Small bikes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ending tourism

“To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit.  It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience.”

-David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster”

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If you are reading this essay, and have not read the essay by Mr. Wallace, you should.  Over roughly a decade, straddling the millenia, Wallace invented 21st century travel writing, with works on the Illinois state fair, cruise ships, and the Maine lobster festival (natch).   I mentioned these three work in this (chronological) order because I think they’re his best, and because reading them in that (chronological) order lays out easily his evolving theory of tourism, summarized in the epigraph, whose cynicism and incisiveness evolved sharply between 1994 and 2004.  While it could be said that, as a midwesterner, his sympathies were always primed to give the Illinois state fair a more generous treatment, I think it more accurate to draw a distinction between such a fair being an object of regional tourism, at best, if not just local routine, and the Maine lobster festival, an explicitly tourist event.

This distinction is important.

Beyond his emphasis on the distinction between local and capital T Tourism, you should read Wallace’s non-fiction because he is one of the best writers, ever.  I aspire as much to being able to mimic his use of language as tool, a breaker bar as weighty and crude as it is precise, as I do to his careful, entirely genuine use of situation and detail.  (” The corn starts just past the breakdown lanes and goes right up to the sky’s hem.”)  The mechanics of his writing, which is to say his style, cannot be separated from his ontology, from the way he understands and thus creates his worlds.

The foundational insight which runs through most of Wallace’s books and essays is that entertainment has, by the late 20th century, become the essential question of humanity.  It is not so much that the items on the fatter end of Maslow’s pyramid have been so well provided for as to become background, though for the bourgeois they have, as it is that entertainment has veiled food, security, and human connection so well that today we struggle to understand them through any other window.  Thus the prominent place of food in all of the three aforementioned essays, and the muted, rather squishy, and distinctly uncomfortable way physical movement is incarnated in a place like a cruise ship, state fair, or destination food festival.  Entertainment is not, first and foremost, participatory, at least in the 21st century, and this passivity is why Wallace’s object lessons are so properly lugubrious, and why modern Tourism is so consistently and gratingly at odds with things like National Parks.  Abbey’s most famous chapter in Desert Solitaire was a precursor to Wallace in this, and while at first the two may seem of an awkward lineage they share an intellectual heritage which makes the comparison as coherent as it is efficacious.

To whit: if the prime mover of tourism, of travel, of physical movement beyond the familiar, is to experience aura and garner the unquantified benefits thereof, the move for Tourism to become a form of entertainment rather than experience is a shortcut to knowledge that must always be a contradiction.  Knowing a thing, be it the view over the Maze at sunrise or a sleek prize winning calf, has never been possible via anything other than process.  And process has never been built out of anything other than time.  This is why Wallace is at his most sympathetic discussing his home state fair, and at his most lyric within that essay discussing two distinct things.  First, the livestock judgings, the core functions of a fair which are only about entertainment in the best sense; a venue for one insider to communicate experience to others.  Second, the final visual sequence of the east coast interloper being hauled through elective torture on a carnival ride.  In the first case you have pure, native entertainment, any by extension people who have staked their right to the impure diversions Wallace details elsewhere in the fair.  In the second, an abject example of intrusion, of Tourism, being roughly and justly handled.  And what might happen were Tourism to take over the become the default means of being?  That answer is Infinite Jest, in whose fictional president one has a functionally endless number of chilling parallels with Donald Trump.

So; Tourism must go.  The cheap pursuit of novelty and in it the illusion of profundity has in the social media age (Facebook as The Entertainment?  Florida as the Great Concavity?) never been not only easier, but as enveloping.  If ‘gram-ing is a complete enough facsimile for experience that many of us actually believe it, the only reason to leave home at all is to keep that facade aloft.  Thank goodness then that the pandemic made doing that at least a little less respectable, for a little while, and that maybe entertainment and Tourism will each suffer and be deflated together.

 

Evolution of the Tamarisk: Shoulder Straps

First: what the hell is happening with those packs, maan?

A lot.  Unfortunately, almost none of that is helping to get you a pack faster.  While the pandemic hasn’t impacted our family as directly or egregiously as it could, or still might, it has made the world more complicated.  I’ve been and remain on a slightly reduced salary, and our decision in early April for M to go back to work has been wise, in that any financial concerns have been well preempted.  What that has meant day to day is that we juggle our schedules, and that my time has been full enough that choices must be made: kid time, spouse time, meals, work, fun and exercise, yes.  Much else (e.g. cleaning, and sewing), no.

And I am ok with that.

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Hopefully one of the things we, as a society, get out of the pandemic is an easier time admitting that doing it all, especially as parents, is neither possible nor desirable.

