Distance learning

There has been a lot of discussion lately concerning the new, or newly rediscovered, hikers and bikers and outdoorspeople the pandemic has brought out of rooms amongst the trees.  It is logical, and I see it as an extension of the last decades trend of increased outdoor participation in profile, if not as a percentage of the US population in fact.  The OIA 2019 report is padded, as it has been for at least a decade, with activities such as jogging and rv camping which take place outdoors but are not generally associated with the wild.  This last is important because some of the recent discussion concerning outdoor newbies has been about mentoring, and learning.

Part of me wants to welcome them all.  The other part of me wants to scream how members of the tribe can possibly, when we have yet to pass beyond the immediacy of how over-socialized our world is, get things so wrong.  Especially in the age of the internet, when instructions on every mechanics is easy to find.

I spent my whole childhood in southwestern Ohio.  Whenever I’ve returned, especially in the past decade, the logic of the landscape is jarring.  I learned to climb in a gym, learned to hike on vacations and in the strings of woods which clung to creeks around town, and when things got technical I turned to books.  Basic knots from the BSA hankbook, tracks and plants from all of Tom Brown, klemheist and biner block from Freedom of the Hills.  We never got enough snow to self arrest, but by high school had one BD X-15, a drill bit glued to the hole in a claw hammer, and ancient Salewa 12 points in hiking boots and “discovered” the 25 foot vertical ice pillars which formed on the spillway in our local big woods state park.  It was equal parts this DIY period so far from anything and my poorly-acknowledged introverted nature that has kept me on the self-taught path ever since.

Not everyone has this agency growing up, to say nothing of a family system that gives both a safe neighborhood to roam and fancy, fancifully chosen gear for Christmas.  There is a lot to be said, still, for core outdoor adventure being the ultimate encapsulation of first world privilege, in all its expensive and precisely curated discomfort and challenge.  There is a bit less to be said for the high cost of entry to outdoor pursuits.  This doesn’t hold too much water in things like backpacking, where skill and fortitude and thrift stores can provide 9/10s the practicality bought in a $5000 trip to REI.  It does, sadly, in things like boating and cycling, especially the later, which in the past 15 years has seemingly doubled down on eeking more and more profit as the last bastion of unfiltered yuppism.  There is still less to be said for the meritocracy of information, as today the process of learning has never been more accessible.

There is a stupendous amount of crap information, of course, but given that we’re confining the discussion to wilderness pursuits, the judgment learned in discovering bad advice to be what it is is more valuable than the skill of pitching a tent on six feet of snow or climbing a 9 inch offwidth.  My repeated attempts to convey how mindset creates safety are so perseverative precisely because these intangibles are the most valuable and most enduring things I’ve learned from climbing, backpacking, boating, skiing, and everything else.

Packrafting the Crown of the Continent, revised

When it comes to packrafting the next three months have excellent potential.  A pretty good winter in the Glacier and the Bob has turned into a darn good spring, with plenty of water yet to be released.  Not necessarily exceptional, but if May doesn’t prove too warm, good flows could persist into August.

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It seems like a good time to release the revised version of Packrafting the Crown of the Continent.  It could be a better time, with many COVID-19 restriction having been recently lifted and the state bracing for the presumptive outbreak summer tourism will bring.  My hope is that people will packraft in the Crown this summer, and do so responsibly.

In some ways significant changes have taken place with packrafting in the Crown.  At some point in the near future a new river management plan will go into effect, and if and when that will mean permits for the North Fork of the Flathead (likely to both happen and to impact packrafters) and the South Fork of the Flathead (also likely to happen, less likely to impact packrafters).  Packrafting in the Crown, especially on the South Fork, has continued to grow in popularity.  Most people continue to do something like this, (North Fork Blackfoot, Danaher, South Fork to Spotted Bear).  I also wonder if, like with bikepacking, the difficulty of the thing as a backcountry practice has begun to limit packrafting, or at least shape the mean use of the boats to sidecountry and day trips.  The mean weight of boats getting heavier would suggest as much.

I remain exceedingly pleased with the guidebook, with the writing, the structural choices, and its modest reception and impact.  Lots of people, but very far from an overwhelming amount have used it to have goods trips.  No one has needed a high profile rescue from the South Fork.  And most importantly for me, folks have consistently reported having plenty of adventure on their trips.  This summer will mark an even decade since my first float down the South Fork, and as distance has steadily increased the power of that memory, being a good steward has only become more important.  To that end, it was nice to make only modest additions, and even more modest revisions.

