The 31st deer

There were those three deer moving up through the trees, steadily and swiftly but not too fast, with fleeting 1/2 second shot opportunities.

There were those other three deer (or the same ones on a different day) bedded in a still, thick bowl of dark timber way up in the tops of the hills, who jumped up and looked at me from 30 yards as I fumbled the scope cover before crashing out of sight.

There was that one deer I never saw, crawling closer and closer to a small cattail-riddled pond in the middle of the forest, glassing and cautious as I could be, only to here snort, snort, snort every two seconds, following by a stamp and a crashing of brush.

There were those two deer 80 yards away, giving me the stink eye as I stood where I shouldn’t have been right in the middle of a dry side channel on a river bottom island, shotgun useless at my side, who disappeared into improbable willow thickets.

There was that time I was walking, slowly and near silently, up a trail through an inch of fresh snow cut over and through with deer tracks, when I heard a nervous stamping. I chambered a round a tore my right mitten off, and saw antlers and only antlers off to my right, concealed by the curve of the hill, at 20 yards. Then nothing as the buck and harem of does covered hundreds of yards downhill in seconds.

And finally there was that hillside, striped in one direction with logging roads and the other with 20 year old clearcuts, the steep soil frozen into concrete by temps well below zero. The deer path vanished and after 10 feet of descending I ran out of holds, and slid 30 feet down to the road, smearing and edging my boots. I hit bottom and congratulated myself on staying in control, then turned around and saw two deer 100 yards away, staring at me. I shucked my hipbelt and sternum strap, dropped my pack, got my rifle on it, and clicked off the safety. A clear patch of brown was visible between frozen grass stalks. I took a half second of stillness, and fired.

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Since we returned from Utah two weeks ago I’ve been putting all the time I can scape together toward filling two doe tags; one for the core of the Flathead Valley which is available over the counter, the other for a valley a few hours south, which I drew in a lottery over the summer. I thought these tags wouldn’t be too hard, especially the local one. Naturally, that’s the one I’ve been able to put the most hours into, and the one which as of this writing remains unpunched.

Thinking a given hunting project will be easy or at all sure is a stupid thing to think. Hunting is marvelously objective in a way the best outdoor pursuits are: effort and luck and doing all the right things at the right time are only vaguely relevant, and success comes down to only one thing. A lot of worth can come out of a hunt if it does not end with meat in the freezer, but no dead animal still means a failed hunt. To be a hunter is to get a lot more comfortable with failure than most of us will find easy.

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The essence of deer hunting is seeing them before they see you. This is why treestands and long-range glassing have become so popular in the respective environments to which they are best suited; they make seeing deer first a lot easier. I find the first extremely boring, and the second only a fair amount less so, and thus have been banging my head against the wall of trying to sneak through the fairly thick woods which makes up local public land without spooking deer left and right. It has not yet worked.

The deer I shot last fall came down to a bit of luck in looking up and freezing at the right moment, aiding by a young deer made dumb by the rut. The deer I shot two months ago came down to good glassing and a quiet enough stalk that didn’t blow the deer out of the basin, enhanced by a young buck made dumb by living in an area which sees very few humans. The doe I shot this weekend was old and big, heavier than either of the aforementioned and as butchering made obvious fattened very well by human crops. Did my luck here come down to the weird manner of my entrance? My quick action at getting into firing position? Some peculiar quirk of that does mind? I’ll never know. What I do know is while 30 is not the precise number of deer I saw running away before I shot this one, I had seen a lot, and had a mind ready to take the chance when it was given.

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That deer last fall was the first I had taken as an adult, and a moment marked by overwhelming haze which I can nonetheless recall with perfect clarity.  The buck in mid-September was just perfect, perfect calm even after a miss, and a quick and clinical butchering job followed by a grueling but no-drama packout.  This deer, whose killing was built up with anticipation at least the equal of the others, is a blur.  I shot, the two deer ran away, one stopped after 30 feet, tipped over, kicked the air, and was dead.  When I arrived next to it, bright lung blood trailed off on the far side in the snow, as the second deer reached the end of the logging road 300 yards away, looked back, and ran into the trees.

Had I shot both deer?  How was there blood on that side of the deer?  Had it doubled back when it tipped over?  No blood was visible for any of the 300 yards of logging road I had seen the second deer travel, but I did not trust my memory on this, it being largely absent for the shot and immediately after.  This is why we train for difficult things, so that in the moment brain and body click together and the job is done on auto, ego and memory as distant observers only.

I concluded that I had not wounded the second deer, and got to work.  The doe was immense and heavy, with huge quarters and extensive lobes of fat I took care to harvest (and later melted into lard).  The lacing of caul fat, absent entirely in that September buck, was thick and extensive, and later wrapped a seasoned roast which went into the freezer labeled “Christmas.”  The rump meat and backstraps where red fading into purple, and made a weighty game bag on all their own.  I fried the backstraps in a smidgeon of peanut oil that night and ate them blue-rare with sea salt and paprika.  The rump meat was cubbed, cut 4 parts to 1 with deer fat, and ground, then patted into the best burgers I’ve ever had.

The butcher job took twice as long as that September buck, and I welcomed the warm carcasses’ influence on my bare hands in temps which just climbed above zero in the sun.  My pack, with just the deer and day gear, felt the equal if not the superior to the load with which I became so intimate two months ago.  The hike out was not even a mile, but almost all of it was down a steep slope, frozen and trailless, which wrecked my hamstrings in 20 minutes.

Home, with a freezer very close to full with packaged deer parts, life is good.  Messy, scary, intimidating, and confusing, but very very good.

