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.

Shit that works; lifestyle addition

The Wayback Machine doesn’t travel back to when I can first recall the concept of “lifestyle” in outdoor clothing and gear.  It was a North Face catalogue, late 80s or early 90s, talking about a woman from Alaska or the Yukon or Wyoming or some similarly very far from Ohio place, who had fallen out of her boat during a casual afternoon cruise, and survived the ensuing hypothermia in a fairly matter of fact way because, as the catalogue told us, she had thrown on her North Face gear that morning.  Just like any morning.

There is just as much truth and utility as there is malarkey in that thought-picture.

Modern lightweight gear, especially technical clothing, doesn’t make sense in day to day life.  Lighter fabrics get slowly chewed by footwell vibration and dusty floors, less than mega zippers loose metal too fast and split into obsolescence, and fancy insulation engineered for performance first quickly compresses under the monolithic weight of seatbelts and routine.  And yet, that 10 ounce down jacket hides in the corner of a 15 liter bag, with space for lunch and a nalgene.  Pea coats and lambswool sweaters wear well and look better, but feel stolid in the face of unplanned hikes, extended side trips to the park, and the drizzle which catches you walking home late.  Outdoor clothing is the frame without which the house of the industry would not exist, and it’s axiomatic amongst those on the inside that the vast majority of that clothing is sold to non-core users, to better blend on the brewery deck.

But, the best part of modern living are places where the line between daily routine and Big Trips in the Big Places is not so clear.  Once of my absolute favorite things remains solo trips across a big, unknown-to-me stretch of roadless country where I see no recent evidence of other humans.  Some of my other favorite things are riding pump track with my 3 year old son, taking the whole family to the bakery for brunch, tearing out non-native shrubs in our yard, and sinking days that add up to years into a job which is intellectually challenging and emotionally fulfilling.  I want all of these things, and with the purer forms of wilderness adventure being such time-queens, it feels better to absorb the landscape in smaller daily increments, which are best catered to on walks and bike rides and diversions which don’t necessitate a full wardrobe change.  Little kids don’t often go far, and by adult standards they never go fast, but that lack of the need for gear which serves against serious consequences also means you won’t be generating serious heat.  On toddler hikes at toddler pace, best pack a warm coat.

My elitist reservation remains in the form of a question; who can be immersed in all of that, see the air change week to week from the same park, same mid-walk vista, same mountain top, and not in the end both wonder how the landscape sings together and want to go out, far out, to find out more onself?  And that is 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.  It seems both wasteful and to assume less of humanity than it hopefully deserves.  I understand that practically I would not want every Satruday-noon latte hiker to take five years of labor and become technically skilled backcountry travelers.  Things would get crowded out there eventually.  I just can’t fathom how at least most of them would not eventually want to at least try to get there.  How could you not love straight espresso, and why not have four shots rather than two, when the only consequence is getting more done, and a bit of occasional vibration?

Shit still works, and some of the shit that works well in the variegated, civilized by choice life isn’t necessarily what really works for pure backcountry.  So this edition focuses on those things which wouldn’t be too far amiss, and certainly possess the quality, on a 10 day unsupported trip, while also not being entirely awkward accessorizing a meeting, and whose sweet spot is in the middle: cabin trips, drinks outside in inclement weather, strolls which double into 10 milers.  They’re among the things I use the most, making them most fitting of the title.

Haglofs Pile Hoody

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Fleece is the obvious choice for one-coat fits-most use outside, and this one is the most versatile of the many I’ve tried.  Trim enough and in colors that qualify as business casual (in Montana), with the signature Haglofs hood and outstanding attention to detail (flawless pocket zips and mesh), the meat of the Pile Hoody is the 380 grams/meter fabric, which for those less than ideally nerdy translates to damn thick.  It isn’t windproof, but the modern paradigm of active insulation which started nearly two decades ago with puffy fleece tells us that more, more air-permeable insulation is more versatile and more comfortable more often than less static warmth with integral windproofing.  The Pile Hoody is too cold when the wind really kicks up below freezing, and too warm above 50 or 55F, but a simple and easy choice for most anything in between.  Not a cheap fleece, though in the US Backcountry.com seems to put them on sale predictably.

Spyderco Dragonfly

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I’ve written often about what makes a good knife, and for the past three years the simple fact has been that the Dragonfly is in my pocket 97% of the time, regardless of setting.  Enough that the clip-side end of the handle has faded from sun exposure.  I’ve re-profiled the edge as convex, which makes sharpening a 45 seconds, every couple weeks affair.  Regardless of who sandy, linty, or bloody the knife has been the lock has never done anything other than engage with a crisp snap.  It’s functioned so well for so long that in the last year I just had to tempt fate, and have battened and pried with it a fair bit, out of mere curiosity.  No issues thus far, save some scratches.  I’d still prefer that the rampant dimples and texture be much reduced in the name of easy cleaning, but otherwise I can’t say a bad thing.  And you can still buy one for 60 bucks, a very good deal.

