Shame

…shame occupied a permanent and necessary place in the Trumpian scenario insofar as it was externalized and lodged in the left: the left seek to shame you for your guns, your racism, your sexual assault, your xenophobia! The excited fantasy of his supporters was that, with Trump, shame could be overcome, and there would be a “freedom” from the left and its punitive restrictions on speech and conduct, a permission finally to destroy environmental regulations, international accords, spew racist bile and openly affirm persistent forms of misogyny.

-Judith Butler

Trump is, unfortunately, not only America’s problem, which has in the past 3 weeks been one of my larger sources of comfort.  One could, this month, read only the New Zealand Herald and be perfectly informed on Biden v. Trump.  The best summary of US ballot initiatives I saw was in, of all places. Le Monde.  And it’s easier for me to think of the news sites, worldwide, which haven’t been closely covering our ongoing fiasco of succession the past two weeks than those which have.  Insofar as Trump is, along with Brexit, the most visible crest of the reactionary wave which has swept over much of the world recently, and insofar as he’s been an emboldening influence if not outright inspiration for the Bolsanaros and Jansas, his antics are a clear and vital interest for most of humanity.  As another commentator wrote; “I think we all feel the hand of history on our pussies.”  

Trump is a horrible person.  The question is not why he is, or why so many people embrace his horrid policies, but why so many people have embraced him, as a totem and lodestone.  In this he has a lot in common with the previous president born in New York City, Theodore Roosevelt, who also understood that the politics of personality have in the US so much to do not merely with symbolism, but with an idealist instantiation of national identity.  The US president is king, not in fact (though TR and Trump have disconcerting commonalities when it comes to executive power), but in spirit.  Just as TR embodied the agency America was afraid of losing in 1900, Trump embodies the supposedly uncomplicated world back before the rest of the world reminded white men how pervasive, difficult to shirk, and evil their bias is.  

The appeal of this is, obviously in retrospect, not just confined to white men.  It is one thing to embrace Obama winning the Nobel for being elected.  It is another to sustain a nuanced conversation about how policing in America is both systemically biased and has for decades been eroded by an expanded mandate without matching increases in funding and support.  US abortion policy (and evidently, abortion policy elsewhere) is, now more than ever, explicitly in the interest of sustaining the patriarchy, something which does not prevent the many Coney Barret’s of the world.  4 years ago Trump’s election was a specific backlash against a black president, and the possibility of a female president.  That backlash is still strong, as 75 million voters reminded us.  Wanting to keep the world thus simple is on the wrong side of history, as nearly 80 million voters and a female vice president can tell us.   The question for the future is not whether the patriarchy will give up their grasp on the world, but when, and how much those holding on will let crumble in the process.

A hunting story

This weekend I went hunting.  After a week of peculiar weather that began with 2 feet of snow and lows below zero and ended with sunny highs near 60, it was a quiet day.  The snow had been melting so fast I found no set tracks, new or old, and by the late afternoon had failed to glass up deer or elk in even the shadiest of beds.  When the sun sunk far enough for coolest to seep into the blue I was a ridge further than I had intended to be, and finally seeing deer.  Two bucks working through the sage far below me got me diving off the ridge.  After surfing scree and cactus down the gully I saw a bunch more, out in the flats, 3 feeding, another half dozen bedded.  They were far enough, and the light poor enough, that I pulled out the spotter from kneeling, behind a shrub, and double checked they were not the bucks from earlier.  Elimination said the bucks must still be on the gentle ridge, so I hauled down the final slope and up the wall , diagonaling a fresh deer trail through the pines as fast as possibly imminent shooting would allow.  Short of the crest I went left, trying to hold something dark in my backdrop, and balancing stealth with the fact that if I didn’t find them in the next 10 minutes lack of light would make further pursuit irrelevant.  And I found one, a ways out, antlers tall and white against the sage and then juniper.  He had me pinned, and while I had time for an off-hand shot, the distance was a bit much, and the shrubbery made kneeling or sitting impossible.  There was not answer, and the deer stotted off hautily as daylight left.

This is where the story begins.  I was perhaps 1 and a half miles, straight line, from the car.  My route, on the ground, had been easily three times that.  Reversing the same route and taking out the squiggles would shorten things nicely, the disadvantage being route finding in the dark along forested hillsides and along steep ridges which I knew had at least a few cliff bands.  The safe and palatable alternative was a brief bushwack the other way and a long circuitous walk on trails, faint enough that I would probably briefly get off track a few times.  The safe and unpalatable option was a steep side hill to the paved road, and a long walk on a road with no shoulder.

