Forward the consumer

I have profoundly mixed memories of my first Outdoor Retailer.  The barely 1 year old Little Bear had an ear infection come on while we were hiking in Glacier just before, was cranky on the drive down to SLC through the night, and the next night required a hasty visit to first urgent care and then the only open pharmacy.  He looks understandably haggard in this post.  On the other side, I had great fun, and learned in way only first experiences can bring.  A majority of the items I featured in that post are in our closets today, in one version or another, or used to be before they broke in one way or another.  Subsequent shows have been bigger (SHOT), weirder (Utah Hunt Expo), and more fun (NAHBS), but I don’t expect anything else to ever rival seeing all that stuff, my stuff, in one place, with all the associated culture.

Culture; will all the positive and negative connotations.

One of the points of contention, about the new Big Gear Show and about OR for a number of years, has been access for the general public.  Trade shows started as a place for shops to see and order next years stuff.  This is antiquated.  Purchasing and product cycles are far more dynamic, driven increasingly by direct to consumer.  I think the BGS folks are correct to make a distinction between the lifestyification of outdoor gear and more core hardgoods.  Lifestyle gear gets a pass, but still.  If it weren’t for those at the edge, little of interest would have happened with outdoor gear.  The “outdoor industry” has long been guilty of myopia as to how broad and variegated that edge can be, just as it as an entity has been guilty about the future of retail and indeed trade shows.  We’re still amongst the experiment of local shops surviving the onslaught of Amazon and Frontc***ntry.com (1), but evidence suggests that if they can, it will be on the backs of service and community, boot fitting and beta.  For a few decades these places have made it into the black via apparel sales, but if these shops go too far that direction, they won’t have aquaseal, repair buckles, and emergency tent stakes anymore, nor staff who know the on the trail relevance of shoe drop.

Therefore, shows should embrace the public.  All the smaller outdoor shops or businesses I’ve known are very aware that a small percentage of customers, the hardcore, the fans, drive a vast percentage of revenue.  These are the people who switch packs every 5 months, kill trail runners every 90 days, and need a new setup or two every .7 ski seasons.  They are the soul of the outdoor industry, not the insiders who buy everything at prodeal and are jaded by highlight reels and having to explain, year after year, what PTFE stands for.  The objection is that users, exposed to new and upcoming stuff, will leave shops hanging with unsold inventory.  My rebuttal is twofold: enthusiasm is more valuable in the long run than sales, and that hardgoods will be less prone to fashion and whim anyway.  I’ve had several spirited discussions with product folks over the years about the value, or not, of discussing development while existing products are still sitting in inventory.  It’s not diplomatic, or even sensical, but my reply has always been that good product will trump all else.  Product cycles can take a haircut, and the “industry” as a whole could do with a reminder that for them, in the 21st century, unedited, conventional capitalism has little place.

But maybe that’s why I didn’t want to be in the outdoor industry after all.

 

1: Is it responsible and sustainable for outdoor websites to subsidize themselves off such negative influences in the form of affiliate sales?

Shit that works week: the return

The original series has remained amongst my most-read posts throughout the nearly five years since it was published.  This is because, in the end, backcountry gear is not as complicated as we are inclined to think, and because the online world (concerning outdoor adventure and generally) has become ever more fake.

Let us discuss.

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The identity politics of outdoor “recreation” continue to not baffle, but frustrate me.  Frustrate because of the self-defeating circularity.  People who should know better remain, at least implicitly, convinced that backpacker, or ultralight backpacker, or climber, or sport climber or alpine climber or boulderer, is something you are rather than something you do.  Looking at things in the world as the later has the benefit or empowerment and self-actualization; climbed 100 pitches this year? or slept 30 nights in the woods?  You’re a climber or a backpacker.  Engaged in intentional, reflexive packing for a backcountry trip and challenged yourself to not pack too many insecurities?  You’re an ultralight backpacker.  Engaged in a bunch of prevarication online and spent more time worrying about what you might do, when, and with what stuff than actually doing it?

Time to get off your ass.

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Outdoor adventure is the ideal blend of democratic and meritocratic.  You can legally do as much as and close to whatever you want, provided you build the skills.  Want to climb 5.12, paddle class IV in the wilderness, ski across a range, or become truly comfortable sleeping by yourself way back in the woods?  Make a plan, do stuff, fail, learn.  Make due with used, substandard stuff, and be confident in your learning.  Want to embrace and then be subsumed in the Big Wild Places by living on their doorstep?  Move.  Soon.  Sacrifices will be made.  In the former case, months and years spent flailing in the snow, ripping flappers in the gym, sleeplessly waking for each midnight squirrel fart gets old.  It is worth it?  Ideally not because of where the process with take you, though the fluidity of mastery is the best reward, but because the newness of learning has a clarity not found elsewhere.  In the later case, you’ll probably either make less money, spend more on food and housing, or most likely both, but what price living?  To repeat last years installment of this series; “…my problem with the new, third or fourth wave lifestyle outdoor brands; that they’ve making shiny crap that is good for the coffee shop and the hike to Delicate Arch, and whose lack of seriousness is predicated on the rare devotee who will graduate to the more core brands when necessary.”  And as the years pass and my understanding hopefully continues to be complicated, I remain convinced that the somnolent dayhikers all, in some fashion, want to have the skill and mind to go that way, for a week, on their own, and come out on the other side.

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And yes, I have a problem with outdoor media and industry assuming incompetence in the name of inclusivity.  And I celebrate brands (and hopefully by extension ideas) which die a quick and sudden death because they were, in the end, just plain crappy.  Last month Max wrote “Nowadays, few outdoor media outlets provide the critical cross-category analysis that is necessary to help us get the best thing for our needs. Most reviews are optimized for google search rank and are designed to provide advice within the category you are looking for.”  His whole post is worth reading.  Designing gear for not-the-Himalayas is one thing.  Making lame stuff because most folks won’t care after they get the gram is another.  At the same time, there are many beautiful and passionate people in the outdoor industry who have made beautiful, intense things.  The best, as discussed previously in this series, endures year on year and works well across seasons and activities.

