Angles

In the last few days, winter has finally caught up with us. The forecast for the past 24 hours was impressive, 45 and sunny falling to a few degrees (F) below 0, with close to a foot of snow, maybe some rain, and winds up above 20 miles an hour. At my 5000′ camp only a few inches of snow fell overnight, but the temp swing was no joke, and I had to hold a nalgene over the stove for a minute to get it open for breakfast. In any case, the lead photo harkens effectively back to this post; with the steeper 53 degree wall facing the camera shedding snow noticeably better than the 48 degree end wall on the viewers left.

In any case, rather than tussle with a late drive to trailhead and potentially getting seriously plowed in, I hiked from our back door and skipped over three ridge systems late into the night before finding the nice ponderosa patch shown above, which at 2200 was entirely snow free (the steeper wall was a bit harder to get well staked through the 4 inches of long needles and mule deer scat).  The next morning I bushwacked down through more forest service land, climbed up a trail, bumped 40 head of elk, and traversed another ridge, dodging the -30F mph windchill, and made it back down to the bakery by the time my water had frozen solid.

This is all important because the access which allowed me to do a 20 mile loop with less then two miles of pavement door to door is possible because decades ago the city of Helena was visionary enough to protect big tracts of prime open space as city land, and today it facilitates deer and elk winter habitat and property values alike.  This is in turn important because Helena, collectively, is now using these trails and their easy distance from town as a selling point for business and tourism.  Especially insofar as tourism is concerned this means mountain biking, because (as will be relevant shortly) mountain biking is geographically and economically more of a destination affair.  And this is in turn relevant because the practice of having a reasonably expansive mountain bike trail network, a sustainable network, within a town or city is increasingly at odds with how mountain biking is marketed to mountain bikers.  And this conflict may or may not be relevant to what mountain biking looks like in another couple decades.

Long term readers here will know that Bedrock & Paradox started as a cycling blog.  Then 11 years ago M and I moved to Montana and while I still rode my bikes often, the lure of the best of Montana being places where bikes either not able to not allowed to go put them far off the back burner.  Then, two years ago, we briefly returned to the desert southwest, and with an easy reminder that it is and always will be, necessarily, the best mountain biking on earth, I was back paying attention to things I’d ignored for close to a decade.  When we moved to Helena, the excellent and cycling friendly local trails served, along with the constant joy of a toddler and a balance bike, to keep my interest in mountain biking.

One at least subjectively drastic change from back then to now is that Pinkbike has evolved from a barely literate shithole website to a fairly literate, “largest mountain bike site on the web.”  And this is in turn significant because Pinkbike is still doing what they’ve always done, aggregating content, charging a steep premium to native advertisers, and throwing in some skateboarding and BMX on slow days.  And that is in turn significant because it provides the historical underpinning for the way mountain biking is beginning to diverge, potentially into two different sports.  That I’m not personally a fan of jibbing, shuttling, and downhill only is irrelevant.  If you don’t have to go far under your own power, and always have either gravity or internal combustion to help you out, it is little wonder that bikes are becoming something at best a bit discordant with the old, original idea of being able to go both up the hill, down the hill, and to the next state over, all on the same rig.

The logic here comes from several different and converging directions.  In one direction, mountain biking is hard work, and intimidating.  Lots more effort doesn’t get you much faster than walking on the way up, and on the way down there is the constant threat of injury and clumsiness.  In another, the continued acceleration of technology combines with “modern” sensibilities and makes existing, multi-use trails less than satisfactory.  This drives the “need” for berms, as flat corners become tedious, and B-line kickers, as 6 inches of travel pillows the little roots into oblivion.  We see that here, when the local “Enduro” race brings a fusillade of folks on big bikes and full face helmets, taking to the green trails to grind in the braking bumps and french lines for the summer.  In yet another direction, we see increased traffic all but mandating IMBA-spec bench cuts and switchbacks, things which may well lead to lassitude and bad behavior from core mountain bikers.  And we see it from the most relevant direction of all, with prejudice and a shrinking world and increasingly fast and capable bikes resulting in them being banned from more and more of the most interesting places available.

A solution to many of these is in separating mountain bikes from other user groups and making in a separate thing, not unlike downhill skiing.  Bike parks, mountain bike only trails, and shuttles; along with heavy, long travel, low BB, $4000 “affordable” bikes; combined with slapping corners, machine built jump lines, getting sendy, and cultivated skidding.  All of these form a coherent future, but it is a future we want for mountain biking?  Few if any of these may prove, long term, to be compatible with well traveled multi-use trails.  Our own much beloved local shuttle is guilty of concentrating traffic to a drastic degree.  On the one hand this makes pulses of bike traffic more predictable.  On the other hand, it turns the best descent from each shuttle drop into a bumped-out, powdery hole fest by mid summer, and these trails will surely creep wider and wider each year.  Will the bike industry be able to grow in a way which allows for sustainable growth within communities, or will mountain biking become a more isolated and necessarily affluent pursuit?  Is one desirable compared to the other?