Becoming a competent outdoorsperson

Discretion may be the purview of a gentleman but hyperbolic modesty is not something to be proud of. I am a competent outdoorsperson, having spent decades and lot of time and effort becoming one. Cast your net across the broad enough range of outdoor pursuits and do them all long enough to learn more than a little and you’ll see that they have a lot in common. People who do them well, whether it’s backpacking or climbing or boating, have figured this core skillset out at least well enough to see the full picture, and can thus cross-apply skills from one to the other. If you’re starting from scratch and have set as a destination the point where the necessary skillset for any given outdoor adventure is both not a mystery and reachable, then read on.

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1) Learn to rock climb

Experience ice climbing is handy but the technical, physical, and mental aspects of rock climbing are the best starting point for anyone seeking outdoor expertise; even if climbing itself holds little interest and especially if you’re acrophobic.  Secret: everyone is afraid of heights, just like everyone is afraid of death, failure, and grizzly bears.  Learning to manage rational, foundational fears is not a basic outdoor skill, it is a basic life skill, and I know of no better way to do it than while climbing.  Not sport climbing either; proper, traditional climbing.  A good goal would be to become a solid 5.9 climber before you retire, solid meaning you could onsight 95% of the climbs given that grade in the US, be they offwidths at the Creek or in the Valley, runout eyebrow slabfests at Looking Glass, or sandbagged thuggy roofs in the Gunks.  Take moves you know are at 80% of your capacity, assume that estimate is 10% short, then put those moves at the top of pitch four 35 feet out from a blue alien and #5 stopper, and you’ll figure out how to function well, even (especially) when you really don’t want to.  Over the years quite a few people have gotten annoyed with me when, upon being faced with a chossy traverse at the end of a stressful and tiring day, I tell them not to slip or kick any rocks loose.  How do you guarantee that, they ask?  The same way you don’t drive into the ditch in the way to work everyday: you don’t fucking do it.  Humans have an amazing capacity to get the job done when it needs to be done, and being able to flick that switch at will is vital to every outdoor pursuit I can think of.

Mastering the various knots and having a couple thousand hours of mechanical practice at properly weighting bad flakes and wet moss smears are good, too.

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2) Learn to walk

A good second step, because while most climbers get pretty good at some aspects of walking while carrying heavy packs up poor approach paths, the I-won’t-hike-unless-it’s-to-a-cliff mentality endemic to climbing will not teach you to embrace walking for the glorious, instinctual activity which it is.  Thankfully the educational perscription here could not be simpler: get good at walking by walking a lot.  The particulars of Gladwell’s 10000 hours thesis may be pop rubish, but the raw math works out in his favor.  Learn what a 30 mile day on good trail feels like, then what a 40 mile day feels like.  Then learn how a 15 mile day across slickrock and sand is way harder than either.  The end result should be an intimate knowledge of fatigue, how far you can push beyond certain levels, and what it will cost you in the days after, as well as a bulletproof 2.5-3.7 mph trail autopilot and a good injury-preventing foundation of strong connective tissue.

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3) Learn to navigate

Proficiency at navigating cross country is akin to learning to write poetry like Emily Dickinson or e.e. cummings; first you painstakingly learn all the rules in exacting details, then you ignore as many as possible.  For the beginning map reader topo lines are little more than a printed jumble, just as for a beginning writer the effects of words and sentences are random.  When you’ve correlated enough lines on paper with terrain, you can keep the compass in your pack almost all of the time, and bring fewer and less detailed maps.  Just keep in mind that being able to shoot a close bearing, just like the ability to write a sonnet, never goes out of style. 

Map and compass work is one area where good instruction really makes a difference, as does field practice, and is money well spent.  Running orienteering courses in Boy Scouts, looking for numbered milk jugs in thick mid-summer Ohio woodlands, is a fond childhood memory and was time very well spent.  This foundation will blossom into deep knowledge when repeatedly tested year after year on trip after trip, ideally in as many different terrains as possible.

Shameless plug: my on-trail route finding article remains (in my opinion) the best technical thing I’ve ever written.  I’ve learned a lot since I wrote it, and there’s hardly anything I’d change.

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4) Learn water

Waterways are, rightfully, regarded with fear by many backcountry travelers.  Achieving expertise in wilderness travel, even if you never use a boat, requires becoming informed enough to know what to fear about water and why. 

Take stream crossings as an example.  These can generally be broken into three levels: easy ones, scary looking ones which aren’t actually that hard, and dangerous ones.  Being able to cruise through most of the second category has more to do with confidence than anything else, which in turn has mostly to do with familiarity.  Spending a lot of time wading and boating is the key here, and of all things fly fishing has done the most to build my abilities.  So get out in the water on foot and in a boat, learn to read water in both circumstances, and build a body of experience from which the least fear-based decisions can be made.

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5) Learn the system

Outdoor activities take place in the modern world, and all the knowledge and skills which can fit into one brain are of purely academic worth if they don’t get out and help shoes get muddy and eyes see astounding things.  Familiarity with what makes a good route and a good trip, everything from planning with maps and sat photos to getting applicable permits and finding the best post-trip eats, is as much the hallmark of experience as not making wrong turns through densely forested valleys.  Finding good camps, hitting the rivers at the best levels, and bringing close to the right clothing and shelter all make a good trip into a great, and there is no higher satisfaction than going to a brand new area and nailing a creative, varied, new route.

Lastly, I would counsel patience with all of these things.  Outdoor adventure is a discipline, in that intelligent shortcutting of the learning is only possible and desirable to a limited extent.  Beating your head against the wall with the same mistakes year after year is no good, but the effort in/reward out correlation is a pretty damn linear one, regardless of discipline.  Adventure is a lifelong enterprise; better to learn things well the first time, given how much there is to see.

Land of No Use

There are those who are worried that what wilderness we have is a dying commodity.  Not in any literal fashion, climate change and invasive species put aside, but insofar as wilderness is a creation of the mind.  When the modern information economy takes mystery out, wilderness is inevitably diminished, even if the legal Wilderness areas remain outwardly untouched.