In the coming days, I’ll discuss a few more examples.

Small, too small

The last year of college Andy and I lived in a four room apartment carved out of the second story of an old house a few blocks from campus.  The staircase to our carpeted kitchen was steep and creaked, tacked on to the back, an afterthought for money. I first took the second, and slightly larger, of two front rooms as mine, but after a few months we built the climbing wall there and I moved into our smallest room.  Built on the other side of a capped staircase, and entry door was 5 feet tall.  At the time it seemed an amusement, and I don’t think I hit my head too often.

I’m not sure what we did with the couch that came to sit opposite the climbing wall in what became the public room, but I do know that when M helped me purge that room of it’s many beer bottles we found a intact wine glass, missing for months, within the cushions.  That glass might have burrowed away one fateful winter night when Andy, Kate and I sat around, having graduated from our bouldering in short order to drinking and giving me shit about my dating habits.  This was a rich subject, starting off that night with the profusion of Rachels and Rebeccas who had lately graced my life.  In my defense, these were the two most common names of any gender at Grinnell during the early 00s, by a wide margin.  The friendly excoriation escalated, as my distant memory etches it, to mocking my phallogocentric preferences in girlfriends, specifically an apparent preference for women whose head circumference was greater than that of their waist.  This led Andy to recall a woman in one of her classes, newly transferred in, who fit this criteria and to whom I should naturally be introduced.

The rest is fate, that evening being about 16.25 years ago, with M (the mysterious transfer student in question) and I looking forward to our 16th wedding anniversary this fall.

Those details are for another time.  Today is for the awkward, brittle analogy I am trying to pull between meeting and then getting to know (Andy reportedly did not, at first glance, sell me well as a hypothetical romantic interest) my life partner during the five months our lives had the potential to overlap, and moving north to the Flathead Valley in the autumn of 2010, new packraft in tow.

Fate, that is to say, is circumstances and coincidence meeting desire and action.  Little happens without all four.  M and I were ready for each other, or at least ready enough, and able to conceive of and thus jump on becoming forever for each other.  9 years ago packrafts were a few years away from getting really good, and moderately popular.  There were enough reports of the South Fork of the Flathead to hint emphatically, to the observant, just how much might be available out in the Crown of the Continent.  Commitment can be an object of reconsideration and therefore of doubt, or when it comes as desire and possibility collapsing into each other you ride their mutual apprehension like the burbling eddy line where Youngs and Danaher come together, tiny waves sawbacked in miniature and dwarfed into irrelevance by cliffs flanking trees an uncomfortable necks reach above.  The shadow between reality and motion here is the nothingness of high noon; or of a headlamp in the middle of a flat new moon midnight.

I was also in the right place, at the right time, to explore virtually all of the Crown ecosystem for packrafting with fresh eyes.  I spent seeing no one else on the rivers and creeks save those I brought along, and was able to walk my learning how to float, scout, and manage risk and ambiguity in tandem with taking what started as blank map with a few threads of knowledge strung across, and color the blank nearly as known as not, by the end.

These, love and discovery, are two things I’ve avoided writing on, for over a decade.  The fear of failure, of poor evocation and felicity, makes for high consequences when the things in question are foundational to one’s existence, especially when the distance of memory renders re-evocation more potent with each passing month.  If I can rewrite the memory, and thus the existence, of these few great things of my life thus far, maybe I could erase me as I know it today entirely.  This morning, when the shadow between existence and essence is in the eyes of middle age as long and stark and detailed as a late June evening on an 8,000′ ridge, the peril which lives under my comfortable chair is rank.

Perhaps next week I will write the story of our wedding.  Of proposing, just past dark, on the westbound off-ramp where 10 goes north from I-70, driving to Las Vegas, then promising each to ourselves 17 hours later.  I’m scared of doing violence to the blank spaces, around which life has drawn lines for a decade and a half, and doubtful most poignantly of my ability to evoke their depth under any light.  Knowing the length of languages failure is less violent of existence itself when M and I were there together.

No one was with me in August of 2011 (or was it 2012?) when I dropped off the Continental Divide and surfed scree down to the lakes which distance would suggest births Nyack Creek.  Those ponds are a lie.  Their limits are somewhat defined by gravely banks, but over half of their functional existence is the willow bogs which seep in, holding much water whose scale cannot be assessed from the ridge above, and often not from a few feet away.  Ankle deep, or hip deep?  The only way to know is to be there yourself.

The day and a half which followed remains scared into blankness.  Shallow gravel bars, deep, clear runs with bull trout streaking, endless spruce portages, abandoned meanders promising an easy portage vanishing into the bush, and most vividly, the gorges.  Packrafters of what is now the old school recall well the bouyant acceleration of the stubby boats, their ease and scattered control in steep water an ideal mirror for exploration made vivid and potent as much by ignorance as novelty.  Those first years I was learning fast, in an immersive, submersive way, where your subconscious drinks beyond the limits of your digestive or circulatory system, and you hope that time and distance and rumination will eventually recapture the important parts.  Back then I swore I’d never tell anyone about picking my way down the cruxes in Nyack, chutes followed by wild bandersnatches at the very edge of swimming, grasping fingers into moss to eddy out, pack-on-back portages downclimbing rotten rock with my boat dangling via tether, the fingers of spruce atop the falls, not far above, promising relief and a short bushwack to the trail.  Relief from fear, and from the desire which had me there in the first place, and which kept me at creek level, no matter how slow and how little like boating it often seemed, all the way down.

