Progression 2020

If 2020 was a merciless device which distilled everything already there, into a cold cutting clear hypnotic as overnight ice on an alpine lake, what I learned in the past 12 months was that I did not lack for time. I lack for energy, and for the headspace to use what time I have as well as I would like. This has only accelerated in the last 5 years, as life has filled up with responsibility. Freedom without boundary flows in all directions and disappears as a quick rain in the desert. Build choice into a frame, four lines of duty, obligation, scarcity, and immanence, and coherence comes fast, making freedom comprehensible.

18 months ago I had enduring questions about what my place in adventure would be, given the shortcomings limited days in the field would inevitably bring. When backpacking big miles, there is no substitute for time on feet, and out in wild, technical terrain presence of mind equals safety. How much would my wild mind dull, as years pass and big trips became ever less frequent? A few traverses that summer, and especially the Isle Royale trip that fall, did much to put my fears to ground. In the woods my purpose was clearer and more accessible, moment to moment, than ever before, and any slowness desk hours had put into my legs were more than compensated by confidence and better planning.

I flowed through the swamps and ridges of Isle Royale, and when mid-May opened this year, the virus loomed a little less unknown, and Will invited me on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the timing seemed ideal. It was a difficult trip, the most sustained difficult whitewater I’d ever paddled on that blurringly full first day, but the space between the challenges and what I was able to welcome had never been thinner. The stillness which lingered has lasted to this day, and ran through what was the most technically challenging and accomplished season of paddling I’ve had yet.

The process aspects of pursuits and skills have in the past been circumstantial. I’ve learned to ski and to paddle whitewater because wanted to go places and be on journeys that required these tools and techniques. This past summer of packrafting was the coalescing point for a new mindset built not just around the process of any given trip, whose better embrace is another story, but on the immediacy of the skills in question. This spring, big lonely storms amidst the height of lockdown had me avoiding objective hazard, and provided ideal conditions for getting better at flowing one turn into another on powder through the trees. This summer I read lines and placed my paddle better than ever, because that had become the first goal, and in many cases because I was paddling close enough to my limit that anything less led to some bruising swims. And this fall, with both kids obsessed with biking, I’ve looked forward to hours at the bike park, just trying to hit a berm better.

All of which sounds, when I writer it in retrospect, rather trite and obvious. Was I really so preoccupied with so much other stuff, so much external stuff, so many goals, for so long?

The answer has to simply be yes, and the trip which pushed me firmly over the line to admitting this, out loud to myself was the prairie elk hunt this September. It was on a scenically detailed bit of ground, but with the elk so legion exploration had nothing to do with getting from A to B, and everything with where along that path a bull was likely to be bedded. On the one hand that hunt was a dismal process failure, insofar as my shooting skills let me down on at least several occasions that I’ll forever regard as should-have-been-certains. On the other it was a raging success, in that opportunities were rife and I failed so close to a dead elk so many times, and was thus bludgeoned over the head with all the things I was as a hunter doing properly.

My other goals for hunting in 2020 were to kill some grouse, and put some time into being selective about a big mule deer in the local mountains. I did kill some grouse, which were tasty, and had a lot of fun days within an hour of home hiking around our northerly desert-forests looking for and at mule deer. My explicit goal, for the first time, concerned antler size, because in each year past for I can’t recall how many running I have seen one particularly large antlered and magical buck after I had filled my tag. From the perspective of inches I never saw that deer, and the one I shot was a disappointment. From the perspective of experience the kill, butchering, and walk out were everything exactly as I like about hunting, and this and the elk hunt put together clarified the blend of practice and location which makes hunting distinct from every other form of knowing in the outdoors.

It all, in short, gives me a lot of hope and interest for what might happen this year.

Things I loved this year

Add.; Not long after publishing this yesterday evening I received a text, and then an email, stating that extra vaccine doses would be available to direct care workers outside hospitals and clinics, in other words, me. So I woke up in the dark and waited in line at the fairgrounds and got Moderna stuck into my arm. That medicine went into clinical trials the first day our schools went virtual back in the spring, and is both a great story and a reminder that for all the navel gazing, flatearth mugwumpitude of 2020, contemporary science is quite amazing. Can’t really leave that off such a list as this.