Fortunately, several solutions endure which will keep wilderness alive in the Wilderness of the lower 48 for a long time to come.  Beta proliferates, especially online, but is easy to not read, wholly or partly.  Good maps exist thanks to sat photos and GPS, but the rewards of bringing a dodgy map will always be available for the bold, foolish, and forgetful.  The tangible and psychological security of a GPS unit, sat phots, PLBs, Spots, cell phones, and whatever is next can always be denied.

A less contrived solution is to go where and when little beta exists, and the big Wilderness areas of the Northern Rockies in winter are still rarely traveled.  I know a number of folks who have skied across the Bob in calender winter, but they’ll only tell you as much as you ask for, and none of their knowledge is on the net.

This is why, for all the poor grammar in their press copy, neo-hippie music, and cliche bro-brah jibbing, Land of No Use is worth watching (film below).  As they wrote two years when the project began, “We want to challenge this concept of wilderness being useless with a visual testament to the unquantifiable values of wild areas, capturing the beauty of the untamed mountain ranges and their inhabitants as well as the story of a group of skiers exploring terrain that has seen little to no ski tracks before in the state named for its mountains.”  People do ski in these places, but not many and not very often, and the visual tableau the film presents is if nothing else a powerful statement that even in the 21st century terrain does not limit adventure, only the imagination.

Naturally, my favorite part was the last segment in the Bob, skiing in at Holland Lake and packrafting out Big Salmon Lake and the South Fork.  It’s a place I’ve come to love perhaps above all others, and where I learned best about what the film calls “the intrinsic value of wild land,” never more relevant than today.

Grand Canyon with mom, part 3

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The evening of the second day we sat in camp and changed plans. The first two days had been harder on everyone than anticipated. Mom had come into the trip nursing an IT band problem aggravated back in early September.  Having gone through something similar myself years ago, I could look at her gait through the stream crossings late on day two and see that damage had been done.  Not only would pushing more than necessary bring the work/fun ratio for this trip out of balance, but future plans in early 2015 might be jeopardized.

So we cut things short.  Rather than take the trail down to the river and bushwack and boulder up downstream to Deer Creek before heading up to the rim, we would knock a day off the trip: dayhike to the river, hike up the highest water source near the mouth of Thunder River, ascend to the Esplanade late in the day, and hike out the next morning.  Water is always a logistical challenge in the Grand Canyon, and doing the bulk of the hard climbing late and early in the day would make carrying ~24 hours of water easier.

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Our first route-finding hiccup of the trip was taking the western, high water trail on the way down to the river overlook, which added a fair bit of ascending and some high-wire cliff walking sections which made mom a bit nervous.  By the time the faster, easier trail across the creek become obvious we were already committed.

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The weather all trip had been clear and mild, and the trend continued.  After six years in Montana, the intense desert sun is hard to handle, and the cool morning shade very welcome.  The scenery continued to exceed expectations.

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Within a mile of the river we started running into hordes of river runners dayhiking up to see the scenery, fish, and in one case run the lower narrows in a creek boat.  I’m not against motorized-access float trips per se, but there can be no question that such easy accessibility degrades the wilderness character, and it remains a curious thing that the trailhead of your Grand Canyon backpack has a decent chance of seeing fewer people in a calender year than the point farthest in mileage from it.  No good solution exists, but it does put down my enthusiasm for the place, somewhat.

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Not that we were complaining about the super-fast trail we took back up to camp.

Hiking out of the Grand Canyon should be an intimidating prospect.  The elevation gain, roughness of the trails, heat, and lack of water reliably hand out a beating.  Even when I’ve been in peak fitness this is a daunting task.  We packed up camp, into packs which were still pretty big.  I took almost all the group gear, and we got moving in the heat of the afternoon.

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The source of Thunder River is worth the hype.  There are other places in the Grand were water miraculously emerges from the rock, but the size and breadth of the water and vegetation, set back in a hot and dry side drainage, is striking enough to make you laugh for lacking the ability to apprehend the scene.

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We holes up in a shady nook a few feet from the water, luxuriated in the cool microclimate, ate dinner, and drank a lot of very good water.  The sun would still be in full force for close to two hours, and I saw no need to go back out in it before then.  Besides, it was a very pleasant and fulfilling location for lounging.

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Towards the end of our wait I did get restless, and made the scramble (bits of easy 5th class) up to the origin of the Thunder.  Quite the intriguing scene.  Accounts of exploring into the cave abound, though doing so without NPS permission is illegal.  I was put off by the rappel/belay bolt, next to my left elbow when I took the above, near a crack which would take a good cam.  Tread lightly folks, and bring the right gear.

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Getting moving as shadows crept over the stream was a relief, even if it meant shouldering a pack containing 17 pounds of water.  I told myself that it should be enough, had to be enough, and focused on steady and even foot placements on the remaining switchbacks up to Surprise Valley.

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Perspective is everything.  I found relief in how low the cliffs up to the Esplanade looked, while M and mom seemed less impressed.  In either case, one footstep at a time is the only solution.  I was grateful that I had recent experiences which made my ~45 pound pack seem light.

My timing to the top of the cliff, and the edge of the Esplanade, was perfect.

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Mom and m missed the best light by minutes, and we continued on that infamous quarter mile more to find a flat sandstone patio a few feet off the trail.  We snacked a bit, drank a bunch (the water supply was holding up well), and went to sleep quickly.  I put the various water bags close to my head so I’d hear any thieves which might come in the night.

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Morning was something of a relief, at least in my mind.  We had plenty of water and a not inconsiderable but very manageable amount of mileage and vertical to go.  Unless something truly bizarre happened, the trip was done and a huge success.  All that remained was to finish it off.

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Despite some nerves about exposure on the Bill Hall trail, spirits were high and progress was good.

