Why I like the desert

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Like most Americans, or indeed most contemporary humans, I spent a lot of time reading about the desert before I experienced it firsthand. I have some hazy memories of a family swing through the Colorado Plateau of Utah when I was eight, spotty visions I can now place as the chopped steps on the traverse into Hidden Canyon in Zion, an obscure perennial creek in Dinosaur, the Fremont River in Capitol Reef. These do not count. I could only start to get to know the desert, to judge it on my own merits, as a budding adult in college. By then the images of Desert Solitaire were colored by the frenetic emptiness of late teenage years, and by my obsession, the activity which at the time most defined my life and often harshly highlighted the lack of self-certainty back then, rock climbing.  Fortunately climbing tends to provide good views, especially in the desert.  It’s hard to appreciate, from any vantage, the roundabout path erosion took when cutting Onion Creek, but a summit in the Fischer towers helps to clear the air.  One tends to see important things faster when the past few hours featured multiple near falls on X-rated “easy” 5.8.  It was a good start on contemplating what Abbey called “…”this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space…”

In the Bundy era all public lands employees must live a little closer to the edge, but the Bureau of Land Management has relative to the Forest Service and National Park Service always been maligned.  And correctly, sometimes, it did not earn the nickname Bureau of Livestock and Mining for no reason, just as the NPS has occasionally deservedly been called the Dark Service.  The BLM has always had, and I imagine always will have, less affection directed towards it because of the vast generality of its holding, and with few exceptions the lack of proper trees growing upon them.  Americans like forests, instinctively recognizing in them both the roots of our countries vital economic past and the more basic hunter-gatherer fecundity they pass along to their inhabitants.  The North American temperate forests only exist, in their ancestral majesty, within small pockets held back from the axe by terrain or circumstance, but most people live near enough to their weedy, pale cousins that the spectre of a squirrel passing between Lake Erie and the Ohio without touching the ground is at least imaginable.

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The desert has none of these virtues, and it has only been in the combined wake of the Colorado River Compact, World War II, and the interstate highway system that industrial arrogance has become so unbridled as to allow many millions of people to live within the American desert.  Or at least on islands within that ocean, built green and black from asphalt and irrigation.  Phoenix, Vegas, Tucson, St. George, and even more tenuous islands like Moab and Grand Junction are not really in the desert.  At least insofar as their urban confines combine with the designated destinations of National Parks and Monuments to make the intervening spaces, which is to say the vast majority of the desert, disappear from the view of those forced to travel through it with any regularity.

In short; we love the forest because we tamed it long ago.  The unruly exceptions, like the railroad-swallowing rainforests of coastal Alaska, are conveniently very far away.  I’m not sure their is any American alive who can truly recall what the prairie looked like.  It has been buried and transmogrified as definitively as the spring-fed meadows which caused Las Vegas to earn its name.  The desert has rebuffed this treatment, which rightfully makes us uneasy.  Forested mountains decently conceal their un-humanity, while in the Grand Canyon or Book Cliffs all lack of hospitality is left strewn about, carelessly open to incidental viewing.  This is why, metaphysically, Zion and Arches remain the most popular of the “mighty 5” destination parks in the Utah desert.  In Zion wildness is confined by the depth of the main canyon, in Arches it is wrapped up in and staked down to the arches and towers.  In both cases one dead-end road keeps the world from growing to large and disorderly.

For those who spend enough time within the desert, and put down enough experiential anchor points that understanding becomes possible, obsession generally follows.  And it is generally a compulsion of such enduring greediness that peakbaggers are put to shame.  As Abbey wrote “I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman.”  A good choice of words, which he immediately follows with “An insane wish? Perhaps not-at least there’s nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me.”  At the end of the road I think the appeal of the desert lies for me not in its mystery, but in its obviousness.  The desert of the Colorado Plateau pulls no punches, and in most places is laid out plain for all to see, who can.  Places like the Grand Canyon, King Mesa, and Grand Gulch may appear hopelessly corrugated and convoluted, but all their secrets are in fact not secrets at all.  They’re just hard for most of us to see well.

Training for the 2017 Bob Open

The Bob Open is less than six months away.  If you’re thinking about making the trip this is less time than you think, and I’d recommend starting a training plan now if you have not already.