DMR Deathgrips

For over a decade I’ve struggled to see the point of any mountain bike grips which are not either Oury or Ergon. When buying parts for the Marin I wanted to try something new, and ordered a pair of Deathgrips in thin and flangeless. The tactile experience, along with the ease of removal while futzing with components, have been very nice indeed. Nice enough that I recently put another set, thick and flangeless, of my fatbike. I don’t have enormous hands (generally right between medium and large gloves) and the thin versions are both a bit low on cushion and a bit too little to hold well in the rough. These are emphatically a gravity oriented grip, without much squish. But the ribbed thumb section is super comfy with or without gloves, and encourages body english and three dimensional steering. Not necessarily the most versatile bike grip, but a very fun option.

Bialetti Moka pot

Under ordinary circumstances I don’t do much to restrain my coffee consumption, provided I drink it black. Caffeine being after all an almost universal performance enhancer with no socially consequent downsides, and precious few downsides at all. The chemical and psychological benefits have been even more important this year, and the Moka pot quickly makes just the kind of coffee I prefer. This fall especially it has been rare that I don’t fire it up at least twice a day.

My chair

When we moved in 3.5 years ago the little garage out back was in sad shape, and half full of odd junk. The door had long since ceased to work, and the dirt floor became vital that spring, as a record snowpack melted through the walls and flooded down under the door. Boxes stored in there were frozen to the floor for over a month. That summer I built a stone wall between the opening and the alley, demolished the door, and built a wall cutting the interior in half. The dirt floor of the bike room is handy when I spill oil, or don’t want to go back inside to piss, but a nuisance when I drop a bolt. I also dug out the three feet of wooden wall decades of erosion had placed underground, and installed layers of flashing. So now our garage keeps snowmelt out.

Among the items moved out to make way for bikes and the car was an old wooden bakers chair, which rolls, swivels and tilts on an iron base. I didn’t really look at it for another few years, until this February when I restored the base with grease, screws, and wood glue, and the seat and back with pints of linseed oil. I had intended to move it to my office at school, and finished it the weekend before the stay at home order took effect in Montana. Instead it went into the new home office, and I found that the unpadded seat was more comfortable than the succession of old and modern plush chairs I’ve used over the years. It was a happy day when I moved it into school at the end of August, and in October, when things finally got cold enough for the baseboard heater to run hot, the scent of linseed oil reemerged and lingered for days. For practical and now, nostalgic reasons, I can’t imagine ever getting rid of it.

Fire lookouts

Through both planning and luck spent more nights in lookout towers this year than any other to date. Some, like Christmas Eve in a tower just north of town, required advanced planning. Others were vacancies that popped up days in advance, and seizing them just required awareness and being flexible. Picking a favorite is not possible, as every trip was important and unique. Like this one, and this one.

In this case scarcity has always been somewhat the driver of interest, and this year more than most, the silence of the wind and a long view were especially welcome. If a lot of my internal conversation at the beginning of the summer concerned what I would do when the pandemic had passed, my looking back at these photos and memories now has me struggling to think of trips I’d find of more interest or value, and has me psyched to plan more, close to home, for 2021.

The bakery

One of the sadder days of the stay at home order was when our local shut down for several weeks. They had stayed open with much of their usual range for the first few weeks, and taking the usual walk downtown in the afternoon only to find a note saying they’d be shut for at least a while did more than most things, I am sad to admit, to bring home what we had lost. Ever since they reopened I’ve been less likely than usual to shy away from an anise biscotti or slice of lemon sake, and less likely in general to take our little city for granted.

OR Feedback flannel

This is a nice shirt. You would not know it was polyester until it dries much faster (and stinks more) than wool. Fit and build are ideal. Durability is decent. My 14 month old one has developed a few picks at seemingly random times, none of which have impacted presentability from a distance or not been easily sorted with scissors. That shirt still qualifies as Montana formal, and is the rare thing I can both wear to the office and on a hunting trip. Neither wicking nor insulation are quite at the level of true performance clothing, but is ideal for bike commuting, winter walks that turn cold, resort skiing, and everything in the category of lifestyle. At least around here, it counts as a Zoom shirt too.