(Anyone who bought the first edition and would like the second, email me, and I’ll send the new one, gratis.)

Picking

In the Bob spring comes first to the junctions, where flat grass melts on the south and ten steps north snow lingers, hollowing into unwalkable with a crust on top nothingness.  Deer and elk pack into the sweet spots, and feed into the 3 percent of that 3 percent of valley, cliffs to cobbles, picking root and bark through the cold.  Walkers, human or hooved, play the angles of warmth as the season beats back the frozen default.

In one such meadow I came across a spread of fur, spangled around a 30 foot circle of mud and wolf tracks.  The rest of the story was a midnight slick faint with blood and hashed clean with grizzly claws, snaking around logs and just over the hump.  Down the hill, the creek.  Under the huge old what used to be ponderosa, a bear on 80% of an elk.  Up the valley as I walked and then skied towards the cornices, visible from 10 miles, the retreating wolves. 

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Early that evening wind, snow, and my nerves betrayed me.  I made the lake, long in the mind, impatience having turned an early side-hilling error into a skin glopping, out of water battle against inefficiency and haste.  The lake itself was a perfect custard drop, monolithic in the midst of pines and the high ridges, blown craggy.  The lake was, as hoped, chocolate split at the inlet by 3 inches of open water, flowing for 15 feet over dark gravel.  Rehydrated I made the ridge, but the final thrust into the strafed teeth of the alpine was steep and guarded, hollow in the pockets between the rocks.  I probably could have made it up.  I was less sure about making it back down, so I transitioned tentatively next to a ragged tree and hacked back down, fear tinkling away as drove the outside ski hard through each turn, the snow crust shattered and rattled down ahead and along.

I refilled at the magic drip I was sure would freeze into nothing by morning, melted snow to add to my pool of life, and had more minutes as the blue tent faded away to consider beyond the obvious; where my mind had traveled that long day along and apart from my legs and arms and body.

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The next day dawned blank, skin and sky only set apart by the opposing line of tree and cliff.  I went down, and like all things in the mountains the matter of factedness held risk.  The trail, which I was determined to hold, moved between aspects, enveloped in old growth fir.  The fear of yesterday passed through, not just turn to turn, but minute to minute.  Skins on, then off.  Boots locked, then open.  Efficiency in complex terrain comes in choices sacrificed to the big picture, in allowing inevitable mistakes to melt in the face of flow and miles.  Confidence, stacked moment to moment. 

And thus, safety.

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I counted ripstop that night at the lake, and had the weight of the moment and the last decade come together.  Should I be out in the wilderness at all, given the weight of the moment?  More personally, should I be out here, holding on to ambition and learning, when the familiarity upon which that safety is stacked is, increasingly, in the past? 

When I thought back to Isle Royale, mug bogging around the reservoir snow blowing into my face, the answer was easy.  Especially in a world gradually and suddenly shifting forever, the constant process of reminding and refinding me and my place in the world is hard to imagine in any other venue.

Islands of moisture revisited

“…under duress the most important characteristic of your clothing system is not the ability to keep external moisture off you, but the ability to allow internal moisture to escape efficiently without chilling you excessively.”

Me

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In the ~five years since I wrote the above post, and since Sitka popularized the concept of the rewarming drill.  In that time a number of people have produced trials, and a few significant advances in gear have become widespread.  It is worth taking a look at both.

Rokslide recently published a static rewarming drill trial; jump in a lake, get in a sleeping bag, use hot drinks and hot water bottles to see how your insulation manages moisture.  A useful exercise for the unfortunate but inevitable scenario of having to go to bed damp or wet with no other way to dry out.  This can happen in the alpine, or just because of rainy weather without respite.  The lessons from the Rokslide article are mostly old hat: the lightest possible layers (especially against the skin) with the least possible spandex are best.  Anything beyond mid single digits spandex should be categorically out for backcountry stuff in damp climates, as should merino wool.  Synthetic bags and insulating garments provide a significantly larger margin for error, though in the case of the former weight goes up enough that you can almost buy a bigger margin with a premium down bag.  It’s also worth highlighting that women, especially those who require more support than a basic shelf bra/tank provides wear a significant handicap when it comes to eliminating moisture islands from undergarments.

