Heard around the West

by Betsy Marston

COLORADO

Whatever else you think about Aspen — wondering exactly when it ceased to be the rough mining town it once was, or marveling at the sight of men wearing fur coats so long they look like bears walking — there was always the presence of writer Hunter S. Thompson in nearby Woody Creek to suggest an underbelly of defiance, if not downright craziness. The master of fear and loathing killed himself recently and neglected to leave a note, but Newsweek sought to explain his state of mind by quoting from one of Thompson’s columns, which was published in 2003. He wrote, "I am surprised and embarrassed to be a part of the first American generation to leave the country in far worse shape than it was when we first came into it. Our highway system is crumbling, our police are dishonest, our children are poor, our vaunted Social Security … has been looted and neglected and destroyed by the same gang of ignorant greed-crazed bastards who brought us Vietnam, Afghanistan, the disastrous Gaza Strip and ignominious defeat all over the world … Big Darkness, soon come."

CALIFORNIA

"One problem with camping is that it is tough to file your taxes while sitting in a tent in the great outdoors," says the New York Times. In California, that’s no longer a problem: Eighty-five state parks will now provide wireless Internet access so that even in wilderness, the world is a laptop away. Access to anything beyond a state government site isn’t free, however; computer users will have to pay a private company $7.95 for a 24-hour pass.

MONTANA

Brian Schweitzer, a rancher, soil scientist and the first Democrat to be elected governor of Montana in 24 years, brought a breath of Western air to a recent get-together of the nation’s governors in Washington, D.C. Wearing jeans and employing some pithy barnyard expressions, Schweitzer compared the president’s effort to transform the Social Security system to "a bull market hawking lousy studs," reports the Los Angeles Times. Schweitzer said he saw more governors crinkling their noses, as if smelling a foul odor, than people nodding their head in agreement: "I didn’t see a lot of buyers in the room." Schweitzer was also skeptical that former Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, now secretary of Health and Human Services, would be an ally on getting the federal government to pay more for Medicaid, an increasingly pricey program for the states. "Once they come in and work for the ranch, they toe the company line," said Schweitzer. These days, Leavitt "seems to be riding for the president’s brand." The Washington Post added that Schweitzer almost escaped what passes for the high life in the capital until his wife put her foot down: She insisted he attend a black-tie dinner at the White House instead of going to a basketball game.

COLORADO

The boom is back in western Colorado, and nowhere so feverishly as in Vail. The Vail Daily reports that the resort town has 101 more real estate brokers — 670 — than there are properties for sale — 569. Said broker Jim McVey: "Properties don’t stay on the market very long at all. Sometimes it’s a matter of hours."

COLORADO

It’s not easy growing up in a small town, and the kids who produce a lively paper called PHAT, in Paonia, a town of 1,500 in western Colorado, know just how claustrophobic a tiny town can be. Here’s some of what made their Top 10 list for the "greatest things" about being a teenager in a place where everybody knows your name: "You don’t have to be nervous about meeting new people — you never will." They also note the extensive selection of ethnic food: "Mexican-American to American." As for nightlife, kids find lots of variety "until 5 p.m.," and teens are always sure to see a lot of their parents — especially "when you’re out on a date."

CALIFORNIA

Koko the "talking" ape is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by three women who worked for the Gorilla Foundation in the Bay area. All three say the 33-year-old lowland gorilla communicated by sign language that she wanted them to partially disrobe, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. Two women refused to take off their shirts, although one reluctantly complied with Koko’s requests, which were relayed by a female trainer. Now, all are suing the nonprofit foundation for sexual harassment, invasion of privacy and Labor Code violations, among other claims. Before the women’s lawsuit made local headlines, Koko was best known for learning some 1,000 words of American Sign Language and communicating with her trainers in complete sentences.

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.

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