The Mountain Gazette’s John Fayhee comes calling

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Part Libertarian, part granola-cruncher, Fayhee offers a distinct perspective

The American West still sits at an uneasy juxtaposition of old and new.

John Fayhee

John Fayhee has spent much of his life observing that conflict between the traditional past and the energetic present. Today he experiences it not only as a resident of the West, but as a writer with one foot in the world of linear thinking, paper and ink, the other foot in the world of Tweets and cyberspace.

Fayhee, who describes himself on his web site as “writer, editor, bullshitter, Mountain Gazette resurrector,” finds that he respects new technology but struggles to embrace it. He wonders whether it is changing the concept of reading so dramatically that books may soon disappear altogether.

“That’s the $64,000 question,” he said in a phone interview. “A good friend of mine in Silver City [New Mexico] manages a college bookstore. His contention is that this is the last generation of high school or college students graduating that has any connection to physical books. His contention is the next generation will no longer be utilizing the physical thing we call books.

“People now in their 20s and on up will continue to purchase physical books until they die, or books stop being produced. Fewer people spend time reading long essays and long books – maybe that’s a pessimistic outlook but a realistic outlook. I’m 56 and may be gone before that transpires.”

Fayhee is coming to Southwest Colorado this month to celebrate the release of two new books-“Smoke Signals: Wayward Journeys through the Old Heart of the New West” from Durango’s Raven’s Eye Press, and “The Colorado Mountain Companion” from Pruett Publishing. He will be in Cortez on Thursday, Sept. 27, from 5 to 7 p.m., at Spruce Tree Coffee House.

Fayhee is editor of the Mountain Gazette, a long-time contributing editor at Backpacker magazine, and the author of numerous books, including “Along the Colorado Trail,” “A Colorado Winter” and “Bottoms Up.”

“Smoke Signals” is a collection of his latest essays – always readable and highly amusing. But “The Colorado Mountain Companion,” subtitled “A Potpourri of Useful Miscellany from the Highest Parts of the Highest State,” is the book he’s most proud of, Fayhee said. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done.”

The volume is a collection of odd and interesting facts about Colorado – facts most people would never think to wonder about.

“That’s my job as a writer, to think of things that are interesting that maybe your average person doesn’t think of. What’s the highest-dwelling snake in Colorado? What’s the prevalence of exotic diseases?”

Fayhee is also justifiably proud of his 12- year tenure as editor of the Mountain Gazette. The publication began in 1966 as the Skier’s Gazette. In 1972 it was transformed into a broader-based magazine with its current name. In 1979 it ceased publishing because of a shortage of ads. But in 2000, Fayhee and two other men decided to revive it, publishing Issue #78 (picking up where the old Gazette left off) in November of that year.

In 2006 the magazine was sold to GSM Publishing. It was sold again in 2008 to Skram Media; in 2010 Skram Media was sold and Mountain Gazette was spun off and acquired by Summit Publishing of Virginia, which publishes three other outdoor magazines.

John Fayhee is coming to Cortez to celebrate two new books, “Smoke Signals” and “The Colorado Mountain Companion.”

Loved by readers for its varied, quirky, and thoughtful stories and essays, the magazine continues to thrive, albeit in a somewhat haphazard fashion. It makes money but is never lucrative because its target readership is not generally well-heeled.

Mountain Gazette is hard for advertisers to get a grip on,” Fayhee said. “We put out this non-materialistic image that is probably fairly accurate. The readers probably own all the outdoor gear, but they aren’t waiting in line to buy next year’s skis.

“We’re kind of a magazine for misfits and outsiders. Our main toehold is with people who wish they weren’t living in the Real World – people who lived two seasons as a ski bum and then went back to grad school and now have a mortgage and are living in Omaha.

“That has always been an issue, even back in the 1970s. It’s been a dialogue we have had for 12 years. Do we change the magazine? We have always been on this sort of edge. If we just sold four more pages of ads we would be in Fat City. It’s frustrating but also sort of fun.”

Fayhee said he has good relationships with the magazine’s owners and for the most part he is thrilled with his job. “Being editor of the Mountain Gazette is a pretty damn cool thing, although I do get up some days saying, ‘Shit, why didn’t I choose something else?’”

MG recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, and a major part of producing that issue was breaking out its 60 best single quotes ever. Fayhee delegated that daunting task to some college students, who pulled out plums such as the following:

“There are only two participatory ways one can react to riding in an automobile with a man who drives the way Clark does — you can get into it with him, enjoying the thrill and adventure and admiring the driver’s skill and courage; or you can sit rigidly in terror, wishing you were anywhere else but where you are. Roughly speaking, all human existence offers the same two choices to a man once he has agreed to participate.” — “Europe: Fourth Time Around,” by Dick Dorworth.

