Artist Phil Kunz recalls seeing a vending machine filled with tiny art a few years ago, and the vision stayed with him; now, he’s created one for the former mining town of Butte. Kunz first had to track down an out-of-date cigarette vending machine; then, he enticed fellow artists to help decorate it to make it look like a spacecraft. Thus was Pac-O-Art born. For just $5, customers at the Butte-Silver Bow Art Center can now receive instant delivery of signed art ranging from jewelry and magnets to very small paintings — anything that can be squeezed into a 2-by-3 1/2 inch box. The Montana Standard says the vending-machine concept was pioneered in 1997, by North Carolina artist Clark Whittington (artomat.org). Whittington says he was inspired by the "Pavlovian reaction people often have when hearing the clunk, clunk of a vending machine."
Many Western cities love big-box stores like Wal-Mart because they generate sales tax income, which is why officials dangle subsidies to lure out-of-area companies. In recent years, reports Governing magazine, Phoenix has promised more than $300 million in incentives. But now, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon has had a change of heart and wants the practice to stop. "It’s destructive," says the mayor, "it’s shortsighted, and I say, close the public checkbook on these projects and let the market dictate where retail development goes." He also asks: Why should governments end up "subsidizing and incentivizing $7-an-hour jobs?"
The English Department of San Jose State University continues to encourage purple prose in its annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Every year, wanna-be writers are asked to submit the first sentence of a novel so overwrought it rivals one of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s turgid novels, which begins: "It was a dark and stormy night …" Here’s a winner: "The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, crept along the greensward, and with sickly fingers, pushed through the castle window, revealing the princess, hand at throat, gazing in horror at the sated and sodden amphibian beside her, disbelieving the magnitude of the frog’s deception, screaming madly, ‘You lied!’ "
Some boys should not be left alone in the woods. The Park Record reports that the state of Utah and the federal government have sued the Boy Scouts of America for a total of $14 million, because a blaze some Scouts allegedly started in the Uinta Mountains charred 14,200 acres in 2002. The overnight trip of some 20 Scouts, between the ages of 11 and 14, was sponsored by the Peoa Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but no adult from the church accompanied the youngsters the night of the fire. The Scouts were working toward merit badges in wilderness survival.
Off-road vehicle drivers at a Sierra Nevada lake badly need potty-training. El Dorado County recently declared a state of local emergency, because human poop and toilet paper dot the landscape "like daisies," says the county’s environmental official, Jon Morgan. In July, the county and the U.S. Forest Service closed the area surrounding Spider Lake for 120 days, and began a "public toilet-training campaign," reports the Sacramento Bee. The campaign’s goal is convincing jeepers to use portable toilets and haul their waste away. As many as 800 people drive their vehicles to Spider Lake in a day, and pit toilets don’t work on its granite terrain.
Thanks to researcher John Winnie Jr., we now know that bull elk in the northwest part of the Yellowstone ecosystem are "oblivious to danger at dinnertime." So oblivious, it seems, they’re more vulnerable than cow elk are to attacking wolf packs. Winnie, a doctoral student at Montana State University in Bozeman, said researchers used to think the bulls ignored wolves because they were "the big, bad dudes in town. Wolves aren’t going to mess with them." Instead, Winnie found that bull elk are starving, having lost more than 100 pounds between September and November, and they’re eating as fast as they can to bulk up for winter. Cow elk are in better shape, so they "put down their forks and become vigilant when they sense wolves."
Betsy Marston is editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. Tips of Western oddities are always appreciated and often shared in the column, Heard around the West.