It depends on your angle.

That day 11 years ago

11 years ago today Chad, Craig, Fred and I did a dawn to dusk bike ride.  You can read the original post here, and the more extended forum thread here.

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I’ve always ridden bikes.  One vivid early memory was also in autumn, during eight grade, when I endoed my Bridgestone riding down a steep sand hill at Hueston Wood State Parks, and rode the 7 miles back to town on a broken right clavicle.   I started doing big rides out of necessity in 2004 and 2005, as gravel roads (before groad was a thing) are what the outdoors of Iowa does best, and kept things rolling when we moved to Arizona in 2006.  Looking back, my learning curve for the three years between the start of 2005 (when I rode 85 miles of windy gravel to work one day) and the start of 2008 (when rides like this one had become fairly routine) was massively accelerated.  My understanding of things like nutrition and especially the mental component of endurance is vastly better today, but very little beats the courage of ignorance that just says why not do this.  And I’m not sure my aerobic fitness has ever quite matched that I built over the year between June of 2007 and 2008.

The ride we did, or more specifically the descent from Burro Pass to the Colorado River, has gone on to attain iconic status.  There aren’t that many places you can descend 7000′ mostly continuous vertical on a bike, and even fewer where doing so goes from alpine forest all the way to slickrock desert.  Riding that descent from town has not achieved iconic status, which is both understandable and somewhat unfortunate, as it’s a fantastic climb.  And I would not be surprised to learn that no other party has thought to tack Flat Pass (backwards!) on to the loop, as it’s one of those sandy, ledge jeep routes on which Moab mountain biking was invented, but which have fallen well out of fashion as proper singletrack (Ahab, Mag 7) has been built parallel to the many two tracks.

Even back then the state of knowledge moved very quickly, and this was only a year into just anyone being able to create a Facebook account.  Being in the position of creating and executing a new idea is a fleeting privilege not to be taken for granted.

Premium baselayers: what you get

For the last three years my one-sized solution to any temps above really cold has been the original version of the Sitka LW Core hoody.  With ~100 grams/meter 100% poly bicomponent (grid inner) and a trim, simple fit it is the shirt I spent close to decade waiting for.  A decade ago baselayer fabric wasn’t this light, and the number of properly featured hoodies in appropriately light fabric was limited to one, the BPL Beartooth, in 150 grams/meter merino.  Heavier pieces like the Ibex Indie and Patagonia R1 never worked for me, and I tried several synthetic compression/workout hoodies from the likes of Under Armour, but excessive spandex content and cheap, poorly breathable and stinky poly made them very poor performers.

Fortunately, the logic of light baselayer hoodies has become so widespread that a number of good options exist, which allows us to have a discussion based on price point.

The current Sitka hoody is a bit different, with a deep front zip, larger chest pocket, more colors (still no non-black solid option) and a different fabric with a small amount of spandex.  It also costs $119, when (I think) the original cost $99.  I’m not a fan of any of the changes Sitka made, and either price strikes me as somewhere between excessive and ridiculous.  I’ve enjoyed this shirt, and given how directly they influence performance think good baselayers are an ideal place to use your money, but what exactly do you get compared to less expensive options?

Last month I picked up a TNF Reactor hoody from the local shop, at half off the $40 MSRP.  Made from an unsophisticated jersey knit and with a heavier 130 grams/meter fabric (which would have been the lightest such fabric available a decade ago), the Reactor seems targeted towards a wide audience.

The fit of the two is very similar.  I like the TNF thumb loops over the thumb cords on the Sitka, as they provide more warmth.  It isn’t possible to make thumb loops long enough to be truly comfortable without also making the sleeves annoying long.  The Reactor perfectly splits the difference here, and on my average arms they’re useable for mediate periods without being noticeable when not in use.  I’ve been impressed with how close the fabrics are, functionally.  Being 1/3 thicker and with a structure which doesn’t mechanically enhance wicking would suggest that the Reactor would give up more performance than it in fact does.  The Reactor does stink faster, and the fabric doesn’t feel quite as soft against the skin as the Sitka.

The real shortcoming of the Reactor is the fit of the hood, which is much baggier.  As the top photo shows, the Sitka provides good coverage without interfering with peripheral vision, or feeling tight.  This can be addressed with fairly simple sewing, but absent that capacity limits the Reacters utility, and in the wind is pretty annoying.  TNF also lined the hood, and while the lining fabric itself seems fine, the double layer of fabric significantly increases drying time.  Again, this is a reasonably simple mod, but really shouldn’t be necessary.