(I started this post in the wee hours, after waking up to the sudden realization that I hadn’t reserved the West Fork Cabin for Friday night.  Thankfully, it had not yet been taken, so we have it.  One of my favorite FS cabins.)

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A training plan can mean many different things beyond doing structured intervals and logging 20 hour weeks.  For someone looking to “merely” finish the Open in decent shape and not on the ragged edge, the sort of scientific efforts that the phrase training plan evokes are not necessary.  But the commitment and consistency associated with such seriousness is vital for a good run at the Bob.  Plenty of people, myself included, have done the right things here, just not often enough, and as one looses fitness much faster than gains it, that can be a terminal mistake.  What follows are some suggestions to follow, in chronological order, for a Bob Open prep, starting now.

1: Don’t get fat.

Weight is the enemy of speed, performance, and comfort on your body as much as it is in your pack.  You won’t notice it as well, just like you wouldn’t notice a 20 pound pack if you carried one all day every day, but it will slow you down.  It being dark in the northern hemisphere, as well as the social holiday season, today is a good time to commit to not over-eating too much in the next four weeks.  Starting out ahead is as simple as it is effective.

2: Get time on your feet

There is no substitute for specificity in training, which makes the best way to train for backpacking walking, ideally with a pack.  Thankfully, this is easy to fit in to all sorts of little windows in the day, though people may look at you funny.  Rough terrain is important in this area of preparation, eventually, but lots of miles done every week, week after week, will build the proper foundation.  Even if they’re just on sidewalks between your house, and park, and the coffee shop.

4 days a week at an hour each, with a 5th day for a longer hike, is a good place to end up.  For the next few months, a few days doing other physical stuff, like skiing or biking, is just fine.

3: Get faster

I mentioned in a comment this morning that the speed at which one can hike is something of a prerequisite for big days in the wilderness.  A heavier pack, deadfall, tough footing, fatigue, and mental stress will all serve to slow you down during a hike like the Open, so it is useful to start out with a maximum cruising speed that is pretty high.  3 mph, on rolling trail with a 20 pound pack, is a good all-day mark for aspiration.

A subset of this is functional strength.  Leg speed without power is very limiting, be it while going uphill, postholing, or hiking in mud.  Training these specifically is beneficial, be it via seeking out tough terrain, or via structured intervals.  The overall idea is to build power and speed somewhat early in the overall training process, so that longer, endurance building hikes closer to game day will build on that faster base.

Hilly and/or fast hikes two days a week during most of January and February is a decent place to start.

4: Get confident

After building a solid base of consistent physical preparation, cultivating mental strength is the most important thing for a successful, and satisfying, Bob Open.  If you’ve never been out in a wilderness as large as the Bob, especially in late spring when there’s almost no one else around and bear tracks everywhere, it can be intimidating.  The best way to get prepared is to scare yourself a couple times prior to the big day.  Things which get into your head, and disturb your sleep for the night or two prior, are what I’m talking about.  A personal record dayhike locally, a big spring trip in the Grand Canyon, or a big ski or packraft route all qualify.

In an ideal world you’ll have 2 or 3 of these in the bag for April and early May, multiday stuff preferred, in the actual Bob Marshall even better.

5: Rest

Rest and recovery is vital for the Bob Open, both physically to maximize your training, and mentally to arrive in Montana with everything stacked for you.  If being solo in the woods is intimidating, schedule plenty of times with friends in the weeks prior.  If bears scare you, some reading (or not) might be in order.  Or pack bear spray, or a big foam PFD, or a little more food, if that will make you a bit more relaxed.  A bit lighter pack is not worth a heavier head.

Good luck, and see ya’ll in May.

Backcountry footwear for the other 3 seasons; revised

This post, written back when B&P was new to wordpress and to me being more serious about content, has endured as one of my most read.  Save a few updates about specific gear, and some more evolved thoughts about foot conditioning, the text is as relevant today as it was in 2010.  For those who may have missed it, that original post is presented, with modest revision and update, below the videos.

The exception is stiffer shoes and even boots for heavier loads, a subject on which my views are evolving.  Since this trip I’ve had a left pinkie toe which has been sporadically numb, and I’ve been periodically enjoying the quite stiff Trango TRK, whose occasional use has as of this writing made that numbness go away.  My views here are not categorically different, insofar as I still think the claims which have traditionally accompanied boots are incorrect, but they are definitely evolving with the different experience of carrying more heavy loads, and most likely of aging.