Patagonia Slopestyle hoody

There are a lot of sweatshirts very similar to this (discontinued) piece, but as is often the case, Patagonia does the details better. The hard faced, brushed interior polyester is both more weather resistant and more cuddly than similar pieces from other companies, and the big three panel hood, roomy but not excessive cut, and pockets (there are zippered, mesh lined pockets inside each hand pocket) make it infinitely practical. I had one years ago, sold it, regretted doing so, and picked up another this summer on Worn Wear (which is a very fun place to browse). Until things get really cold around here, it is my coat every day.

Marin San Quentin adventure build

Back in September I bought a new mountain bike. This ended up being of note for a couple reasons, but I should first cover why I bought this bike, and why I almost did not buy a bike at all. While M and I generally feel quite wealthy day to day, this year in particular, abundant toy funds do not count among the reasons why. A thousand dollars is often what I spend on outdoor equipment in an entire year, much of that usually going towards either materials for projects or replacing worn out items (esp shoes). The option to get a new bike was, thus, a weighty one.

The reasons to not get a new bike centered around the expense of mountain biking, which on an entry and rolling basis outstrips everything else I like to do outside, with backcountry skiing and packrafting being the only close competitors. Ski gear can be had much cheaper used than biking stuff, and packrafting gear has less maintenance cost than either. Mountain biking is also, in sharp contrast to either skiing or packrafting, in a profoundly lame period of development, with vastly enhanced technology and cost coming together with significant access issues and a thoroughly prosaic trailbuilding ethos. The result being an outdoor pursuit with an increasingly homogenized, bourgeois edge; with berms, bike parks, ebikes, and excessive travel taking the place of skill and pushing out the influence of the wild, moving mountain biking quite far towards the golf-with-sweat side of the “adventure” pantheon, where it will in the decades to come join resort skiing and whitewater (party) rafting as camp followers of late capitalism, bound for immolation at the hands of history.

Fortunately, the reasons I wanted a new mountain bike were in most cases divorced from most of the above, either by circumstance or choice. Above all else, I wanted a new bike to have something more suitable, than either my 2011 Salsa Mukluk or 2006 Surly Karate Monkey, for some backcountry riding and hellbiking/bikerafting missions I have in mind for the coming years. I had reason to believe advances in bike geometry would prove useful here, and that starting from the ground up I could have something significantly lighter, and thus easier to push and carry, than the Mukluk with a new and lighter wheelset. While there are some access concerns locally, and most of the Helena area trails are exceedingly tame, there is within a few hours a lifetime of obscure backcountry riding, and plenty of fun trails literally half a block from our back door. I also spend a multiple days a week biking with the munchkins, which usually means horsing around at either the school playground down the street or the local pumptrack and dirt jumps. A new bike may or may not have been better suited to those things, but at the very least I’d use it all the time, if not necessarily for the primary purpose.

With all that in mind I had no shortage of options. I knew I didn’t want to spend much. I knew I’d want to heavily customize any stock build (and even so, it didn’t take long to realize a complete bike would be vastly more economical than building from scratch, assuming I could even buy what I wanted frame-only). I knew that due to weight, cost, and slow-mo precision descending concerns, along with my own desire to limit my speed and thus severity of any future crashes, I did not want any suspension. I wanted slack and low geometry, room for fat tires, and at the same time a reasonably compact frame (vertical space being the primary limiter when putting a bike on the front of a packraft). I wanted a light frame, and while it was not a deal breaker, the ability to go singlespeed would be appreciated.