Thankfully baselayer hoodies are enough in fashion that almost everyone makes one.  The OR Echo is a standout, with sub 100 grams/meter fabric and a $65 MSRP.  Is something like the Sitka hoody worth the premium over these options?  It might be for bowhunting, but if you don’t need camo the case seems far harder to make.

Shoe requiem (Altra King MT 1.0)

As with most things here, this isn’t really a proper review, though the first version of the King MT is still available if you wear a men’s 8, but a discussion of one thing as a salient example, of several trends playing out in the world of trail running and hiking shoes.

The first thing you need to know about the King MT is that it is an Altra in most of the very good and very bad senses we’ve come to know since the brand came into existence.  You also need to know that in a few, very significant, ways the King MT is a huge and positive departure from what Altra is generally know for doing.  Most importantly, the rubber does not suck.  The Vibram Megagrip rubber and tread pattern is in fact the first equal I’ve found for the LaSportiva sole which has been mostly unchanged from the Crosslite through the XCountry to the current Bushido (below at left).  The tread puts enough rubber on rock for good wet traction, and is spaced out enough to clear mud.  The lugs function both uphill and down, and are nearly but not quite the equal of the Bushido side hilling.  Given how bad the rubber and tread was on (for instance) the Lone Peak 1.5s, this is a major development.

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The fit of the King MTs are vintage Altra; moderately wide, moderate volume, with a very wide toebox.  The King MT 1.0s fit at least a size small, and the 11.5s are easily 1/2″ shorter than the Bushidos in the same size.  I can make the 11.5s work because of the toebox, but they’re right on the edge of being too short to fit a thick sock combo.  I wore 11s in every previous pair of Altras.  The King MTs also have a massively wide heel cup, to the point I was genuinely worried they wouldn’t fit.  And with my narrow heel they really don’t; I get plenty of vertical slipping, but the sticky “shark skin” fabric combined with the total lack of a rigid heel counter means that there just isn’t anything to rub against.  I’ve put in a bunch of 12+ hour days in the 4 months I’ve had them, with no hint of blisters or discomfort.

Upper durability has been surprisingly good, given Altra’s crap record in that category.  The caveat here is that I applied a lot of aquaseal when new, anticipating problems.  None have come up yet, excepting the huge rip across the toebox caused by snagging my foot on a sharp stick.  Most shoes would have torn, though perhaps not immediately edge of edge.

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The lack of a heel counter and especially the clunky fit comes back to bite the shoes when it comes to side hilling on steep off trail terrain.  The shoe doesn’t fit me well enough to put the traction and sole stiffness to work, and the shoes end up cutting loose from the dirt or rock as they try to rotate around my foot.  Doubtless some folks out there with boatlike feet like this feet, but I can’t help but think most people would be served by a little tighter midfoot and a little more structure.

I don’t think adding a heel counter is necessary, and if anything the King MT highlights just how well not having out would work, provided that the fit and materials were a little more refined.

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I’ve become surprisingly fond of the silly-looking little velcro instep strap, largely because it goes a decent ways towards actually anchoring the foot.  I find myself cranking it down when in use as a boating shoe, or mountain biking with flat pedals.  The King MT does the former quite well, while it’s a bit soft for extended descents on a bike.  I’ve found the strap of limited utility for walking, as the parts which extend inside the shoe on either side are relatively narrow and stiff.  I’ve bruised my midfoot when the strap was too tight, trying to keep things in check during a burly off trail descent.  Extending the structure would help, but by then Altra might as well just use quality overlays in the lacing structure itself, a la Bushido.

The sum total here is that the shoe industry has largely left faster, strong, experienced hikers behind as the pendulum has swung away from minimalist footwear.  Tip to tip the King MT is actually stiffer than the Bushido when new, though it hikes softer because the flex is even throughout, rather than hinging at the metatarsal transition like most “running” shoes.  I don’t reasonably expect many people to be able to manage super soft shoes (like the old XCountry) in genuine backcountry terrain, but I do find the movement away from low drop and functionally wide toeboxes vexing, as those benefits are in essence universal (I suppose the skinny Bushido toebox would be better for 3rd classing handcracks, but the Altra-style wide toebox even fits crampons better..)  LaSportiva, with their class leading midfoot control, is actually in the best position to use big fat toeboxes.

So for the rest of the year I’ll stitch up the King MTs and tolerate their slop.  I’d also tolerate the stupid low toeboxes of the Bushidos if I ever find a way for the heel counters of this pair to not chew me up, but overall the trail shoe picture is bleaker than it’s been in a decade.  It’s not a question of making compromises for next year, only a question of how many will be necessary.

