I’ve cracked three nalgene bottles in the past two decades. The first was a classic 1 liter in milky plastic, before lexan invaded REI and college lecture halls. It was ancient and wrapped in duct tape, and split radially when I dropped it in the Sylvan Lake parking lot, which was sad. I think I was relegated to old juice jugs for the rest of that summers rock bumming. The second was a few years later, Elephant Butte in Arches, at the flat sandstone base of the exit rap. I got lazy, it might have been the third lap that day and the 40th that year, and let a single kink in the opposite strand rise 30 feet in the air. I spent 10 minutes trying to huck a partially full 48oz silo through that loop, tied to the other end, before it shattered into pieces striking the rock. The third was just the other week, when I gave Purple a stout whack on a tree, to split loose the ice which had layered inside after a 10 degree evening. Purple cracked, and functionally, was no more.
We found Purple on this trip seven years ago, in the midst of the talus along the west side of Norris Mountain. Purple has been around a lot, on my first successful elk hunt, most memorably. And this is why I’ve always like nalgene bottles. They aren’t invincible, but they’re close enough, in the face of accidents and hot water and intentional abuse, that over the years deep memories accumulate. Purple has the sticker from our Double Duck, and the one from that place with best coffee porter, and the stack Jamie sent me after I proofed their gorgeous map. I don’t quite have any ideas what I’ll do with it, but I’m certainly not ready to just put it in the trash.
Without Purple, we have perhaps nine or ten nalgenes in the house. Some are hiding in dark corners. A few sit in the mud room and are used daily. I believe, years ago, I bought one of them. Another was a gift. Several more were freebz at trade shows. The rest, a solid majority, were found in the wild, taken home, cleaned, sterilized, restickered as needed over time, and adopted. And for the pleasure of keeping fewer gatorade or smartwater bottles out of the wild, I’ll gladly keep hauling the ounces.
These words, two months ago, have proven to be good guidance, and underline one of the more astounding things about my 2020; that I haven’t been sick at all. Not with COVID, we’ve been quite cautious with that, but with a cold or a flu. Between working in schools and having plenty of stress upon occasion, I can’t recall the last winter, to say nothing of a whole year, without at least a little illness.
When it comes to stress I must be doing something right. Given the volume of stress this year, and the omnipresence, I haven’t had a reasonable alternative.
Our daily routines hadn’t changed that much, back in September, which was a handy benefit, as local COVID cases have escalated drastically. We had more new ones last week than we had all spring and summer, which has only served to reinforce habits, most of which existed BC (before COVID). I’ve altered my arrival and depature at school, avoiding people even more than I used to. We only get takeout, and eat it outside. We don’t see other people, which again, isn’t that far from things as they were before. We go on vacation, cook our own food, and sleep outside. In all of this we are fortunate. Precious few habits and dreams have been definitively out of reach this fall.
The combination of small people and the cold, long evenings of November have made things more difficult. Easy refuge at the library or kids museum are not options this winter, and our children’s energy does not fit easily in the house for too many hours at a stretch. 30 pound humans get cold easily, and we just happened to come home last month, after a week in the desert, to two feet of snow and temps below zero. Since then the snow has melted, fallen again, and melted, and I’ve put serious effort into training the children, and to providing ways to make being out in the dark and the cold appealing.
The snow melting has made that much easier. Little Cloud is finally runbike obsessed, and several good wrecks on ice patches have yet to dampen his enthusiasm. He’s also, verbally and conceptually, come to know what hunting means. Long walks through deadfall are beyond him, but short walks to a nice tree where you can cook sausages and ramen over a fire (top) are great fun. On that outing I was somehow the only one to step on a cactus. Being out in the moment isn’t just a vital way to put kid energy to good use, it is an essential distraction from how thoroughly our leaders and neighbors are failing us. Optimism grows more easily in starlight.