Above, the trip that started it all, and below, the latest iteration where I really felt like I had things dialed. This year was faster, easier, and far more relaxed. 2010 still has the worst conditions I’ve been in, probably ever.  My personal evolution between these two trips has been huge, though largely one of refinement only.

As regular readers know, I spend a fair amount of time worrying about shoes. When going into the backcountry, your feet are the most important part of your system, and often the weakest link. On most of the big trips I’ve done in the wilderness over the last eight years, sore and/or torn up feet tend to slow me down long before conditions or metabolic or muscular fatigue. More recently this has become less and less the case, but building foot strength that exceeds leg strength on a 35 mile day, especially on harder surfaces, is a multi-year project.  Many folks just won’t have the time or inclination to get there, and thus need to pre-plan for every possible advantage.  I’m hard pressed to think of anyone from the last five years of the Bob Open for whom foot issues were not the primary slowing factor.

Preemptive foot care is vital, as getting anything beyond trivial maladies to heal while on the go is difficult. Footwear is also one of the few “no fail” pieces of backcountry gear. A torn raincoat, punctured thermarest, or ripped sleeping bag would be a nuisance, but not life threatening, and field repairable. Catastrophic shoe (or backpack) failure has the potential to seriously ruin your day. This article is written around the assumption that preemptive foot care and bomber footwear are interrelated prolegomena to backcountry enjoyment.

It is also written using an inversion of the usual definition of three season backcountry travel, which is typically summer conditions, expanded backwards into spring and forwards into fall either via geography or picking especially kind periods of weather. Assembling a functional footwear system when daytime temps rarely fall below freezing and funky precip is rare becomes an easy exercise. Today I am rather interested in hiking during mountain shoulder seasons, and full winter conditions elsewhere. Between summer, the time of trail runners and light socks only, and full winter, where deep snow and cold call for skis and plastic double boots, lies the most challenging and perhaps most interesting backcountry conditions. The following are guidelines I use for outfitting my feet for the Bob Marshall in October or May, and the Smokies or southern Utah in January. Strong opinions will be rife, so proceed with caution.

Principle #1: Wear light, non-waterproof trail shoes that fit well and provide optimal traction for the expected terrain.
Underlying axoims:
-it is foolhardy to go into the woods without good balance and strong joints
-fit trumps all
-your feet will get wet anyway, and that’s not a big deal

High, heavy boots are not an effective or sustainable primary safety mechanism in the backcountry.  If your physiology and load would seem to dictate heavy boots, lighten your pack and strengthen your legs. Do balance exercises, take a hard yoga class, slackline. You’ll need that good balance and those quick reflexes to avoid the inevitable slips and falls when you find ice under snow or when talus moves unexpectedly, so you might as well benefit by having lighter, quicker, and happier feet. There’s compelling evidence that ankle support and pronation control devices, rather than abrogating strain and preventing serious injury, merely transfer it elsewhere. Stiff trail shoes may save you from bruising a feet if you land poorly on a pointy rock, but at the expense of turning your ankle. Strong legs first. Most people will find that stiffer soles and more support generally will be desirable as pack weight goes up, but the threshold at which I’ve found that to become relevant (~40 pounds) should be in the current gear climate quite rare.

Shoes must fit. Bring your sock combos (plural, to be discussed below) to the store when trying on shoes. Aim for a locked in heel with the thinnest rig, while not having your forefoot pinched with the widest. The width of the shoe should huge your midfoot closely, so that side slop on rough terrain is minimized. Forward of the joints your toes should have plenty of room to wiggle without touching the shoe in any direction, and with your thickest shock combo you should at least a full centimeter of space in front of your longest toe. Take the time to get this right, even though it can be a huge pain in the ass. Bear in mind that when feet swell (and they will!), they do so sideways and up primarily. You should have slack left in the laces to ease up, and ideally a bit (but not too much) room left in side to side volume. A tricky balancing act. It is better to get a good fit at the expense of other desired traits than vice versa.

I’ve come to strongly prefer low to the ground, more flexible shoes. Thicker EVA may feel nice for the first 20 miles, but after that it does little to delay foot fatigue, and the decrease in stride efficiency it gives may well do the opposite. One thing that will save your feet over the long run is a moderately stiff, ideally full length nylon rock plate. They’ll spread out of the force of pointy stuff and drastically reduce point tenderness and the resulting physical and mental fatigue (insofar as the two can be meaningfully distinguished).  This sort of support is far more effective over the long term than foam cushioning.  Those transitioning from bigger footwear will need to give themselves appropriate accomodation. Start with dayhikes and lighter loads, ramp up the training just like anything else.