The deer trail led east through the sage, and in a few hundred yards I had decided to take the direct route.  Continued progress dead east should whack me straight up against the ridge, and a walk along the top would lead me to a saddle.  Ideally I’d contour at the right time, hit the saddle dead on, contour again up the opposite slope to not gain needless elevation, then drop just a hair south to avoid contour lines which looked suspiciously steep on the final descent.  And that is just what I did.  I had to stop after 10 minutes and do what I ought to have done when I got out my headlamp: put my little Silva compass around my neck.  They currently have the Field model listed as a beginner compass.  It’s light without being too small, and I have it strung with a length of reflective 1/16″ bungee, on a loop small enough that it hangs high and tight, but can be pulled far enough out to site a bearing.  I found immediately that my gut had been right, the sidehill in witch I’d been battling thick fir had curved south, and I needed to cross the gully and begin the steep climb.

This I did, skirting a few cliff bands on the way up, and a few more along the ridge top.  Moon rise was still distant enough to give no hint of relief in the night, and I yelled down into the void to double check that I was atop the correct, deep, canyon.  I almost hit the contour correct, bottoming out in the now gentle gully 100 vertical feet from the saddle, and confidence reinforced, missed the cliffs on the decent by 20 yards.  The moon rose and cold sunk as I reached the trail, and I put on all my clothes for the final 15 minute stroll to the road.  What had been a enjoyable and interesting, if unremarkable hunt, had turned into a lovely piece of physical and skills practice by impulsively agreeing to take just a bit of a chance.  With everything going correctly, it took a hair over an hour to go from headlamp on to feet on the trail.  Either safe option would have likely been twice that.

The Frank Open 2021

Bonanza to Fenn Ranger Station.  Saturday April 24th, 0600 MDT. (?)

That’s 126 straight line miles.

Here’s what is in my head about this.  First, that is a big route.  Probably close to 200 miles on the ground.  Second, that time frame has the obvious potential to be quite challenging.  Third, and most important, I don’t know much about the area.  I don’t know which trailheads are plowed regularly, which roads get lots of snow machine traffic, how the more open terrain does or does not melt off come early spring.  I have my guesses about all of these things, but a decade of the Bob Open has taught me repeatedly that guesses aren’t ideal for the organizational aspect.  Adding to the complications, the shuttle from one end to the other is massive, and even six months out we’d all be fools to expect anything in particular of the Coronavirus.

For all of these reasons the Frank Open really isn’t going to be an Open in the sense we’ve come to expect.  Even moreso than usual, this is a route I’ve been eyeing for a long time, and if other people want to get in on all or part, that would be neat.  Ideally, and with health concerns permitting, we’d be able to figure out a way to make the driving less irksome.

This is almost a packraft mandatory route.  There are a handful of ways to use bridges, but the rivers (and in late April I assume streams) are several notches bigger than in the Bob.  I chose the start point based on things I want to float, which brings up the second complication, river permits.  Having one for stretches of the Middle Fork will make a lot of sense in many cases.  As of today, there is almost full availability for the relevant week.

This will also be a ski or snowshoe mandatory route, though I am guessing that in a normal year there is a surprising amount of dirt walking to be had.

Interested?  Get in touch.

The mighty 5

Last week we did what we used to do every fall, and spent a week in the Colorado Plateau.  In this we’re fortunate; the number of things we did differently, because of Coronavirus, amounted to almost nothing beyond wearing masks into gas stations and always getting restaurant food to go.  Camping, biking, climbing, backpacking on the Colorado Plateau: in many respects they’ve changed a lot in the decade since we lived either in or near it and were out there on a weekly basis.  But in many ways they have not, and while the pandemic has likely contributed to the changes, perhaps significantly, those impacts were easy to not see while camped in the sand looking up at the milky way, and after the last 9 months, that constancy and nostalgia was restorative.

Things were undeniably busy, and while generalizing from one experience is always problematic, it is a useful leading indicator.  Parking lots at Bryce were entirely full, even the more obscure ones.  Thunder Mountain was as dusty and blown out as any trail I’ve seen.  Every pullout on the spur road to the White trailhead on Gooseberry was taken.  We started the walk down to Fence Canyon in the Escalante at 430 in the afternoon, and passed at least 30 people, 3/4 of them dayhikers, on their way back up from Neon.  On the other hand, we saw almost no one on every one of our adventures, save the on the trail to fence and while in the national parks.  Places like God’s Skateboard Park and the Golden Cathedral look much as they did a decade ago, in spite of more footprints in the sand.