There are also a few versions of the various rewarming drills, static and active, that might be worth watching if you really care to geek out on specifics.  Subtle but significant lessons here are just how much redundant fabric layers (e.g. pockets) can trap moisture, along with how one poorly conceived layer in the system (most often an inartfully selected mid layer, such as a second heavy baselayer) can slow the whole system down.  This performance during a for-video trial is one thing.  The cost lagging dry time can exact on metabolism and morale on day 3 of 5 or 7 quite another.

The most important development in this area, in the last five years, has been in active insulation (Alpha Direct, left; Full Range, right).  The virtues over fleece are in no small part the much lighter fabric (not necessarily garment) weight relative, which vastly increases dry time when internal heat is driving the process.  The advances in fabrics used for shells here also makes a big difference, as they both preserve internal warmth (and thus, temperature gradient) without too far inhibiting moisture transport.  Being able to get wet, be it by falling in a river or sweating too much on a skin track, throw on an active insulation jacket, and then work yourself dry without too much attention to detail has been a game changer.

Lately I’ve been revisiting classic pieces, like the Rab Windveil and Patagonia Capilene 4, that firmly prioritize not only dry time not very low moisture accumulation even under poor circumstances.  And I’ve been impressed, all over, with how well you can do with a system whose ceiling for error is small.  Heavier baselayers, esepcially wool, can in theory do more and better than Polartec HE, just as a softshell windshirt can breath better than the Windveil and peers.  But it is darn nice to just not have to faff much, to leave the second layer on for that extra 20 minutes up the hill with minimal penalty.  If there is any alteration I’d make to these thoughts, it would be that.

Evolution of the Tamarisk: features

Or; as few things as possible.

Backpack features don’t make up the majority of a packs weight, but they do make up the overwhelming majority of the weight which is easily negotiable.  There is only so much weight to be shed with material (before you sacrifice durability), only so much with suspension or frame elements (before the pack carries poorly), and for a technical backcountry pack good side pockets (and belt pockets) are mandatory.  So the design task left is to make it possible to carry all the technical goods, along with the unexpected and unexpectable, with the least material possible. 

This includes snow gear like skis, crampons and ice axe(s), and a shovel, along with water gear (PFD), and perhaps something odd like firewood or even a bike.

I’ve settled on an extension of the reinforcing layer of bottom fabric, with horizontal daisy chains 15 inches apart.  Each daisy has a second layer of fabric inside.   Not only does each bartack thus have serious resistance to the ends pulling through the fabric, but the load is transferred to the whole fabric panel, and thus 16+ inches of seam.  The sleeve is not primarily intended as a pocket, being non-dimensioned, but is open at the top and thus not a bad place to stash pesky things like paddle blades, but the first intention is to both spread the load and provide abrasion resistance. 

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Pictured above is the full deal, for a trip which involved a 12 mile hike to even reach the skiing, and ended with steep skiing (on terrible crust) at 8500 feet.  A shorty 45cm ice axe mounted, old school, to a cord loop on the lower daisy.  The shovel shaft went inside the sleeve pocket.  Skis mounted diagonal, with ski straps, and crampons went under the top cinch strap, on top of three days of gear. 

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The final piece is the top strap, which is bartacked into the middle of the top daisy chain on one end, and with the buckle directly under the upper stay pocket on the other.  When the pack is on the empty side the angle of the strap, combined with the taper of the bag, provides compression.  When the pack is full the strap pulls the load towards the suspension, transferring the load and enhancing stability. 

And that, is it. 

 

The Bob bag

Lets get this out of the way: I won’t make you one of these.  Working with these fabrics and with stretchy Climashield is not something I find fun.  This design is straightforward and quick to make, so create your own ugly.

