Jefferson Lives

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”

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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.

 

The new rules for nature

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

1: Your stoke will not save us

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

2: Tourism won’t fix our economy

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

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

3:  Safety is not the same as comfort

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

4:  Subtle is sexy

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

5:  Statistically speaking; no one shreds

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

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

6: Leave your phone in the car

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

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

7: Adventure is founded in vision

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

Happy solstice.

 

 

Part of the system

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.

Basal outdoor skills

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.

Drones in Wilderness

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

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

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

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

Distance learning

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

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

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

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

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

Picking

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

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

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

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

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

And thus, safety.

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

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

What hasn’t changed

In short, a great deal.

Friday March 13th ended up being the last day of school here in Montana, very possibly for the school year.  I recall it being a busy day, I got to my office around 950 after the usual Friday morning therapist meeting, and had a session each hour until school got out at 250.  I squeezed in an emergency session with a client who was having a resurgence of PTSD-related flashbacks, and on the way out chatted briefly with the guidance staff about how the Friday the 13th superstition was a bunch of crap.  Late Sunday afternoon I got word that school would be canceled for the next week, by the end of the week my colleagues and I had official guidelines on doing therapy via Zoom.  By the end of the following week the state had expanded Medicaid rules to include sessions over the phone, and we had word that due to reduced clients visits decreasing revenue we’d all be taking a 20% percent pay cut.  This past week, week 4, was the first doing distance psychotherapy where my sessions were close to 80% of what they used to be, the first where I was doing my job in the way I want.

Much of the teeth-grinding about schools being out across the US (and, I assume, the world) goes back to all the implicit functions of public education.  Being a psychotherapist in a school works both because school is the mechanism of socialization backstopping parenting, and thus the mechanism of stress of children as they begin to find that their upbringing will fall short of what society demands of them.  On a pragmatic level, this means that I’m seeing clients who due to family issues probably wouldn’t make it to office appointments consistently.  By extension, it can’t be too much of a surprise when many of them have struggled to keep regular Zoom or phone appointments, even in the face of lots of reminders.  Some of my families have truly risen to the occasion.  One client, still in state custody, returned to living with her mother mere days before Friday the 13th, and has with no external structure logged on to virtual middle school exactly at 8am every day since.  Others have foundered; kids waking at noon and doing nothing but gaming and youtube, or parents descending back into substance abuse by means of coping with the anxiety they can’t yet say out loud.

These families, and many of my friends and colleagues, have in my less stressed and myopic moments given me profound appreciation for how little our family life has changed in the past four weeks.  We did decide, in the face of my salary reduction and an uncertain future, that M should go back to work.  We found ease in her old employer taking her back gladly and in a matter of days, and security in mitigating any financial uncertainty, but also anxiety in that her job exposes her to the general public.  So that last few weeks I’ve been waking as usual, or often a bit later, and using that extra rest to manage the many things I can’t control in my professional life.  I end work early in the afternoon, so M can go in to her job, and I can take over management of Little Bear, Little Cloud, and their endless enthusiasm for running in circles, noise, and stealing each others toys.

We are happy every day to have a generation background that put us on the path towards stable housing and a healthy, easy marriage.  We are grateful for and enjoying more time around each other, having bought a house with generous space and a good yard, and most especially it being spring in our less busy part of the world.  This past week the days were sunny and for the first time all year, into the 60s F.  With kind weather, daylight until nearly 8pm, and empty public land in all directions the boys and I have been doing just what we would have done normally, except with a start several hours earlier.  In the past week we had creek time, canyon time, saw carp spawning inches under our packraft, and I got a bright cold morning to ski a local peak.  The small people have each other for company, aren’t yet in school, and as long married, natural introverts M and I feel the social constraints but lightly.  If the current state of affairs continued for a few months, I wouldn’t much mind until well into summer.

This is more than I can say for my clients.  For most the removal of outside structure has laid bare just how thin and ill-practiced are their internal coping skills.  This has cut across class lines, though my more affluent families can more readily purchase external supports (e.g. distractions).  It will make good fodder for discussion, with those who survive the closure of their world with their basic needs far enough intact to be able to look beyond bare essentials.  My broader concern has in the past week evolved into a certainty; that nationally and globally these months will see an escalation in familial trauma that when combined with academic and social delays and higher levels of disease and death within extended families will resonate for the rest of my life, and likely beyond.

That the Bear and Cloud will likely, hopefully only recall this as a peculiar episode their own kids might read about in history is an object equally of comfort and guilt.