Zion, and specifically its shuttles, did look quite different.  Since reopening this summer the park has been significantly limiting traffic on the shuttle buses, which have for decades been mandatory for going into the heart of the canyon, and on who restrictions are mandatory, given that at busy times they’re routinely standing room only and packed beyond capacity.  I logged on mid-Zoom meeting to snag reservations for two days in October, and out of distraction stuffed up the numbers of seats reserved.  After 3 minutes, when I went back to get more for one date, they were already booked solid.

The perhaps intended result of this restriction on traffic, and on those without the willingness or ability to plan ahead, was a stream of folks walking and riding bikes up the road into the park.   LB and I rode in on the day we were short seats, and that 40 minute pedal up a cool and mostly empty road was far preferable to the next day, where we spent almost the same time waiting in line to get on the bus, me using first proximity and then silent farts to keep the loud folks from Tennessee a full six feet behind us.  Zion has long been the standard bearer in the park service for shuttle use, with Bryce close behind.  Grand Canyon muffed their implementation long ago by failing to build a parking/orientation/shuttle complex in Tusayan, and the list of parks for whom shuttles, or obligatory shuttles, are sorely needed has been growing by the year.  Even Capitol Reef, which even recently was sleepy even by national monument status, is this year running into parking lots which are vastly exceeded by visitors, even in non-prime times.

After our trip abroad I believe COVID has injected significant momentum into the growth in the outdoors which was already underway.  (By 1000am on a Saturday Great Basin, the definition of far from anything in the lower 48, had parking lots filling up.)  The extent to which remote work will in the next years become widespread is likely being overstated, but it ought to be the hope of many smaller western cities and towns that the movement in nonetheless significant.  This is the answer for sustainable growth, the third way which is neither extractive industry nor pure tourism.  These people will want to be local to some parks, and within a day or a simple weekend from many others, and along with the greater group of now-enlightened tourists they will want a quality national park experience.

In the very near future having a quality park experience will become the educated and crafty exception, rather than the rule, and the resultant cynicism about rocky, tree-y disneyland is as of today a vastly underestimated liability for the parks, longer term.  Zions shuttle experiment, essentially a quota, showed definitively that such an approach can both provide a better (though still very busy) experience and motivate plenty of people to get in under their own power.  It reminded me just how more congruous biking up a paved road is for the park experience.  And hopefully, it will provide impetus for more parks to take similar action, wholeheartedly, and very soon.

The best trail

Last month I bought a new bike, my first brand new one in almost a decade. That one, nine years ago, was the first generation Salsa Mukluk, the first broadly available fat bike not called Pugsley. It has, because it still works great, a lot of things my new bike does not: straight steerer, one choice in headset size, external cable routing. I bought the Mukluk as a frameset, meaning I got a frame and fork in a box, bought everything else I didn’t already have separately, and put it all together. This also is an increasingly dead way of getting a bicycle, with few of the options I considered last month available frame only, and none of those making economic sense on the face of it. The new economy of scale gets you all the relevant components for less than the price of the frame over again.

And scale is another thing that has changed in the bike industry this year. I almost missed out, and ended up hunting down a shop in Mississippi which had a San Quentin 1 left, in XL. Numbers I’ll cover in a later post, save to mention that I called that shop, again, at the beginning of October to inquire if I might get my new bike before we left for the Colorado Plateau in a few weeks. I did barely, as they had sold through their whole 2021 stock in a matter of days, and were weeks behind in building them. And no, they could not (due to warranty reasons) just send me the whole mess to sort out myself. So 52 hours before we left a very large box arrived, and I had that time to assemble, alter, trouble shoot, figure out that I’d need a new headset to mount the rigid fork I’d purchased, make a trip to the local shop out of utter confusion at what headset that would be, then finish component swaps and tubeless conversion, atop packing all the other stuff we’d need for 11 days away from home.

The new bike worked great, and having it stowed day to day on the roof rack, rather than on a hook in the bike room, took me forcefully away from the discontent and the fiddling which bridge a new machine, eventually, into familiarity. Instead I rode it on an almost daily basis, often in dirt circles around camp, but also on the practice loop at Gooseberry, up the road to the lodge in Zion, on a pump track in West Salt Lake (wiggle break on the drive home), and down Thunder Mountain, the best trail in the world.

Thunder Mountain is on the west side of the Paunsaugunt, with Bryce on the east. It starts in rolling, sand bottomed ponderosa forest, snakes its way through liminal drainage heads to the ridge, above, before plunging down a few sets of steep, loose, and very dusty switchbacks and ridge drops in the process of going north to the ridge next to the road. At which point I was late, and at which point one encounters a trail sign. 1.4 miles that way, to the road, and untold miles the other way, into the unknown. Over a decade ago I experienced that unknown, and had a cold night out as part of my trouble. On this trip I tucked into the subtleties of the descent to the road, glad that it was very quick, and that my new bike came alive on it’s first full force outing.