Yeti Rambler

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Yes, it’s a tiny 30 dollar water bottle, from the company that gave us the 300 dollar cooler and the 40 dollar bucket.  It’s as easy to dislike Yeti (especially after you’ve seen them at a trade show) as it is to not find someone claiming their gear isn’t well made.  The 18 oz Rambler is just big enough for a 6 cup Bialetti and a tray of ice, the ideal companion for a summer work day.  My other favorite use is making road trip cowboy coffee; add boiling water and a bunch of grounds, shake, let sit for 10 (or 30) minutes, pour, and enjoy.  I did partially break the handle off the lid doing this, having to resort to extra leverage on a fence after making coffee, overtightening the lid, and then driving up 5000 vertical feet and back down 6 in the space of an hour.  The glue fix on the lid has held  ever since, and I still got my coffee, so we chalk that one up to acceptably survival of user error.  Most importantly, the 18 ozer is a visually and tactically satisfying shape, especially in stainless, unlike (for instance) Hydroflasks, which on the shelf appear as a thought-provokingly complete range of alien sex toys.

All you need by way of drinks containers is this, a Nalgene silo, and a big Dromedary bag.

Human Gear Capcap

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It has a whimsical name, and will close to double the price of your nalgene; unless your water bottle fleet is mostly domesticated from the many free ranging, well seasoned nalgenes of the world.  I found the bottle pictured above nine years ago, melting out of the snow atop Lolo Pass.  The 48 oz size is my favorite, in spite of them being almost too unwieldy in both height and weight.  My recent criteria for building pack side pockets is that they need to provide secure, one-handed silo storage, and if they do that, they’ll do just about anything else.  The Capcap preserves the original nalgene functionality, and adds being able to drink, without spilling, while hiking at full tilt.  I bought two, at full retail, and don’t go into the woods without one, and often both.

Panic in the Elkhorns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Mike Lee is not full of it

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

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

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

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

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

A charming picture—for them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our internal Yaak

Diffidence.  That’s the nicest thing I can say about the ocean of trees, 5500 foot ridges, and 3000 foot valleys that stretches from the Flathead to the Cabinets, the Kootenai to the Clarks Fork.  In half a dozen years living on the eastern shore I made a handful of excursions into and across the green sea, not many considering the number of visits to the rocky wilderness east, and the vast and largely unrecorded depth of the Salish and Yaak.
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We returned recently, with distance and perspective offering an answer; logging.  The talwegs of the Kootenai, Yaak, Clark Fork, Tobacco, Thompson, and Bull all hint at what used to be and in so doing highlight why the modest but not inconsequential relief of the green sea blends into it’s own background.  Almost all of it, a swath over a hundred miles wide in each direction, has been clear cut.  Mostly 30-50 years ago, which has produced a lodgepole monoculture, relentless in shade and aspect.

The patches of fresher cuts, most now tucked away such that they’re not visible from highways, echo in the cornea like shadows moving with clouds.

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There are benefits to obscurity.  By modern standards there are hardy any people there, either resident or visitor.  Being far away from centers of government also kept more of the fire lookout towers intact than in most other places in the west.  And with logging being the right hand of 20th century fire management, increasingly most of the those lookouts are un-manned, having graduated like so much of 20th century infrastructure to being 21st century pikuresque.  IMG_6250

It stretches the imagination to think that a century ago Gifford Pinchot was vilified as a radical, a snowflake in contemporary slang.  the messianic, mechanistic institution he begat left the womb straight into the 1910 fire, which burned most of the Montana-Idaho border and left a part of the country still working to bury the frontier more vulnerable than it was comfortable being, with it’s timber and frame towns sitting as tinder of the edge of the wild.  Survivors of that fire did not take much educating to see that wise use was built on the glass foundation of human knowledge, with Elers Koch (head of the FS fire efforts out of Missoula in 1910) writing a quarter century later:

It is even possible that, by extinguishing fires in favorable seasons which would have run over a few hundred or a few thousand acres, the stage was only set for the greater conflagrations which went completely beyond fireline control.

And this is a lesson western America is still, poorly, learning.

National Parks, and those primitive areas which graduated to Wilderness in the late 60s, are thus a comfort for those of us just widely traveled enough to know better.  Intact landscapes, the gorgeous and high-contrast patchwork fire writes on a forest which hasn’t been logged for generations, is a nice thing to fixate upon when we’d rather not think about just how much of the greater landscape does not look, or function, that way.