The perfect winter

April had a good trick for us here in Montana, 4 inches of snow in our yard, and twice that in the mountains, with a nice wind chill well below zero.  The skiing was fantastic, the snow sifted light enough that the air of skinning moves waves before you, the air cold enough for visible sparkles of enthusiasm to grow on the way up, and freeze into permanence on the descent.  After the previous two winters, both relentlessly snowy down to the valley floors, last year record breakingly cold, it has been pleasant to have a dark period give us the best of both.  Those distant mountains have been cold and stormy enough to stack up snow, while storms have mostly steered north or south of town, and sun has dried out yards and backyard trails.  This winter we got ease down low, less shoveling and icy walking, while keeping the potential of a proper winter off in the abstract realms of daily visibility, the horizons in all directions growing more clear in their toothiness as the feet of snow accumulate.  

It has reminded me of the easy winters of Colorado or Utah, with sunshine drawing an almost geometric line between civilization, and the build-up of life above, the thing which for the other half of the year will keep civilization possible.

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Ideal winters begin in January but only graduate in April.  Cold holds old snow within the forests and keeps rain away from the summits, making June skiing, July greenery, August boating, and September deer into memories whose edges stay clear for decades. 

It seems that we might have just such a summer, with the complication naturally being that we won’t know for perhaps a month or more what kind, what freedom, of summer we’ll have; as well as the current shelter-in-place rule.  How skiing fits into this, and indeed if it does at all, is a question of the moment.  All the moreso because of the generous, cold, spring storms falling on a finally solid winter base.

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Our local hill has taken a firm stance on the issue, and the above photo, taken 48 hours after 8+ inches of fresh fell, gives good evidence that the locals agree.  My personal compromise has been to skin and ski the local hill often.  It’s a mellow place, with limited avalanche terrain even under un-ideal circumstances, and cruising untouched 28 degree pow is pretty great.   The hope, tentatively expressed in Great Divides new signage, is that around here we can avoid what Colorado, Red Lodge, and the Alps did not, and be able to get out regularly more than 1 or 2 kilometers from our house without falling too easily into old habits. 

The ideal winter demands ideal tools, and my $75 score at a ski swap back in the fall has quickly become the favored over-snow tool.  I’m late to the rocker, center mount, big radius party.  Occasionally it has felt like too much ski, but heavy detuning of the tapered section of the tail and some shifts in technique have over the course of a few hours made me a much better skier than I was last year.

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So I was naturally bummed when at the end of routine waxing I looked closer and noticed a ~16 inch delaminated section.  Judging by the sidewall dent this had presumably got started last month during the big wreck, been hardly noticable at first, and grown over the subsequent days.  So, some shaving, prying, injection of glue, and sealing with Aquaseal was in order.  Hopefully the ski will be good as new, and highlights again why I prefer to buy used skis at fractions of MSRP.

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I certainly missed them this morning, when aspect hunting for good snow resulted in a few misses of wind effect and crust before untouched powder was found.  It all serves to provide gratitude for the here and now, and the backyard.  Six years ago I wrote that I could then retire from backpacking and be content, having expressed my potential as far as would ever be practical.  That is still true, but in those six years I’ve had a lot of fun hunting, learning how to be in the backcountry with our kids, and filling in the gaps.  New places polish old skills, a mirror clarity the fog of the daily cannot provide.  Familiar places build new skills because intimacy provides comfort which in turn allows one to look at things from the other side. 

Since moving here I’ve resolved to embrace this, after 15 years prior spent driving far from one amazing place or another to pursue a specific skill and thus, experience.  Today, it is impossible to not both celebrate and rue this.  My list of questions within a 45 minute radius is years long.  And yet, months of planning, had it run uninterrupted, would have had me hiking out of the Escalante today.  The clarity of novelty would be a nice haven these days.  In its absence I cherish the unexpected opportunities I did take this winter, and resolve to not let this spring and summer get away, no matter what form they take.

A scare

Little Cloud, Aka Littler Bear, turns 2 in a few weeks.  As with all toddlers, the aspects of his personhood attributable to his life outside the womb have become reasonably distinct from those which formed within it.  His time spent outside and younger sibling life of perpetual catch-up were recently in evidence when 2 days of contemplation were enough to see him going both up and back down the wooden ladder into our treehouse, with the supposedly toddler-proof big step up at the bottom.  Unlike many toddlers, and due not entirely to the need to catch-up on communication, he displays an excessive amount of personality for someone well under 3 feet tall.  Good for stealing your hat and making friends at the brewery (above), or while out getting ice cream (below), and rather less useful when his analogue ways of refusal number into the dozens.

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Yesterday morning the cloud wanted to follow me outside and lurk underfoot in the garage, as usual, but was noticeably cranky, and by late morning, lethargic, which is unheardof, enough that we took his temperature.  103F.

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Toddler time outpaces that of the adult several times over, so his temperature could have been due to his last two molars coming in, or to a cold his buddy had given most of us last week, or to something more evidently sinister.  M took him to the doctor, which involved calling them from the parking lot and being seen in a tent in the yard, with samples sent off.  In a few hours we had the flu result back, in 25 hours the test of coronavirus.  Both negative.  And now we can go back to spending more time at home than back before the world changed, while still being able to walk around the block without fear.