If fit gives you options, pick your tread well. Just as with mountain bike tires, low tread is fastest on easy terrain.  Alternately, lots of steep mud and/or loose gravel will, when combined with a low tread, force your legs to waste energy getting enough traction to engage your muscles. For this sort of thing I’ve yet to find anything close to the tread found on the more aggressive LaSportiva shoes, the Bushido being the most recent iteration. On steep and muddy or steep and loose descents these shoes let me quads save a significant amount of energy.

Rubber compound is highly relevant as well. As a general rule, softer rubber will grip better and wear faster. With trail shoes, your tread will ideally wear down to uselessness around the same time you kill the uppers. LaSportiva still rules the roost in this regard; the lack of substantive competition from other manufacturers remains befuddling.  If you’ll be spending a lot of time on bare rock, especially wet bare rock, a stickier rubber compound may be worth getting, even if it means that sole wear will be the limiting factor. Five Ten stealth rubber (like their Canyoneer) would fall into this category. Of course, you may be disinclined to own multiple pairs of shoes (but that won’t last long), or more relevantly end up dealing with steep ball bearings, wet river cobbles, and steep rock slabs on the same trip. Compromises will have to be made based on the predominant terrain, personal preference, and the ne plus ultra of fit.

Last, and certainly not least, avoid Goretex shoes like the plague. They’re made for dayhikers and coffee shop commutes. In warm conditions they’ll cause your feet to sweat like crazy (thus making blisters more likely), and in the conditions we’re talking about you’ll probably soak your shoes anyway. Best get over the fear of wet feet as soon as possible.  The notable exception is cold, ideally snowy conditions combined with slow movement of extended breaks.  Hunting and photography are prime examples.  Dry, or dryish, feet are necessary for warmth and health here.

Why we systemically worry about getting our feet wet I’m not sure. With leather boots that don’t drain and double their weight it makes sense, but wet feet do not have to be cold feet, and with footwear that fits and a few basic precautions, consistenly wet feet do not invariably lead to blisters and other problems. Canyoneering, and the resultant long trudges back to the TH with soaked shoes taught me this. It would have been nice to’ve learned to earlier.

If your shoes will get wet you want them to drain and dry as easily as possible. Moving water out of the shoes lightens them up, allows your feet to be wet rather than sitting in a bathtub, and creates the possibility that you might have dry shoes for at least some of the trip. Drier, if not totally dry, shoes also freeze less solid overnight, making the ritual of thawing shoes with body heat during the first 30 minutes of every day a little less miserable.

There is a problem here, which is that the fastest drying shoes (the aforementioned T100, for instance) are also the most fragile. Right now I’m using LaSportiva Crossleathers, which drain poorly and dry even slower, because I’m sick of trashing mesh shoes in under 50 miles. I like the tread pattern enough that I’m whiling to deal with wetter shoes. They also fit me perfectly. Compromise, compromise, compromise.

Principle #2: Wear gaiters.
Underlying axiom:
-keeping crap out of your shoes is a good thing across the board

These days I always wear gaiters when I’m in the woods. There is no reason not to. Beyond the obvious nuisance, time suck, and buzz kill of having to stop and pick pebbles out of your shoes, keeping dust and sand out goes a long way towards keeping blisters at bay. Gaiters also keep your laces from getting untied by sticks and brush, and keep burrs off your socks.

Pick the right gaiters for the job. Most of the time this means a low cut trail gaiter, of which Dirty Girl gaiters are likely the best. They’re made by ultrarunners and for ultrarunners, of a light spandex fabric in all the obnoxiously whimsical patterns you could possibly want. They’re super light, breath very well, dry fast, and once donned disappear. They’re also quite cheap.