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The forest service rightfully warns against young children in lookout rentals, especially the good ones like these which are 40+ feet in the air.  They have steep stairs, handrails weathered to maximum splinter potential, and a long drop between well-spaced railings.  Littler Bear still exists in the blessed state of infant immobility, and is thus not a concern.  Little Bear will be three in a few weeks, and has been quite intentionally trained to be agile and ambitious beyond his age.  He was appropriately cowed by the lookouts, especially the 40 mph gusts we had at 6500′ for lookout #2, which swayed the whole contraption gently, but without mistake.  We’re not sure what they see or when they’ll remember, but we’re not taking chances.

The grand Helena brewery tour

Montana brewery laws take some getting used to.  The Kafka-ishiousness does not approach Utah levels, and the peculiarity has quite inadvertently given birth to an institution which adds a lot to a quiet, family-centric, even staid city like Helena.  Before recent beer and pretzel adventures are further discussed, some juridical background is in order.

In Montana a nano-brewery, as defined by law, produces less than 100 barrels a year.  A nano-brewery license allows a brewery to give away unlimited free samples between 8am and 2am, sell beer for customers to take home during the same period, and distribute beer to retailers, wholesalers, and the public using only their own equipment and employees.  There aren’t many nano breweries in Montana; you only get 12,400 proper pints out of 100 barrels, which doesn’t cover much overhead.

A domestic brewery license allows up to 60,000 barrels a year, and has the same restrictions as a nano brewery, with a significant exception that 48 ounces per person per day may be sold at the brewery, between 10am and 8pm.  This is important.  Montana caps the number of liquor (bar) licenses in a given municipality, caps which have generally not been adjusted since the 70s.  Bar owners, and their lobbyists, have been through several scuffles with brewery owners, and their lobbyists.  Bar owners see the worth of their business being diluted.  Brewery owners similarly see a threat to their new, and often thriving, businesses.  As of 2018 the argument seems to be in stalemate, waiting for the next (biannual, and only 90 day) legislative session.

Most breweries are as the Times says neighborhood pubs in function, if not quite in name, and the hours and quantity restrictions have made the brewery scene a well-behaved, even demure affair.  Most folks can get buzzed on three pints, especially when they’re an IPA or Porter well above 7%, but outright or at least strident drunkenness is almost unheard of.  As a rule Montana breweries welcome children, with many having games to occupy the young and old, and are generally a good place to have a fairly quiet conversation with your guests.  When you visit, expect the server to ask and write your name on a small card, which you’ll be asked to retain to track your consumption, paying when you leave.  They occupy a different, and for many superior, niche than bars.

Our first stop on a recent afternoon tour of all five local breweries was Helena’s newest, Crooked Furrow.  Industrial chique is the rule in breweries, with all five pubs prominent in galvanized steel inside and out.  Crooked is the most outstanding in this regard, and with a concrete floor and lots of metal is only the furniture and a nice coat of paint departed from a premium livestock facility.  The back yard is fenced, with fresh sod, and the family-friendly vibe is further burnished by abundant toys and changing tables in both and women’s and men’s bathrooms.  Crooked isn’t filling growlers yet, a wise precaution given their popularity.  On a recent Friday evening we gave them a pass entirely, as their small parking lot and the whole surrounding block was entirely packed.  On our tour we visited them first, in hopes that early afternoon would mitigate the lack of space, but their ~900 square feet was all but standing room only.  As another rule Montana breweries are family affairs, the fruition of personal ambition long-held, not financed by speculators.  Crooked is emblematic of a problem this creates; the almost immediate popularity that befits good beer fills spaces and pads margins, but makes for a lower growth ceiling than necessary, as well as a (potential) loss of customers who enjoy being able to hear themselves think.

Regardless, Crooked has excellent beer.  The Bitter is satisfying crisp and bracing, and authentically 4% and 40 IBUs.  The Coffee Oatmeal Stout was warm and substantive, drinking one was filling, but not overly formidable, and I certainly could have had a few more, had the mission not demanded better pacing.  The New England Pale Ale (pictured well above) was light and easy without lacking in novelty.  Crooked is worth the trip, though for the part of Helena who lives like we do up on the hill, it is a trip, with the brewery hidden in plain site next to a junk lot behind Sportsman’s Warehouse.  It won’t be often, but I will be back.  Bonus; they serve everything in both 8 oz and 16 oz pours, with the former being just enough for a comprehensive taste.