Planning the 2019 Bob Open

It’s time to start planning the 2019 Bob Open.  If you want to cut to the chase, click here to take a 1 minute survey.

Until recently the process of picking a route across the Bob has been simple; I pick out a few places I haven’t been and want to go (often this had to do with the list of un-run or scouted creeks and rivers), identify the nice or at least decent place to camp at the start, and call it good.  Today, I’ve crossed the Bob 12-20 times, depending on the rigor of your definition, and my eyes naturally drift elsewhere.  Here moving to Helena has been a huge blessing, without the singular lure of Glacier and the Bob it’s been easy to look in all directions, and in each case I’ve only found more reasons to go back and go deeper.

The Bob is singular amongst areas in the Northern Rockies.  It is big, it lacks the logistical issues inherent in a National Park, it has lots of floatable rivers and the terrain is complex enough that facilitating multiple options is easy.  The downsides of the Bob, aside from the fact that we’ve all been there for the last 7 years, include long shuttles between trailheads, a relative lack of sustained alpine terrain and thus more technical routes, and an again relatively large amount of extent planning information.  And it lacks personal interest for me.

But this isn’t just about me.  I’ve gotten immense satisfaction out of teaching by proxy, putting people out in the Bob during the spring.  I want to keep doing what will benefit and interest the most people.  Problem with the Bob specifically include that as spring keeps getting warmer faster, the snow factor remains lower than optimal, and rivers tend towards high enough that I worry about accidents.  I also worry that as the Bob becomes more “known” in the internet sense, the probability of woefully unprepared folks showing up and not making good choices increases.  On the other hand, I worry that the other options would just not be as cool.

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For instance, the two options above.  The first goes across the Little Belts from SE to NW, and would cross a bunch of big canyons and high ridges which get a lot of snow and, once things melt out just enough to keep the sleds out, get very little traffic.  Lots of dirt roads, as any perusal of maps will tell you, which raises the spectre of both mountain bike routes, and lots of road walking.  The second option, starting on the West Fork of Rock Creek and running SE across the Pintlers, crosses some big elevation, but requires a paved road crossing, and more significantly, some dancing around private property to do so.  This last is a major issue in parts of Montana; it’d be awesome to for example end the first route by crossing the Smith and traveling through the Big Belts to York, but the west bank of the Smith River is almost impossible to manage for a diffuse event like the Bob Open.

A larger question is what kind of event the Bob will become.  Will it be something locals and semi-locals can integrate into a long weekend, a keystone events for backpackers looking to step up to the next level, or will it be a destination endeavor, a major undertaking out of which most anyone is lucky to emerge without carrying entrails and eyeballs in one hand?

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Like this one.

Making the Bob more of a ski and snowshoe affair has also been a longtime thought of mine, along with doing something in the southwest.  Those are also options I’d like feedback on, from past and prospective participants.

So fill this out, please.  Three questions only.

 

Known doubt

The best thing I’ve done for my learning in the outdoors was one of the earliest.  In the early 90s seemingly no one in the US, or at least southern Ohio, did anything other than clip bolts, so it was up to me and my set of hexs and stoppers to figure it out.  Gym fingers notwithstanding, it didn’t take many leads to learn that “it” meant knowing yourself well enough to punch it when you were up to the task, and bail when you weren’t.  A full set of Friends upon high school graduation helped speeden this task, but the fundamentals haven’t changed since I was trying to channel Robbins while shaking my way up 5.9s.

Climbing is a good task master here, as the most contemplative of outdoor pursuits.  Mountain biking, and to a lesser extent skiing, let you slam on the mental brakes, while paddling too often brings you along for the ride.  With rarely anything other than the opportunity to ponder the exact nature of your doubt, climbing gives you endless minutes to consider if pushing ahead is a good idea.  Hopefully you’ll put the agony of your belayers to good use and apply that depth of self-knowledge when gravity is on the other side.

As the later half of the video shows, this stellar local ride has some stretches of buff ribbon through the grass where the only check on speed is you.  Even at a fast-for-me clip, I had a functional eternity to consider what would happen if I failed to keep my 4.7 inch tires within the bounds of the 8 inch wide flatness of dirt.  I never found that answer, instead I found out what would happen when I lost my nerve.  The little french line through the weeds of inevitably held a big hole, and I got bucked hard enough for the bruise on my inner left thigh to be way worse than the pedal gouges on my right calf.  I almost held on, and thankfully that juniper shrub wasn’t hiding a boulder.

Knowing where my mental edge lies has been an increasingly vivid theme in my last decade.  With solo travel in big wilderness as my default, my safety standards have become almost coextensive with the functional limits of my judgement in the moment.  I’ve side slipped and portaged a lot of stuff I almost certainly could have run, and taken plenty of breaks to eat chocolate, drink coffee, and generally make sure my head was exactly where it needed to be.  If falling, be it on your skis or bike, out of your boat, or off the deadfall you’re negotiating, is not an option the limiting factor is never raw physical potential.  It is the focus to put that ability to use, along with knowing when and how much theoretical and actual ability have become separated.