Dirty girl gaiter attach via a front lace hook and a velcro heal patch, which is great because instep straps get cut by rocks very quickly (I averaged 15 miles a set on the Royal Arch route in the Grand Canyon before I wised up). The downfall of this system comes when postholing in snow and doing swift stream crossings. In really deep snow full gaiters (like the Outdoor Research Rocky Mountain High gaiters) will keep snow out of your shoes and provide a buffer against the direct cold for the feet and lower legs. I wore some for Le Parcour race across the Bob last fall, and they were a good choice (I use heel velcro and instep straps here). You can extend the utility of low gaiters by making the hell velcro much bigger than usual, something on the order of 2″ by 1.5″. I used low gaiters with no instep strap and a big heal patch on my Thorofare traverse in May of this year, and they stayed on despite the extensive potholing.  The Montbell UL spats, with their extremely burly instep strap, are another excellent option, though they only work well on shoes with a semi-defined instep area.
Principle #3: Have an outside-the-box sock quiver.
Underlying axioms:
-select a smooth, tight fitting next to skin layer to buffer moisture and abrasion
-select situation appropriate insulation

Socks do three equally essential things: they move moisture away from your skin, provide a buffer against abrasion, and keep your feet warm. In the contemporary profusion of post-Smartwool sock marketing, finding a sock to take care of the first two is easy. For summer, when one sock does all three functions, the Defeet Wooleator or Activator are good options. They’re both tough, with the later being a bit thinner and more durable.  For the other three seasons however, we must assume that sock layering will take place most of the time.

When selecting a very thin sock to layer next to skin, I have two favorites at present. The most favoritest is the Smartwool PhD Ski Ultralight. Accept no less verbose substitutes, as the genius of this sock is that it is soft and tough, knee high, and unlike many others will not sag or creep down your leg, at all! Calf high socks are perhaps the best addition, gram for gram, that one can make to foot warmth, and the Smartwools are the only thin knee high sock I’ve found that always stays put. My other favorite are the Injinji mini-crews. I often get little annoying blisters when my smallest toes rub togther, and the Injinjis allow me to forego taping. The Coolmax fabric is also quite good. Injinji makes a knee high compression sock, but they cost twice what the already expensive Smartwools do, so I’ve yet to make that leap.

Foot insulation for the other three seasons obviously requires a different approach. Thicker wool socks do ok, but for dealing with stream crossings, postholing, and rain when it’s near or below freezing, neoprene is the way to go, and you need look no further than at NRS socks. Other brands maybe cheaper, but the superior NRS sizing and fit make them the only option for serious miles. Many options exist, from the 3mm seam taped and thus fully waterproof Expedition socks to the .5 mm fuzzy rubber laminate Hydroskin socks. I’ve used the full range, and will try to provide a scale of warmth before I move on to specifics.

If a standard partial mesh trail runner with a very thin wool sock is a 1 on a scale of warmth, and the same setup with an Expedition neo sock is a 10, than a thin liner with a thickish wool sock (say a Darn Tough full cushion boot sock) might be a 3, and the liner with a Hydroskin sock would be a 5. The 2mm NRS wetsock would be an 8.

Hiking gives the cold weather traveler the huge advantage of feet constantly in motion with good blood movement. Thus it’s pretty easy to keep feet warm. The liner and Hydroskin sock combo is all the warmth I’ve ever wanted in cold and wet hiking situations, the use of thicker neo socks has been reserved for canyoneering and cold water boating. Hydroskins socks are also thin and flexible enough to be useable with your existing shoes. 3mm neo socks require, on average, a shoe that is a full size larger. Which brings back up the point that foot warmth is predicated on circulation. Make sure your shoes give you enough room, and when it’s cold out lace your shoes on the loose side of tolerable to maximize warmth.

Neoprene works best in wet environments. For snowier, colder, and drier hikes a different approach in warranted. For conditions below the mid-teens, I like a vapor barrier setup using Seal Skinz socks. Seal skinz are idiosyncratic pieces of gear whos peculiar attributes can be put to good use. They’re waterproof, but also breathable, albiet not much. For hiking in snow in single digits, I like a shoe 1/2 to one size larger than normal, a thin liner as discussed, Seal Skinz, and than a thicker insulating sock over top. The Seal Skinz guard the insulating sock from sweat, maintains a warm micro climate against the skin, and keep the feet dry from melting snow and/or low stream crossings. Combined with a full gaiter it’s a very flexible and warm system. Again, lace your shoes on the loose side. For me, this system is good a fair bit below zero. Any colder, at least here in Montana, and I’ll be wearing plastic tele boot with a thermofit foam liner, which are very warm indeed. For the odd locations where extreme cold occurs absent snow, or for snow bikers, the aforementioned sock system has been used, along with a fairly pedestrian boot several sizes too big, by Pete Basinger during the 1100 mile Alaska Ultrasport. Circulation and preservation of insulation with vapor barriers seems to trump all else here.