Everyone loves a new bike, it just takes a while to finally know each other.

Hiking Kant into the 21st century

Even professionals dread Kant.  His style, especially in translation, is notoriously turgid, but the primary difficult with him is the same as with any writer pushing the edge of what language can do.  Another way to put that would be, pushing the limits of what humans can understand about the world and themselves.  Indeed, Kants most useful idea is that understanding and the world are at once the same and inextricably separate.  And this is the idea which we can take into the backcountry.

Understanding and the world are the same because, as individuals, the shape of our minds and the nature of our experience determines what we can see, what we can know, what we can experience.  Historically, this is the beginning of that horribly generic term “relativism”.  The struggle with Kant is to not allow routine to flatten this idea into sameness.  Just because we cannot see beyond our experience does not mean that things (in themselves, to use his phrase) do not exist beyond that experience.  It takes discipline and profound humility to keep the inherent limits of both individual understanding and human communication at the forefront of ones daily mind.

A prosaic example, and the one I find most difficult to verbalize, is reading and moving through terrain.  Ones experience creates possibility the first time you look into a basin: where humans might have built trails, which animals are around and how they might use the area, how the geology, climate, and flora will dictate lanes of travel.  The sheer size of any basin makes definitive understanding impossible, but (move on to Hegel) the best case in wild navigation is not found in maximal understanding of the world (which is impossible) but in maximal understanding of the self.  Sensory experience turns inward and knowledge of the self and instinctual apprehension of the terrain meld, facilitating both animal-like decision making and acceptance of pace minimally influenced by effort.

Good shoes

There is an emerging consensus is that 23% of the land on earth (excluding Antarctica) remains “unmodified by the direct effect of human activities.”  In a similar vein, the mass of humans on earth is, currently, “an order of magnitude higher than the mass of all wild mammals combined. ” Thus it seems in retrospect appropriate that several hours before dawn, we hit a deer driving to the trailhead, and equally appropriate that my shoes proved so satisfactory on the walk which followed, after we left the deer behind to die.

There is a long ridge in western Montana that runs north to south for a good distance.  It is high, by Montana standards, enough to be alpine in weather and thus rockiness, above treeline due to climate rather than sheer elevation.  And it is very rocky indeed, stunningly so, in a way which quickly ground us down once we left the limited stretch with a trail along the crest.  You can’t really see this ridge from the highway, from any direction, unless you know where to look.  The foothills are big enough and the trees in the valleys more than tall enough, things which combine with a locale just far enough from anything easily recognized and make for a place minimal presence on within the information economy.  It has plenty of trails, but almost all of those go up a valley, generally stopping at the largest and lowest lake.  

The overwhelming majority of that remaining 23% will not surprise, in that taiga, desert, and high mountains are the places on earth whose utility humans came to last.  And even then, now, the Alps are run through with lifts and roads, and the Sierra covered in trails.  A hiker has to work to find a place outside the great north which isn’t predefined by human development, however threadlike.  And it should be no surprise that hiking shoes reflect that.

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By late morning we had been on our feet for 6 hours, gained 3000 feet (via trail, albeit an obscure one), dropped close a thousand several times, gained it back several times, lost a trail that was on the map, found a trail in a different place that it was supposed to be, then found a trail where it was supposed to be, making fast progress again.  It was hot for autumn, hot for any time really, and we could look west and see well into the vague fire haze and feel not a breath of wind.  The whole world seemed to hold its breath, save the squirrels and pikas.  They had no distracted moments, prepping for the winter which might begin next week, but we needed water, in a desperate, midsummer sort of way.  Well off the ridge we went, with a steep climb back up, and then into the sidehilling.  

We’re well past the golden age of trail building, and likely to the point where in developed, official wilderness (upper or lower case) new trails will happen rarely if at all.  90 years ago the CCC proved that given enough hands and money humans will build a trail anywhere, but extending this trail onto the steeper sections of the divide would have been up there with the West Rim trail in Zion.  It seemed a chicken or egg question as we picked or way across, alternatively dodging shifty blocks and tight trees; was it the slope, too steep and rocky to hold together, or was it the added height, just too far up into the weather to grow more consistent and predictable vegetation?  No answers emerged, as we continued on, learning to favor clean talus on the lee side, and to not underestimate the number of cliff bands or size of boulders which strafed across each descent.  I appreciate how my low shoes made friction moves reliable, how the cushion was just enough to blunt poor footfalls without dulling feel too far, how the tread had enough live edges, particularly side to side, and sticky enough rubber, that sidehilling beargrass and granite slabs were easy enough that I could exploit both of those for the relative flatness they provided.  The next morning, as we bushwacked down to the exit trail, hauling the shreds of our ambition, I appreciated the flexible yet padded ankles, fending off snagging alder, and again the sticky rubber, as I played across ladder logs to dodge another 30 feet of chin-high fireweed.