One of the benefits of such mandatory emphatic choices, and of the necessity of managing creeping universal anxiety, has been lots of time in the woods, both on my own and with the little people.  The prototype Tamarisk has been used almost daily, even if that is only to transport rafting gear 200 yards from car to lake, or on a pint sized bikerafting trip (top photo, 5 miles on gravel, 10 miles of twisty and fast class I+).  I am more confident than ever in the design and size, and embracing the extended and indefinite timeline to tweak a few things (the belt could be a bit better, improved attachment points for a PFD).

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After 6 months of use I remain exceedingly pleased with the shoulder straps, which in packland present a problem whose answer is difficult to properly balance.  Too much padding is certainly a thing, as is too little, too stiff, and too supple.  My old Dana always chafed a little, and never really broke in enough (even after 200+ days) to conform to clavicle and armpit.  The 2012 Gorilla did almost everything right, with the thin foam being a little too stiff, and certainly far too ready to pack out.  The HPG shoulder harness was a study in how far one could get in patterning and conformity, but the Cordura facing against the user chafed and held sweat, and the thin and relatively supple foam let the webbing strap dig in once the load was big enough to stretch the Cordura.

With these three examples as limit posts, I set out a couple years ago to find something well in between them.  Most combinations of foam and materials have worked decently enough, and there is a case to be made for shoulder straps being an ancillary detail to things like the hipbelt and frame, so long as they are good enough.  But the whole point of the Tamarisk is to not just be good enough, and it is easy to recall trips like this one where anything with the least potential for discomfort will sing out to that effect, and loudly.

My current layup for the Tamarisk shoulder straps is a 5mm layer of fairly stiff EVA foam, 5mm 3D mesh turned inside out, and 500D Cordura, with a length of 3/4″ webbing bartacked every 3 inches the whole length.  The result is quite pliable, due to being well under 1/2 an inch thick, yet rigid, due to the EVA.  The thick 3D mesh makes things feel cushy, and wicks sweat (see above), both of which fight chafing during hot 12+ hour days.  Keeping the mesh inside out eliminates the traditional bane of that material, namely the extent to which it traps pine needles and debris, which build up over time no matter the cleaning efforts, eventually becoming abrasive to both clothing and skin.  The greatest cause for celebration is that testing the inverted mesh over the past two years, and this particular foam since January, has revealed no concerns with longevity whatsoever.  img_0010

The packs will come, eventually, but in this age of uncertainty I’m not making any specific promises.

The new rules for nature

There has been much discussion in the past few months about how the significant, perhaps even colossal, surge in those camping and going outside will in effect unite the insta-hipster trend of the past 5 years with the COVID-induced cabin fever and lack of options.  Those who went camping twice last year, and wouldn’t have considered it a decade ago, may well go 12 times this year.  My anecdotal experience with local traffic, as well as the availability of Forest Service rentals recently, supports this.  Accompanying this demographic shift is the expected naval-gazing guidance on the part of the Outdoor Media, much of which has been exceptionally horrible.  The following is my screed, a hope for newcomers and those newly serious in the outdoors that we will not let a rare year such as this pass by without using disruption to accelerate change, or even to shift the paradigm entirely.

1: Your stoke will not save us

Ethan Linck’s 2018 essay has become canonical in the way it summarizes and then deconstructs the founding myth of recreationalism.  In the process he casts the moral basis of outdoorish capitalism in deep doubt.  His concluding suggestion, that “…place attachment may be the only thing that cuts across socioeconomic divides to predict environmentally friendly behavior” both provides a way forward after his critique, and deals a further blow to the trophy-place ethos which so deeply pervades recreationalism in the social media era.

2: Tourism won’t fix our economy

Anyone who suggests otherwise is ignorant or disingenuous.  For every Boulder or Boise, places whose economy is not directly dependent on the nature which surrounds it, there is a Whitefish or Moab, a place where the second-order impacts of tourism has made it ever more dependent on nearby nature and ever less able to support those full time residents who make such towns, towns.  There are ways to make tourism fund teachers, answers which have nothing at all to do with selling more soft shells, and everything to do with the sort of tax policy nature-rich states have historically avoided.  When you relocate to or vacation in a place, take an extra moment to consider what that resort tax or sales tax does and does not do.

What recreation, and recreation infrastructure, might do is help change the economic paradigm of nature-rich locales, and break up the binary between the Boulders and the Moabs of the country.  For each of those two types of place there are 2 or 3 Townsends, Worlands, or Panguitchs.  Places whose 50 mile radius is as rich as anywhere when it comes to outdoor opportunity, if not outdoor spectacle, and who are generally caught in the demographic trap wrought by the nature decline in agriculture and extraction, and the moral paradox of keeping more wild places intact without sundering them all over again with publicity.  If we exit the pandemic with more jobs no longer tied to place, such places can quietly build trails and boat ramps and attract new residents who will (hopefully) be able to pay enough taxes to keep to local K-8 open without also demanding the culture-flattening presence of Starbucks.  The future of the wild world, in our lifetimes, is very much on human terms.