…shame occupied a permanent and necessary place in the Trumpian scenario insofar as it was externalized and lodged in the left: the left seek to shame you for your guns, your racism, your sexual assault, your xenophobia! The excited fantasy of his supporters was that, with Trump, shame could be overcome, and there would be a “freedom” from the left and its punitive restrictions on speech and conduct, a permission finally to destroy environmental regulations, international accords, spew racist bile and openly affirm persistent forms of misogyny.
Trump is, unfortunately, not only America’s problem, which has in the past 3 weeks been one of my larger sources of comfort. One could, this month, read only the New Zealand Herald and be perfectly informed on Biden v. Trump. The best summary of US ballot initiatives I saw was in, of all places. Le Monde. And it’s easier for me to think of the news sites, worldwide, which haven’t been closely covering our ongoing fiasco of succession the past two weeks than those which have. Insofar as Trump is, along with Brexit, the most visible crest of the reactionary wave which has swept over much of the world recently, and insofar as he’s been an emboldening influence if not outright inspiration for the Bolsanaros and Jansas, his antics are a clear and vital interest for most of humanity. As another commentator wrote; “I think we all feel the hand of history on our pussies.”
Trump is a horrible person. The question is not why he is, or why so many people embrace his horrid policies, but why so many people have embraced him, as a totem and lodestone. In this he has a lot in common with the previous president born in New York City, Theodore Roosevelt, who also understood that the politics of personality have in the US so much to do not merely with symbolism, but with an idealist instantiation of national identity. The US president is king, not in fact (though TR and Trump have disconcerting commonalities when it comes to executive power), but in spirit. Just as TR embodied the agency America was afraid of losing in 1900, Trump embodies the supposedly uncomplicated world back before the rest of the world reminded white men how pervasive, difficult to shirk, and evil their bias is.
The appeal of this is, obviously in retrospect, not just confined to white men. It is one thing to embrace Obama winning the Nobel for being elected. It is another to sustain a nuanced conversation about how policing in America is both systemically biased and has for decades been eroded by an expanded mandate without matching increases in funding and support. US abortion policy (and evidently, abortion policy elsewhere) is, now more than ever, explicitly in the interest of sustaining the patriarchy, something which does not prevent the many Coney Barret’s of the world. 4 years ago Trump’s election was a specific backlash against a black president, and the possibility of a female president. That backlash is still strong, as 75 million voters reminded us. Wanting to keep the world thus simple is on the wrong side of history, as nearly 80 million voters and a female vice president can tell us. The question for the future is not whether the patriarchy will give up their grasp on the world, but when, and how much those holding on will let crumble in the process.
Last week we did what we used to do every fall, and spent a week in the Colorado Plateau. In this we’re fortunate; the number of things we did differently, because of Coronavirus, amounted to almost nothing beyond wearing masks into gas stations and always getting restaurant food to go. Camping, biking, climbing, backpacking on the Colorado Plateau: in many respects they’ve changed a lot in the decade since we lived either in or near it and were out there on a weekly basis. But in many ways they have not, and while the pandemic has likely contributed to the changes, perhaps significantly, those impacts were easy to not see while camped in the sand looking up at the milky way, and after the last 9 months, that constancy and nostalgia was restorative.
Things were undeniably busy, and while generalizing from one experience is always problematic, it is a useful leading indicator. Parking lots at Bryce were entirely full, even the more obscure ones. Thunder Mountain was as dusty and blown out as any trail I’ve seen. Every pullout on the spur road to the White trailhead on Gooseberry was taken. We started the walk down to Fence Canyon in the Escalante at 430 in the afternoon, and passed at least 30 people, 3/4 of them dayhikers, on their way back up from Neon. On the other hand, we saw almost no one on every one of our adventures, save the on the trail to fence and while in the national parks. Places like God’s Skateboard Park and the Golden Cathedral look much as they did a decade ago, in spite of more footprints in the sand.
Zion, and specifically its shuttles, did look quite different. Since reopening this summer the park has been significantly limiting traffic on the shuttle buses, which have for decades been mandatory for going into the heart of the canyon, and on who restrictions are mandatory, given that at busy times they’re routinely standing room only and packed beyond capacity. I logged on mid-Zoom meeting to snag reservations for two days in October, and out of distraction stuffed up the numbers of seats reserved. After 3 minutes, when I went back to get more for one date, they were already booked solid.