I was left thinking, for hours, how long it would take to train my patience back from trail pace.  We knew days before that fitting my schedule into the whole ridge was likely an impossible prospect, and my thin justification for trying it was built, without critical consideration, around extrapolating down from trail miles.  If we put forth X effort over these given hours, then dock ourselves down by a certain percentage, maybe we’ll be as close to as fast as our legs and eyes think we should be.  Those estimates ended up being very well short of what we managed, and it seemed like the opposite mentality will in the next few years be the project.

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Tom’s shoes did not treat him so kindly.  Altra Olympus’s, which in the five years since I tried them have not become any less even-trail specialists.  In retrospect I’m rather shocked by my optimism, having so recently witnessed Tom’s ankles fighting the stack height, his balance fighting the rubber, and the rapidity with which the foam part of the sole wore flat over less than 36 hours.

It is illustrative to read about biomass on earth and see that for all our supposedly reckless omnipotence, we’re less than a 16th the mass of all the bugs on earth, a third of all the segmented worms hiding where we rarely care to look.  I should have expected those deer to leap out of the darkness, crossing ditch to field, because I’ve hunted them and thus took notice of when and where they eat.  So too with the elk we heard and whose trails we followed, highways of light undergrowth following the most mature canopy from stream to bench.  I can’t see the canyons and ridges as an elk, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to guess where and if they choose to tolerate the rocky crests, or where they’d be spending this hot autumn if humans hadn’t come and built so thoroughly through the bottoms and meadows and low forests.  If days walking in the woods has any potential to go beyond solipsism it is in showing us, implacably, where our understanding of the world fails.  With that quest in mind, I’m beginning to see human trails as actively counter productive.

Small bikes

Yesterday proved to be a momentous one; Little Bear pedaled his 20″ wheeled Commencal Ramones unassisted, for the first time.  Over 20 minutes he went from tentatively agreeing to try it, in the extended flat grass near the bike park, to pedaling circles with me assisting, to gleefully upshifting for sprints along the paved path, downshifting to grind through the volleyball sand, and plowing through ditches once he realized how much stability the larger wheels and knobby, 2.6″ tires gave him, compared to the 12″ singlespeed he’s been riding all year.  He easily transitioned to the pump track, and then the larger bump line amongst the dirt jumps.  From a distance, I saw him intentionally swerve off line descending the start hill, plowing through the weeds on a steep and loose roller.  For all the joy and freedom the previous two bikes had brought him, it seemed like this one was matching technology with his capability and imagination in ways which put it into the next realm, big kid bikes, with adult possibility on the horizon.img_0408

We started the bear with since discontinued Yuba run bike (green, top), for his first birthday.  He pushed it around and then walked around astride it for close to six months, when his legs got long enough and something clicked, and he wanted to ride it everywhere.  For his second birthday he got a Cleary Gecko, a 12″ wheeled singlespeed with v brakes.   The Gecko proved invaluable, but the contrast between the two mostly served to highlight the virtues of the Yuba.  It’s light, with an aluminum frame and solid foam tires.  The hubs and headset are built of the most rudimentary bushings, the seat drops low, and the head angle is notably slacker than most.  It is less than half the weight of the steel Gecko.  Until he was past 3 pedaling seemed quite beyond the bear, and watching him foot brake the Yuba down the steeps hills around our house was scary enough that I pulled the cranks off the Gecko, and the bear happily ran it as a strider for over a year, getting very good at braking points very quickly, and consistently getting close to 20 mph zipping downtown.  Happily that was, until he had to get it back up those hills.  If I had a bike half my weight, I’d whine about climbing, too.61003435180__4b2ea8f7-f913-423b-b730-11283a3bb6c3

At the end of last summer, a bit beyond his fourth birthday, I put the cranks back on, and he easily pedaled down the slanting walk in front of what is now his elementary school, but it wasn’t until this spring that everything came together, and suddenly he was starting, stopping, and generally navigating the complexities of the pedaled world all on his own.  He and I could ride to the bike park from home, detour downtown to get a cookie, and take the scenic route home at a less than glacial pace.  Not too long after the Commencal went up for preorder, which we fortunately did, as they sold out in a matter of hours after coming into stock.  I messed up the first ride, as even after aggressively trimming the seatpost he could only just get toes on the ground.  I didn’t stay close enough, and his first ride in the alley resulted in a crash, and the Ramones being on a hook in the garage for 5 months.