There is no way to do that twice, with no knowledge of what was to come, if it would go in a way my ability found intelligible, and little enough experience to provide the soothing of context.  That summer and fall pushed me into the project that became this book, one whose scale of exploration I never expect to equal, and whose existence still makes me uneasy.  Even today there is an indiscretion to having written about, and consistently selling (of all things), the knowledge which came out of those experiences.  Not only am I shortcutting others from the most precious times I had exploring, I’m hinting at intimacy of a depth that makes the moments inappropriate for public consumption.  If I wouldn’t seek to share the singularity of seeing M, now as my wife, for the first time, why would I detail at painstaking length moments of equal ineffability?

We both know the answer to that, which is similar to the reason I still, in new ranges, go out searching for new creeks.  But after two years in a new and drier environment I’m still learning the rhythms.  By 2014 I could look at a line on the map in the Crown Complex and have a rarely too fallible estimate of what I’d find.  Around here, in the Big and Little Belts and Elkhorns and semi-named ranges, all of which are not so far from the Bob, I’ve felt that making my acquaintance has not gone so well.  Rachels and Rebeccas.

Take the creek pictured above and below, plainly not only not really floatable, even with maximal water.  It drains a truly big area of high ridges and despite being ominously named the Dry Fork of a major nearby river on older maps, I thought it all but a lock for a good outing.

Which it was, but apart from a half-mile exercise in hopeless optimism, my boat stayed in my pack.

This creek, and the days of hiking in, down, around, and back over and out which for me defined it, were familiar well past comforting in every way save the volume of water in a drainage of that size.  Ridgetop view spilled up from vast spreads of evergreens, vertigo-inducing in their uncountability.  A trail, well defined by decades of use, but chunky and grassy for infrequent visits from heavy-footed humans, crossed and crossed the creek again to stay with the subtle flatness of each inside bend.  The dark climb out was fall line and slow, as trails of a certain age tend to be, and faded into nothing along that just flat enough spot short of the quest, where transverse elk trails were so profuse that holding to anything other than the big picture for navigation was a waste of thought.

I still got off route in my myopia, and hand to handrail along the top of the cliffs to find a reliable drop back down.  Camp was under the arms of a cottonwood, a house with everything within arms reach; good firewood wrapped around the trunk to dry, and a torso-sized patch of moss between 3 pound cobbles.  Waking early to the early June Montana sun, almost as early as the early birds, seemed like a kiss before consciousness had fully came back into my eyes.

Like with many important things, the rules stayed the same, setting to setting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It depends on your angle.

Terrace Mtn hunting fatality report and analysis

(photos/maps pulled from the discussed report)

Many of you will have at least heard of the death of hunting guide Mark Uptain in a Grizzly Bear attack this past September, in the Teton Wilderness not far south of Yellowstone.  Wyoming Game and Fish recently completed their report on the fatality (full text here), and for folk who hike, backpack, and especially hunt in Grizzly country it is worth reading in full.

A few things stand out, some obvious, others less so.  The center of discussion has been on the failure of the guide and client pair to effectively use any of their available weapons.  Both men had bear spray, while the guide had a 10mm pistol and the client a crossbow.  Only Uptain’s bear spray was immediately accessible, and while it was used against one of the bears, in the judgment of the WGF personnel the use was too late to prevent Uptain’s death:  “Evidence suggests that after the attack was stopped by the bear spray, Uptain traveled under his own power about 50 yards uphill from the attack site to where he succumbed from his injuries.” (p. 9)  Perhaps Uptain would have sustained less than fatal injuries had his client sprayed both him and the sow quickly, or been able to shoot the sow.  This incident underlies just how fast a Grizzly attack is likely to happen in his and other situations, and how even accessible weapons may have situational shortcomings.

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Time and location are also relevant factors in promulgating the attack, though by no means a definitive ones.  Corey Cubon, the client, stated that he had shot the elk at some point the afternoon/evening before, and after failing to find it he and Uptain had ridden back to the trailhead (and the lodge in which he was staying), and returned the following day, leaving the TH at 0800 and finding the elk around 1300.  He called 911 at 1634, reporting later that they were almost finished butchering at the time of the attack.

Based on the above photo the elk died in a spot which would have made me rather nervous.  The visibility looks poor, while the location on a small hill at general high altitude would make for increased scent transport.  The general environment is stereotypical Grizz habitat, and if barstool biology is held at face value, bears in that area are drawn to hunting terrain in the fall due to the year-over-year availability of carrion.  All of this makes it difficult to not conclude that leaving a carcass on the ground for possibly 20 hours or more is a less than safe practice.  Archery hunting lends itself to more protracted blood trailing, which can increase both retrieval time and the scent footprint.  The assumption, in this case and surely many others, that the hunters will be returning to the road every night increases both of these yet again.  This is not to say that had Uptain and Cubon bivvied in the field and found the elk at 0700 things might have gone differently, simply that increased time between a shot fired and starting the pack out necessarily increases the possibility of a bear encounter, even if that increase can never be coherently quantified.

The various accounts of Uptain’s condition appended to the main report make for a sobering read.  Uptain died from massive blood loss, primarily due to bites to the upper legs.  He did not suffer fatal head trauma, but his head was nonetheless bitten such that “The blood was so thick on his face that it was like the victim was wearing a black mask.” (p. 28)  Not that anyone needs more concrete reason to avoid a bear attack…

It is also worth noting that any non-resident of Wyoming may purchase (or attempt to via lottery) an elk tag, but could not legally hunt where Mr. Uptain died without either hiring a guide or having a resident friend along as a guide/sponsor.  While I don’t think it is reasonable to criticism Mr. Cubon for his conduct during the attack, it would not be reasonable to not discuss how a cooler and/or more experienced hand might have saved Mr. Uptain’s life.  The state of Wyoming officially prohibits non-residents from hunting in federal Wilderness due to safety concerns, already an absurd position given that anyone may backpack, ski, boat, birdwatch, or hunt small game in the same areas without a guide or chaperone.  The real reason for this prohibition is of course to protect the territory of guiding services, like the one which employed Mr. Uptain, and the partial monopoly they enjoy on some of the most productive and sublime elk terrain in North America.  This incident seems decent evidence that encouraging the less competent to hire their way into a potentially dangerous situations is necessarily making their guides, and likely the clients as well, less safe.