The perhaps intended result of this restriction on traffic, and on those without the willingness or ability to plan ahead, was a stream of folks walking and riding bikes up the road into the park. LB and I rode in on the day we were short seats, and that 40 minute pedal up a cool and mostly empty road was far preferable to the next day, where we spent almost the same time waiting in line to get on the bus, me using first proximity and then silent farts to keep the loud folks from Tennessee a full six feet behind us. Zion has long been the standard bearer in the park service for shuttle use, with Bryce close behind. Grand Canyon muffed their implementation long ago by failing to build a parking/orientation/shuttle complex in Tusayan, and the list of parks for whom shuttles, or obligatory shuttles, are sorely needed has been growing by the year. Even Capitol Reef, which even recently was sleepy even by national monument status, is this year running into parking lots which are vastly exceeded by visitors, even in non-prime times.
After our trip abroad I believe COVID has injected significant momentum into the growth in the outdoors which was already underway. (By 1000am on a Saturday Great Basin, the definition of far from anything in the lower 48, had parking lots filling up.) The extent to which remote work will in the next years become widespread is likely being overstated, but it ought to be the hope of many smaller western cities and towns that the movement in nonetheless significant. This is the answer for sustainable growth, the third way which is neither extractive industry nor pure tourism. These people will want to be local to some parks, and within a day or a simple weekend from many others, and along with the greater group of now-enlightened tourists they will want a quality national park experience.
In the very near future having a quality park experience will become the educated and crafty exception, rather than the rule, and the resultant cynicism about rocky, tree-y disneyland is as of today a vastly underestimated liability for the parks, longer term. Zions shuttle experiment, essentially a quota, showed definitively that such an approach can both provide a better (though still very busy) experience and motivate plenty of people to get in under their own power. It reminded me just how more congruous biking up a paved road is for the park experience. And hopefully, it will provide impetus for more parks to take similar action, wholeheartedly, and very soon.
Last month I bought a new bike, my first brand new one in almost a decade. That one, nine years ago, was the first generation Salsa Mukluk, the first broadly available fat bike not called Pugsley. It has, because it still works great, a lot of things my new bike does not: straight steerer, one choice in headset size, external cable routing. I bought the Mukluk as a frameset, meaning I got a frame and fork in a box, bought everything else I didn’t already have separately, and put it all together. This also is an increasingly dead way of getting a bicycle, with few of the options I considered last month available frame only, and none of those making economic sense on the face of it. The new economy of scale gets you all the relevant components for less than the price of the frame over again.
And scale is another thing that has changed in the bike industry this year. I almost missed out, and ended up hunting down a shop in Mississippi which had a San Quentin 1 left, in XL. Numbers I’ll cover in a later post, save to mention that I called that shop, again, at the beginning of October to inquire if I might get my new bike before we left for the Colorado Plateau in a few weeks. I did barely, as they had sold through their whole 2021 stock in a matter of days, and were weeks behind in building them. And no, they could not (due to warranty reasons) just send me the whole mess to sort out myself. So 52 hours before we left a very large box arrived, and I had that time to assemble, alter, trouble shoot, figure out that I’d need a new headset to mount the rigid fork I’d purchased, make a trip to the local shop out of utter confusion at what headset that would be, then finish component swaps and tubeless conversion, atop packing all the other stuff we’d need for 11 days away from home.
The new bike worked great, and having it stowed day to day on the roof rack, rather than on a hook in the bike room, took me forcefully away from the discontent and the fiddling which bridge a new machine, eventually, into familiarity. Instead I rode it on an almost daily basis, often in dirt circles around camp, but also on the practice loop at Gooseberry, up the road to the lodge in Zion, on a pump track in West Salt Lake (wiggle break on the drive home), and down Thunder Mountain, the best trail in the world.