It’s a tough balance, being a parent and seeing kids physical capability be so far ahead of their mind.  The complete ease with which the bear has transitioned up with both pedal bikes is the best reminder I could imagine for me to not be impatient in the future.

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For his part, Little Cloud has reminded us that every kid is different when it comes to bikes, often drastically so, for reasons not always well accounted.  He is a good bit shorter than his older brother was, at 2.5, though probably stronger and more coordinated, but in spite of (or because of?) the modeling and involvement in outings has been radically slower in adopting the run bike.  His proclivities here are 12 months behind, certainly a lesson in patience, and obviously at a least a good bit due to his character and preference.

Were we to do it over again, we’d buy something like the Yuba as early in a kids life as we did.  It can’t hurt to have it available, as a gesture of your belief in their possibilities.  A few companies make one with a rear v brake, which could be first taken off and then added back as speeds increase.  For anyone who lives in a hilly place I’d say that is mandatory.

I don’t think we’d buy the Gecko again.  Singlespeed is a good way to go for the first pedal bike, but I think 12″ is too small for most kids by the time they have the muscle and bravery to pedal.  On the other hand, a small bike (or at least one with massive standover) is a huge advantage for a first pedal bike.  I’m also quite convinced that training wheels and coaster brakes are evil inventions which have held countless kids back from biking confidence.  It would also be nice to find something at least a little lighter than the steel Clearys.

Kid sized components are fantastic, things like pedals that don’t stick out a mile, and brake levers with reach short enough for 4 year old hands.  A bike like the Ramones is a screaming value, too.  I can’t imagine Commencal has much margin on it.  A few items have been a bummer in this regard.  The 1″ threadless steerer on the Gecko prevented us from using adult stems to adjust the fit, and the tires which can stock are heavy enough in the sidewall that ~40 pound Little Bear can run low single digit pressures on 1.75″ wide tires.  They have been quite flatproof though.

More than anything, I wish there were an intuitive equivalent to a run bike for things like skiing.  Aside from shifting, and to a lesser extent braking technique, there’s been almost no didactic instruction in the Bear’s biking journey.  He just grabs the tool and goes and learns by doing, which I’ve always though is the most enduring way to learn anything.

The new dread

As with, I imagine, most of us, a big part of my day has to do with the numbers. How many new cases in our county, the counties of our friends, our state, and eventually, our world? Anxiety promotes the parochial, and throughout the last six months a major source of comfort has been how little impacted Montana has been by Covid, and how within Montana, how little impacted Lewis and Clark county has been. The above numbers say that we’ve had 275 cases, total, in our county of 70,000. Until the past week, we’ve had exactly one day with new cases out of single digits (and that was a day with 10), went all of May without a single case (duh?), and from mid August to mid September had almost as many days with no cases as with any.

*Numbers and chart from NY Times

Of course, three weeks ago we started back to school. “Went” doesn’t really capture the backfires and potholes of the past month. I was back in my office at school, for the very first time since Friday March 13th, seeing clients both in person and virtually (Zoom, phone; reliable internet still being a dicey thing around here). The week before Labor Day students new to the building trickled in for orientation, families electing to stay virtual got their teacher assignments, and once everything had only just fallen into place, school started in the new normal mode on September 8th. In Helena proper we’re one of the few districts in Montana who did not go back with all students in the building all the time. The first half of the alphabet comes in Monday and Tuesday, the second Thursday and Friday. Wednesday is given over to industrial cleaning of the schools, teachers working out what is going on with virtual instruction, and for Little Bear, who is in kindergarten this fall, virtual show and tell (reportedly hilarious and disorganized). Indeed, between when I got started writing this and when I was able to return after a block of sessions, the news let us know that our school district reported its first positive cases over the past weekend.

The timing and inevitability surprised few, I would hope.

The question is not how we’re going to manage this pandemic in the long run. That has been evident for a while, and hinges on an election where we hopefully choose to face the future rather than shelter in the past, a prospect which seems hardly certain during the most fearful time of my life. The question is how we’ll manage the little things, day to day, which add up over weeks and months to almost everything. I’ve had a hard time since March in recapturing the relevance which used to permeate my job as a school therapist, and I have to be optimistic, about the remoteness of Montana, about all that everyone at school has tried to do, about our prospects for learning hard lessons from this, as a country, society, as a planet. Little Bear doesn’t know what he isn’t getting in two days a week at school, and probably more than makes up for it by sharing a classroom with his teacher and 3 other students. I know what I’m not getting, having put my job into the nexus of society which has been willfully eroded by those who insist on bars staying open and weddings taking place. I open to any paper from Montana, see the muddled data and articles about parent groups protesting restrictions on football audiences, and wonder how much of the spike we see today is riding out of the storm, and how much is humans as cattle, facing away from the blizzard and walking to certain death, stoic in momentary comfort.