 

 

Hunting with style

Climbing writer Doug Robinson wrote (in paraphrase) that technology forces itself upon the landscape, while technique looks for a way through.  Climbing is on matters of style an illustrative pairing for hunting, especially in the 21st century, where the later is on the cusp of a new wave of popularity which will likely substantially reinvent the pursuit.  In 30 years I expect hunting norms to have drug the laws which govern its practice far from where they are today.  Climbing remains largely unajudicated, aside from raptor closures and ongoing ambiguity about fixed anchors in Wilderness areas, but starting half a century ago was subjected to substantial and in many cases overwhelming ethical debates, which have passed through consensus into the background structure of the pursuit.  Hunting has in North America been adjudicated for so long that ethics, to say nothing of style, is most often discussed in a stunted fashion, tied narrowly to the propogation of the discipline with an uneasy, if not outright hostile, relationship with any broader cultural import or responsibility.

Robinson made is name in the 1960s, at the vanguard of the clean climbing movement in Yosemite.  Two decades before camming units became commercially available, the move away from pitons to nuts, chocks, and hexentrics was an intentional leap, which put environmental and aesthetic concerns above ease and security.  As Robinson wrote; “Personal qualities- judgment, concentration, boldness, – the ordeal by fire, take precedence, as they should, over mere hardware.”  This set the tone for subsequent ethical debates, with things like chipping holds having since become (in North America) anathema by consensus.  The substance of the prohibition of explicit hold modification is more significant stylistically than environmentally, as things like gardening out cracks and scrubbing vegetation off boulders remains common practice, as does reinforcing chossy rock so climbers don’t pull off too many holds.  Then again, maybe climbing at Rifle is inherently poor style.

The relevant point is that climbing, the most obviously, inherently absurd and pointless of all outdoor pursuits, is also the most aesthetically pure, and that purity and coherence is maintained by consensus rules which promote and prioritize, even venerate, style.  And by style here, we mean recognize that technology has, decades if not centuries ago, exceeded exponentially the challenges imposed by the world and its means.  This is not to say that in mountaineering the gradation of acceptable helicopter access are entirely settled, but when someone like Uli Steck or Liv Sansov wants to enchain peaks in good style, they do so entirely human powered.

Hunting is far more tentative concerning matters of style.  The closest the community gets is when technology forces the hand, on fair chase matters such as drone use (which most western states have banned), and “tracking” scopes which auto-correct for user error.  But hunting is experiencing perhaps the most significant and most concentrated growth in technology since the iron age, with a corresponding paradigm shift in mindset.  And this is the key point when it comes to intentionally defining style, the recognition that technology itself is meaningless, and the way it alters user perceptions and practices, and thus redefines the activity itself, is of central importance.

With hunting, laser rangefinders are an ideal example.  Their existence helped create long range hunting, with both bows and rifles.  Prior to exact yardage being available at the push of a button, hunters were limited by their skills judging yardage, and more commonly to the range within which the speed of their weapon made such judgments more forgiving.  Now, more people are shooting further, more accurately (one assumes), and more often.  Distances viewed as rarefied 15 years ago, such as 400 yards with a rifle and 60 yards with a compound bow, are today approaching the common.  Truly functional ability at these distances does not enhance success in a linear fashion.  Anyone who has spent plenty of time chasing animals knows that different species provide different cut points, with big jumps in efficacy happening in a 20 yard jump.  Whitetails, for example, are wary enough that getting within 30 yards is exceedingly difficult outside an ambush situations (e.g. blind or treestand), with a 50-80 yard distance being by no means simple, but far more consistently achievable.  Similarly, mule deer have eyes and ears and a general tolerance for disturbance which makes being within 3-400 yards exponentially more probable than closing under 200.  In the former case, fastish compound bows and rangefinders make for many more possible shots, while in the later case rangefinders open up the possibility of many conventional rifle chamberings being accessible for their owners to at least develop the skill to take shots at deer who are unaware, or at least more relaxed.

The ethical complication with technology in hunting is that ease often goes hand in hand with humane-ness.  There is a compelling case to be made that taking a leisurely, studied, longer shot at an unaware animal will result in a clean kill more often than a pressured shot using a hasty rest at an animal which might turn at run at any moment, even if the distance is half or less.  At the same time, questioning how much chance ones prey has to even notice the existence of the hunter must be allowed.  There is a stylistic difference between shooting a goat at 400 yards, who knows you are there but has yet to learn to worry about such distances due to terrain and circumstance, and an elk 800 yards away feeding along a meadow, with hardly any plausible chance of detecting humans on the ridge across the canyon.  Well done polls generally show that those who have never hunted are sympathetic to the pursuit if two conditions are met; the animal will be consumed by the hunter, and they think the animal has a reasonable chance of escape.  This should not just be relevant as a means to minimize public hostility; the stylistic imperative of keeping the hunt in hunting should be relevant on its own terms.

The conclusion here is that if hunters do not police themselves on technology, the culture at large will do so for them, either by reducing hunter opportunity to compensate for ever increasing success rates (if 50 of 100 tag holders, on average, kill something where before it was 10 in 100, soon there will only be 50-60 tags given), or by constraining hunting methodology, most likely via ballot initiative.  That hound hunting for mountain lions or bears is more efficacious than spot and stalk or baiting is not in the end behind these methods being banned in numerous western states, it is the perception of their not being sporting.

I’m quite out beyond the fringe in not viewing hunting as categorically different, in either the ethics or the metaphysics, from something like climbing a mountain.  They’re both extractive activities, if the definition is viewed broadly.  If the rarefied and aesthetically sacred nature of climbing gave the community pause enough to build their rules to at least in part maintain future challenge and mystery, it seems reasonable to expect hunting, whose trust in the mystery that is our world is through the killing of charming creatures far more explicit, to do the same.

