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.
No two men now live, fellow-citizen, perhaps it may be doubted whether any two men have ever lived in one age, who, more than those we now commemorate, have impressed on mankind their own opinions more deeply into the opinions of others, or given a more lasting direction to the current of human thought… And no age will come, we trust, so ignorant or so unjust as not to see and acknowledge the efficient agency of those we now honor in producing that momentous event.
-Daniel Webster, “Adams and Jefferson”
Last week Little Bear and I visited a Forest Service lookout tower. It was a new one for us both, and despite it’s restored status, a tourist attraction, safe and stable on the ground (the old tower frame, stairs, and cables lay drying into the grass 100 yards away), the view was when compared to my recent Yaak journey so much more vast as to suspend speech. There forest rolled away in all directions, waves as regular as daylight. Here the prairie spilled away in one direction, while white limestone canyons corrugated the forest in another, as a stack of books thrust up for our edification. In a third direction the forest ran plain, almost to the horizon, a dark sheet whose trees were in texture like the weave of bedding, something that serves our daily comfort without being well understood. Profundity is birthed by context, and there I had laid just enough threads across the landscape that, with a 70 mile view, imagination could run free tying them together. Over there was that lively creek, where I slashed open the floor of my boat and finished the day hypothermic sitting in a pool of water. Over there, 2000 foot corn runs in June. Over there, a dynamic canyon with a few hidden exits, full couloirs of steep old growth with elk paths like storm drains. And a little further over there, the valley in which we live. The Yaak, by contrast, is for me too unknown to be so tied together.
It was impossible to be in either place, today, and not think about Lewis and Clark, and by extension Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, who took the commerce and ambition which impelled us across the Atlantic and through the forest and down the rivers and along the plains and framed the disorganized logic of avarice into national identity. America has been a place of discovery, self-consciously, ever since. And it doesn’t seem too much of an assumption into the man from Braintree that his deathbed pronouncement, “Thomas Jefferson still survives”, was more metaphysical than literal. All of this is immensely problematic, of course. Theodore Roosevelt, whose presidency marks the transition to post-Frontier America, and who as a rancher and hunter directly assisted in its death, was as close in time to George Washington as to Donald Trump. For 21st century America the Frontier, the time when our country exceeded the imagination and, for that reason, was a playground of potential wealth, is far enough in the past that it is almost beyond abstraction. That the time in which such possibility existed was exceedingly brief, and that the possibility of becoming self-made was of necessity made possible by stacking the exploitation of one class atop another, are facts easily buried in the dust of the past.
And this is the crux of our time; that the same blindness which has glued our way of life together for 250 years has, with the brittleness of age, made America peculiarly vulnerable to the pandemic. As the world watches our irrational protests, about masks and shutdowns taking our freedom, I hope they wonder how a class of people purported so long steeped in liberty could worry about loosing it, really having it fall away, in the face of things so trivial. And do not tell me here about the deep state, or draw analogies to Hitler’s Germany, how tyranny ascends in government intrusion piled subtle until suddenly it crossed into significance. Tyranny begins in the mind, when insecurity sends fear as an outrider. We, the white people, are not going to lose our freedom when we lose our guns. We are going to lose our freedom when we collectively refuse to at once admit that individual intention can be virtuous while individual effect can be, because of the weight of context, be freighted with prejudice and injustice.
Jefferson’s empire, be that Monticello, tidewater Virginia, or the Louisiana Purchase, was built by slave labor. This fact should not, cannot, undo the virtues of a president either first or second (to the aformentioned TR) in modeling the intellectual and moral tenure of America. Jefferson can be a devoted husband and the lover to a woman he owned. He can be a great supporter of science, and a supporter of racism. Cancelling one, the other, or the man himself is no more possible than erasing the river the Corps of Discovery dragged themselves up in 1805. We can damn and divert the latter, and remove statues of the former, but memory is something we can choose no more readily than we can choose the direction of a canyon.
It is a hard thing to be ashamed of your country, because while I am a myself and get to move around in the world as I please, my country would not exist without my just as I would not make sense of myself without my country. There is nothing my country can do that isn’t also something I am doing. This is the lesson of 2020, or COVID and Black Lives Matter, that being separate beings and an inevitable part of the whole are as inseparable as they are contradictory. It may be that the United States has a chance here to grow up, as a country, all at once, and accept that the coherence and necessity of individual freedom is bound to our place in the present of history. Insecurity, in our freedom, is evidently inevitable when the history of that freedom, with how it came into being, is both so fraught and yet to be fully said out loud. I remain an optimist, because I have to be, that the synthesis of our last two presidents will provide well for the future. It is an unspeakable tragedy of circumstance, though perhaps one that will in the end fast forward the future of our history, that the Trump side of us, rather than the Obama side, was to the fore during the pandemic.
