Heard around the West

  • Which way did that raft go?

    Greg Woodall


Life in southern Texas can get pretty boring if you’re a 20-something National Guardsman sent to patrol the dusty border with Mexico. Three guardsmen recently found life so dreary that they picked up their weapons, jumped in their vehicle and headed out for a joyride. They failed to find much action until they drove into a subdivision and spotted an outdoor barbecue — whereupon they alarmed folks at dinner by firing their guns in the air. Maverick County Sheriff Tomas Herrera was remarkably tolerant of the bad behavior, reports The Associated Press. "There ain’t much to do in this town," he explained. "Either you can go to the local bar and play some pool and drink some beer, go to the local casino, or go across the border." The guardsmen, part of President Bush’s "Operation Jump Start," face felony charges.


That ultra-serious watchdog of the press, Columbia Journalism Review, encourages readers to chortle or wince at headline mistakes culled from newspapers around the nation. The best (or worst) are collected in a column called "The Lower Case." Recently, two Northwestern papers provided some shudders: From Washington, the Olympian’s headline read: "President takes straddling stance on national tongue," and from Portland, an Oregonian story was puzzlingly headlined: "Inmates locked up longer, but few rejoice." The 45-year-old magazine offers a $25 reward to readers who spot heads that mangle and malaprop.


A sweet-smelling earthworm, 3 feet long, would be a wondrous sight to behold, although hardly anyone has seen it since Driloleirus americanus was discovered in 1897. But the pink worm, long thought to be extinct, was seen again last year in the rich farming soils of the Palouse region along the Idaho-Washington border, spotted by a graduate student at the University of Idaho. Conservationists now want emergency protection for the animal under the Endangered Species Act. As worm defender Steve Paulson says: "What kid wouldn’t want to play with a 3-foot-long, lily-smelling, soft pink worm that spits?"


If ever a house screamed for a makeover, it’s the rundown property that Lyman and Jeanine Hepworth bought in the tiny town of Wilford, in eastern Idaho. As AP put it, the couple knew the place needed tons of work, "but they never thought they’d need a snake charmer." It seems that non-poisonous garter snakes — thousands of them — had already chosen the fixer-upper as their den for the winter. The snakes headed for the property when the temperature dropped, slithering together into giant balls to conserve heat. "When it warmed up, we walked onto the yard, and the whole yard moved," Jeanine Hepworth told the Rexburg Standard Journal. The awakened snakes turned up in unexpected places: When her husband pulled a cord to turn on a light, he grabbed a snake dangling from the ceiling; when he opened the door to an outbuilding, hundreds of snakes fell on his head. The Hepworths have never moved in. But though the seller of the snake sanctuary has offered a refund, the couple isn’t interested: They’ve videotaped their visitors crawling in and out of the house and balling up, and they’ve sent the snake show on to the makers of Extreme Home Makeover. Next year, they will find out if their "fix-up challenge" intrigues the television show’s producers.


Joe Jepson, who lives seven miles northeast of Silverton in western Colorado, says that every year, a few all-terrain vehicles wander onto his property. He points out his no-trespassing signs, and usually the drivers retreat. But last month, after Jepson saw two men "spinning doughnuts in wetlands and raising hell," the encounter turned ugly. "One guy just hit the throttle and ran into me," Jepson told the Durango Herald. Jepson was thrown 25 feet, breaking his leg. Jepson said the second ATVer initially asked him if he needed a ride, but then took off after his friend. Jepson faces surgery; the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office is still seeking information about the hit-and-run assault.


The Northwest hasn’t nearly as many "extreme commuters" as New York, with "extreme" defined as any trip to work that lasts 90 minutes or more. But the Oregonian found that high home prices are pushing people farther from Portland, in a phenomenon that real estate agents call "drive till you qualify." As a result, commutes longer than 45 minutes are increasing, while the number of workers who commute a wonderful 15 minutes or less is decreasing.


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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