I considered many options, narrowing them down to the Marin San Quentin and Rocky Mountain Growler, and ultimately went with the former due to lower cost (in the base model), 27.5 inch wheels with space for 3″ tires (not claimed, but widely reported), and availability. This last point ended up being key, as the COVID rush saw 2021 bikes snapped up with unprecedented speed. My laxity here almost saw me miss out entirely, and I ended up finding a San Quentin 1, in blue and extra large, from a shop across the country, who was then so overwhelmed with orders that they took a month to assemble box, and ship the bike. It arrived (after the shop kindly bumped it up in the que) 48 hours before we left for Utah in October, barely enough time for me to add pedals, swap contact points and brakes, and convert the wheels to tubeless (which proved highly problematic, more below).

Overall I have been very pleased with the bike. Fortunately snow with staying power has held off for the past two months, as it has taken all that time for riding and tweaking the San Quentin to get the core elements sorted and begin to get a sense of its personality.

As promised, the San Quentin is radically different than any previous mountain bike I’ve owned. Granted, that list is short, but here the head tube angle is 5 degrees slacker, the seat tube 2 degrees steeper, and the top tube nearly 2 inches longer. The San Quentins wheelbase is not quite 4 inches longer than my Mukluk, something immediately apparent both visually and on the bike. Chainstays on the San Quentin are only 6mm short of the Karate Monkey, and the BB height (with the carbon fork on the SQ) is almost identical, testament to how forward thinking Surly was in those respects. The idea with contemporary mountain bike geometry is to make the bike longer, by both pushing the front axle further forward and increasing the share of the cockpit length taken up by the frame, as compared to the stem, while at the same time keeping the rider centered relative to both wheels by making the seat more upright. In my experience this approach fulfills all goals beautifully, and climbing and descending it is notably superior to anything I’ve ridden, with no downsides save a hair more planning required going around switchbacks. The bike feels stable, but never slow, and the whole package is fantastic at pumping through gullies and hitting berms. There is a bit of nervousness descending steep and loose stuff which I out down to the paucity of rubber up front, relative to the Mukluk. I am eager to put 3″ tires on it.

Fit did prove something of a head scratcher due to the relatively low front end. I had the 490mm Carver carbon fork waiting for the frame to arrive, but the stock suspension fork had a straight steerer and a reducer crown race, meaning I needed a new headset for the rigid fork, which was a needed upgrade anyway, as the open bearing stock headset did not inspire confidence. Even with this longer rigid fork, selected for both weight savings (5 pounds lighter than the stock suspension fork) and to preserve the slack head angle, the stack height (e.g. vertical distance from the bottom bracket to the top of the head tube) is on the low side, and with a 65 degree head angle stacking spacers under the stem eats top tube length in a hurry. I liked the steering of the 45mm stock stem, but getting the bars high enough made the bike far too short. A lot of measuring, virtual modeling, and riding the bike with the 85mm stem off the Mukluk had me take a deep breath and order a 60mm, 84 degree stem (which I run flipped on top of a 5mm spacer) and a 60mm rise bar. This gets me the cockpit length I’m used to, and the slicier steering of a shorter stem. Now, of course, I would really like a fat bike with similar handling.

The base model San Quentin coming with a square taper bb was a plus, as the whole fleet is to this day standardized around that design. I’ve killed a few of the cheaper Shimano cartridge models, but only after years of significant abuse. This allowed for some drivetrain futzing, as the 32:46 low gear which came stock is not quite low enough, and I can’t imagine running a backcountry bike without a bashguard. Bending ring teeth into workable shape with a rock is a field repair I don’t need to do again. Currently, and as pictured above, the SQ has most of the drivetrain the Mukluk has used for years; 26 tooth Surly ring, old XT derailleur, 11-42 cassette, and a Dura-Ace barcon friction shifting on a Paul mount. The stock Microshift drivetrain worked just fine, and reminded me that 9 speed great (and when it comes to performance in the mud, vastly better than 11 speed), so I put on a nice, nicely cheap, all steel Microshift 11-42, 9 speed cassette. This gives me enough granny gear, enough high gear for pavement cruising, and the most frequent ratios right in the middle. I like that the old derailleur is slim and light relative to the big Microshift, but the last few rides have drove home the virtue of having a clutch, so that will, eventually, need to be replaced.