Ever since my first Wilderness Classic nearly a decade ago I’ve been turning this idea over; what is the lightest and fastest way to get a bit of sleep in the midst of a fast wilderness trip?  Curling up around a fire would seem to be the easiest answer, and has the advantage of self-selecting for only the most vitally needed sleep (read; you get cold and wake up).  The problems are the questionable quality of rest, and the potentially considerable time put into making a fire under unideal conditions.  Adding a tarp or bivy sort of addresses the second issue, but not the first.  In the last decade truly UL sleep items have become common enough that most peoples answer to this question has been to just bring a standard backpacking kit, or at least a light bag, tarp, and minimalist pad.  These systems can be in the 2 pound range, but usually come in between 3 and 4 all told (stakes, etc).  Not much weight, but not a tiny amount either.

The functional intermediary between these has long seemed to be a light synthetic bag come insulated bivy sack.  Enough insulation to maintain ~4 hours of warmth around freezing, and a waterproof/breathable shell with minimal seams, that sort of thing that would allow you to flop under a half ideal spruce and stay protected enough in the just the bag.  Synthetic insulation, as sub 10 oz down fills tend to be overly sensitive to moisture accumulation.  This winter a friend bugged me enough that I finally overcome my reluctance and made two such bags.  In the next few months we’ll truly find out how they perform in the field. 

I used 10D WPB for the shell, .66 oz/yard taffeta for the liner, and 3.6 oz (120 grams/meter) Apex.  The former is the obvious choice, being essentially alone at that weight.  The taffeta has a nice feel and is calendered, with synthetic insulation I reckoned that eeking out every little bit of warmth with low CFM fabrics all around was a good call, with no functional downside.  I went with safety orange for use in signalling aircraft.  I certainly could have used lighter insulation, but past experienced suggested 120 g/m was the lightest that would still be useable in all but the most specialized situations.  I made the neck cinch out of 30D ripstop, as anything lighter doesn’t let the cord run so smoothly, and in time abrades along the opening.

Using the (raw cut) dimensions in the above photo, finished weight was just over 16 ounces.  The fit is narrow, on purpose, but long enough to mostly go over the head of someone a 6 feet tall.

The main design challenge was avoiding any exposed seams in the top of the shell, as I really didn’t want to get into sealing anything.  To fix the top of the insulation to the bag without doing this, I stitched the liner, shell, and cinch tunnel together (left photo) and then folded the shell out of the way, slid the insulation in, and sewed through the interior seam, insulation, and liner fabric (right photo).  Apex is stretchy enough that you can be imprecise here with no problem.

After this, stitch around the side and bottom edges, then put the footbox together.

The footbox is a point down triangle.  The photo show it inside out (left) and then right side out (right) in both cases with the top of the bag facing up.  What you can’t see well is that the top of the footbox is longest, making the two seams run backwards, with the footbox overhanging them.  My expectation is that anything short of serious, sustained rain will not wet this out.

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The ~1 pound weight it what I wanted out of this.  It approaches down bags of comparable warmth, and should exceed them in damp conditions over a few days.  Packed size is another matter.  Squeezing air out of the bag is not a simple thing, and without tons of compression it wants to stay as a roughly basketball-sized lump.  It will go smaller, but in the game of ounces the pack space this demands is less than ideal.

Field report to follow this summer.

Do it now

In the past week I’ve seen a noteworthy uptick in orders for Packrafting the Crown of the Continent, which is cool, because it would seem to mean that folks are planning for a future which allows for bigger dreams.  Escapism, and as I mentioned the other day, familiarity are powerful attractants in the face of uncertainty.  I’ve been using the past week to dwell on the longer standing trips which have been living in my mind undone, in some cases for years, even decades.  They seem to fit into two categories with only a little kicking and massaging; trips for which I’ve been building either skills or time, and trips I just haven’t prioritized.   In quite a few cases I’ve been waiting on certain conditions; running the lower Escalante River, for instance, can’t be done just any time or year (though I remain convinced there are more and broader windows than conventional wisdom suggests).  With plenty of time to consider, it is easy to see that wanting good conditions has for itself often turned into a sort of pureism.  Knowing how singular the first trip into a new and profound place can be, I’ve gotten into what is almost a habit of holding back for close to perfect conditions.

There is something to be said for doing that.  There is also a lot to be said for just doing it, without excessive regard for practicality.  Back in the day, when the landscape poverty of growing up in Ohio still lay heavy on me, I rarely lacked for keenness in the face of conditions or long drives.  When it again becomes responsible to travel widely, I am determined to go back to being a bit less measured when it comes to planning.