Principle #4: give your feet time to recover.
Underlying axiom:
-dry, warm feet will heal themselves, and fast

It’s amazing what our feet will do when you take care of them. First that means training them properly, second it means creating conditions under which they can function well (the subject of the above), and third it means giving them time off. This means creating opportunities for them to be warm, dry and not in use.

If you’re getting up early and staying on the go until late, and extended lunch break during the warmest part of the day can be a very effective use of your time. Hour wise, not minute foolish. Find a spot that’s a wind protected solar oven (in the lee of a boulder just off the south side of a ridge is ideal), and kick back, brew coffee and soup, dry your gear (sleeping bag!), and dry your feet. 30 minutes with your feet out in the dry sunny air can recharge you enough that you’ll make an extra five miles in the second half of the day.

The other time for foot rest is at night, which is why I consider sleeping socks essential gear. A pair of the thickest, fuzziest wool socks you can find should stay in the bottom of your sleeping bag, inviolate, all trip. Not only do they provide extra warmth, they help wick all traces of moisture away during the night, much better than bare feet would. This is 3 oz very well spent.

To review:

  1. your feet will get wet anyway, and that’s usually not a big deal
  2. keeping crap out of your shoes is important in all settings
  3. select a smooth, tight fitting next to skin sock to buffer moisture and abrasion
  4. select situation appropriate foot insulation
  5. dry, warm feet will heal themselves, and fast
  6. it is foolhardy to into the woods without good balance and strong joints, the maintenance of which is an unending project
  7. shoe fit trumps everything

Follow these guidelines, and you will have happy feet in the outdoors, at least in the grand scheme of things. Those ice cream headaches after stream crossings are just part of the fun.

New stuff

One of the supreme pleasures in life is seeing a new landscape for the first time, when every foot and view is totally novel, and the area lacks any trace of mental map for orientation. That was what I got to do today, and it was glorious.

Gunnison Gorge is a half a Grand Canyon, with a smaller river and loads of gorgeous P-J country. My favorite part of the day was grinding up the ridge from the west in 4Lo only to stop, suddenly, at the abrupt rim of a waterway outer logic says shouldn’t be there. 50s and sunny in later November is easy to like, too.

I should mention that based on this, the first outing, the new MTI Vibe might be the ideal non-rescue, non-SUL packrafting PFD.  After seeing it at OR back in August I requested, and received, one of the first production vests.  The very nice fit, good feature set, and practical fabrics (poly, rather than nylon, for better UV resistance and less water absorption) all promise a great deal.

Luck doesn’t exist

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M and I have lived in some damn nice places over the past 13 years, but in the six days since we and our massive accompaniment of boxes rolled into Colorado I’ve had many more than the usual number of pinch me, I can’t believe we’re here moments.  There was walking the border of Colorado National Monument, following rabbit tracks through fluffy, two-day old snow, before setting Little Bear down for a walk break and watching in bemusement as he discovered (got stuck in) melting clay soil.  There was the top of Joe’s Ridge, a day later and with the other painted view of the Grand Valley, contemplating lungs roasted by a chest cold and poor fitness, and the incalculable options for riding within view.  If only I’ll eventually learn enough to see them all.  And there was this afternoon, on a short stroll up slickrock ledges, with LB turned loose from the backpack and crawling, walking, and crabwalking sideways with abandon as he tested new limits for his evolving balance and of legs stronger seemingly by the hour.

It’s a satisfying feeling, knowing that we’ll all put many more miles into this corner of the planet, that Little Bear will really learn to hike and bike and paddle and ski here.  It’s the landscape I fell in adult love with, when I was just old enough to begin to understand how my own limits shaped what I saw through my eyes, and the place in which M and I began in earnest our journey as a couple.  The satisfaction is, in short, from looking back and seeing all the choices that have led us to be back where we wanted to be, and in circumstances that involve no real compromise at all.