While there is a lot to like about current geometry, there is almost as much to dislike about other trends in bikes. Internal cable routing seems both pointless and annoying (ting), and the level of specialization which means that I (a reasonably competent home mechanic) can’t even begin to figure out the type of headset needed seems excessive. But wide cassettes are cool, as is the clearance that comes with wider hub spacing. Complaints with the bike itself (aside from the cable routing) are minimal, confined to a derailleur hanger which seems a bit soft, and a seat tube that seems needlessly high, especially given modern trends with dropper posts. I’m on the shorter side of folks who will likely buy an XL, and while I have plenty of standover (and framebag space) I’ll max out at a 125mm dropper from any brand save OneUp. There is actually space for two bottles on the downtube, and given Marin’s boss-intensive approach with other frames it would be cool to see more storage tech on the San Quentin. Good bikepacking bikes need to be good mountain bikes first, and the SQ is certainly that.

I’ll keep riding until winter finally comes in earnest and shuts down the trails and pump track (if that ever happens). Priorities for spring and summer outings include a dropper, cushier tires, and a frame bag. When the time comes and I’ve had more than afternoon rides in the bag, I’ll update with a comprehensive breakdown.

The packout

The snow was crunchy, crisp toe snagging crust over three inches of powder, freeze dried into substancelessness by weeks of sunny days, cold nights and wind.  But I saw the buck before I heard him.  Antlers moving through gaps, left to right, the faint, neat snap of hooves echoing behind.  It was the penultimate evening of deer season, deep towards the winter solstice, and while it was neither as frigid nor as snowy as distant dreams tend to suggest, this buck was full in thrall of the rut, just as hoped.  His nose was on a string, and he followed it, ears and legs and round sleek body barely keeping pace, in a wide circle around me, averaging a bit over 100 yards away for the few minutes until it ended.  Just down the hill a steeper slope of living trees swallowed wholesale the fading light, the dankness of that north-facing slope having kept last decades fire away.  The gentler upper slope, which ended off a limestone crag a few hundred yards above, and into which I had just sidehilled, had been blitzed by the same fire, and it’s place high up in the consistent winds had, still, kept new vegetation to knee height.

I could always see either the antlers or the white rump, and often the line the buck carried atop his back, those three deviances whose exaggerated coherence stand out from branches, rocks, and grass, and have given up so many secrets to so many hunters.  I could not get a clear look at his side, and thus had no shot.  My own crunching feet and readjusting of rifle against first one snag and then another had pulled his attention from nose to eyes several times.  Choice and planning struggled to stay fast enough that when a half second window opened to his lungs, the rest of me would be ready for my finger.  That was what I could control.  Whether the buck circled such that a window would open, that was not up to me.

This is the essence, the essential moment, of hunting.  When practice allows confidence then allows instinct full reign, thought falls away, a millenia-old line pulls you firmly towards and animal, and you can finally kill, with equal parts automaticness and certainty.

The buck vibrated, his life batted out of him, tense for a second, then quickly ran 12 feet and fell over.  He vanished from my sight as easily as a bullet through both his lungs took him out of life.

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I can see the ridgetop from many places in town.  From the hill behind our house, the summit of the roll in at the bike park, the big window at the end of the hall by by my office; in the right light morning or evening the line stands against the hills behind, dark in rockiness and burned timber.  I wonder if many in town have the context to look out and see it.   In my old office I could see it seated at my desk, and one of teachers though my compliment there enamored of the parking lot, so well do the distant mountains become routine.

From the ridgetop, during daylight, town fades into the middle distance, and the immediacy of ridges blending stays most easily in the mind.  At night, the lights of civilization flood across the flats and well up into the hills, and my camp that night felt on the edge of a dark precipice that all but positioned me such that I could, if I wanted, piss off the edge down into someones back yard.  I had realized, 20 minutes from home, that I had not packed a headlamp.  Two flashlights and all the annoying traffic lights kept me from turning around, and I felt acutely that one lack of tool and technology as I cut the buck apart with a light grasped in my teeth.  Having to dedicate a hand to shining the beam where I wanted it seemed worthy of only a short experiment, so I let the abundant snow and slackening wind put a camp for me in a big closets worth of flat between the rocks.  I built a fire, and used that light to melt snow for water and stare, at the distant light strings of familiar roads, and at the somehow less familiar stars as they emerged to compete with the moon.