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At the start of our time in Moab years ago I made a list of canyons and routes I wanted to see, and one of the very few left undone is the Long-Gravel loop from Steve Allen’s Canyoneering 2.  There were plenty of excuses back in the day, relating to being less dialed on multidays, as well as more recently, due to not wanting to haul too much insulation for the extended water sections.  Both things which, in hindsight, I struggle to be patient with.

Another route I’ve been holding in reserve for reasons which currently seem thin is the Canadian section of the North Fork of the Flathead.  There are a lot of roads up there, and because of that I’ve wanted to thread the needle between when the river starts to run well enough that ice bridges should no longer be an issue, but well before road access is possible.  Skiing in from the east has always looked fun and stylish.  With the window opening in a week or so, this year is obviously not the year.  Perhaps, alternately, the fat snowpack will keep water levels up in the early fall, when the uppermost part of the US Flathead is for me at its most beautiful.

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A longstanding idea which is tentatively on the docket is a high line across the northwest corner of the Yaak, hoping lookout tower to tower.  The six month reservation overlaps here with the most contemplative part of January, and hopefully the first days of open lookouts in late June will see us all back further in the woods, with a new appreciation for this moment.

Panic

This began two days ago as a hopefully un-trite post about how parks, mainly national, should not be closed during the current Coronavirus crisis.  I wanted to point out how both explicible and sad it was that Yellowstone closed Tuesday.  How parks, however grand, are generally in someones backyard.  Moab had an entirely reasonable request last week when they asked the Governor of Utah to shut down tourism, and how current Moab locals also have an entirely reasonable ability to be out in their greater yard.

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For my part, I left home in the dark this morning and skinned a few laps of our local ski hill.  The surface, ungroomed for almost two weeks how, hadn’t frozen solid yesterday evening, and was covered in two inches of light fresh.  The turns were exceptional, the sunrise and brisk wind enliving as for me only the touch of the wild can be.  I arrived home and continued the arduously ambiguous task of moving all the bargains and history and tenuous emotional bridging I’ve built in my office to the virtual world, and did so with a lightness, having reaffirmed that the world was only so writhingly mutable on a human scale.  Our president excepted, there shouldn’t be too many people on the planet with many illusions left about what it will take to manage this crisis.  Where the illusions remain seems to be in how long life may be altered.  And for that reason I think wild parks should, in the vast majority of cases, remain open.

I was not the only one at the hill at dawn.  A few folks had carpooled up, hiked (rather than skinned) the hill, and on their way down ducked into the terrain park for a few jumps, two things the hill had after the mandated closure asked people to not do.  There has reportedly been a drastic uptick in avalanches in the Colorado backcountry in the past few weeks.  Earlier this week, on a bike ride around town, I had to explain to Little Bear why we could not go play on the equipment which was in the spring sun swarming with other kids.  And this is why, apparently, we can’t have all the parks open during our duress.

This afternoon I was doing what so many have done recently, having a Zoom meeting with my colleagues, discussing how to keep translating our job into a new medium, when word came down that Montana was joining much of the rest of the world, with a shelter in place order.   Nothing stressed me more, until an hour later I tracked down the document itself, and read the clear exception for wide varieties of outdoor activities.  During that search, Little Bear looked over my shoulder, saw the above photo (from our hike this past weekend) and asked when we could go again.

My desire, and its urgency, is in this matter quite trite and thoroughly myopic.  But if this is trite, then almost anything is.  Living after all is made possible by being alive, but does not consistent of it.  Over the weeks to come we’re all going to become more intimate with this.

The Open 2020

I updated the information for the 2020 Bob Open just now.  Removing the mass start option seemed to be the most responsible solution for the uncertainty surrounding the virus.  This means that I encourage everyone for whom the circumstances in two months time make it safe to do the walk, be it the circumstances of ones family, community, or the extent one must travel.  Or in 6 weeks, if such a thing suits them better.  There is a robust snowpack up high, and it could well be a good year for an early May ski traverse.  I also emphatically encourage anyone for whom this trek seems a stretch to stay home this year.  All reasonable guesses point to the public systems in Montana being busy two months hence, making 2020 a poor year for the Open’s first rescue.

