Heard around the West


What does the well-dressed park ranger wear to work at Yellowstone National Park? A gas mask, of course, if the work station is at the park's western gate. Especially on dead-calm winter days, a pall of pollution awaits staffers as they deal with up to 1,200 snowmobilers idling their gaseous engines. The Clinton administration tried to ban private snowmobiles and their exhaust from the park. But when the Bush team moved into the White House, snowmobile manufacturers and the tourist town of West Yellowstone, Mont., found a friendlier reception. So while the Park Service reassesses how to weigh employee health vs. economic development in the rural West, park staffers have taken to suiting up. The respirators, reports Associated Press, help combat sore throats, burning eyes, drippy noses and a job that Ashea Mills told the Washington Post has become a nightmare: "It's chaos. It's loud. It's smelly. It's dangerous ... it's just too much." Twenty employees have requested gas masks.

Here's a tidbit for the venerable Ripley's "Believe it or Not." A Texas man faces up to 20 years in prison for shooting his girlfriend because he thought she was about to say "New Jersey." The man, Thomas Ray Mitchell, 54, was known to come unglued when the name of the Garden State was uttered in his presence, reports Associated Press. Relatives said mentioning "Wisconsin," "Mars," and "Snickers" could also send him over the edge.

Ruth Stoneman must believe strongly in thrift and in the adage: Crime does not pay. She was standing at the counter of Moscow, Idaho's U.S. Bank recently, helping her two sons empty their piggy banks, when a man began to hold up the bank. Stoneman went into action, yelling out to another son just walking in - 12-year-old Nate - to run and call 911. After he took off, she grabbed one of her son's piggy banks and lunged at the robber, but as luck would have it, Stoneman collided with a customer instead. The Lewiston Morning Tribune reports that in the commotion the robber managed to escape. One thing he's probably learned: When you're trying to pull a caper, don't mess with Ruth Stoneman.

John Krist, a columnist for California's Ventura County Star, just couldn't believe the righteous indignation. People have been railing against an Alaskan company's proposal to tap rivers in Northern California, then ship the water south to San Diego in gigantic bladders, hauled by tugboats. Krist found himself wondering why this was any more absurd, say, than what California has already accomplished. Towing water in sea-going sacks, he points out, may not be cost-efficient, but what water project in California has ever made economic or environmental sense? The state built a dam in a national park (Yosemite), flooded a magnificent valley (Hetch Hetchy), then shipped the water by a 155-mile aqueduct to San Francisco. Krist also asks, "What could be more preposterous than forcing a huge man-made river to flow nearly 2,000 feet uphill to cross the Tehachapi Mountains and deliver snowmelt from the Mother Lode to Los Angeles?" Compared to these hare-brained schemes that allowed California to boom, he says, "Hauling a bag of water through the ocean seems a model of technological restraint."

Unintentionally funny headlines in a newspaper, such as "Red tape holds up new bridge," are always a kick to spot. But editors flinch when they read wrongheaded headlines they've allowed to get printed, such as these examples collected by the Columbia Journalism Review: "Miners refuse to work after death," "Stud tires out," "Drunk gets nine months in violin case," and, "Kids make nutritious snacks."

Would you like to have legs as tough as nails? Just try sand-skiing, an aerobic sport invented by Bill Koch, 45, the first American to win an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing. Koch taught some of his sandy techniques to 14 very pale Alaskans on Molokai, the most rural of the Hawaiian Islands. He told the swimsuited skiers to scout the thin film of water that waves leave behind, then chase behind on skis. Koch says the land-skiers get in some good runs on the island's skiable beach, reports the Anchorage Daily News. The conditioning part, he adds, is humping back up the beach to catch the next retreating wave.

Edward Albee is a prolific playwright (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and he's still going strong, but the Boulder, Colo., public library apparently thinks he's extended his reach to books about the American West. According to a library flyer, a discussion group was getting ready to tackle The Monkey Wrench Gang "by Edward Albee."

Livestock fascinate the British artist Damien Hirst. He chainsaws cows lengthwise, preserves them in formaldehyde and seals each half of an animal in transparent acrylic. His conceptual art was a big hit in New York, though some visitors muttered about the smell. These days Hirst has moved on to garbage. In London, Hirst created art by strewing the floor of a pricey art gallery with cigarette butts, empty beer bottles and other debris. The "work" was valued at six figures, and visitors thronged the opening. But the next day, the gallery director told the New York Times,"We realized that someone had come through and, well, sort of tidied up." Far from being upset, the artist said he found the swept-up state of his art "hysterically funny," and working from photographs, the gallery restored his intended chaos.

Betsy Marston is editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. Quirky or humorous Western doings - the definition remains loose - can be e-mailed to her at [email protected].

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