The cat was a former apartment dweller who had only recently discovered the outdoors, and “when Ricky wandered away, he went west.”
A McDonald’s restaurant in Phoenix learned a valuable lesson recently, but only after an assistant manager ordered a breastfeeding mother — and her 6-month-old baby — to leave. The lesson: Don’t mess with moms! As TV reporters flocked to the restaurant, dozens of nursing mothers converged inside it to protest what they called discrimination, one telling a reporter: “A baby deserves to eat whenever mom decides to eat, and you shouldn’t have to go to a bathroom to do it.” Restaurant higher-ups later apologized, reports the Arizona Republic, promising that it would never happen again.
Columnist Steve Beauregard doesn’t get the vaunted connection between medical marijuana and Mother Nature, and he looks unfavorably on the comparison between a pharmacist in a white coat dispensing drugs and medical marijuana as a brownie ingredient: “Legitimate pharmaceuticals from a medical professional should not involve a Duncan Hines recipe,” he wrote in the Grand Junction Sentinel Weekly. But Beauregard is hardly an expert, confessing that even though he went to the University of Colorado, he never smoked pot, making him perhaps “the most boring guy to have ever lived in Boulder.” One bit of good news, he says, is that medical marijuana is “the only part of our economy that’s growing.” And once managers of pot dispensaries join the Chamber of Commerce, he predicts, the group’s ho-hum get-togethers after work will become a lot more fun.