Anxiety is a slippery thing, all the moreso when it is global in reach. In 2020 few people want to name it, and as populous places in the northerly parts of the earth walk towards winter I find it hard to assume that the dread waiting for us under the wallpaper won’t become our collective delusion, as society decides, for lack of leadership, to deny just how wrong things are. Normalcy and coherence is possible, now, but without public data and without guidance and modeling families and households will make it up as they go, reacting to stress as a deer to flies, in step with their neighbors over all the wrong things. By choosing to deprioritize schools we’ve elected to ignore narrative and community, exactly the wrong lesson from the pandemic.

Too many elk

Out on the prairie the clear night sunsets linger half an hour past those in the mountains, with light still sneaking back over the curve of the earth throwing shadows longer than human comprehension.  Elk and trees and I blended in, each another thing taller than the grass and hilltops, whose rolled edges were themselves bled from grey to dark.  I was left sitting on the grass with little sense of up or down, save knowing that like last night the milky way would soon come out quick, and the elk would continue on bugling and chirping in the unseen folds below.

The dull spaces in a day of hunting are ideal for growing doubt.  Still cool mornings knolltop and under a cliff band, early afternoon, heat rising such that all save the grasshoppers are quiet, tight to the edge of a sage field, antler tips visible out of the trees 25 yards down the hill, in bed reading satellites from shooting stars, twitching calves poking the mind awake.  Will they bed along the ridge, like yesterday?  Should I run to cut them off?  When they stir will they come this way?  Will the lead cow take the east gully over the pass, or the west?  Should I stay high and tight to the ridge, for better wind, or move down and have more coverage, if I get to draw?  If I shoot that one, should I pack out in two loads or three? Up the coulee bottom cow trails, or out along the finger ridge?  Will the rack fit inside, or go on the roof? If I miss again, what sort of person will I become?

Too many elk is one partial remedy for these questions.  With all weapons the first battle with elk is finding them.  I’ve gone weeks with nothing more immediate towards this end than not utterly dry scat.  On this hunt I arrived at midnight, first box checked in a long dirt road drive done with no wrong turns or flat tires.  I nearly ran into a spike bull standing on the road 5 miles back, and could hear this herd bugling as the moon heaved to rise.  For the three days I had to hunt, past experience was confounded almost once a waking hour, on average.  Expecting a silent walk back a simple trail to a shade tree which might have, hours hence, become a glassing location turned up an immediate crack, which turned up one of the several frighteningly tall-tined six by six bulls, walking towards me in tight pines.  Forgetting to pick a spot, I shot in front at 7 yards.

Walking up the other side of the same draw, going the opposite direction on the next night, I walked into a herd, up and about far earlier than expected.  A spike passed 10 yards below, another bull alternately fed and stared across, 10 yards above, and the fat, dark six by six with shorter, thicker, tightly hooked antlers gurgled happily to himself 15 yards down the hill.  As each day passed evening focus became more fleeting as I worked harder and harder to find time to keep up on electrolytes and down on the growing frenzy of the moment.  Action culminated the last afternoon, with two separate tall six by sixes.  The first morning I had thought them unique.  The last morning I descended a ridge from my bivouac tree and saw this one as a virtual quintuplet, one of the herd of over 100 elk and at least 30 brow tined bulls, five of whom were gobsmackingly elevated, to the extent that I could not meaningfully tell them apart.  One I saw, by luck and skills mixed, bedded just off that hanging safe meadow, my approach under, around, and behind safe in the wind.  I was above at 30 yards, he was bedded back to me, the trees had me slide and crawl much closer than I dared, even on this 25th of 26 stalks, and then bounced my good arrow over his back.

The 26th was him or his twin, bedded on the shady edge of a crumbling dirt knife, idly bugling back to the gurgler, who I had bumped into the next basin.  The stalk seemed ideal, especially with no trees between him and me peaking over the ridge, when a spike and cow bedded in thick woods blew out and down the hill.  They seemingly took the bull with them, as minutes later I found his bed empty, and myself ready for a short, steep walk back to the road and a drive home without the problem of putting antlers in the back or on the roof.   Too many elk where I did not want them, and one too few where I did.  The former was by far the more unique, common, memorable, and during the hunt frequent instance.  The later is the one which, today, sits heavier on my mind.