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.
I’m using Andew’s post from the other week to call myself out; since returning from the Salmon to a world newly convulsed by protest and riots I have checked out and tried to go about business as usual, at least to the greatest extent possible. Normalcy has been a fleeting ideal for some time, since Friday March 13th, the last day we had on-site school in Montana. As a school-based psychotherapist, I’ve been chasing flat certitude ever since. How to use Zoom, or do therapy over the phone (that is, once our Governor changes the rules and allowed state-based insurance to cover virtual sessions, and after most private insurance companies moved to do the same). How to track down clients now at home all the time, without internet or a working mobile phone. As April moved closer to May those questions were mostly answered, replaced with things like how I could work virtually with 12 year olds just being able to name their childhood trauma; and then as May turned to June and Montana reopened and I started seeing clients face-to-face again, questions pivoted yet again: How do teens just working into adulthood make sense of a social landscape that will be tinged, perhaps for years, with suspicion?
My baseline this whole time has been uncertainty, which quickly tried to fill its emptiness with anger. Anger at the world for such a curveball. Anger at our government for its ineffectual response. Anger at our educational officials and institutions, for the failure to make a point of all how minor a part academics play in the grand theatre of US public education. I’ve seen my clients flail at adapting to online platforms and a world in which they must pull an assignment from one platform, turn it in on another, and tune in to ask or guidance on a third. I’ve seen those without internet give up, and then vanish. I’ve seen them turn nocturnal, not leave their certain chair for weeks on end save to eat and visit the toilet, seeking the socialization their unconscience requires in the chat of Fortnite and Star Stables. Public school has been revealed as the compulsory, dark constant in their lives; middle school as the rough tool for society to take them into adulthood when and where their guardians cannot.
Never before has my role as mediator between Socialization and reality been so naked.
Essential reading for this moment in history is Coates’ The Case for Reparations, in which among many things he makes the pragmatic case for paying the ancestors of slaves. In his essay the coherent and pervasive impacts of slavery and racism are historical trauma, and the generalized psychological, familial, social, educational, and economic impacts which are the inevitable accompaniment. As Coates’ puts it “It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.” I don’t think it is too controversial to say that the current Black Lives Matter protests are only in the minority about police violence and racism. The largest part of that alternative majority is anger at Trumpism, at this last grasp of uncomplicated white hegemony trying to retain its influence, at those who out of generational necessity and the structural racism their daily habits create would virulently prefer that the world not change. The smaller part of that majority is for me the crux of the issue, that American meritocracy remains in denial about both the historical dimensions of social change and how addressing these entrenched biases will benefit our country as a whole.
To whit; a remarkable conversation with one of my now-9th grade clients, someone whose anxiety and avoidance saw him hiding in bathrooms on a daily basis back when the school building was available. Online schooling was his future savior, just as online socialization had been his (safe, and palatable) entree into teenagehood. Running that experiment has given him a newfound appreciation for both traditional school and seeing peers face to face, and in our first in person session in months his newly hatched motivation for high school was quickly followed with a revelation which brought the past 8 months and more than 4000 minutes in my office into focus, a lake of confusion frozen into clarity by crisis. No one in his nuclear or extended family had graduated high school. 20 minutes of genealogy could not turn up a single example, even amongst tertiary and quaternary uncles and cousins. In that moment the weight of history, what we might dramatically call fate, was as obvious as my own privilege and bias, which over all those many potent minutes had never thought to ask if his making it through school had any personal precedent.
The reasons an extended family could make it through to the third decade of the 21st century without a diploma amongst them has more to do with ineffable, sticky factors than it does with more encapsulatable things like teen pregnancy, substance use, and poverty. In the case mentioned above, poor anxiety management is as much a pointless chicken/egg nature/nurture question when it comes to treatment as when it comes to policy. The concern is that mental illness is both inherited and taught, and without remarkable efforts and circumstances is as likely to torpedo my clients aspirations as it is those of his children and then, grandchildren. It is in the interest of society to have my client graduate high school for reasons of economic potential, and because of what being able to achieve that mark entails on the level of life skills. Both skills and money being heritable, this is the kind of change which pays interest over generations, and this in turn explains why the 20-21 school year is the question, beyond even the November election, which disturbs my sleep most.