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The Bill Hall joins Grandview as my favorite way out of the upper canyon.   Both have a trail tread narrow enough to be entertaining, and a clever design.  Most importantly, both are for the most part favorably positioned for ideal view.  Why you would favor Indian Hollow over the Bill is beyond me.

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Right around noon we made the rim, and the trip was over.

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Sure, there was a nuisance bit of walking down to the trailhead, I had a 3+ mile roadwalk to get the car, and we had to make it back to pavement without getting a flat, but all of those things are simple to do, and were done quickly enough.  By early evening we were in Jacob’s Lake, showered and eating food, content.

My mom was right that my nerves were attributable to having charge of her, given how much trust she handed to me by letting me lead her so far beyond her comfort zone.  She did the same for me decades ago, making for a nice completeness here.  That alone would have made the trip a forever-highlight, and that the route was so good only added to it all.  You only get to do things this good every so often, no matter how blessed your life or concerted your efforts, so luxuriating in the details while they happen is an important use of time and energy.  It is not luck nor coincidence, but work and planning coming together to make happiness.  Happiness in the fullest, best sense of the word.

Grand Canyon with mom, part 2

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The oases within the Grand Canyon are formidable, vibrant and tenacious against vast backdrops. We woke up in the middle of a particularly bright one, right at the mouth of Timp Canyon.

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Water ran fast for a mile or so. Signs of wildlife were regular, including lots of ringtail tracks.

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There were a few puzzles to solve in the remaining rock layers before the drainage broadened and gave way to boulder hopping.

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Overall quite the place to wake up to.

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Crazy Jug runs into Saddle Canyon at almost 180 degree angle, forming Tapeats Creek, which runs a little north of west. The creek doesn’t last long below the junction, and the going is not fast. We had a lot of water on board and were thankful that the sun took so long to crest the walls to our left.

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This ram tolerated my presence for a while until it heard mom and M coming.  Amazingly big, dark, and old in a tough place to make a living.

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A half mile below Tapeats Cave Creek comes in from the north the loud green of cottonwoods appear in the main drainage, as well as a trickle of water and cool, moist air, but nothing can prepare you for what comes next.

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A poor photo: the sedate, conventional Tapeats Creek on the right, and the raging torrent of Tapeats Cave Creek in the center.  All the insistence of an alpine creek conjured in the middle of the desert, and one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen, anywhere.

And it got better.

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The creek is a destination for backpackers and golfers (river runners) dayhiking up from below, and we were excited to have a trail for the first time since early the day before.

It was obviously not going to last, with a foreboding and geometrically suspicious looking canyon ahead.

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The narrows of Tapeats Creek exceeded expectations.

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And yes, that incongruous water, ejected directly from the water table a few miles upstream, was darn cold.

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One hears warnings that Tapeats is not hikable in the spring, which seems reasonable (packrafting, on the other hand, would be phenomenal with a third to half again the flow we had).  Late October, however, is darn easy, though mom was a bit on edge.

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In circumstances like this one, where someones objection to crossing is mostly psychological, breaking the current can be an effective strategy.  I crossed in tandem and just unstream, providing an eddy for her legs and a hand on her pack, just in case.

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The meandering confines of the narrows were dizzying; with the course of the stream cutting meanders within meanders; twists of floodplain and willow jungle within twists of rock.

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Emerging into the straighter lower canyon, and seeing the side stream I knew must be the Thunder River, was a relief.  We were almost at camp.

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The day had been tiring, more than I anticipated, as well as one of the coolest I can recall.  The journey through three of the Grand Canyon’s major zones had been all the more potent because each of those zones had been so well represented by paragons of the Muav tea garden terraces, harsh shale badlands, and verdant, intense sandstone narrows.  The contrasts, so vivid and so abrupt, seemed to encapsulate the vast place with eerie felicity.

It was a good note to fall asleep to.

Grand Canyon with mom, part 1

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I was not sleeping well the first night of our trip, an unusual thing. A number of years ago I weaned myself off the need to read before falling asleep, and since have normally slept like the dead in the backcountry.

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The next morning my mom mentioned that in the approximate quarter century between when I was born and my sister left home more or less permanently, her sleep had never been what it was before, and that perhaps I was feeling the burden of responsibility for her, being as we were a full day of very rugged canyon and a half dozen rappels away from the car.

She was right.

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This trip got started after my March trip, when my mom said she wanted in on the action.  No one in question is decrepit or close to dying, but nonetheless life’s finitude is a not infrequent topic of contemplation.  So this fall it was.  After a fair amount of head scratching to get all the pieces in place, I got a permit for a route which seemed like it would be appropriately rugged, but not too hard, had remote North Rim access but not on roads requiring a 4×4, and would most importantly provide the full off-trail Grand Canyon experience.

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The night before we camped on the rim.  The view was sublime, and the wind fierce up in the ponderosa needles, but the temps at 7000′ were warmer than I had dared hope for.  Neither my wife M nor my mother are especially warm blooded people, and I had been worried that a frigid night would put them off the trip, especially in light of the the wading and possibly swimming on tap for the first day.  Instead, it looked like we had managed to schedule for an ideal weather window.

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It is nowhere more relevant than in the Grand to think about elevation rather than mileage.  The first few rock layers gave way easily on an old miners pack trail, which was steep and overgrown, but easy to follow.  The next layer passed less easily: steep dirt sidehilling and gully hopping through thick scrub oak and manzanita, then more steep dirt and cliff bands through cactus, one of which mom happened to sit on when she lost her feet during the final descent to the canyon floor.  They got the bonding experience of daughter-in-law picking spines out of mother-in-laws butt.

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The canyon was gorgeous.  Boulder hopping quickly led deep into the curves and galleries of the Redwall limestone, typically the tallest cliffs in the canyon.  Here they gave us no serious obstacles.