I don’t have a good answer to how to cultivate this, other than to go out and practice the same skills and decisions in places which both and do not promise big consequences.  You’ll never know where the edge was until you go past it, but by far the most important thing is to immediately go back and think about which edge it was you went over.

In this particular instance, I’m content that my bike skills remain where I want them to be, and that the ghost of some nasty concussions are still what push me to slow down.  I know my skills can consistently exceed what those phantom worries would suggest, but the question of that gap holding steady, along with my sense of it, is a constant issue.  As it should be.

Panic in the Elkhorns

A few days ago I went for a bike ride, on many of the same trails featured in this video from last year.  I didn’t bring a camera, and snapped only a few vague photos with my phone along the way, having no intention of discussing specifics.  As I wrote last June

But what I value even more than pleasant rides on purpose-built trails is the opportunity to ride in places where bikeability only happens by accident. The number of places one can legally and responsibly do this in the lower 48 grows smaller by the year. One mountain bike, ridden responsibly without skidding, is no more impactful than one hiker, but mountain bikers tend to be social creatures, and the fashionable trail soon sees major impact if it isn’t constructed to take such traffic. In most other states trails like this one are either in designated Wilderness, rebuilt to be more user friendly, or closed to bikes.

We know what they say about tempting fate.  Being fairly new to the area and thus a bit behind the curve, it was only recently that I dug in and found out that the (massive) Lewis and Clark National Forest is in the process of revising their travel management plans (on their many disconnected units), and that the Elkhorn trails I’ve enjoyed so much, and anticipated riding for many years to come, have bike access on the chopping block.  Much more below, but if you want to skip to the (long) planning document itself here, and submit a comment (by September 6th) here.

Above is the view from the long traverse along the north side of Casey Peak, looking NW towards Helena down McClelland Creek.  The trailheads are a 30 minute drive from downtown.

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The map above details the northernmost of the trails which would impacted by the “non-mechanized use area”, as shown below.  The most relevant, or at least most immediate, is the loop up the East Fork of McClelland Creek, over the aforementioned traverse, and down Teepee Creek and the main or south fork of McClelland.  This is a short (~2 hours) ride easily accessed from Helena, with a tough but mostly rideable climb, and a descent of superlative quality.  It seems to receive very little use, at least judging by the narrow and often grassy trail tread (you can see the slightly more obscure Jackson Creek trail going downhill just off the back of my rear tire in the top photo, in places the trail is almost impossible to see for all the flowers).  It serves as a fantastic companion to the increasingly popular, and largely mellow, trails in Helena itself.  If Helena hopes to market itself as a mountain bike destination, having keystone rides like this one, which stand up as A grade mile for mile compared to anything in Colorado, Utah, or Arizona, will be vital.  Without this sort of thing Helena will be pigeon holed as a regional destination, with only grandma trails on offer.  Most people that visit Moab or Fruita don’t actually ride Portal or Moore Fun, but it benefits the reputation and quality of the area enormously to know that such trails are on offer.

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There is a convoluted and conflicted recent history to mountain biking in Montana, best understood by reading this outstanding article from Bike Magazine.  In short, I have very good reason to be scared of what might come out of this planning process.

There are four options presented by the Lewis and Clark NF, in addition to the standard Alternative A, to make no changes to the current management plan, and is generally not adopted.  Alternative B, the preferred alternative for the FS, would create 9 Recommended Wilderness Areas (vital background on this term in the Bike article), which would exclude mechanized recreation (aka bikes).  Alternative C would do the same, but allow current travel options in RWAs to continue.  The catch is that this alternative would create the aforementioned non-mechanized area within the Elkhorns, that would ban bikes.  Alternative D would create 16 RWAs, which would not allow biking, closing a total of 360 miles of trails currently open to bikes (and in most cases rarely traveled by bikes, or indeed anyone).  Alternative E would not alter recreational access in any substantive fashion, and would have no direct impact on bike access (or motorized access).  Alternative E could allow for more logging.

As the Montana Mountain Bike Alliance tactfully put it, “Alternative E may be the more viable alternative for some mountain bike riders.”