There is plenty of precedent here.  Alaska forbids helicopters for transportation to and from hunting areas, which goes a long ways towards functionally safeguarding specifies such as sheep.  Plenty of states have made at least partial attempts towards keeping primitive weapon seasons intact; things like allowing muzzleloaders to only shoot round balls, and forbidding optical and magnified sights on muzzleloaders, shotguns, and bows.  Regulating center-fire rifles provides for few if any straight forward options; I’ve never heard anyone discuss something like an upper limit on scope magnification or cartridge velocity.  Other areas of stylistic growth are obvious, just painful to contemplate.  Hunting has, for a long time, been far too wedded to trucks, ATVs, and horses.  The best way to keep wilderness wild is to make access physically harder, and the plain good this does for large animal populations makes it all the less justifiable that hunters haven’t done more to lead the charge on closing roads and generally making access tilt more in the animals favor.

Guiding is another area where hunting has refused to look at itself.  The extent to which the practice is accepted can be traced directly to the colonial era, which provides examples that should give us all pause.  In climbing hiring a guide is widely accepted, if you’re looking to break in to the pursuit without killing yourself, or a rock climber learning to swing tools, or a sport climber learning to plug gear, or an alpine skier wanting to learn about avalanches.  If you’re a climber using a guide to push above your skill level on a regular basis, and not just for educational purposes, you’re viewed as a tyro at best, a poltroon at worst, and generally not taken seriously.  Given how much of hunting has to do with finding the animals and learning the terrain, paying someone to shortcut all of the for you, be in by hiring someone to lead you around in the traditional manner, or by paying someone to e-scout and provide you with a portfolio of photos and waypoints, is nothing short of cheating.  And when it comes to animals who for most serve as symbols for how the world could be better, cheating to kill them should not be ok.

The idea with style is not for laws to force action, it is for norms to change and force a consensus.  Hunters venerate the biggest set of antlers or longest and fattest bear not just because the masculine imperative compels it (though anyone who doesn’t think this remains enormously significant is kidding themselves), but because the oldest of a species is often the craftiest, the most difficult to find, the most likely to detect you, as well as the rarest.  Shooting a six point bull elk requires both the skill of long study and practice, as well as the kind of luck made only by many days out in the field.  And that recognition of patience and a multi-year, even multi-decade learning process is rarely far from the surface of a good hunting story.  Hunters are just good at hiding such things.

I’d like to see that narrative brought to the fore, and the rest of the hunting universe squared to match it.  There should be no bones that walk in access is stylistically preferred to flying in.  There should be veneration and preference given to hunting in areas which due to terrain and game density are more difficult than other places.  There ought to be no apologies needed for shooting “lesser” animals, such as non-males, and particular attention given to the choice to move away from technology, while still doing all that is reasonable to ensure a consistently clean kill.  Just like climbing, hunting is great because it units primordial necessity with the most refined and elective modern absurdity, and by hunting with style we can make hunting great again.

Tiny Adventures

First things don’t happen for me at work all that often, but in one day last week I was called a nigger and filled out a police report.  First things don’t happen too often, but the variations on the unexpected never end.  Seven year olds are rarely able to articulate the despair and injustice which comes out of the long instinct towards wholeness and adulthood being denied, but first or second grade almost always gives enough socialization and social proximity to well acquaint even the most remote with just what they haven’t yet got.  And even the most stunted will find many ways to express this; hence the swearing, biting, kicking, and screaming.  Experience, cognition, and behavior speak which other in an obscure, analogue language.  It’s hardly ever up to me as to when one of our clients might have something important to say, however that gets said.  I can only be there ready to listen, whatever listening might entail, and given that my mandate is revelation and not tranquility, not only being comfortable with but welcoming the most strident and offensive ways of speaking out loud is usually the most important thing I can do on a given work day.

My least favorite thing in Helena is the curb along the center of the universe, that stretch of the west side of Park between the library crossing and the bakery.  Encompassing the library itself along with the best pizza, beer, cake, and bread in town it has everything we need most week nights.  The library crosswalk is significant, as it provides a controlled crossing of the only busy street one must navigate going from our house to the center of the universe.  Little Bear is now three and a half, and 2 years of cultivated practice has his physique eerily mirroring my own; skinny arms, barrel chest, defined quads which bulge out beyond both knees and hips.  He loves his two bikes for different reasons, the light alu green balance bike for speed and familiarity, the solid blue Cleary singlespeed (stripped into a balance bike for the moment) for predictable spoke wheels and pneumatic tires, along with front and rear v brakes whose control he firmly harnessed over the summer.  Even without cranks and pedals the Cleary is close to half his body weight, and thus a trial up hill, but with gravity in his favor he tucks feet onto the bottom bracket spindle and confidently accelerates up close to 20 mph, dodging potholes, boosting cracks in the sidewalk, and braking late but well at road crossings.  His limited height terrifies me on open roads, but take other cars out of it and I’d follow his judgment anywhere he cared to take himself and his bike.

I don’t want to say no to that, so on the many afternoons when work has my ears past overflowing into my soul and I need a reminder that the world is still there, I herd the children off downtown with the promise that LB can ride his bike.  If I push Littler Bear in a stroller or carry him on me the spirit of the ride is disrupted, to say nothing of the disconcertion we force of pedestrians and drivers when a small figure flies around the corner, no adult in sight.  So I load LlrB in the Chariot and bike along, through the tight alleys and rolling hills and the tight foot path and under the bridge, to the library and whatever parts of the center of the universe we want that night.  Policing the bear in traffic while keeping trailer wheels off parked cars is not too complicated, though the symbolic burden never ceases to exceed the pragmatic concerns.  But damn that curb and the way it encourages overparking.  If everyone could manage to hang their bumpers just a few inches over this stretch of sidewalk would have room for one pedestrian and our family circus caravan, only just.  But the typical overhangs (including mine, on the occasions we drive) exceed this, often by several feet, leaving me to keep eyes back to negotiate the 3 inches of total clearance, and forward to police the Bear as he screams up the ramp, braking at the last minute in his enthusiasm for pizza.  Some days it just seems so fraught that I want to stay home, when telling him he can’t ride his bike feels like the most wrong thing.