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Except perhaps tripping on cobbles as you looked up.

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The business, of the day and symbolically the whole trip, was the Muav slot below the Redwall.  Logistically and psychologically our hand was forced on this one: good campsites and especially clear water only existed past the slot, and camping right above that obstacle would have been unpalatable.  We reached the difficulties later in the afternoon than I would have liked, but seemed to have plenty of time.

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Unlike most Colorado Plateau canyons, slots in the Grand are often in limestone, which is very slippery, especially when muddy.  Things slowed down, as rolling a knee or ankle is in this environment simply unacceptable.

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My mom is more afraid of heights than a lot of people.  Years ago we took her down Mystery Canyon in Zion as part of a post-reception romp, and she did well, though the big 120 foot rap into the intimidating springs chamber required extra moments to psyche up.  She hasn’t rappelled since, and of course the first drop on this trip was an awkward-as-hell roll off an undercut chockstone.  We lowered her pack and she went down with a commendable lack of futzing.

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Apparently, a Piper Cub clipped a wing on the canyon above 30 years ago, and the wreckage is still there.  Sobering.

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The slot section was more beautiful and more continuous than I had anticipated, and more challenging.  Daylight waned as we steadily worked through the obstacles.

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A lot of time, which we ideally didn’t have, got burnt in the final tight spot before the Muav let us out.  A slick downclimb necessitated a handline for M, a lower for mom, and a nervous downclimb for me.  I was burning a lot of psyche keeping the show running, and at the next, probably downclimbable drop built a rockpile anchor because I no longer trusted my edge.  We had been following fairly recent footprints all day, a party of obviously good climbers who had either trusted or not used some of the jingus anchors and rotten webbing I found and replaced.  M, down first off the cairn anchor with me backing things up, reported that she didn’t see an anchor for the next drop, so I left the rope in place as I came down.  There was an anchor, a decent chockstone slung in an awkward to reach spot.  I wanted something better and after some pacing in circles found it: a bomber knot chock in a horizontal crack.  One nice thing about limestone, unlike in Navajo you’re unlikely to be blowing out smaller features when weighted.  I had to climb up on Ms back to get a final visual on the knot, but it looked and bounce-tested good so we were off.

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After that drop (pictured directly above) we put on layers and got out headlamps, negotiating one final rap before it got proper dark.  A nuisance drop soon after got the better of my patience, and after body-belaying M and mom down, I lowered my pack, dropped the rope, and wriggled down into the offwidth.  Soon I found my legs in space and all my weight hanging on a single left armbar.  A solid stance, but any lower and I wouldn’t be able to pick when I let go, so I muttered something about bombs away and dropped.  Further than I thought.  M and I both underestimated how I would fall and I blew through her spot and rolled hard, slapping both palms against the dirt.  I said some unkind words in the aftermath, worried I had broken my right thumb and (irrationally) irritated the M had violated the spotters code which says that while you’re not obligated to get hurt worse than your spottee, you damn well better get equally injured.  Unfortunately for our party, in me the best climbers was also the heaviest by a fair margin, and asking someone to spot you when you weigh nearly half again what they do is not a good call.  Instead, I should have taken the extra minute to hunt up an anchor and rapped the drop myself.

I know better, but acting well under pressure isn’t always perfect.

Five minutes later we walked around a corner in the dark and the walls gave way, flowing water appeared, and flat stone patios offered themselves for camping.  We picked what would prove to be a Top-10 camping spot, got out of wet clothes, made dinner, and fell asleep.

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The next morning I was disappointed in myself for an error in judgment, but immensely pleased and proud to have two of the most important people in my life together in such a cool spot.  I did not then know that the trip would continue to exceed expectations in every way.

How to behave on the internet

The other day I read on of the lowest quality things I’ve seen online in quite some time, which is saying a great deal for several reasons. I spend a lot of time online; I have a smartphone, I work in an office at a job which often necessitates a lot of downtime, and I like to read as much as I can about my interests, something which is often best served with online content. The democratic nature of the internet necessarily brings about bad content, often due to haste and/or attempts to generate traffic/money. Neither of those things are what bothered me about the post/essay/article/thing I’ll discuss below. Rather, my objections are along the lines of my (enduring) dislike for GearJunkie.com; I do not approve on when someone who obviously knows better does something cheap because it is easy and profitable.

The following guidelines (not rules) naturally apply to “real” life face to face with real people, but most of us were socialized well enough that only the distance of screen and keyboards can tempt us into regularly and flagrently breaking them.

No ad hominem attacks.
The internet makes it very tempting to tell someone they are wrong because they are stupid. It is certainly true that the net breeds armchair experts who not infrequently dispense dangerous advice, but it is always essential to say why someone is wrong, in as specific a manner as you can manage. Doing so elevates the content of the discussion and is the most useful form of response, and admits the possibility that someone without extensive personal experience may by coincidence or good study arrive at an effective conclusion. I struggle with this one quite a bit, because as a nerd who was and is bad at team sports intellectual one-upmanship was the first and easiest way I found to participate in culturally approved male aggression. It’s not a flattering admission or behavior, and I try to hold on to a few instances of when I was on the receiving end as reminders to behave charitably. For instance, earlier this year I called out Six Moon Designs for the marketing copy they attached to their new Fusion series of packs, which said (I summarize and extrapolate) that the packs had been designed for the rigors of thruhiking in the US idiom and were thus tough enough for just about anything. It seemed to me that in doing so SMD were relying more on cliches and jingoism than fact, it being rather obvious that the PCT and CDT are tough on gear due to the number of days only, and said so. Ron Moak, SMDs head honcho, responded by calling me unprofessional and asking how many capitol L long trails I had completed. It still seem sad that the one person in the discussion best informed to quantify how and why packs break declined to say anything specific.