It is worth emphasizing just how obscure and infrequently used almost all of these places are.  Even places like the Elkhorns, quite close to a large-by-Montana standards population center, gets very little use (outside hunting season) by almost any standard.  The two trailheads which access the northern bit of the Elkhorns have in total parking for perhaps 20 cars.  Horse traffic, again during hunting season, is almost always the most significant source of impact.  Concerning the Elkhorn non-mechanized area the Forest Service has this to say:

The core of the Elkhorns holds special significance for many people. During scoping, the public asked for the FS to consider prohibiting the use of mountain bikes in this core area to provide a more undeveloped recreation setting. In alternative C, mountain bikes would be prohibited from using approximately 60 miles of nonmotorized trails in a core area of the Elkhorns GA (see map in appendix A). These nonmotorized trails would be open to other nonmotorized uses.  This feature of alternative C would eliminate the potential of mountain bikes to disturb or displace wildlife in the core area; this effect would generally only occur in the summer months, which is a less vulnerable time for most wildlife species as compared to winter. Excluding mountain bikes may incrementally improve the quality of habitat for species that require seclusion. However, foot and equestrian travel could still occur, and the magnitude of this effect would be negligible. (p. 408)

Which is about as straightforward an admission of social bias as I’ve ever seen coming from the FS.  It’s just galling to see this manifest itself here, and in a place which gets so little use, period.  Were restrictions on horse traffic proposed, and especially the abundant cattle grazing in the area curtailed, I’d be more open to the argument of limiting bike traffic in the name of wildlife habitat.  As is, the elk do more than the people to keep many trails functionally open.

A few systematic things are disturbing about the whole management plan, the first being the use of RWAs by the Forest Service to drive policy.  The agency has my sympathy insofar as Washington has been so paralytic for so long, but the argument that by designating and then acting on the restrictions that RWAs have in Montana entailed is one that I cannot see an easy answer to.  The second is the ongoing social bias against mountain bikes, something I’ve addressed at length and won’t revisit here, save to highlight the way this schism is changing the sides of the Wilderness/wilderness debate.  What was, twenty years ago, ranchers and drillers versus hikers and birders is quickly becoming participants versus preservationists.  And that creates problems.

Send in your comment, if you please.  I would appreciate it.

Why Mike Lee is not full of it

A week ago the junior Senator* from Utah caused a good stir with a speech that all you readers ought to peruse, as it is both better and worse than the typical outpourings of press releases and 250 word “articles” have made it to be.  I’ll pick some nits in conclusion, but it’s worth hopping over Lee’s questionable history and logic, straight to the best point he makes, that tourism and recreation are not for rural America the panacea that popular opinion likes to make them.  As Lee writes

The radical wing of the environmental movement today is a multi-billion dollar juggernaut that uses its cultural and economic influence to rig the game against hard- working rural America.

It is an alliance of privilege between a new class of royalty: celebrities, activists, and corporate elites who want to save the Earth at the expense of our rural communities.

They delight in seeing vast swathes of untouched lands, fulfilling their idyllic notions of the West.

They envision a landscape dotted only with picturesque resort towns that exist for their pleasure: destinations where they can jet in, spend a few days at the cabin and the shops, take a few pictures of some animals, and then retreat to their enclaves on the coasts.

A charming picture—for them.

Less charming is the picture for the people who live in these areas full time. While tourism has contributed much to the West, communities can’t survive on it alone.

It is a complement to – not a substitute – for broader economic development.

Skip the rhetoric and political red meat and focus on the content they largely cloak.  Are Moab and Aspen (or Crested Butte, or Jackson), or even the less extreme examples of Bend or Bozeman (or Flagstaff, or Laramie), what anyone in the rural west would actually want to hold up as the future?  A tourist economy brings seasonal, and generally low wage, employment, and in fairly short order vacation homes and tourist infrastructure which creates three classes of “normal” permanent residents:

  • seasonal bums, generally young at heart if not also of age, and content to pay big dollars for a couch, closet, or parking space
  • old timers who got in just before the golden days and are weighing the rate their nest egg (e.g. real estate) fattens versus the rate their cartilage decays
  • couples and families working a few too many hours and paying far too much mortgage to get in while they can

When public school teachers and the folks who manage your favorite hangout begin to slide out of the third category, it doesn’t take long for the fabric of a town to become thin indeed, the few thick strands left not enough to catch anyone not just passing by to enjoy the view.  Folks who are new to the whole western scene are generally wowed enough by places like CB and Moab that they don’t see through the facade at all, don’t realize that the barrista commutes 45 minutes each way by bus, and the only reason the 2nd grade teacher they chatted with on the lift can own that perfect house two dirt blocks off main is that his spouse inherited it from great-grandpa miner, or is the head lawyer for the ski hill.  What these same folks almost always don’t realize is that the facade seems so perfect and invisible because it was shaped, by the anonymously intentional force that is culture, exactly for people like them.