The revelation is now far in the past, but it took a shocking number of years for me to accept all stress as the same, functionally, insofar as metering out energy and warding off sickness and lassitude are concerned.  These days it is not that I lack interest, ideas, or certainly ambition when it comes to going out in the woods.  Today, I am supposed to be breaking trail towards Route Creek Pass, finishing a big ski traverse.  Five days was first trimmed to four, when the initial departure was 10 hours away and I had only just bought food, packed nothing, and was profoundly flat of mind from the aforementioned days of profound progress at work.  That day of rest was made less so when LlrB, who at not quite 9 months is on the verge of walking and inspired to daily increases in speed by his vertiginously energetic brother, took the early evening to totter over to the open oven and grab hold, raising a series of blisters along most of his right hand pads which came to equal the joint upon which they grew.  Their dimensional horror was equaled only by our concern for his discomfort and what that would do to our sleep.  Remarkably, the phlegmatic ways and quick metabolism of babies had him sleeping that night, and acting the next morning, as if nothing extraordinary had happened, save his right hand being imprisoned in a gauze wrap and sock (to defeat chewing).

So the ski trip was back on, until a mile down the snowy road, the official wilderness still looming in the distance, when and odd sideways slide proved to not be a rut hidden by fresh snow, but rather a front binding screw which had almost entirely backed out.  My thought first went to the irony of having written on just such a subject the day before, then to the question of what horrid glue I had used to mount the bindings last winter (which would surely have all screws loosening quickly), and then to needing to call M, quickly.  The drive between Ovando and Helena has sporadic cell service, and I hoped to catch her before she got too far, and before the walk back toward the highway took away my one bar of service.  This messaging was not effective, and M noticed my messages a mile from home.  All such tragedies are in the end small, the kids survived the many hours of driving, I got to hang out with Charlie for a few hours and share our love of cottonwood trees, and I was home the next day, rather than camped in Danaher Meadows, when the cold I’d been dodging all school year bit.

All equanimity put aside, it is impossible to not see two things as pointing towards my continued decline in adventure prowess.  In work and kids I have daily, tiny adventures the magnitude of which easily equals anything else, and by that standard my life is more adventurous today than at any other time.  It’s certainly more full of meaning, the kind which you choose once in the big picture and ever after marches towards and over you with equal randomness and inevitability.  I’ve done enough packrafting, backpacking, skiing, and climbing that familiarity has forever (?) robbed me of the novelty and fear which once made these things so compelling.  Today challenging trips first offer tranquility, in a way six years ago I would have never considered.  Less time outside inevitably means less practice, which inevitably means that things get missed.  Like a pair of skis that apparently didn’t get skied enough last year (or at all?) to reveal a bad mount.  There’s a not inconsiderable extent to which this takes away both joy, in the illusion of competence, along with wearing away at the margins of safety.

There are reasons to hold on to that which is slipping away, beyond the very large portion of my identity and ego which has been tied up there for the last couple decades.  Foremost is the kids, especially the big one, whose joy in being outside we’ve built so successfully.  Doing stuff with kids outside is hard, and complicated, and the last thing that will help that cause is the big people dulling the edge of their skill and fitness.  The question then becomes how.  How can I stay sharp in the face of declining interest and much reduced time?  That reframing of the question might well be it’s own answer.  Work and family has taken a view of adventure, and how it shapes me daily, and pulled straight the waves and ripples of my developing self.  I used to, by default, look for the soft 5.11, the fastest trail across a range, and most predictable descent.  Now I know that, insofar as your soul is willing, difficulty always teaches more and better.  You might want to avoid that bushwack if you only have 2 days for fifty miles, but ease is almost never clearly seen through the prism of knowledge per mile.

Why I don’t write here anymore

You will all be aware that the gap between this post and the last is over a month, something which has recently become the rule, rather than in years past, the exception which never came.  You all deserve to fully understand the reason for this, which is neither as obvious nor prosaic as it would at first seem.

More often than not during the week I wake up around 630am, +/- 15 minutes.  Dawn is over an hour away, and over half the time the cause is not an alarm, but rather the small child.  He usually enjoys morning time on the carpet downstairs, without the big child around to take toys from him, which allows me to complete a 15 minute yoga session mostly ungrasped.  The rest of the morning is given to coffee, breakfast, lunch prep, dressing, and all the usual things.  I leave for school around 730am, and return by 330pm, save of days when meetings demand leaving earlier or staying later.  M goes to work around 4 or 430pm, returning 4 or 4.5 hours later.  Perhaps one, but rarely both, children will be asleep at this point, and the spiritual clock is ticking to get some time to ourselves and everyone asleep, ideally such that I can manage the 9 hours of sleep I find indispensable for doing my job sustainably.

This is a less than ideal schedule, and while I could write a great deal about myopic American social policy, what links our overfull lives and my continued choice to not spend my time writing hear has more to do with how I spend my days during the week.  I’m a psychotherapist at an elementary school, where treatment goals are rarely managed via conversation on the couch, and often dealt with via practice sharing at legos (or duplos) and adult facilitated kickball games.  Chasing recalcitrant children down off playground equipment is common, as is working on attachment and social skills with semi-verbal 4 and 5 year olds via simple games of catch.  I can’t imagine a more satisfying job, and the only real downside isn’t my lack of enthusiasm for more duplos when I get home, it is the fact that between 8 and 8 my only hours spent not being talked to or at by small people (and big people) are those spent driving, doing paperwork, and pissing.