Make all arguments serious.
Its tempting to jump on weak arguments, for the reasons discussed above and many more.  Don’t.  While you may get personal satisfaction out of excoriating an easy target, any gain will be transitory and modest.  It is far better to restate a stronger case of what the original interlocuter should or would have said.  For example, in the post which bent my mind to this subject Wes Siler makes shorter toothbrushes the first thing he mentions in a critique of the extent to which gear and goal obsession may make ultralight backpacking a more frequent violator of what he sees as the soul of backpacking; contemplating the natural world and our place in it.  I doubt very much that any backpacker with a consequent body of experience has ever seen cutting the handle of a toothbrush as a serious means of saving weight.  It is nothing other than a decades-lived cliche, designed to invoke absurd behavior in the mind of the casual observer.  There is no content behind it.  More appriopriate examples, like using grosgrain for hipbelts, would have had less mass-market appeal, but if Mr. Siler is prepared to sacrifice accuracy and felicity for curb appeal than he deserves all the shit he gets, and more.  He commits similar sins at the end of the same paragraph, making hyperbolic statements about the privations of backpacking with a focus on a light load and the speed it allows.  The article as a whole makes it fairly plain that he knows enough to know how inaccurate his characatures are.  If he is not willing to take his subject seriously its hard to think why anyone would want to do the same with his post.

Don’t be cooler than your subject.
Otherwise known as avoiding Rolling Stone writing.  Siler mentions, out of nowhere, that rather than hike the JMT in 10 days including travel from the east coast, he’s visiting a friend in India because he owes said friend after having sold the gents car to a drug dealer.  No further explanation is given, and the reader is left to assume that because Mr. Siler has an apparently more exciting and dangerous (“cooler”) life his arguments should be given more weight.  Modesty is always the purview of a gentlewoman or man, and discretion is always the better part of valor.  If you feel the need to enhance your writing with excessive or semi-relevant anecdotes said writing is either weak or you have issues with life satisfaction which should be addressed in the private sphere.

Quote generously.
Selective quotations (quote is still a verb only) are effective only insofar as weak arguments can be buttressed by appeal to authority, and that is possible only insofar as the reader can be assumed to not be familiar with the source material.  Both are uncharitable assumptions.  Quotations should be used sparingly and faithful to the source, which usually means long, lacking in ellipses, and put in context.  Siler quotes Thoreau as promoting the “tonic of wilderness” and by way of citation links to an incomplete quotation at goodreads.com.  The implication is that the valuable things to be found in wilderness cannot be had when the trip into said wilderness is excessively planned and the route too physically ambitious.  The whole paragraph in Walden ends with the sentence “We need to witness our own limits transgressed and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”  It’s not a far stretch, especially knowing Thoreau’s penchant for marathon walks, to think that a significant component of transgressing spiritual limits has to do with both physical stress and volume of country covered.  In a similar vein, people also find it easy to forget about John Muir’s eccentric minimalism, big miles, bivy in a steam vent on Shasta, and riding out thunderstorms high in the branches of pine trees.  I’ve said it many times: were they alive today, Thoreau and Muir would be drawn to things like the Wilderness Classic, because both knew that wilderness (or Wildness, as Thoreau better stated in Walking) is a mental construct before it is a thing-in-itself.  Siler’s cheap characterization of wilderness suggests that, at best, he is trying to carve out a distinction where one does not exist.

The point of all this is to behave well and generously when interacting with fellow humans, especially when they’re ones you’ll likely never meet.  It is good practice, and good insurance for those occasions when you actually do meet e-friends unexpectedly.  Siler closes his essay with the largely unarguable point that gear innovations have not only made lighter, but gear simpler and in many cases cheaper, and that when these things happen together obstacles to wilderness tend to fall away.  Unfortunately, he was so at pains to make this point that the post mostly serves to discredit himself.  I wish him better in the future.

The guts of freedom

Two years ago I did not know how to gut and butcher a dead mammal.  I had helped gut and butcher (the sterile, slightly dishonest term would be process) deer before, and knew how to gut a fish, but those don’t come close to being the same.  I wanted to be comfortable doing this before I went hunting for big game, so I watched videos, shot small game, practiced, watched more videos, and practiced some more.

The above video, by Meat Eater’s Steven Rinella, is the clearest, more thorough overview I’ve yet seen. As he mentions at the beginning, you don’t have to do it this way (see below), but practicing gutting exactly as Rinella does here will give you a solid foundation which can be applied to anything, from rabbits to deer, and then tailored to the species you hunt the most.

Randy Newberg’s video, below, takes the task of gutting and butchering to the next level, both in that it shows how to break down the animal into transportable parts, and shows a common and efficacious shortcut to the basic gutting methodology as espoused by Rinella.

It takes very few animals butchered to realize how remarkably similar mammals are to one another. And presumably, to humans. In the past few months, a lot of people have told me that they like eating game meat, but don’t want to have to take it apart themselves. Mostly, I think this reticence has to do with not being acquainted with how basic the procedure is. Minimal experience makes it quite simple. I can understand reluctance to hunt for your own meat; it’s a multifaceted discipline and few of those facets are themselves anything other than time consuming, and all of them must be grasped well before you head out. I have less patience for brute squeamishness related to not wanting to (quite literally) get your hands bloody. Setting the ethical dimensions of vegetarianism aside* for a moment, it’s safe to say that everyone has dirty hands insofar as they eat dead things (including dead plants). I do not approve of consciously remaining distant from this fact. It is, and should be, unpleasant killing and cutting apart something which was until very recently running around the woods. But I’m not sure that becoming numb to the blood is any worse than refusing to better know how your food comes to you.

It’s not the easiest thing to learn to do, but I’d encourage everyone to at least get educated on this subject. It is a humbling and empowering task.