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These things do not happen by chance.  For over a decade we’ve willfully and without complaint limited our effective incomes by only living in place which are, from an outdoor recreation and aesthetic perspective, truly desirable.  We’ve lived in smaller, sometimes outright dingy apartments and bought or built cheap furniture while spending serious money on bikes and packs and boats and guns, and most importantly, gas and food to go places to use them.  We’ve turned down invitations to parties and weddings and family events because we had planned ___, or because ____ would be in good condition.  All of which is to say that the richness of our memories, skills, and gear closets has been purchased by corresponding deficits elsewhere.  Nothing is free, and no one these days ends up living in an A list outdoor location because of luck.  They do so via deliberation, sacrifice, and most likely a background suffused with enough privilege to allow such frivolous choices in the first place.

In a few weeks this blog will be a decade old.  The first 3 or so years of posts are exceedingly uninteresting, even to me, save in moments of historical curiosity or indulgent introspection.  In 2010 I started to take writing, and the blog, more seriously.  I migrated it to wordpress for more creative control, and the result is what you’re looking at now; six years of staying the course, or doing mostly the same thing and letting content evolve in tune with my life.  I’ve thought about, and rejected, changes in content and approach which would make Bedrock & Paradox a source of direct income.  As I told Andrew this summer, I’ve never made a cent (in cash) here.  I’ve gotten some cool free stuff, met a bunch of great people, gone places I likely never would have otherwise been, and built a resume which led to several fantastic jobs, including the one I start next week.  Any one of those would have been sufficient return, spiritually or economically, on my investment of ~200 dollars in fees to WordPress and however many hours thinking and typing.  Let alone all of them.

None of that is ever likely to change.  I can’t see myself ever doing affiliate links, ads, sponsored content, or more consistent posting of more consistently amenable content to increase traffic.

Currently, in the post-LB world, I have in time and inspiration two co-equal limits on posting here.  And even amongst the chaos of the last two weeks, and the posting draught which has been the direct result, I do not think waking hours has been the more significant of the two.  When my days are as full as they’ve been this month, I don’t have enough downtime to think, and the direct result of that is not having things well-formed enough to be worth writing.  During even the most banal stretches of the past six years I’ve had lots to say here, provided the conditions existed so that I could get to where they were worth saying.  Doing redundant how-to essays, or discussions of products which are of only marginal interest, would worsen, not improve, the conditions for contemplation or creativity.  I’ve seen it elsewhere, quite directly, over the past six years: an outdoor blog comes into existence, becomes popular, becomes more professional, and becomes less interesting to read.  Thankfully I’m finally in a position where I can be my own patron; keep food in the fridge, keep new(ish) shoes in the mail, keep paying wordpress for space, as well as give myself conditions which should foster writing better than ever.  Given the current landscape, I see no reason to do otherwise, or why the next decade won’t be as rewarding as the last.

Thanks, everyone, for being here for it.

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It’s 930 miles from Whitefish, Montana to Fruita, Colorado.  We left, as has become habit, around 800pm.  730 is close enough to Little Bear’s bedtime to ensure a tranquil transition to sleep, but M forgot her snowboots and he had to go back.  All night drives south may be a habit, but even with this being the fourth such in a year the departure seems un-natural.  I drove two hours to Missoula, where M took over and I slept until the lights of Dillon, and took over for her a little north of Lima.  I made it through the heart of the night and Idaho all the way to Tremonton before cratering spectacularly.  M resumed driving and I patted LB back to sleep, getting there first myself, and we both woke up in haze, the sun still hidden, conveniently next to the McDonalds in Lehi, Utah.  The playplace got LB back in a good mood, coffee did the same for me, and it took two breaks for walking and much backseat toy action before he succumbed to naptime not far from I-70.  Him staying asleep as we gassed up in Green River confirmed that fortune shone upon us, as by noon we were in our future home, walking in the park and having lunch.

Little Bear acquitted himself well over the next six days, house hunting, filing rental paperwork, meeting soon-to-be not-strangers at my new job, living in a hotel and then camping along the scenic trip home.  We’ve built a good life for him here in Montana, but every thing points to our promised new life in Colorado being more relaxed, more fulfilling, and happier.  Returning the a dark October of record rainfall only enhances the promise of desert sun.

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M and I met and fell in love in Iowa, but our early years in Utah and Arizona built the strength we’ve put to such good use over the last 15 months of parenting.  Returning to a land of harsh blue skies, pinons and junipers, soft canyons, and ugly badlands feels correct.  It’s the right place for us, and the right place for the rapidly growing kiddo.  Hopefully he’ll quickly learn about cactus, his initial (repeated) meeting with goatheads along the banks of the Green River doesn’t give too much cause for optimism.