A few days ago I was exploring some of the exceptional, hidden limestone cliffs we have locally, and following some mountain goat tracks up a scree slope led to option soloing up broken gullies and sticky slabs. While liebacking off crisp solution pockets and smearing floppy shoes up sharp corrugations my mind went backwards. To Paul Preuss, Norman Clyde, Herb and Jan Conn. To ropes that might have broken, slippy ovals without a nose, and pre-War tennis shoes. To pushing on and up towards that intriguing ridge, guided by experience, an eye for a line, and the necessity of being able to downclimb should those first two come up short.
There is an easy distinction between hard and soft skills in the outdoors. Hard skills are doing things: tying knots, pitching shelters, taking a bearing. Soft skills most commonly have to do with group dynamics and communication, but can also pertain to decision making. Taking a bearing has limited utility if one’s group cannot agree on the best route across a valley, as does a well pitched shelter in a poorly chosen location. This is all very well, but from an educational perspective I’ve long thought that a third class of skills underpin both the technical and heuristic, giving them both context and coherence.
It turned out that my line did not go. The progression of ledge and slab ended around the corner in a monolithic line of pockets and implied edges. I’ll return, some day, with the full sack of modernity, most prominently either a traverse in to a toprope anchor, or bolts. Or maybe doubles of microcams and pink tricams, triples of small wires, helmet, and healthy fear. Messner’s murder of the impossible has long since come to pass, with technology and the mindset of 30 years ago requiring a significant leap of imagination to consider the virtues of rock climbing as a pursuit where turnkey safety is not always an option. The ubiquity and quality of gear has made safety an objective attribute, not entirely on or off, but often quite close to black and white. As I turned to find a way down it did occur that a rope would have been expedient. But in the manner of Preuss, for whom even rappelling was cheating, I poked over a series of ledges, downclimbed a tree, scratched across a hanging dirt slope, and jammed down a clean, overhanging corner to the scree slopes, creek bottom, and then the road. For that hour in the vertical safety was under my feet, and between by eyes and the surface. Can that smear hold my weight? Will that flake come loose? Can I reserve the next 5 moves, if the five after prove too much?
It is easy to view the safety brought on my kinaesthetic awareness, training, and judgment as part of the mechanical skills of climbing, outgrowth of hard skills and sibling to tying a clove hitch or placing a Stopper in an offset crack. In this account the physical side of not falling is heads to the tails of a sound rope and protection network. With climbing as the ultimate control sport, an activity in which the brakes are by default stomped to the floor, it is an easy assumption to make. Whitewater boating is in many ways the opposite of climbing, where flow and the speed and rhythm imposed from without are the default. Safety in whitewater has to do with instinct and preemption coming together and thus knowing when to stop, and when to let go. Scouting, setting safety, and portaging can make running a rapid as painstaking and calculated as a 5 hour trad lead, and in either case the structural elements are a best set on a shaky foundation if judgement, self-knowledge, and process, what I think of as the basal outdoor skills, are not solid.
The other week, on Big Creek, we portaged a solid stretch of the crux, a decision which revolved around two burly ledge holes set 20 yards apart. I had little faith, maybe 10%, in my ability to hit either and not flip. I had a bit more belief in my ability to hit the precise lines through each feature, and make a big ferry between them. There were big features both above and below, making the run in complex and the consequences of a swim significant. I knew my skills, knew I was tired, and knew that I had doubt. Hard skills were the past decade of paddling, reading water, practicing rescue techniques. Soft skills were Will and I being honest with each other about our risk assessment. The basal skills were even more invisible; me calling what part of my fear had to do with performance anxiety, and what part had to do with accumulated fatigue and the doubt over when my clouded mind would enable me to pick good lines in a timely manner. On my scrambling excursion, hard skills were the past 27 (!) years of off and on rock climbing, especially having previously done moves of a vastly greater physical difficulty. Soft skills were route finding, looking at the cliff and reading which ledges linked weaknesses, and which ran out in blank slabs. The basal skills were internal; what percentage of past and current skill was available to me in each moment, how much of my desire to find the ridgetop was tempered by a realistic assessment of reversability?
Writ large, basal outdoor skills have to do with self awareness, and in adjusting goals and decision making day to day and hour to hour to keep them in tune with capacity. This is how risk is managed on the ground and in the moment, be it the choice to run a rapid, ski a slope, or push forward with an extra 8 miles of postholing at the end of long day. In a mundane but more pervasive and significant way, basal outdoor skills maintain the integrity of your backcountry functioning by saving mistakes. Loosing gear, either by letting it fall out of a pocket or by leaving it behind at stops, is shockingly common, and in the case of something like a water bottle, knife, or a good chunk of your remaining food can be significantly debilitating. Proper nutrition and hydration is both a hard and a soft skill, but the consistent and correct application is just as significant as what you packed, and a basal skill to the core in that constant adjustment to the demands of the moment is success itself.