3:  Safety is not the same as comfort

Camping and being outside for extended periods is not about using knowledge and $$ to mimic the four walls of home.  It is about using technique and an open mind to discover new ways of being in the world.  I understand that companies can’t sell a new widget each year to further open minds, which only further highlights the extent to which capitalist recreationalism is an uneasy campmate to sustainable, wild nature.

4:  Subtle is sexy

Here I think a phallocentric metaphor is entirely appropriate: our preferences in scenery and in activities for an Outdoor Trip have become quite the same as wanting big tits and a six pack in our romantic partners.  The fantastic may have its birth in reality, but the exceptional should not define everyday reality when imaging so thoroughly disguises both the rarity and the labor inherent in such things. (end metaphor)  The Zions and Yosemites of the world are valuable because of the way they can shock complacency out of routine.  A preoccupation with the spectacular runs the very real, daily risk of making invisible the interest close by, be that interest in the terrain or in the modes of travel to which that terrain is best suited.  Red rock riding is surely the most interesting form of off-road riding, a fact which should only enhance the depth to be had in riding Iowa back roads.  Finding inspiration in the subtle, ideally closer to home, solves several problems.  It facilitates place attachment (see #1, above), it spreads out user impact (see #2), and it hopefully promotes exploration in places less definitively documented (see #6).

5:  Statistically speaking; no one shreds

Buried in some recent mountain biking press release or interview (I think it was from Trek) was a candid bite from an upper marketing person: “Statistically speaking; no one shreds.”  This is true, and in the time of the shredit an important and difficult thing to keep in mind.  Not only are these folks and the like exceptional talents and practiced professionals, they have the benefit of many, many tries, suggestive camera work, and a custom made trail.

This is a corollary to #4; a reminder of both the gap between representation and execution, and of the extent to which our society has struggled to celebrate the more contemplative forms of travel in nature.  The public side of this has created real problems, be it neophyte backcountry skiers diving right into avy terrain, or schralping giving the Sierra Club dog walkers more ammo against mountain biking.  To say nothing of the inferiority complex foisted upon ambitious newcomers.

6: Leave your phone in the car

Photographing is not the same as seeing, and taking a photo of a previous photo a sort of experiential poison.  As DeLillo wrote; “Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender.  We see only what the others see.  The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future.  We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception.  It literally colors our vision.  A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”  Or Turner; “I had become a tourist to my own experience.”

Turner wrote his Aura essay close to 30 years ago, and to put it simply, it is well worth contemplating how his ideas (and those of Walter Benjamin) might be extended to the age of the gram.  My suggested experiment is to, at least once, go on a keystone trip (whatever that means for you) in totally novel terrain without media devices, without taking photos or video.  You might learn something about seeing.

7: Adventure is founded in vision

My closing rule (ha) is the outgrowth of leaving ones camera at home, and my personal favorite discovery from the past decade relating to how I experience the outdoors: within the limits of my human life, the possibilities for adventure, exploration, for experiencing aura, will always be truncated by my own perspective, by my vision, experience, and lack of imagination, before it is limited or circumscribed by the miles of trails, number of ridges or creeks, or variety of trees.  There is a consistent tension between reserving the unknown for the future and seizing the moment in the name of uncertainty.  What cuts across that whole debate is that beta should be approached with abundant caution in an age when commerce, more than anything, is pushing us towards easy archiving of, well, everything.  If, to summarize, aura is the gateway to profundity and thus to place attachment, any coherent future of conservation is grounded in turning away from apps, waypoints, and indeed excessive and insulating technology.

Happy solstice.

 

 

Drones in Wilderness

You can’t fly drones in federal Wilderness.  Not much debate on that, either from the legal side, or I would contend the philosophical one.  If the essential spirit of the Wilderness Act is the tightrope of permitting/encouraging human access on the landscape while using restrictions on technology to reduce impact, aircraft restrictions are fitting.  Though drones won’t (yet) allow humans to land on a gravel bar, they do very much in the moment massively expedite the reach of the human mind.  The Wilderness consists in wildness, which in turn consists in the unknown, or human finitude.

That being said, I think it is appropriate to make a public issue of the frequent, often egregious violations of this rule.  Like when one of the best living adventure filmers does it, or even just these guys (Warning: Bro factor 1000).  Like with commercial filming permits, on first examination violations can seem innocuous.  And just like with commercial film permits, especially in Wilderness, anything beyond a cursory examination reveals the spiritual impact of commercial exposure to be considerable.