It’s quite a bit easier to see the dirty skeleton of Moab, as the town has grown so quickly and so much and so ungracefully.  No goes to La Hacienda and likes it, something which was been true for decades, and yet rather than the 1 hour wait for a table being a regular feature 5 months a year, as it was 15 years ago, that season has grown to 9 months.  This article by Outside Magazine, on Emery County’s quest to build a tourist economy out of Joe’s Valley and the San Rafael Swell, encounters what we might as well call the Moab Question without actually engaging with it.  Do the folks mentioned expect their kids to take over the coffee shop, and would they ever have considered starting it without a spouse whose job provided a steady, reasonable or better income, and presumably along with it, health insurance?  Then again, what choice did they have?

Lee would doubtlessly pipe in here to remind us that families loosing extractive incomes and viable ranching operations is part of what starts the spiral towards sprawl and housing problems.  Cows not condos, as you’ll see on bumper stickers.  The Outside article mentions that local economies around Grand Staircase expanded in the 21st century.  What the article doesn’t mention, but the report it cites makes quite plain, is that a not insignificant part of that increase has been in non-labor benefits, in this case, more residents retiring and going on Medicaid and Social Security.  What the report and article fail to mention is the steady decline in school enrollment, with Escalante High having a total of 67 students (and 4 teachers) in 2016.  Perhaps more growth, and more sustainable growth, is yet to come, but Escalante and the monument with which it has become associated ask real questions about how well conservation can be justified on economic grounds.

This is the flip side of stoke not saving us; a recreation-based economy which incentivizes, and perhaps in the end demands, that those most attuned with big empty wild places not live too close to them.  But if, as Mr. Linck contends, attachment to a place is the most probable driver of long term conversation, are we forced to relegate that to expensive long-distance vacations.  And even to increasingly expensive (but still far less, comparatively) fees for public campgrounds, rentals, and park passes?

One model, which the aforementioned second tier towns (Bend, Flag, etc) have done well with, is to invest in recreation infrastructure as a means to be more competitive on the quality of life front.  Our own little city has a free biking and hiking shuttle, which seems to be 80-90% locals on any given evening.  It’s a draw regionally, and a talking point, but more importantly it is simply an awesome thing to have on hand.  It, and the trails right out the back door it serves, fosters place attachment in a broad swath of folks, and hopefully serves as a model for the future of the western US.

In his speech Lee asks the rhetorical question of why the western states turned out differently than the east, why they have been as he says “handicapped” with so much public land.  The answer, as he is surely well aware, is that by 1890 we were as a country finally figuring things out.  The frontier was officially closed.  People like Theodore Roosevelt were connecting the lose of the bison with the loss of far bigger things, spiritually and ecologically.  No one in the 21st century will ever see what it was like for a squirrel to go from the Ohio to Lake Erie without touching the ground, but anyone who cares to can see clear mountain water flowing through the unroaded labyrinth of the Escalante.  This is so because a few people convinced the many that it was important.

Lee sees himself doing something similar, taking back local land for local people.  And this is important.  It is also important to recognize that those who live far away can have an attachment to a place, and that living somewhere so different can create a perspective and appreciation that is can be more acute precisely because of the sense of contrast, even loss.  On the one hand places like Escalante are overdue; they rode a bubble of cutting and digging and grazing subsidies that were never sustainable.  Just like the logging towns of western Montana and the Pacific NW have had to painfully graduate from the brief era of large clearcuts to the modern era of targeted ones, so to will the desert SW have to find out what a proper way of life actually looks like.  The scary prospect today is having someone like Mike Lee oversee this process.  It’s easy to see him having his way, and the 22nd century opening on a Colorado Plateau with a lot more holes, roads, and condos, without any more multi-generational connections.

Lee claims he wants to give power back to the people, but his sense of “the people” is far too narrow in both time and space.

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*Let’s all take a moment and recall what a decent person Bob Bennett was, perhaps the Tea Parties most ignominious casualty.

Somewhere else in Montana

I rode my bike up the hill, slowly, and down the hill, not as fast as expected.

The 3/4 mile of creek upstream of where we put in last year contained a surprisingly sustained gorge. With respect to challenge and beauty it recalled lower Youngs, and the larger drop towards the end was walled in well enough that to portage I had to walk around the remainder.

Lower down I cut my boat, on a mystery rock, and patch-n-go adhered poorly enough to the well worn floor that I spent the final hours sitting in 4 inches of water.
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Having to walk off the verge of hypothermia did not make finding the old trail any less foggy.

Side trails, promised on the 1:100,000 map, passed behind me in non-existence, and I ridgecamped at 7000′, cross eyed at dusk with only 2 liters of water in my pack.

Trail signs, deer tracks, and only 3 granola bars led down and across and all the way back to the creek, my bike, and a bonked-out 2000′ climb.  I still made my car hours before even optimism had indicated.