Needless to say I never intended to become part of “the industry” but given that my parents met in an outdoor store, and how much time I’ve put into this hobby over the past half decade, this change in careers is pretty damn rewarding.  Nothing but two weeks, some delicate case transfers at my old job, and a whole lot of packing (and a sheep hunt) between us and saying a long-term, maybe permanent hello to the Corolla of western states.  It almost cannot happen soon enough.  We have big plans.

The worst things about Montana

Necessary companion to yesterday.  Feel free to take offense.

1: The food

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I irritate friends and coworkers almost weekly on this subject, but the thing I lament most often about Montana is not being able to get a decent Avocado for less than $1.25 and being able to count the acceptable eating institutions in a valley of 100,000 on both hands, with fingers left over.  The former is a function of distance, and I presume lack of demand, but the later* is less easily explicable.  The prominence of the exceptions to Montana = shit restaurants, and the fervor with which they are upheld by their devotees, only proves my point.  With a few exceptions (Bernice’s, Sportsman’s Lodge, the Polebridge Merc under the previous owners) my most memorable meals have all been at home or in the field, and centered around wild game or fish.  So go suck it Montana, and let me know when the 20th century has made it over from Wyoming.

*It should be noted that this does not apply to Montana breweries, of which there are many good ones.

2: The distance

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As I noted yesterday Montana wins much by being far from population centers.  The somewhat inexorable corollary to this is that a substantive change of scenery, when for instance the rainy fall doldrums have set in, is often a very long way away.  6-8 hours, or in the grip of winter even more.  Lower latitudes provide more diversity of opportunity, especially when they’re associated with more drastic changes in elevation than most of Montana provides.

It also requires more time, money and effort for folks to visit you when you live in Montana, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

There is no way to have your cake and eat it with this one.

3: The dark

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These last two are somewhat specific to our corner of the state, which has both the short days of early winter along the 48th parallel and occasional spells of Pacific-influenced drizzle and cloud.  We also, in the valley, are frequently blessed with inversions of mist and fog off Flathead Lake, which during severe temperature gradients can be thick enough to necessitate fog lights and sub 40 mph speeds on the highway.  In short, late fall and early winter can be tough, especially when all daylight hours are spent at work and the snow has yet to fall in earnest.  Getting into hunting has made this much easier to bear, as by the time the season is over I’ve generally been so tired that I’m quite content to stay home in the dark, reading and cooking.  Nonetheless, we miss southwest sunshine, when a cloudy day is so rare as to be an afterthought.  Having it again will be a welcome return.

4: The white people

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Of which I am of course one.

The Flathead Valley is sufficiently remote and uninviting (see above) that one needs a compelling reason to be here in residence.  The most obvious, and in my book most trustworthy, reason is any permutation of hiking/skiing/boating/hunting/fishing.  Most of the truly enthusiastic participants here are transplants, do more than one outdoor activity at a dedicated level, and are white.  The second reason, and in my book the least trustworthy, is those who moved here “for the view.”  I’d like to deport any Flathead residents who don’t drive east beyond West Glacier at least six times a year, it’d doubtless sort out the sprawl, hilltop eyesores, and continue degradation of the wildland/urban interface nicely.  These people are also majorly white, and much more likely than average to be from California (an easy slur, but a true one).  The third reason, which will be addressed in a forthcoming valedictory post concerning my professional life over the last six years, is that the folks in question were born and raised and due to the cathection of choice and circumstance cannot leave.  Again, most of these people are white.

The dark side of all this is that the Flathead is an insular, insulated, often out of touch place.  There’s a reason Richard Spencer chose to move to Whitefish a few years ago, and that reason does not do the area credit.  I’ll miss the Flathead, I’ll miss the mountains in all directions, I’ll miss the clear rivers and the larches changing in October and the deer behind every third tree, and the many friends we’re leaving behind, but I will not miss the cynical utopia which is much of the valley, halcyon uncritical of a daily world which never was.  The more I think about it, the stronger my conclusion that it probably isn’t the best place to raise a child.

Bye bye Montana, we’ll visit often but I doubt we’ll ever be back for good.