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The missed shot on the big bull walking towards me in the midday trees is the sort of opportunity that does not happen often.  It is as perfect an example as will ever happen of how luck and perseverance become muddied together after a few big days afield, such that the idea of them not being the same is no longer thinkable.  Had that bull walked that direction at that moment and I not been there, I would never have known.  And whether and how my having been more stealthy, or gone a different way at first light that morning, or taken 10 seconds longer to look at a rock atop a ridge an hour before, might have stirred the bull differently is as uncomprehensible as, the next day, half the herd jumping the fence to continue straight while the other half delayed, demurred, and eventually all went left, to swim in a stock pond.

It is convenient to view my lack of new antlers at home as evidence of poor hunting prowess. In some ways this is true, especially when it comes to shooting practice that was over the spring and summer, plainly inadequate.  My longbow practice this year has been focused less on volume, and on hitting a smaller target at varying ranges, and more on form and repeatability.  For me, predictability with my longbow blends exactitude and blankness is a way which strongly echos the epistemology of hunting itself.  Absorbing focus on the target must be absolute, while in the same moment free of concern about details.  Thinking about the arrow tip going someplace will always send it somewhere else; the more precise the concern, the wilder the deviation.  Concern with keeping my elbow up will send something else out of line.  With that seven yard miss I went all the way back, in the excitement of what I knew to be a dead easy opportunity, and forgot to pick a spot on that all encompassing swath of tan fur.  Which is how I shoot a yard off at 7 out.

What no one else will ever be able to know is just how far all the things I did properly over those three days went.  There were enough close calls that within the hour one had begun to drown others out.  Where there truly elk on every likely hillside, or did my walking into them so often have to do with knowledge, more than probability?  No one and nothing can tell me, and like the elk themselves, my supposed knowledge of them, their doings, wiles, and motives is not more than a reflection of myself.

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Hunters have become conditioned by modernity, and expect animals like elk to behave as liminal members of society.  They hide in obscurity, be that off in the distance our under the armpit of humans, and in either case properly run away from us, quickly and instinctively.  The vision of elk as unfogged by that fear is background noise, either in media images of elk locked away from humans on private ranches, or of elk far enough back in time that they lived in a world still primarily there own, or at least primarily not of and for humans.  Lewis and Clark hunted within miles of where I was, and that spring lived easy, at least as easily as a diet of almost straight lean game meat allows.  Their hunters were skilled, necessity and lifestyle and their place in history giving them skill I’ll always struggle to grasp, but along this stretch of the Missouri the diaries suggest that skill was not much needed.  It is easy to forget, in my current non-elkedness back home, that with my effective range pulled out to 80 yards my trip would have been perfunctory.

For three days I was the only hunter in a series of elk-filling drainages that built several hundred feet from muddy cow bottoms up through badlands to the flat tops.  The north facing slopes were filled in with ponderosa, which at this latitude and degree of aridity do an excellent pinon pine impersonation.  A few, seemingly random pockets of ground water grew old cottonwoods, whose soft and persistent leaves had a dulcet rustle as jarring, in that sharp and silent land, as cracking glass.  Elk bedded in all the likely spots right off the ridge tops, and let me get away with things that will surely never work again.  On day one I slid down a subtle grassy depression, fully past half a dozen cows and calves, and got within 40 yards of that first tall bull I spotted when lefty, a dark muddy bull with five points on his right antler and none on his left decided he didn’t like me, and spurred the herd into motion.  That afternoon a steep route up through dark pines stirred up a spike bull at 15 feet, who stood broadside and starred for over a minute before running off.  The next evening I hid behind a moo cow and closed to within 20 yards of a bull, only for the wind to shift.

Like so many dry, cracked, and lonely places in the American West, this elk country was not wilderness.  Cattle were ubiquitous.  Stock ponds and improved springs popped up hourly.  Roads, current and especially past, had at one point gone over almost every likely ridge.  Out east across the flats, the big lights of ranch buildings numbered almost to double digits.  For all of this enduring human impact, the land was quite wild.  It took almost two hours on dirt roads to get there.  Those farm lights, candescent as they were, stood also profoundly singular for the darkness everywhere else.  The milky way striped horizon to horizon with no softening at the edges, and by full dark the strands of impossible distances stood out and could be seen to intertwine.  The elk seemed to only dimly recognize what humans were, or perhaps not at all, beyond another odd thing occasionally too close for instinct.  The wildness, as Thoreau talked about, reminded me how brief my human knowledge will be, and just how small I can hope for the radiance of its luminence.  And that is something to carry at once lighter and far heavier than meat and a set of antlers.