Thunder Mountain is on the west side of the Paunsaugunt, with Bryce on the east. It starts in rolling, sand bottomed ponderosa forest, snakes its way through liminal drainage heads to the ridge, above, before plunging down a few sets of steep, loose, and very dusty switchbacks and ridge drops in the process of going north to the ridge next to the road. At which point I was late, and at which point one encounters a trail sign. 1.4 miles that way, to the road, and untold miles the other way, into the unknown. Over a decade ago I experienced that unknown, and had a cold night out as part of my trouble. On this trip I tucked into the subtleties of the descent to the road, glad that it was very quick, and that my new bike came alive on it’s first full force outing.
Everyone loves a new bike, it just takes a while to finally know each other.
Even professionals dread Kant. His style, especially in translation, is notoriously turgid, but the primary difficult with him is the same as with any writer pushing the edge of what language can do. Another way to put that would be, pushing the limits of what humans can understand about the world and themselves. Indeed, Kants most useful idea is that understanding and the world are at once the same and inextricably separate. And this is the idea which we can take into the backcountry.
Understanding and the world are the same because, as individuals, the shape of our minds and the nature of our experience determines what we can see, what we can know, what we can experience. Historically, this is the beginning of that horribly generic term “relativism”. The struggle with Kant is to not allow routine to flatten this idea into sameness. Just because we cannot see beyond our experience does not mean that things (in themselves, to use his phrase) do not exist beyond that experience. It takes discipline and profound humility to keep the inherent limits of both individual understanding and human communication at the forefront of ones daily mind.
A prosaic example, and the one I find most difficult to verbalize, is reading and moving through terrain. Ones experience creates possibility the first time you look into a basin: where humans might have built trails, which animals are around and how they might use the area, how the geology, climate, and flora will dictate lanes of travel. The sheer size of any basin makes definitive understanding impossible, but (move on to Hegel) the best case in wild navigation is not found in maximal understanding of the world (which is impossible) but in maximal understanding of the self. Sensory experience turns inward and knowledge of the self and instinctual apprehension of the terrain meld, facilitating both animal-like decision making and acceptance of pace minimally influenced by effort.
As with, I imagine, most of us, a big part of my day has to do with the numbers. How many new cases in our county, the counties of our friends, our state, and eventually, our world? Anxiety promotes the parochial, and throughout the last six months a major source of comfort has been how little impacted Montana has been by Covid, and how within Montana, how little impacted Lewis and Clark county has been. The above numbers say that we’ve had 275 cases, total, in our county of 70,000. Until the past week, we’ve had exactly one day with new cases out of single digits (and that was a day with 10), went all of May without a single case (duh?), and from mid August to mid September had almost as many days with no cases as with any.
*Numbers and chart from NY Times
Of course, three weeks ago we started back to school. “Went” doesn’t really capture the backfires and potholes of the past month. I was back in my office at school, for the very first time since Friday March 13th, seeing clients both in person and virtually (Zoom, phone; reliable internet still being a dicey thing around here). The week before Labor Day students new to the building trickled in for orientation, families electing to stay virtual got their teacher assignments, and once everything had only just fallen into place, school started in the new normal mode on September 8th. In Helena proper we’re one of the few districts in Montana who did not go back with all students in the building all the time. The first half of the alphabet comes in Monday and Tuesday, the second Thursday and Friday. Wednesday is given over to industrial cleaning of the schools, teachers working out what is going on with virtual instruction, and for Little Bear, who is in kindergarten this fall, virtual show and tell (reportedly hilarious and disorganized). Indeed, between when I got started writing this and when I was able to return after a block of sessions, the news let us know that our school district reported its first positive cases over the past weekend.
The timing and inevitability surprised few, I would hope.