It was cold up there that night, something my abundant winter sleeping bag let me ignore.  The meat, hung from a branch all night, was frozen solid, and held it’s shape in my pack all the way back.

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The death of Purple

I’ve cracked three nalgene bottles in the past two decades.  The first was a classic 1 liter in milky plastic, before lexan invaded REI and college lecture halls.  It was ancient and wrapped in duct tape, and split radially when I dropped it in the Sylvan Lake parking lot, which was sad.  I think I was relegated to old juice jugs for the rest of that summers rock bumming.  The second was a few years later, Elephant Butte in Arches, at the flat sandstone base of the exit rap.  I got lazy, it might have been the third lap that day and the 40th that year, and let a single kink in the opposite strand rise 30 feet in the air.  I spent 10 minutes trying to huck a partially full 48oz silo through that loop, tied to the other end, before it shattered into pieces striking the rock.  The third was just the other week, when I gave Purple a stout whack on a tree, to split loose the ice which had layered inside after a 10 degree evening.  Purple cracked, and functionally, was no more.

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We found Purple on this trip seven years ago, in the midst of the talus along the west side of Norris Mountain.  Purple has been around a lot, on my first successful elk hunt, most memorably.  And this is why I’ve always like nalgene bottles.  They aren’t invincible, but they’re close enough, in the face of accidents and hot water and intentional abuse, that over the years deep memories accumulate.  Purple has the sticker from our Double Duck, and the one from that place with best coffee porter, and the stack Jamie sent me after I proofed their gorgeous map.  I don’t quite have any ideas what I’ll do with it, but I’m certainly not ready to just put it in the trash.

Without Purple, we have perhaps nine or ten nalgenes in the house.  Some are hiding in dark corners.  A few sit in the mud room and are used daily.  I believe, years ago, I bought one of them.  Another was a gift.  Several more were freebz at trade shows.  The rest, a solid majority, were found in the wild, taken home, cleaned, sterilized, restickered as needed over time, and adopted.  And for the pleasure of keeping fewer gatorade or smartwater bottles out of the wild, I’ll gladly keep hauling the ounces.

Montane Allez Micro Hoodie review

Not necessarily a huge amount to say here: the Allez Micro is a hooded quarter zip baselayer shirt, made from Polartec High Efficiency, a fabric which was one of the very best innovations of the past decade.  I reviewed the Patagonia Capilene 4 hoody back in the day, when it was one of the very first pieces to use the fabric.  Later that year I bought a Capilene 4 long sleeved crew, and have used that since, when the weather gets reasonably chilly.  I ended up passing that gen 1 Cap 4 hoody along, mainly because the hood was too tight for all day comfort.  I’ve periodically missed the warmth and functionality of having a hood in that particular layer, as well as the versatility of being able to use a warmer baselayer hoody as a midlayer, too.  So I bought an Allez Micro, and have been happy.

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The main, perhaps only difference of substance between the Allez Micro and the current Patagonia Thermal Weight hoody is the hood, with the former being a single layer, and the later double.  I much prefer the reduced warmth, and enhanced moisture transport, of the single layer.  For the same reason, I much prefer no pockets on a shirt like this.  I did buy the Allez Micro in size large, which lets me wear it over a t-shirt if desires, while still being slim enough for layering.  This also makes the hood big enough to wear for days at a time, even over a variety of hats.  Sleeves and torso are very long, almost excessively so, though it makes the thumb loops fit ideally, and the fabric is light and flexible enough that some excess around the wrists goes unnoticed.