There has been much written in the past few weeks about how acceptable it may or may not be to go out and adventure, while Coronavirus is waiting to run through society.  In the last 9 days, since school and then much public business, was largely shut down in central Montana I’ve been so preoccupied with waiting, adapting, and then waiting again that a matter so far distant as the Open escaped me until today.  I’ve yet to form my own opinion, but have from the beginning been struck both by how socially entangled backcountry pursuits seemingly are, as well as how remote they are from the evident pillars of contemporary life.

The mass start has always made for great fun, and as the survey demonstrated Memorial Day is popular both for the holiday and for the conditions.  My fear since the beginning has always been that the Open would be the victim of its own success.  The fulfillment it has given me, through the learning and achievement of others, has been extreme, but further disbanding what little organization exists has always been the sustainable future.  This year will tell all us fans of the Open what that might look like.

Things I’ve broken lately

Last month Little Bear and I went backpacking.  In and of itself this was not unusual, though it was the first time just the two of us had walked in to camp under a tarp.  It was noteworthy because it was February, and we were in shoes, walking over a inch of crusted snow and ice.  In sharp contrast to our first two winters here, this one has fulfilled our valleys reputation as an oasis of brightness.  Which I do not mind at all, as it gives the choice of driving east and hiking, or driving any other direction (including further east) and skiing.  It makes my life easy, and those with short legs easier still.

That afternoon we walked a few miles up a canyon, didn’t slip on the ice, explored a cave, and with a little futzing found a flat spot at last light.  Setting up our big tarp proved complicated, with almost desert-pure dirt frozen solid with the days melt.  On that, or on the many limestone cobbles, I broke a Groundhog, the first time in over a decade of using them.  That heightened the dis-ease of the evening, as Little Bear stood watching me hammer as the deep cold of the dark crept quickly down the hillside.  My fire skills remained sharp, and that warmth did what it has done for tens of thousands of years; put those only newly at ease out under the sky to sleep.  Once in his bag Little Bear’s eyes closed within seconds, and he slept for 12 hours.

The next weekend, as further evidence of our southwestesque winter, the Bear and I went on a bike ride.  It was snowing fast, but the flakes stuck to dry dirt and pavement and impacted traction not at all.  We made our way down to the bike park, and on our second run over the big rollers I felt a click, which I assumed was the basic drivetrain being cranky.  It was in fact my right pedal spindle cracking partway through, damage which completed itself a minute later when I went to spring up the hill at the start of the jump line.  My pedal detached completely, with my shoulder going into the handlebar and knee into the dirt.

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It had been a long time since I’d crashed that hard, on anything.  Sadly, it would not be the last such incident this month.  It had also been a long time, and by that I mean never, since I had bothered to regrease my pedals, or to replace the dust cap which on that pedal shook itself loose riding Little Creek 6 years ago.

Mechanical neglect was not to be blamed for my crash the weekend after, rather personal imprudence.  That same lack of big snow which has been so good for walking and biking in 2020 made the first big storm in months a matter of fervor at the local ski hill.  It also reminded me that resort pow is the most overhyped medium in outdoor recreation, as a foot of blower over icey bumps and rock mainly means you can’t see the potential obstacles.  So it was with me, and while looking to gap down to the cat track on my second run I stuffed a tip into a rock or stump and side slid down a short slope whose powder was a veneer over boulders.  If you were riding the right lift at the right time you might have seen my haste-induced poor form.  I nicked the arm of my fancy shell, broke the leash on my right ski (which it is supposed to do in a nasty fall), and bruised my whole left side in a way which made it hard to walk for the next three days.  I now realize I was quite lucky to not break any bones.

All of that is quite trivial compared to the last week, as Coronavirus precautions have broken the routines whose significance most of us had little cause to understand.  In Montana we have thus far felt a lesser impact than many.  I can still for instance drive 30 minutes and hike for laps at that same, now closed, ski area.  The volume of walking and jogging traffic past our house has neither increased nor decreased, with perhaps only a few fewer cars at the busy times.  Schools are closed for at least a few weeks, and likely longer, so we’re watching a colleagues son and I’m learning how to do therapy remotely.   It’s something our company ought to have had in the repertoire a while ago, so the silver lining of persistent uncertainty is new and unexpected skills, along with a hopefully enduring awareness of how much the innocuous runs our lives.  With bumps being unexpected, though perhaps less so in retrospect, I can only hope that this batch has run through.