The question is not how we’re going to manage this pandemic in the long run. That has been evident for a while, and hinges on an election where we hopefully choose to face the future rather than shelter in the past, a prospect which seems hardly certain during the most fearful time of my life. The question is how we’ll manage the little things, day to day, which add up over weeks and months to almost everything. I’ve had a hard time since March in recapturing the relevance which used to permeate my job as a school therapist, and I have to be optimistic, about the remoteness of Montana, about all that everyone at school has tried to do, about our prospects for learning hard lessons from this, as a country, society, as a planet. Little Bear doesn’t know what he isn’t getting in two days a week at school, and probably more than makes up for it by sharing a classroom with his teacher and 3 other students. I know what I’m not getting, having put my job into the nexus of society which has been willfully eroded by those who insist on bars staying open and weddings taking place. I open to any paper from Montana, see the muddled data and articles about parent groups protesting restrictions on football audiences, and wonder how much of the spike we see today is riding out of the storm, and how much is humans as cattle, facing away from the blizzard and walking to certain death, stoic in momentary comfort.
Anxiety is a slippery thing, all the moreso when it is global in reach. In 2020 few people want to name it, and as populous places in the northerly parts of the earth walk towards winter I find it hard to assume that the dread waiting for us under the wallpaper won’t become our collective delusion, as society decides, for lack of leadership, to deny just how wrong things are. Normalcy and coherence is possible, now, but without public data and without guidance and modeling families and households will make it up as they go, reacting to stress as a deer to flies, in step with their neighbors over all the wrong things. By choosing to deprioritize schools we’ve elected to ignore narrative and community, exactly the wrong lesson from the pandemic.
So we have this house. We live in it, coming and going and back and forth every day, but don’t have as many pictures as we should. The fear I saw in it, three and a half years ago, remains almost solely in my memory. The sagging roof line along the sun porch remains, but the bushes which ate up half the yard were dug up and hauled off years ago the peeling paint along the eves and the bare window sills given a fresh coat.
After three years, the birth of a child, and the other starting school, we’re beginning to know the house well enough to see what we want it to be. So last month, while my parents were here to take the small people away from a day of noise and dust, we bashed an old window out of the side of the pantry/mudroom at the rear of the house and I made four cuts, as plumb as the last three years have taught me, for the new door. About a month later we pushed through two busy days of cutting, chiseling, and general detailing, ending with a big window where the old door had been, and a new set of mini french doors (23 7/8″ wide, each) where the window and part of the wall had been. We still have a lot of painting to do, and a lot of bench, shelf, and table building after that, but the guts and flow of the new daily entrance to our house got sealed up the night before the first frost of the coming autumn.
The house has begun getting inside me, as we have the house. This project dug into the original layer of the building, into dimensional 2x4s with a live edge, presumably milled from ponderosas felled on site, into layers of thick pine siding, into hand forged nails of at least 5 different sizes. We found floor joists sitting on nothing, and poured concrete into gaps, tying the new door sill into the footer. We found an old door sill, buried under two new ones and hidden by a bit of exterior decking, a groove worn in the middle by foot traffic predating the first world war. We’ve trimmed old windows (salvage we purchased from a similarly old home down in Butte) who sashes were almost as hard as metal and flowered pine into the air, scent trapped since the 19th century. It felt portentous, moving a back door that has stood in the same spot for over a century, and as I’ve pulled out layers of stubborn timber, and then used old stuff to frame up and patch in the new openings I’ve accumulated endless splinters. Much like the desert gets into, and then back out of, you I discover new splinters in the 48 to 72 hours after a project day, as puss pushes previously invisible slivers up toward the surface.
It’s a cliche, living towards the very edge of middle age wanting nothing more of a Saturday than an uninterrupted 10 hour shift moving a wall. The children, when they aren’t observing so close as to be underfoot, or trying to swipe hammers and screwdrivers, do well being entertained, but would prefer to go on a float trip. Often I would too, particularly after burning hours wrestling with a wall that is out of square, level, and plumb all at once. But as far as novelty is concerned I’ve been on a lifetime of float trips, while in ripping a straight line and driving trim nails true I am only getting started. In life situation, temperament, and locale (a neighbor just listed their house for 52% more than they paid a few months before we moved in) we are not tied up in every project going only towards increasing future value. It allows M and I to be playful and, to a certain extent, impractical. One, or at least I, can’t learn without messing things up. And the house has a lot to teach us. Fortunately, when it comes to timing in life, I’m in a good place for listening.