* I don’t think plants dying feed other creatures is morally distinct from animals dying to do the same, but that’s a topic for another day.

A note on poststructural wilderness

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Last night I had something of a fever-dream flashback. It was no doubt enhanced by the sinus cold which has had me on the couch for the last 72 hours, but the effect was unmistakable: all of a sudden I came out of the haze of this weekends illness, through the chilly fog of coastal northern California, and into Bill Devall’s living room over a decade ago. I was between my junior and senior year of undergrad, and had secured a modest grant to write about modern environmentalism under the guidance of one of the founders of Deep Ecology. Having just come off two semesters of 19th and 20th century continental philosophy, I was well equipped to tell Bill how (for example) Kant had been filtered by Nietzsche into Derrida.

I was not equipped to elucidate the cultural divide brewing at time in environmental philosophy, and instead spent a lot of that cold summer listening to Bill and his colleagues. In summary, their complaints were the same as those raised by Kenneth Brower, son of the late Dave Brower, in a recent piece published by Outside.

Just as Mr. Brower says of wilderness, so I say when I try to sum up his arguments here: I know these debates when I see them. But 12 years on I still don’t fully understand them, where they came from, and why they remain such a big deal. Brower mentions “deconstructionists” and that “Their dogma has brought to the study of environmental history what deconstructionist theory brought to English departments across the land: surpassingly beautiful subject matter…is subjected to barren formulas and rendered a wasteland.”

My undergrad professors told me that the only people who used “deconstructionist” as a plural noun were those whose understanding was insufficient for the task of parsing and interpreting the variegated thinkers at work in the post-Foucaltian/Derridian world. A number of these folks used and use deconstruction as a method, but too many wilderness folks were all too willing to see outwardly confusing ideas wrapped in continental cafe smoke and, as Brower does in a low act of intellectual laziness, dismiss them with ad hominem attacks.

To keep my historical divergences brief; it is useful to deconstruct the idea of wilderness which is as of late 2014 given so much legal and cultural force in America. Langford and Hayden, instrumental figures in founding Yellowstone and the American NPS, had ideas about the worth of wilderness which were products of their time. So too did Theodore Roosevelt, Bob Marshall, Howard Zahniser, and of course David Brower himself. All of these biases are worth investigating and critiquing, and this process used as inspiration for the future. (As is the fact that of all the ready names I was able to dredge out of my mind, none of them were female or non-white). Complaining about this process is like those folks who, when Avatar came out in 2009, were dismayed that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy it as harmless entertainment after the profoundly racist tropes upon which the film was built were pointed out to them. Or, to be less prosaic, like those people who would rather not consider why so many well-of white western couples prefer to only adopt brown babies from third world countries (because poverty in the first world is genetically linked to degree of moral corruptness which is in turn linked to being not-white).

Wilderness, insofar as it only exists as a human idea, is of course a tainted concept, and will always remain so.

The real area of conflict is not, of course, in the historical dimensions of deconstruction applied to environmental thought, but in the ontological ones. The Derridian follow-up to any historical investigation of wilderness would be, as Brower hints at, a reminder that wilderness is a cultural construct which does not exist outside the human mind. Such statements do not mean that wilderness as a physical entity does not exist, at all, outside the human mind, merely that we are incapable of understanding, thinking, and talking about it in any other terms. Deer might have interesting things to tell humans about wilderness, but we cannot ask them. And if we could it is quite possible that we would never be equipped to gain anything from the conversation. The point here is that any discussion of wilderness where a party leans back on their interpretation as having better access to the Truth of wilderness is suspect. Said party is exercising, or attempting to exercise, hegemony of one form or another. In Brower’s case here, it is by claiming to have a better understanding of how wilderness as we know it was created.

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In the end this is a self-defeating argument. Brower would do better to focus on why his understanding of wilderness, and that of Dave Foreman, for instance, is preferable and more valuable than than those of the “deconstructionists” whom he abuses in his article.

Readers here may be familiar with the dislike I have for Emma Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden.  Brower might consider Marris a deconstructionist; and regardless my critique of Marris is one I think he would have been better off making against William Cronon and others.  Marris makes the obvious historical deconstruction of wilderness, and then concludes that this idea ought to be changed for the 21st century, largely because we humans have learned better and will be able to better manage wild places for ourselves and other animals in the near and distant futures.  It’s a myopic argument which bypasses what I see as the central conclusion, which ought to be drawn before all others, of the environmental movement from 1870 to the present.  We humans are bad at knowing what we don’t know, and we should keep the largest tracts of wilderness around as is possible because we have no way of knowing what we’ll learn from them in the future.  And if precedent is any guide, we’ll get important things from wilderness, soon.

If the arc of human knowledge as it’s best which went from Hume to Hegel, to Nietzsche to Derrida to us has done anything, it is show that human knowledge can be self-aware; can define things that it knows and things that it does not know, and maintain those distinctions during everyday life.  It’s not necessarily a comfortable position, but when we have decent thinkers like Brower and Marris throwing up their hands and diving off the boat (albeit in different directions), little good is accomplished.  I’ve long thought that the post-Hegel/Nietzsche project of revaluing human values leads inevitably towards environmental ethics, insofar as that discipline at its best is concerned with critiquing anthropocentric views of the world.  Combining an ethical understanding of the world which is explicitly anti-anthropomorphic with an knowledge-system (epistemic understanding) which denies capitol T truth claims has just enough contradiction to seem correct.

Apparently, the world isn’t ready for an environmental ethics based on a post-Nietzschean, post-Quinean epistemology, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be sad about it.

Fourth of July Creek

[Warning: The following contains spoilers.]