The problem in the modern area is defining commercial.  Elsewhere in the 50 Project Cody Townsend answers a reader question about film permits in Wilderness being notoriously difficult/impossible to get by saying that (paraphrase) his ski trips and youtube series are personal projects, and thus not subject to the permit requirement.  Companies like Salomon, whose logos appear in the video intro, sponsor him personally, not the project specifically.  This rational is both credible and absurd, and highlights the slippery nature of the commercial use question.  Bjarne Salen’s time does not I assume come cheap, and if isn’t being paid outright to film each ski trip, he surely enjoys a share of the youtube and sponsor revenues.  Professional cinematographers produce slicker, “better”, more accessible and evocative content, and thus their impact is greater, potentially of another category, and if so should be required to hold to commercial regulations when filming in Wilderness.

One of my favorite passsages of the Wilderness Act concerns the “increasing population” and “expanding settlement and growing mechanization” being cause to avoid “leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.”  It seems fitting that in the information age the impact of knowledge be placed within the broader scope of mechanization, and thus legislated away for those big wild places we’ve chosen to set aside as reservoirs of the unknown.  So no drones in Wilderness, and let others know why they ought to do the same.

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.

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. 

 

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.

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.

Too, much

If you haven’t read Mark Sundeen’s Car Camping, you should.  The book, from 2000, appears to be out of print but readily available, and is worthwhile as both a fable of young adult purposeless and as a snapshot of Moab before the latest flood.  Sundeen reappeared recently, with an article in Outside about the Mighty 5 (2013) tourist campaign, and just how much industrial tourism in southern Utah has changed as a result.

The preponderance of obviousness here is as suffocating as the deer flies along the San Rafael in June.  Who doesn’t know about the recent trailhead quotas to hike Angel’s Landing?  About UDOT closing Arches when the entrance road filled all the way to the highway?  About how free and easy and beat down things were on river road was before there were any campgrounds?  Abbey predicted all this, well over half a century ago.  Abbey also predicted, in a less explicit but no less compelling way, how categorical the shift would need to be if we wanted to disentangle ourselves from ourselves and resolve the paradox of wilderness, by going beyond it.

Since the 1970s, when overnight wilderness visits as a percentage of overall visitors peaked (in most parks) the NPS has done nothing systemic to grapple with this.  Quantity of visitation has been put first, with attention to quality only paid when such is necessary to maintain quantity.  The Zion shuttle remains shocking in how much of an outlier it is in the 21st US park service, and in how crowded that park can still be, with Springdale this year putting in place regimented, pay parking throughout the 2 mile strip of shops, hotels, and little houses which makes up that town.  Along with Moab, it is the ideal, simple example of how tourism is not the answer to maintaining a livable and thus sustainably wild western US.

This is what Abbey was thinking when he wrote that “growth for growths sake is the ideology of the cancer cell.”   The parks, and American in general, have yet to grapple with this.  Generalized to the upteenth degree, this question is why the US is having such a rough go of the 21st century, the growing, implicit realization that the status quo is not going to work for too much longer.  The instagramification of the outdoors has served to exaggerate this, to accelerate something like the Mighty 5 campaign beyond what that campaign might have done otherwise.  The specific problems are many.  For one, Utah parks (and indeed the whole Colorado Plateau) presents more of the weird and spectacular than any other landscape in the lower 48, if not the western hemisphere.  Who didn’t know about it before the Mighty 5 campaign?  The same people who, pre ‘gram, might well have avoided the whole stretch between Vegas and Glenwood Springs for being ugly and not having enough trees.

Information isn’t just representation in this sense, it is reification.  Billboards and social media create an image and by extension and in the memory, a thing.  People then go find that thing, ignorant perhaps for years or for ever of how much the method and the process define creation.  You can’t see anything from a car, after all.  And this is the lie of the ‘gram, showing a polished end as proof of a process, and thus of meaning, that we all inherently and necessarily assume without any evidence of existence.  It is the difference between the classical tourist and the resident, and while neither stereotype is definitive, the way the information age has pulled the gap between experience and entertainment so wide so fast merits action.

This is why Venice and Amsterdam and Queenstown are contemplating how to moderate tourism, though these days the debate too often equates quality with money.  This is why America has, in all its bumbling, hesitated to constrain the democracy of opportunity that comes (or used to come) with free and easy access to Parks by car.  Adding a reservation system, an idea Arches floated and then withdrew last year, substitutes the current meritocracy of patience for the meritocracy of planning.  This is why LNT has encouraged vague geotagging.  This is why, in my current axe, I want route databases scrubbed of maps and specifics, and all guidebook authors (including this one) to tread in each step cautious of how many years or decades or longer each footprint across the face of human experience will last.

Experience doesn’t come easily, if by experience we mean something that sticks in the mind longer than the sun will take to set.  There are no shortcuts, and I do not think it is asking too much of the NPS and others, who by rights know as much, to be the guardians of process.  As humans we’ll take shortcuts, and try to use research and record to nail the novel on the first try.  Pity the day when it becomes too easy to not fail.