“I had beers with these kids last night,” Fayhee said in August. “They are avid readers – they carry books everywhere they go. They enjoy discussing literature. It was heartening. “Half our regular stable of writers are young blogger kids.”

That brings Fayhee back to the clash between old and new. Or maybe it’s not a clash, exactly, but a swirling of waters as a new river flows into another. Fayhee accepts the fact that the world is being transformed by technology, he tries not to have a “good old days” mindset, but he can’t help looking askance at some of the changes.

For instance, the way electronic gadgets have changed today’s hikers and backpackers, who march along looking at smartphones and studying GPS coordinates and reading blogs that describe every turn on the trail.

“They literally Tweet from the summits of mountains. They’re not stupid – they’re smarter than I am. They’re enlightened, gungho. They love the mountains every bit as much as I do, so it’s hard to say what’s the problem here.

“It’s more of a visceral thing. Maybe it’s so age- and generation-oriented that I can’t look at it with objectivity. But I argue vociferously that it is a different experience to stumble upon a place you find using the old physical tools, like my beat-up map and compass, and with scratches all over my shins.”

But, he added, “When I’m on a mountaintop next to a kid with a GPS Tweeting his friends, we’re both standing there. I don’t want to put people down.”

Technology has helped bring hordes of visitors to backcountry areas that saw few human footprints in the past. The influx is one of the reasons Fayhee left the Colorado high country after some 25 years and moved to Silver City, where he had lived long ago.

“In Summit County, holy cow, places I remember never seeing anybody, now there are like 50,000 people. It affects the backcountry, the experience, backcountry management.

“A lot of these people are used to coming from cities and are used to seeing people. They’re reassured by seeing people, so they don’t mind it being crowded.”

The New West-Old West dichotomy – which Fayhee says is partly real, partly a creation of writers – is alive in Silver City.

“That’s one of the things I like about living here. We have copper-mining and ranching, but some of the hippie-dippiest types in the world live here. You go to the grocery store here and look at the bumper stickers. One says, “Save the wolves” and one says, “Smoke a pack a day” and there is a gun-sight focused on a pack of wolves.”

Fayhee said the New-Old West conflict has become more like “New West vs. New New West.”

“It gets fatiguing sometimes, the constant battles. In Summit County when I first moved there, the controversy was, should Breckenridge [Ski Area] be allowed to expand onto Peak 8? Then it was Peak 7 and now it’s Peak 6. It can be so frigging fatiguing.

“What I was getting tired of was, no matter who moved to Summit County when I was there, they always sniffed the air a couple of years before they started voicing themselves in local dialogue, but then we got people who were movers and shakers where they came from and assumed they were movers and shakers here too. They were always going to town council making demands.

“When Silverton enacted a leash law, I thought, ‘It’s time to move to New Mexico where things are wilder.’”

But, he said, it’s not just pushy newcomers vs. longtime residents. “There was no way places like Summit County would have changed without the cooperation of the people who were there. There is no way to do a subdivision unless that rancher sold his land.

“If the Mountain Time Zone would have stayed the way it was in 1989 when I moved to Summit County [to start the Summit Daily News], it would have been fine. I do resent it when people move to these places and try to change them.

“When we moved back to Silver City, I vowed would not say, ‘Silver City would be better if it had this.’ We’ve probably had 20 or 30 people come to look around because I’m here, and they’re like, ‘Holy shit, what are you doing here?’ It’s not like Crested Butte, where you drive around and there is a view at every turn. Silver City is an acquired taste.”

But, as a “part Libertarian, part granola cruncher,” Fayhee likes it. “I’m a geocultural bigamist. I love the high country and the Gila country. But I’m a starving writer. I can’t afford to live both places.”

Today Fayhee utilizes both old tools and new as he writes from Silver City. He says he is “absolutely delighted” that computers were invented; he recently purchased a new iMac. “When I write on that it’s generally when I’m working on something I’m attempting to get published for money. It’s a wonderful tool.”

But for what he calls “recreational writing, the stuff I enjoy,” he turns to a typewriter or just pencil and paper. “I still enjoy just sitting and putting thoughts to paper, and I like the sound a manual typewriter makes.

“I’m not a Luddite, it’s just different types of writing.”

Fayhee says there will be a “shaking-out period” in writing and literature, and no one knows how it will turn out, but he believes some people will still read articles and books.

“It’s really important for people like us to give reading every opportunity to survive. If we throw in the towel, that doesn’t bode well for this thing that we love – writing and reading. I’m going to go down with a fight.”

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From September 2012.