Smith Henderson gets it.  There are a number of very good things about Henderson’s novel Fourth of July Creek, but by far the most significant is that his portrayal of northwestern Montana, and the dark insular social landscape which to this day lurks close to the surface, is absolutely dead-on.  As a social worker in NW Montana for the last four years, I’ve given up discussing details of my job with just about everyone I know or meet.  Most wouldn’t believe a lot of it if I told them, and I wasn’t surprised to hear, in an interview with NPRs Robin Young, that Henderson choose to dial back some of the details around which he built his book.  The gasoline huffing runaway who ends up in Pine Hills (youth prison) after being sexually abused by his drug addicted mother and beat up by his social worker, and the paranoid man who retreats to starving in the woods after his wife commits uncomprehensible violence have two things in common; they’re both characters in Fourth of July Creek, and it is entirely probable that their real life equivalents are alive in this place right now.

You need a good reason to live west of the mountains and north of the bastion of civilization that is Missoula.  Whenever I meet someone, either for work or socially, I ask why they ended up here.  The winters are dark and foggy, the weather unpredictable year-round, and the brightest months of the summer overrun with tourists who most often act like a different species.  Trappings of culture and conveniences like multiple places to buy pants and shoes are modest, especially compared to the traffic.  And that’s in the Flathead valley where I live, the most populous and brightest region of northwestern Montana.  Here we’re surrounded by darkly timbered tendrils of the Pacific Northwest, but have the harsh sun, wind, and open spaces of the Continental Divide almost within reach.

Northwest Montana proper is further west, in Lincoln County, where most of Henderson’s novel is set.  Lincoln is given over entirely to deep river valleys and thick forests, broken only very rarely by bare alpine basins and small towns.  While the population of Flathead County has tripled since 1960, that of Lincoln has not even grown 10%, and suffered a significant dip during the 70s and 80s (the novel is set in 1981) as the logging and mining upon which the areas population came into being saw a vast reduction in scope and productivity.

IMG_0437The central Yaak, looking east-northeast towards the Whitefish Range, Eureka, and Canada.  This is country Jeremiah Pearl, anti-hero of Fourth of July Creek, knew well.

This heart of northwest Montana is a place at once huge and small.  It takes a discerning soul and more time than most are willing to give to see the differences between the monolithically green ridges, and even from a high place the long views mainly show you just how much you can’t see.  As Henderson emphasizes again and again, it is a good place to hide from the world.

Fourth of July Creek’s protagonist, Pete Snow, has a good reason for living in the lower Yaak, near the fictional town of Tenmile (a proxy for Libby, the county seat).  His marriage fell apart under circumstances he ultimately chose to not control, so he applied to be transferred up to what remains one of the least desirable postings at Child and Family Services.  There he can live in a small cabin, do enough work to fill his hours and satisfy his conscience, commune with other men who have made similar choices (be they loggers of judges), and rarely have to answer questions.

Pete’s worldview is shaken when a mysterious boy, obviously feral in a somewhat pre-modern sense of the term, appears at the local school.  Social workers are in the book, and remain today, fixers when no one else knows what to do, and thus Pete is called in to do the more complicated things, beyond medicating the boys malnutrition.  And thus the reader is drawn into the life of Jeremiah Pearl and his son Benjamin.  Pearl is a northwest Montana legend, someone who did what many of the hard-bitten, taciturn, independent men (and the full characters are almost all men) of the region have thought  of but always shrank away from: going fully away from society and living all the way in the woods.  Having a cabin with an outhouse and no running water, and perhaps doing some spring deer poaching, is one thing.  Giving up your truck, whiskey, and deliberately chosen ties to society is quite another.  People come to northwest Montana, as both Pete and Jeremiah did initially, to place the world at a controllable distance.  To refute it entirely, as Pearl and his son do, is a categorically different step, and one worthy of inevitable suspicion.  If you’re in a bar in Missoula and can explain your residence in Lincoln County as having to do with a dedication to hunting, fishing, skiing, and writing, it is a comprehensible, even admirable, choice, if still eccentric.  Some underlying wound is nonetheless supposed to fully explicate the anti-social behavior.  Pete, and the other men who inhabit Henderson’s Tenmile, recognize and accept antisocial choices, but still Pearl’s life is one which makes them uneasy.

In the end, the novel confirms this suspicion.  Pearl believes in the end of the world, and has prepared for it with huts full of venison and ammo, and a life designed to place him beyond the knowledge of governments.  He may have started down this path out of unique or idiosyncratic beliefs, but was in the end driven to fully inhabit it by family trauma so horrific that by comparison rationality is a frail and abstract construct.  Pearl’s wife, whom he loved dearly despite mental illness, and all of their children but one contract an illness from ice chipped out of neighbors freezer and made into snocones.  Rather than go back into civilization and seek medical attention, Pearl’s wife shoots her children, and then herself.

Awful things happen in the world everyday; more often than we realize they happen in our own cities and neighborhoods.  American society is tasked with balancing respect for adult decision-making, even choices seemingly made with self-destruction in mind, with enforcing rules which will contain society and enable it to move forward into future generations.  Pete Snow lives this contradiction.  His alcoholism affects his job performance, to varying degrees, but his is still competent and well intentioned, and most importantly willing and capable of bringing consistency to a job where that trait is both important and usually in short supply.  He is forced to grapple with the paradoxes of his profession throughout the novel.  He breaks the rules, letting the aforementioned gas huffing abuse victim free to live with friend he made on the street, and then letting Pearl and his son go as well.  Pete sees himself in both of these cases, he is forced to when his own daughter runs away and eventually becomes embroiled in street life as a prostitute.  Pete is only one small step, one routine twist of fate, away from sliding into criminality himself, from becoming one of the people whom he is paid by the state to police.  He is far from the best equiped to deal with the situations in which he finds himself by novel’s end, but neither is he the worst.  How far does he succeed?  Henderson properly leaves the reader questioning, and for that, and writing a novel which resonated so well with me personally, I thank him.

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