Kevin Hamilton: Pharmakon Rocky Mountain High

Kevin Hamilton

The Mount of the Holy Cross is a real place, and one of Colorado's highest peaks. Each summer the winter snow melts away first from the mountain's rock face, and last from the two ravines that form the snowy shape of a cross. Hidden behind other high peaks in the vicinity of former mining towns and present-day ski resorts, the Mount is only visible from either very close or very far. As a result, this hard-to-reach location achieved the
status of lore and legend until the Hayden Survey finally mapped and measured the peak in 1873.

During that same visit, photographer William Henry Jackson captured an image of the cross that would serve him in various iterations throughout his career. Reproductions of his famous picture found their way into countless American
homes; painter Thomas Moran borrowed from Jackson's image for a popular and epic painting.

For many, this white cross served as divine confirmation of the right of white men to possess the land. The "red" Utes were forcibly removed from the Rockies, while the Mount was made a National Monument, an economic
boon to tourism and mining. Only when the surrounding forests were claimed by the military for Camp Hale during World War II did the Holy Cross begin to fade from the public imagination. By the time Camp Hale closed in the 1960s, re-allowing public access to the Cross, religious faith had been successfully confined to the private domain, and no longer a subject for collective civic attention. No longer a National Monument, the Mount today is a popular destination for "peak-baggers" in their quest to climb all of Colorado's mountainsthat measure over 14,000 feet in elevation.

Zippy the Pinhead is the subject of a syndicated comic strip by artist William "Bill" Henry Jackson Griffith, great-grandson of the photographer William Henry Jackson. In the Summer of 2008, Zippy finally paid a visit
to the Mount of the Holy Cross, where he posed for a photograph and answered some questions from artist and fan Kevin Hamilton.

KH: Zippy, it's pretty high up here above the treeline - are you newly inspired by the oxygen-thin air, the unfiltered UV rays, the glinting skin of commercial airliners?

ZP: Actually, I just keep thinking about Ferris wheels!

KH: Really? Don't the vast views and unspoiled tundra leave you feeling closer to the divine?

ZP: I don't know, something about the total absence of Cracker Barrels and Toyota Scions just leaves me dizzy.

KH: Maybe you need to drink more water. Do you think the Ferris wheel is some repressed memory from your childhood, revived by the sight of the 1000-foot cross of snow before us?

ZP: No, I never wore white. A muu-muu isn't a robe exactly, and the hood gets in the way of my MYSTICAL THIRD EYE.

KH: Yeah, I keep meaning to ask you - what have you got against pants anyway? I hear that Schlitzie the Pinhead wore a dress because of the incontinence caused by microcephaly.

ZP: Yes, tectonic plates are moving even as we speak! The mountains sing of an impending ideological earthquake!

KH: No, Zippy, that's just more unexploded ordnance down the hill at Camp Hale. Some poor hiker probably just lost his shit.

ZP: You would too if you'ld just seen the ghost of Orion W. Daggett!

KH: The storied newspaperman of Red Cliff! If only his dream of a highway to the Cross had come to life. Then we'd be standing on a real tourist mecca.

ZP: Well I've always been a believer.

KH: Me too! But what good is a private fantasy? Don't you long for the old days, when thousands trekked up this peak to hold mass in the morning light?

ZP: There's plenty of light! Just take the picture!

KH: I know, you're probably right. Who needs another mass cult in the snow? Besides, with global warming there won't be enough snow anyway, the cross will be gone.

ZP: Pine beetles! Kludd and Kleagle! Is there a sequel?

....It seems to me that the "magic" power of a pharmakon comes
from its duality, no? It's magic when a poison heals me, or when a
remedy kills me.

There's a lot going against this in the modernities I know. We moderns
don't believe in magic - we either rationalize it away or banish it to
the domain of counter-rational romanticism. To read subjectivity into
the pharmakon - to allow the poison to be a poison only to whom it
kills - is to kill it. Or maybe it's the other way around - we
construct subjectivity through splitting the pharmakon's powers.

Within an enchanted world, the pharmakon will still be a poison even
for the person it cures - it will still be a remedy even for the
person it poisons. The power in the thing grants it ontology apart
from our perception of it. In the disenchanted world, the pharmakon
will be only a poison to the dead and will only be a remedy to the
cured. The thing only exists for the receiver.

We can look, for example, to the function of the Colorado Rockies as a
pharmakon for white Americans, seeking a pastoral remedy from their
urban/suburban lives.

As a modern skeptic, I can divide the poison from the remedy, and see
how what heals me there in my fancy hiking boots is what kills the
place and the people displaced by white settlement. I'm racist without
meaning to be - sounds like the definition of white guilt.

But what if that's too subjective for the pharmakon? Can I look at how
what's healing me is also a poison to me, in addition to looking at it
as a poison to someone else?

Is my Rocky Mountain High a poison to me as well, a changing agent
within me, that I exist in those spaces as someone who benefits from
genocide? I think so. But it's hard to get my modern mind around - I
fall so easily into displacing the evil done by attending to my own
positive or negative transformation.....