Pictured here is my least favorite tree in the greater Helena area, and perhaps, in all of Montana.  It’s in the saddle north of the main (but not tallest) summit of Mount Ascension, where the winter winds are least likely to molest the ornaments.  Trails close to downtown get a ton of regular use year round, but not too many regularly make it the 1100 vertical feet to this tree.  It’s surely a happy sight for those who do, and the reasons I’ve alternately contemplated removing and shooting these adornments is that I am an introvert, who goes to the woods to avoid people and their trappings, a need which has become more fervent as those moments have become more episodic.

It’s an important personal revelation to consider around the holidays.  Little Bear, at 3.5, is old enough to almost begin to start forming memories, and in the course of making choices about what we want our family traditions to be, M asked me about my childhood memories.  I didn’t have many, and it took over three weeks to realize that the overwhelming feeling at the time was one of dread; having to be in a busy, loud, often foreign house, and feel defective as a human for wanting to spend most of the time hiding with a book.  It took until disturbingly recently to fully understand this, and American culture requires of me much effort to remember that there is nothing pathological about needing to charge up before receiving company.

All of this is to say that the internet and social media (of which blogging is hardly a part, anymore) remain social endeavors.  For all their facelessness interacting with people is still interacting with people if it takes place on Instagram, you just get more control over the potency of the interaction.  The best meaning here has always come from things that hold the best distillation of wherever I was at the time, and these days I just need to save myself for myself and for other things, a little more often.  I have faith it will to the current extent be a fairly transitory state of affairs.

I don’t lack for things to say here, just the energy to say them as I’d like.

Thanks

In Montana the last day of the general/rifle deer, elk, and black bear season is the Sunday after Thanksgiving, which provides many folks with a last extended weekend and psyche-up.  This year I was among them, and in the early afternoon Sunday trailed confused deer tracks across an open face; burnt sticks spaced across the hill below, sentinels to a decade old fire, the ground here at 6000 feet packed with a foot of snow.  Out of the sight, north and curved around the hill, was the meadow I had slept in last night, where a spruce tree two feet in diameter kept my fresh mind safe from the single digit night.  Also out of sight, and directly in front, was the canyon I had ascended to that meadow.  Directly level this bottom was tight and rocky, narrow dampness had kept that fire out, and the dark green mat hid cliff bands which forced you out of the bottom every hundred yards.  There snow was lesser, but unchanged by sun and wind, and I saw everything in the six inches of fluff: grouse feeding delicately back and forth across the wash, deer moving east to west, a pair of bobcat ascending and showing me the best lines across stacks of boulders and pools thin with ice.

Hiking and then climbing a canyon bottom from road to peak isn’t the most proactive way to hunt anything, my gambits were limited to bumping something just unawares enough to get a shot, or tracking something fast and fresh enough to do the same.  Neither worked, though in the upper reaches deer and elk tracks were in enough abundance that neither seemed naive strategies.  And this year I decided I’m willing to sacrifice probability for aesthetics.

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I’ve had a post entitled “35%” in the drafts cue for 4 months now.  Littler Bear, aka Little Cloud, was born in April, and like his brother became fat and happy and needy quickly, the later no more than most babies, the first two rather more than average.   By four months the Cloud was precisely half the weight of the Bear, who remains a not-small toddler.  The weight of a summer overnight pack is not welcome in a creature which cannot yet hold tight its own head.  My thought at that point, as the Cloud settled into a peaceable sleep pattern and the Bear continued to fail to express much jealously, was that we were, from a functional perspective, a hair over one third done with child number one.  Chronologically inaccurate as this thought was, it injected optimism into a time of quiet desperation.

That I never finished those thoughts was not a coincidence, insofar as that vowel-replete word is always a proxy for one’s world, unexamined.  My adult world has closed in tightly since, with to little space between joy, profundity, and despair for anything but the thin ends of the bell curve.  Neurologically and developmentally the Bear is at least a third finished; we spent three year maximizing his potential and will only now watch his brain prune itself back.  But increasingly that’s a source of anxiety rather than satisfaction.  Time reveals flaws in essays, carpentry, and children, equally.

I can’t take time in the woods as just itself this year.  Each day is freighted as a trade off, with hours being the least concern.  9 days of 10 I run out of will and attention before bedtime, the lack of space echoing no other time except college in wondering how many months, and perhaps years, it will take for my brain to be able to catch back up with the rest of me.  And that is why those days are so precious; if all I need worry about is keeping my feet warm glassing, and picking out the freshest path from a miasma of tracks and beds on a sunny hillside, things like the clarity to string these words together can at last find me.

So I’m thankful we’re here, in Montana, where deer tags are dirt cheap and doe tags easy to get, and for all sorts of interesting areas where you can hunt antlerless deer in wild corners management did likely, strictly, intend.  I like eating fresh meat, but even more I like having the whole experience of walking back, looking, tracking, puzzling, sneaking, planning, shooting, cutting, and packing.  I learn things by force when meat is on the line, and time and circumstances limited.  In this case, the deer were below me, feeding, predictably, on the three hundred yard swath of ponderosa park almost melted bare by just enough hours of sun.  I rushed the downhill scoot, leaning up from sitting so that just my eyes went above the horizon, and the small herd got spooked and moved off, slowly enough that I was sure they just knew something was off.  They gave me a shot and I took it, but I hadn’t brought belief enough along, and committed the generic sin of shooting over its back, mistaking the range for longer than it was.  That got them moving, and on the last day, with nothing better to do, I follow them.

Snow makes tracks easy, as does a half dozen critters running towards one place.  Persistence brought me luck the second time I bumped them, something I could only appreciate when I stood over the carcass and looked back.  The deer had first run into a grove of small, tight, ponderosa regrowth, and when I busted them out of it and took their place had a dark backdrop, which gave me enough seconds, ticking against the clock of their prying eyes, to thread a bullet into a shoulder from 200 yards.