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Polartec HE was on the vanguard of the defining textile apparel trend of the past decade, and understanding how unusually, occasionally exceptionally wicking and air permeable fabrics interact as various parts of a layering apparatus.  The Allez Micro, for example, is light enough and would seem to be more than fast wicking enough to be a hot weather baselayer.  A few months ago I found myself wearing it on a windless day pushing into the 80s, even at 7000 feet, and having it rather than something like the Pulse hoody contributed significantly to my pace suffering in the heat.  Not only does the grid fabric trap air and as a result add warmth, when worn alone on a calm day, it also wicks too fast to work in hot weather, as the fabric effectively eliminates convective cooling.  That same attribute is of course it’s main virtue in the cold, and why most of the time Polartect HE works best against the skin.

Some sort of shell is often important, in cold, weather, to control evaporative rates and thus provide for some adjustment in heat and cooling.  A big virtue of HE is that it moves moisture so fast that there is a lot of foregiveness in layering.  One can, for instance wear a relatively not-breathable wind layer, to guard against stronger winds and to take advantage of the more limited moisture absorption (relative to soft shell windshirts), and get away with venting via the front zip in warmer and calmer moments.

Something like the Allez Micro also works, decently, as a midlayer over a slower wicking t-shirt, which slows down moisture transport against the skin, but speeds it up through the midlayer.  In this case, there is less wiggle room when it comes to a wind layer, but on something like a spring ski trip where one might have both hot afternoons and very cold mornings (or days), this arrangement might be the best way to cover as many conditions as possible without duplicate layers that can’t all be worn together (for instance, while sleeping).

The Allez Micro is a versatile option, and Montane did well providing the salient details, without anything extra.  Recommended.

My favorite shoes

This fall I’ve been wearing little other than the Astral TR1 Merge, and for the sort of walking I like to do these days, they are far and away the best pair of shoes I’ve ever had.

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While they don’t have a tremendous number of miles on them, almost all of those miles have been off trail.  They went elk hunting in the Montana prairie badlands, did an alpine traverse on broken granite, went hiking, biking, and climbing in the Colorado Plateau, and have spent more time bushwacking and traversing limestones ridges close to home.  All of those are more abusive on shoes than average, in their own way, and the shoes are holding up perfectly thus far.

Traction across mediums has been excellent.  The lugs grip loose soil, either straight on or sidehill, while having enough surface area for good friction on bare rock.  The rubber is soft enough, without wearing too fast.  The midsole is thick and protective enough, without any hinge points, and without feeling unnatural or slow.  They’re supportive enough, for me, for technical mountain biking using flat pedals, but I can tolerate far softer shoes in all areas than most.  Significantly, the modest padding and added material in the heel and toebox have improved both hold and protection; I’ve not experienced any of the unpleasant talus bites I got often in the Brewers.  The only real flaw is the open mesh used in the toungue, which extends down into the toebox just enough to become a magnet for cheatgrass seeds and a conduit for sand.

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For me, they’ve been supportive enough to carry a 70 pound pack on a few occasions (deer pack out, as well as a family backpack load with a toddler on top).  For me and my feet, support means  enough padding and structure to insulate my feet from the terrain, even when I’m suddenly 50% again my own weight, while being pliable enough to not cause hot spots.  Zero drop is a big part of the later, as is the lack of illusory things like ankle support.  The Merges work for me because they’re a coherent package, the level of support, degree of structure, even the sole and rubber all working to serve one particular style of walking.

That style is a light footed one, based on balancing over terrain and using weaknesses and variations for purchase.  Smearing across the loose wet sidehill, rather the kicking steps.  Working the stable pieces of a talus slope, rather than digging through and into the loosest parts to make steps.  This style is as much about strength and ability as it is about the type and style of trip.  People who regularly take big packs into rough terrain are more often drawn to stiff boots due to pace, and indeed due to their line through a place.  This isn’t to say that fast line, fluid pace shoes are not compatible with a big pack, simply that melding such shoes with a heavy pack requires more than simple strength.  It requires a skillset, and that combination is due to how learning conventionally evolves has historically been uncommon.

That is changing, and as fluid line choice under expedition conditions works further toward the norm, I hope shoes like the Merge remain around as options.

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.

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.