I want to say what I found because it is important, but not tell anyone where, so maybe you can find the same thing yourself.

Loving and hating the puffy

To begin with, there is the issue of terminology; “puffy” being a plain dumb word, but it is how we refer to synthetic or down fill jackets these days, so so be it.  As with most lexicological nits this one is seemingly benign, but it does promulgate a one-dimensional view of insulated jackets, a problem the outdoor industry has in the last few years finally grappled with in a substantive manner.

I find it odd that off all the layers I wear outside month to month and year to year, the insulating coat is at the beginning of 2018 the one I still find least satisfying.  Baselayers have been going in a good direction for quite some time, by getting thinner and more focused on speedy moisture transfer.  Between the Sitka Core LW line and what Patagonia now calls Thermal Weight I can go out into every condition with no complaints about either fit or performance.  Wool is still sorting itself out, and I’m still paying attention to the various new blends, but if those problems take a further decade to get solved I will remain not at all impatient.  Shells are also in a very good spot, especially the light and quite breathable ones (aka windshirts) that I wear almost all the time.  It will be swell when WPB laminates are both reliable and reliably don’t rely on DWR treatments, but at the moment I’m content enough with how well such things work.

IMG_3253Hot Forge along the Dirty Devil; cold, but good dry conditions once you’re out of the river.

Insulated jackets, on the other hand, are a source of consistent annoyance.  At least, they are here in Montana.  Last winter I had it easy, which is to say simple; I just brought the Hot Forge hoody on everything and was both warm enough and rarely had to worry about internal or external moisture.  Life in the desert is easy like that, with rare precipitation, low ambient humidity, and generally moderate winter temps.  The winter of 17/18 has been quite different.  Since early November we’ve had several feet of snow in town at 4100′, and many times that in the mountains.  Of those ~90 days, probably 1 in 4 has had a low in or below the single digits (F).

It may not be worth saying out loud that these conditions are a lot tougher to insulate for, but it is worth elaborating on exactly why.  Cold weather requires more insulation, of course, but it is also more difficult to manage layers in.  It shouldn’t be so, but I find it harder to stay sweat free at 10F than I do at 30F.  More significantly, colder ambient temps put the refreeze point somewhere within your insulation (or sleeping bag), which means that maintaining the function of your insulation (i.e. keeping it dry) becomes all important, the moreso the longer you stay out.

IMG_5395I’ve been in lots of driving snow this winter, which makes moisture management tough.

The Hot Forge hoody has done fairly well, and save for the truly frigid trips (where I’ve brought my MEC Reflex) has been in almost constant use.  The 4-5 oz of fill provides what I find to be the ideal amount of warmth, and the Primaloft/down blend dries far faster and moves moisture better than either plain down or DWR treated down.  The torso is a bit on the slim side for stuffing with gloves and water bottles, but the cut and feature set is otherwise ideal.

So why the complaining?  It has been possible to flatten the insulation in the Hot Forge in a way the pure Primaloft only does when you submerse it in water, which is a bummer.  A comparably warm Primaloft coat would be much bulkier, so that is a good enough trade off.  What has been disappointing is how quickly the insulation has packed out, leaving the usual down jacket problem spots (inside of the elbows, fronts of the shoulders) a bit thin.  This matches the pattern of what has happened with every thinner, non-baffled down coat I’ve ever owned, and leaves me thinking that under regular use in high moisture areas non-baffled down coats don’t have a functional life any longer than a Primaloft coat, which is to say about 18-24 months.  I still like the Hot Forge plenty, but for winter use in colder, more reliably moisture generating areas it does not strike me as worth full retail.  I don’t think the fill packing down necessarily has anything to do with the synthetic component, as many of the chamber elsewhere remain stuffed full, but this is something worth keeping in mind.  With baselayers and fleece that can last for a decade or more, and windshirt and rain coats whose DWR might make it 5 or more years before becoming dysfunctional, puffy coats end up being the least durable clothing item in the arsenal.  And with premium Goretex jackets excepted, the most expensive.

R0022003Down is better than a blanket when you forgot your puffy, and is also a lot less problematic for folks who don’t put off as much internal moisture.

So what is a better option, if anything?  I’m still scratching my head about that.  A synthetic coat with comparable warmth would be in the ~20 oz range, with the Patagonia Hyper Puff hoody and Nunatak Shaka Apex the leading contenders.  A lighter (and cheaper) synthetic coat isn’t a bad option either, assuming I’ll likely have the Nano Air Light along as well.  I also wonder if an equivalent down coat with more tightly stuffed baffles would hold up longer, better.  Or perhaps new synthetic like Patagonia’s Micro Puff will make this debate moot.  Until then, I’ll keep looking for new options, and keep looking for the cheapest option that will do the job, given the hard life insulated jackets lead.