So too with packing, unpacking, and transitions generally. Efficiency here can save significant time in the moment, and far more time later in the ripple effect of being able to find gear easily, not forgetting anything, and having the correct items at hand for the tasks of the day. Each transition during the Salmon River I was somewhere between 30 to 50% faster than Will and Robert. Part of this was hard skill, experience, having done boat to hike and boat to camp transitions many times more than either of them (Robert, in fairness, was on his first multiday trip out of his kayak). But I think the majority was basal skill, in that I’ve cultivated and practiced highly purposive transitions for a long time. It is one thing to quickly and skillfully pack a pack with the same gear you’ve taken on similar trips for years. It is another to adapt principal to a new range of items and have a coherent enough rig from day one. In the case of the Salmon trip, I had never put so much inside my packraft on a previous trip, but on the first day I had the right stuff out of the boat for the day of paddling, and had the stuff inside secured and balanced enough that portages and self-rescuing after a swim both went without abnormal difficulty.
I don’t think many adventurers get far into backcountry pursuits without becoming acquainted with the importance of self-management and execution. I do think many people, even those with considerable experience, consistently mistake both the inherent subjectivity of these skills and more importantly, the exacting moment-to-moment control that dependence on internal processes can provide. It’s an amorphous thing to grasp, and not something concretely taught, but recognition of basal skills as an independent class which control the application of hard and soft skills will provide more consistent backcountry performance, and thus, safety.
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.
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 repeatedattempts 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.
In the Bob spring comes first to the junctions, where flat grass melts on the south and ten steps north snow lingers, hollowing into unwalkable with a crust on top nothingness. Deer and elk pack into the sweet spots, and feed into the 3 percent of that 3 percent of valley, cliffs to cobbles, picking root and bark through the cold. Walkers, human or hooved, play the angles of warmth as the season beats back the frozen default.
In one such meadow I came across a spread of fur, spangled around a 30 foot circle of mud and wolf tracks. The rest of the story was a midnight slick faint with blood and hashed clean with grizzly claws, snaking around logs and just over the hump. Down the hill, the creek. Under the huge old what used to be ponderosa, a bear on 80% of an elk. Up the valley as I walked and then skied towards the cornices, visible from 10 miles, the retreating wolves.
Early that evening wind, snow, and my nerves betrayed me. I made the lake, long in the mind, impatience having turned an early side-hilling error into a skin glopping, out of water battle against inefficiency and haste. The lake itself was a perfect custard drop, monolithic in the midst of pines and the high ridges, blown craggy. The lake was, as hoped, chocolate split at the inlet by 3 inches of open water, flowing for 15 feet over dark gravel. Rehydrated I made the ridge, but the final thrust into the strafed teeth of the alpine was steep and guarded, hollow in the pockets between the rocks. I probably could have made it up. I was less sure about making it back down, so I transitioned tentatively next to a ragged tree and hacked back down, fear tinkling away as drove the outside ski hard through each turn, the snow crust shattered and rattled down ahead and along.
I refilled at the magic drip I was sure would freeze into nothing by morning, melted snow to add to my pool of life, and had more minutes as the blue tent faded away to consider beyond the obvious; where my mind had traveled that long day along and apart from my legs and arms and body.
The next day dawned blank, skin and sky only set apart by the opposing line of tree and cliff. I went down, and like all things in the mountains the matter of factedness held risk. The trail, which I was determined to hold, moved between aspects, enveloped in old growth fir. The fear of yesterday passed through, not just turn to turn, but minute to minute. Skins on, then off. Boots locked, then open. Efficiency in complex terrain comes in choices sacrificed to the big picture, in allowing inevitable mistakes to melt in the face of flow and miles. Confidence, stacked moment to moment.
And thus, safety.
I counted ripstop that night at the lake, and had the weight of the moment and the last decade come together. Should I be out in the wilderness at all, given the weight of the moment? More personally, should I be out here, holding on to ambition and learning, when the familiarity upon which that safety is stacked is, increasingly, in the past?
When I thought back to Isle Royale, mug bogging around the reservoir snow blowing into my face, the answer was easy. Especially in a world gradually and suddenly shifting forever, the constant process of reminding and refinding me and my place in the world is hard to imagine in any other venue.