Cabin essentials

Colorado is The Catcher in the Rye of western US states; there are many obvious and compelling reasons people like it, but that doesn’t prevent it from being total fucking bullshit.


If you’re going to visit one of the forest service cabins of Montana there are a few things you should know.  Out of the essential list of salt, oil, tinder, garbage bags, and slippers you’ll surely forget at least one, but try to not leave an outright majority behind.  This is the most important thing.

It is also tempting to visit for one night only, especially if the cabin is local or if you are just passing through.  This usually does not work out well.  There is always too much to see in one evening and morning, even within 300 yards, but if the point of a cabin visit is to slow down and sit, chores and novelty prevent that too well unless you give yourself a full day and second night for the rest of your life to catch back up.

A natural corollary to the contemplative side is to go in the winter.  Montana winters are long.  As the solstice marches close today it gets dark-dark by 6 and is only light enough to move without a headlamp by close to 8.  Proper backpack camping is quite possible and its own brand of fun this time of year, but having a full room or two and a stove that will hold heat most of the long slumber such nights require is best appreciated now.


I’ve made a habit of packing a little shotgun or rifle for short excursions to hunt for squirrels and rabbits.  In the last 10 trips I do not believe I’ve shot more than two or three rabbits, but the practice is a good reminder for moving slow and exploring groves and thickets that you’d otherwise have to work far harder for an excuse to visit.

Mountain-top, or at least mountain-side, locations are preferred or at least a big bonus.  Later, and more readily visible, sunsets and earlier, more readily spectacular, sunrises are good reasons.  As is being in a place into which cold air does not sink in the wee hours, right as your last logs are sublimating out into the bright black sky.

It is always a good idea to hedge bets about how you’ll get to a winter cabin.  This past weekend was not the first time we’ve brought both skis and snowshoes along, with a choice made at roads end (snowshoes this time, too little snow).  Fatbikes are in theory good options for mixed and shallow snow cover, but the conditions which in the age of climate change predominate early winter, namely dry powder atop ice, tend to not suit bikes as well as the mere depth measurement would suggest.


Cabin trips were easy 2 years ago, when Little Bear would contentedly lay on a blanket and make noises at the fire through dinner and coffee time.  These days we worry that his enthusiasm will eventually take his head into the corner of the wood stove, but otherwise he’s easy.  Or at least as easy as he gets in toddlerhood.  He loves carrying wood, one medium piece at a time, and mostly stays far enough back to avoid flying chunks.

Which brings us to Colorado.  Last winter we went without a cabin, in large part due to the proximity of the desert, but also because Colorado doesn’t have that many forest service cabins, and those it does tend to be horrendously expensive.  In the age of rampant population growth, and National Park weekly passes which will soon top 70 dollars this is the state of things to come.  But that doesn’t mean it is right.  Full trailheads and user fees are symptoms of a disease, one we all too often spread just as we try to escape it.

Tis the season, right?

9 responses to “Cabin essentials”

  1. I’ll add:

    small axe- I always leave a box full of kindling (as well as split wood) when I leave, no one seems to do the same anymore?

    tp- sometimes it’s there, sometimes not; ditto on paper towels

    newspaper- nothing better for getting fires going

    small battery operated lanterns

    pillow- you don’t want to use theirs (if there is any)


    small dish soap

    slippers- oh yeah you mentioned those already :)

    leave your tp, paper towels, newspaper, coffee, soap behind for the folks that will forget to bring it

    1. Firewood etiquette does seem variable at best. The norm in the Park Service is to not only leave the kindling box full, but a fire laid and ready to light. I don’t always go that far but the categorical imperative seems appropriate here.

      1. funny it used to be something everyone knew and did; just like cleaning and sweeping before leaving- must be those damn Millennials :)

  2. Colorado is The Catcher in the Rye of western US states; there are many obvious and compelling reasons people like it, but that doesn’t prevent it from being total fucking bullshit.

    Now this is what I call a hot take.

    1. Killing it like smallpox since ‘06.

      1. We’re almost sick _enough_ of Texas, but you are saying Colorado sux like Holden? Downer.

        But doesn’t MT have less water, trees, and daylight, no monsoon in summer, and more Trump-ists? I couldn’t believe how dry you made CO look, when you lived there. I guess I picture myself up nearer the divide with the rest of the tourists, in summer.

        I never tire of your social commentary–to the extent that I can decode it. ;)

        1. I actually wonder if CO has more outright Trump republicans. It might be like gun ownership in a place like Arizona v. Montana. In the former it is disconcertingly often a strident identity statement. In Montana the world has either failed to catch up to the place or passed it by entirely, and guns are just something that people have. We did elect Gianforte this year, but what is generally not mentioned in that conversation is what an utter putz the Democrat was. Put another way, if Jeff Flake wants to relocate (from the town his family named) he could probably beat Daines handily.

  3. While I agree with your succinct review of Catcher in the Rye (wholeheartedly), I’d like to ask you to expand on your judgment. I personally found its angsty teenage melodrama to be highly conceited and unbearable, though I see how it could appeal to people who are old enough to look back at their own angsty teen drama with the rose tinted lenses of nostalgia. But I’d like to know your take.

    1. An appreciated question, if for no other reason than you jogged my memory and got me to dig up and re-read Louis Menand’s essay ( which is just as enjoyable as it was back in college.

      One way to answer your question is to ask why I just loathed Catcher when I first read it as a 14/15 year old freshman. If Menand is correct and the book is (or was during composition) about grief than this is an easy question to answer. I was just coming out of a big period of grief myself, and had managed to get through it by withdrawing a lot but not by being an asshole to many at all, and at that point just wanted to tell Holden to get his shit together. I thought then and still do now that nothing whatsoever excuses not only that kind of action towards others, but that kind of attitude.

      If Menand’s larger point is true, that Holden isn’t an authentic adolescent at all but rather some hagiographic trope of what adults want adolescents to have been, then it is even easier to see why the book sucks (and why it is similar to the state of Colorado). America has two great national diseases of the mind. The first is of meritocracy, which in the Trump era is being thoroughly unpacked, dissected, and hopefully over the next 3 decades put to bed. The second is the nostalgia of high school, that somehow the pinnacle of freedom is found in 17 year old irresponsibility and uncomprehension. (See Dazed and Confused, among many others.) Holden shows us that the freedom to dink around with someone elses money is no freedom at all, and yet somehow thats a narrative that needs to be revisited and rewritten (Menand’s point that books like The Bell Jar and Fear and Loathing are updates of Catcher is a good one). Books about gaining independence from within just aren’t as fun to read (or write), it would seem. It’s like the barn scene in White Noise; insofar as there was a true thing in the first place we’ve long since been trapped in interpreting the past via a social image of that past, which in the case of both the interpretation of Catcher and the way Holden views the world is more twisted than average.

      So how is this similar to Colorado? At some point in the not so distant pass it was without question the prettiest place in North America, but like LA or Vegas writ large that natural wonder has been utterly overwritten. In the case of Vegas that overwriting is literal; it takes serious feats of both imagination and logistics to even see the place as it might have been 200 years ago. LA is less so, but the same idea is at work. With Colorado the process is more abstract. The place has been absolutely eviscerated with roads, a function of it being the first place west heavily settled, a process of colonization currently being repeated. Too many people, and more relevantly too much information, makes the ideal of Colorado a thing that cannot reflect reality nor live up to it. This is not to say that there aren’t amazing places there, nor that it is not worth visiting, but like the Caulfeldian ideal of freedom Colorado as a “thing” is something we could probably live without.

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