Especially now, when I don’t have to worry about nights below 40 degrees overlapping with big holes still in the house.
Another common question is from folks, like me, who grew up east of the Mississippi River, and would like to move closer to proper mountains and Big wilderness. While the answer, and the process to get one, depends greatly on personal preference and position in life, the question should be how, rather than if. M and I moved west permanently not long before this blog got started, and moved from Des Moines to Prescott in a partly full Xterra with 3 bikes on the roof. I no more regret those years in our 20s, renting, building furniture from scrap wood and forest logs, and riding bikes for endless hours everywhere, than I do the current years in our late 30s, raising kids and staying home on weekends doing remodels on a 1880s house, with unknown mountains in our back yard.
The impact of the choices which led us to these places have no been inconsequential. I’ve turned down jobs and turned away from career paths that would have brought more money, and sooner. I eliminated a raft of more prestigious (and probably, just plain better) grad schools because they weren’t in the right location. Our families have gone through a hell of a lot more bother and expense visiting us over the decades, especially when (like now) we’ve been in places with little regional airports, several connections and many miles from anything “major.”
Moving is, in short, not just a life choice, not even a lifestyle choice, but an existential once. The prime benefit, added up over all these years of adulthood, has not been in the big adventures, or the small daily ones made possible by backyard woods and trails, or the dreams fostered seamlessly by the craggy evidence on the horizon, it is the absence of what ifs. What would it be like to live in a given location, to really live there? We know, because we did.
After you have passed through the decision, it is, for most people, time to think about employment and money. In this respect the west is not really different from the midwest: more people in an area mean more opportunity, more economic competition, and thus more money. The smallest towns, which in the west and midwest (and I assume the south and NE) generally exist due to farming, usually have few job options outside ag or extractive industry. If career and personal preference intersect rightly (or wrongly), the question then becomes whether Denver or Salt Lake will be, for you, be all that distinct from Chicago or St Louis. Will you be motivated to fight ski traffic each weekend? Will you be able to sneak out early enough during the week to make bouldering in Little Cottonwood or a ride in Buff Creek a regular feature? Will the views, lifestyle, image, and diminished drive time for the occasional outside vacation be reward enough?
Large towns and small cities provide a realistic medium, with enough opportunity for most folks to make a living, while being close enough to the woods that integrating such into daily life alongside everything else is doable without monumental and potentially unsustainable investments in time and bother.
This where the real parsing starts, when it comes to preferences in recreation and climate and general atmosphere, as well as the more sticky questions of political climate and human vibe. 3 and a half years ago, when we were at the end of our own, theoretically final search for a place to settle, I wrote a good deal about choosing a place for the physical aspects, and on how one might use demographic data to spitball some of the human and cultural factors. And this is where the second sentence of that email I often get comes in, something to the effect of “we want to move west, and want to end up in a town close to the mountains, but are worried about the rednecks/mormons/republicans/cowboys/etc.”
In 21st century America, in most cities* it seems like you know what you’re going to get, or at least what you’ll be able to choose. This isn’t to say that Colorado Springs is the same as Cincinnati, but it is to say that both will have an Olive Garden, maybe 3 Olive Gardens, and that both will have streets and malls and traffic lights that could as easily be in one as the other. In cities, and increasingly in large towns, idiosyncracy and the legacy of regionalism is something one can choose to experience, rather than it being obligatory. Our little city of Helena is an ideal example. The town grew up around the gold mines, which were dug into placer (i.e. alluvial) deposits in the bed of a small creek as it exited the mountains. The old part of town, and the entirety of the old city (in 1900 the most millionaires per capita on earth) was built close to that gulch, the result being that today the city streets grid out along often steep, north facing hillsides. A silly place for a car-based society to exist north of the 46th parallel. The lions share of growth in Helena (the number of single family homes in Montana has doubled in the past 40 years) has taken place north, on the flats, where land half a century ago was less thickly occupied, simpler to build on, and more pragmatically located during the snowy months. It is there you find the parts of Helena that could, in America, be anywhere. Not yet Olive Garden, but Lowes, Hobby Lobby, and Applebees. There isn’t a socioeconomic chasm between any of the neighborhoods in Helena, but if you spent a month hanging in the front desk of one elementary school down on the flats and another up on the hill you’d notice some distinct differences.