For Thanksgiving we recreated this recipe, with the other rear leg of the same deer I shot near Whitefish, when Little Bear was 3 months old.  That was a long time ago.  The Bear gobbled rich red venison chunks and ignored everything else, while the Cloud gummed biscuits and forged his way slowly towards the polysyllabic world.  I was tired most of the day, not because of strained muscles, but from a minds eye which had been obliged, out of desire and necessity, to see just too broadly for too long.  Three years ago, and in the third season of my hunting career, I was just learning to see properly.  I saw that whitetail at dusk, 80 yards out, at the far range of my right eyes edge, and shot it before it saw me.  The latest November deer was remarkable for the punishing packout, side hilling through the snow to the nearest trail, as well as the lofty perch in a timber island just off a ridgecrest, looking down at nearly the full course the eventual snowmelt would take to the ocean.  It was even more remarkable because that deer saw me, at least four separate times, and yet had not vanished into the miles.

The sun was finally warm, so I took my time butchering, built a fire, and roasted a chunk of loin seasoned with a ramen packet.  Stretched a little and stuck twice on a stick the purple meat faded slowly and almost indistinguishably into red with black edges, the old dried lodgepole twigs providing less heat to the meat than they did to my hands and face.  Eating it was imbibing of success, of the moment, and on the terms the world had offered.  The brilliance of hunting is in the way seasons restrain imagination, human rules compressing the coal of thought into the diamond of opportunity.  Utterly predictable in form, unlike ski or river season, if infinitely less predictable in particular and content.  My previous hunts this year had been overwhelming in their beauty and success, but the days and months had stood out the way memories, packed in and peaking, too much water flowing through too little space, the wave crests unknowable in their patterns.  Every few weeks, I wonder just how much of the sediment that forms my being will be eroded away, but for an hour now I can eat fresh venison in a bright place in the snow and be content.

In passing

Yesterday I received an email from a reader informing me that Jason Hairston, founder of Kuiu and the most prominent American hunter of the past few years, had killed himself at home in California.  At that point in the evening rumors had evidently just begun to circulate, and my post from last fall concerning Kuiu’s stance on the public land debate was the third hit when one Google’d “Jason Hairston”, a fortuitous if passing piece of information to have drawn to my attention.  Readership of that post spiked about 20 times normal yesterday, though the vicissitudes of internet buried the post deeply within a few hours.  Today Kuiu confirmed that Mr. Hairston had died by his own hand, and their request to direct donations to a concussion-research foundation support but do not confirm speculation that football-related brain trauma played a role in Mr. Hairston’s troubles.

There are several things worth discussing about Mr. Hairston’s death, foremost of which is the ineffable nature of mental illness, and the deeply problematic nature of the concept itself.  Jason’s mental illness is in retrospect tautological; in that he is assumed to have been mentally ill because he killed himself.  It’s inside baseball, but the folks who called the shots on the DSM-V made a number of decisions which taken together moved sharply away from a more fluid and holistic conception of illness that would have taken cultural, social, and historical factors into account in a way western medicine has yet to fully embrace.  None of which does anything to blunt the horror of a father and husband being driven to such depths that he would willingly leave those people behind.

Second, the western hunter writ large epitomizes two separate types of folks, both of whom (those living in Rocky Mountain states, older white men) are far more likely to attempt suicide than the general population, as well as a third type (gun owners) who are far more likely to succeed in killing themselves.  I think there’s a lot to be said for the medical model of illness being to blame for the poor way to US deals with suicide as a public policy issue, but I think the culture of stoic self-reliance is even more to blame.  Outside recently published a extended article coming from the other side of this same issue which is worth reading.  Individuals in these settings are exposed to social contagion in a way no less significant than school or medical workers are exposed to microbial contagion.  It would be useful if our academys and government moved to explicitly recognize such things, and most especially encouraged the general public to do the same.

Last, Hairston became notable in the last 3-4 years (with the presumptive rapid increase in his net worth) as the archetype of the successful American male in the social media age.  His political support of Donald Trump seemed a logical result of his public persona, the large-in-all-ways alpha male who became wealthy solely through their own merit.  He paid close to or over six figures each year to go on big name hunts (the extent to which these were written off via the company will surely remain unclear), was married to a blond ex-model, vacationed frequently in exotic locales, and had just enough high-end toys to communicate something without being showy.  His instagram is now private, but even so it should serve as nothing short of a chilling reminder that outward success necessarily means nothing.

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At the same time Hairston presented himself as a quintessentially modern father, something made incontrovertibly clear when he brought his ~10 year old son along on a big-$ California Desert Sheep hunt last fall.  That he was able to parent and educate while eventually finding and shooting a rarified, crafty, record sheep was a formidable feat, something I had to respect.  There is of course no question that Hairston’s family will miss him incalculably, and I think no real doubt that the world will miss him, too.  For all of him I found odious pales today in comparison to the passion which allowed him to do so much, public and private.

I hope his death will be an edifying moment for at least certain parts of American culture, too.  The age of Trump is seeing our country reach backwards for ways of securing happiness which were only ever functional for a few years, for a few people, if they ever worked at all.  The US rode a wave of geographic fortune into the 20th century, Thomas Jefferson’s vision finished in Panama and Philippines by Theodore Roosevelt.  We rode an intellectual wave into the 21st, the vestiges of free society (and systemic exploitation of select other cultures) built in the 1780s, along with FDR’s opportunism and the wave of refuge scientists he scooped up.  With both of these having long since crested, run past our toes, and pulled back the sand as they receded, as a country we’re left with plenty of cultural space to stroll left or right to find out what we’ll do next.  Fleshing it out would take a dissertation, but I think one could draw a line easily from tidewater meritocracy through manifest destiny to the self-made man.  There is a vast extent to which this is smoke and mirrors, a thin edifice built on hidden and nasty framing.  If in this case the personal can illuminate the historical and show us that simple merit and wealth do not simply buy happiness, we’ll all be better off.