Helena is also the state capitol, and that steady source of non-tourist based, non-extractive or ag based income has made it almost unique amongst Montana cities. This is the single biggest difference between city and town demographics in the west compared to elsewhere; the influence that tourism and trophy/destination/second residences have on one place, compared to another. As I wrote three years ago, how a town gets its money matters a great deal, and tourism/second home/retirement based locations are “made not grown, and that artificiality comes home to roost when the folks who live their can’t afford to live there, and therefore the substance of the place becomes hollow and imbalanced.” Ski towns (Crested Butte, Whitefish) are often wholly this, with the full time inhabitants whose labor shapes daily existence hanging in the background. As more and more boomers retire, the largess of that generation has hybridized more and more places. We’ve seen this at play in Missoula, heavily, in the decade since we lived there. It’s both a trophy destination and a proper city, the question being how far the former can go without irrevocably impacting the later.
Tourism, in short, is not a sustainable answer to how a community can exist. What is an answer, as many of the non-trophy towns in the west are discovering, is outdoor infrastructure and preservation as a lure for talent. You’ll likely take a hit to your functional income, in either absolute terms or relative to cost of living, by moving from Decatur or Columbus to Helena or Flagstaff, but the intangibles are easy to make center of the argument when they consist of good air and an easy walk or bike to hundreds of miles of trails. Even if the current move to remote work winds up being less extensive than predicted, I expect the pandemic to have a broad and lasting impact on these types of western towns and cities, potentially permanently increasing tax bases by significant percentages.
All of that being a long and circuitous way of saying that one of the compromises inherent to moving out west, and moving to what I’ll quite seriously call a real town out here, is living around people who are different. One of the chief complaints from old timers, directed at all of the above, is not just about the coming of Starbucks and new neighbors who can’t drive in the snow or know which shot size to use on grouse. It is about people not wanting, but tacitly expecting the amenities and convenience of modern culture, as it is fully instantiated elsewhere, to catch up with them, fast. The homogeneity which inevitably comes along is rarely given full, conscious consideration as such. Most people, old timers and city slickers alike, like Starbucks (and Maroon 5). Plenty of people will even look you in the face and deny the coherence of this sort of creeping intracultural colonialism. But those people are simply wrong.
The final matter then, after you’ve chosen an experience for the rest of your life, is to seek out the relevant particulars of climate and favored activities. You can ski in Arizona, of course, but if you really like skiing moving to Arizona doesn’t make the most sense. (Do the math though; actual weekend drive time from Payson to Durango or Taos might not be as different from Denver to Vail as geography would suggest.) If you really like whitewater it is hard to make a case for not somewhere west of the Divide and north of the basin and range. Many activities are more adaptable and subject to creative exploration than you might suppose, though. Montana is synonymous with fly fishing (and increasingly EVERYONE seems to be out doing it, even when no fish is eating within 15 feet of the surface), but climate probably allows longer functional seasons in both New Mexico and California. Does Nevada have good fly fishing? I would imagine so, and not having heard much about it, or any activity being tied to a given place, is not evidence of it not being possible there, or even darn good. If we’ve learned anything from living out west, it is that climate and proximal population, along with the history of land development (or more specifically, the lack) have far more influence on the outdoor side of ones lifestyle than terrain or trails. In California, it is harder to get away from people. In Colorado, harder to get away from roads. In Arizona, harder to get away from the sun. And in Montana, harder to get away from the snow (thank goodness).
There are plenty of poor choices, but the worst choice is the one left unmade.
*I’ve never lived on either coast for more than a few months. Bite me.
“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”
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.