Next on our list was Helena’s second newest brewery, Snow Hop.  Located in the heart of suburbia, unlike Crooked Snow Hop is within plausible and pleasant walking distance for a good number of folks.  The interior is bright, but a hair smaller than Crooked, and lacking in outdoor seating.  Universally the beers were close, but a ring or two wide of the mark.  The Vanilla Stout was more syrupy than I prefer, the Stellar IPA good without being especially lively or fresh, and the Kolsch workmanlike in its lightness.  The Medusa was more outstanding, a hoppy rye pale ale infused with a peppy juniper finish.  A bit heavy and a tad cloying, it was an interesting yet one-and-done sort of beer.  The Grodziskie is also worth elaboration.  A light ale brewed with smoked malt, the taste itself was not noteworthy, save the distinct and for me unique nasal finish, as if the just removed glass had been replaced under your nose by a freshly boiled kielbasa.  I like kielbasa, but try as I might I could not find this particular sensation very pleasant.  Perhaps the high carbonation traditional to the brew, and distinctly lacking in the Snow Hop version, buffers the sensory transition.

Next on our list was Lewis and Clark, the only large brewery in Helena and the only one here discussed not subject to the aforementioned rules (because it has a liquor license).  The magnitude of our mission was starting to become apparent, and I would have advised skipping this one had it not been for the snack bar.  Lewis and Clark is located in an old paint factory, with two big floors and a commodious patio.  It is a good, and generally uncrowded, place for a toddler to roam.  The snack bar has good beer brats and pizza, the crust made from a snappy mix of spent brewing grain.  Unfortunately I rarely find a beer there I like.  The lighter usuals, such as Yellowstone Golden Ale and Miner’s Gold Hefeweizen, are straightforward past the point of being soporific, and the darker standards, such as the Backcountry Scottish Ale and Big Belt Weizenbock, are turgid and thick and coat the pallet in an enduring way reminiscent of 7th grade school assemblies.

On our visit we were treated to a satisfying brat, and a satisfying loud cover bad alternating ZZ Top and Metallica.  We took refuge at the long table in the art gallery, and contemplated how the entertainment was only a Jason Aldean short of the truck-nuts triumvirate at the heart of 21st century western redneck culture.  I also took refuge in their Celebrate Montana Porter, brewed from a late 19th century recipe produced by Helena’s long-defunct Kessler Brewery.  Described as a combination of a traditional porter and a brown ale, at 5.6% and 28 IBUs it was drinkable without being heavy, interesting without being dense, the Malcolm Gladwell of dark ales.  I was revived by the quality dark beer, and M and LB were revived by a brat, but the oppression of loud music and pretentious art conversation was too much, and we made Lewis and Clark our quickest stop of the afternoon.

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Global and existential fatigue, and intoxication, were setting in at this point, so we rallied to the psychological shelter of our local, Blackfoot.  Choosing a favored brewery is not entirely unlike selecting a life partner or long term residence; it would be foolish to dismiss surface trivialities, but over the years the evolution of intimate discovery is quite as significant as how much at first glance you like the look and the taste.  Blackfoot is second closest to our house, separated by a pleasant 1 mile walk which crosses no busy streets, is possessed of a second story deck with a great view back towards our abode and the trails and trees which are immediately above it, and makes some consistently excellent beer that often exactly suits my tastes.  That they were fully decked for Pride weekend only warmed my affection further.

Blackfoot is certainly a victim of their own success at times.  Most any evening in the warmer months sees said deck in very high demand, and often avoid it when I otherwise would not because I enjoy both hearing my own thoughts and having the rampaging LB not trip the unsuspecting.  The foolproof way to enjoy prime time solitude in prime real estate is to go on a rainy or cold day, and dress for the weather.  If properly equipped the toddler never seems to mind, and you only need to drink fast enough that your beer will not become too diluted.

On this occasion I had their Baltic Porter, for the first time, a burly almost black lager, which at 8.9% (and $5 a pint) embodied everything strident about craft beer.  I filled our growler, and found out the next day that with dedication one could indeed down multiple consecutive pints, albeit with the expected consequences (namely, drunken and feeble erudition).  With Blackfoot my bed is made, and they’ll have to do a great deal before they cease to be a weekly feature in my routine.  That I have choices, and good choices in such things is a great endorsement of the current state of beer in Helena.

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Last, we made our way to 10 Mile Creek.  10 Mile is slightly closer to us, and their beer almost, kinda as good as Blackfoot.  Their space, above, is certainly far larger, nicely unpacked with tables, and consistently excellent for both being able to maintain dialogue (internal or external) and allowing children to run (the toy shelf, just out of picture left, is always well stocked).  I had a coffee porter, as mentioned one of my consistent favorites, and it was satisfying, but not glowingly so, which could sum up my stance on 10 Mile as a whole.  Do they deserve being damned by faint praise?  They do not.  Is my opinion hopelessly skewed by the bias I chose a year or more ago?  Very possibly.  But it is what it is, and while I’d encourage anyone interested enough to have read this far to visit, when I take guests on a stroll which ends in a few pints, 10 Mile has never yet been the destination.

Sentiment is a fine spice.

The family made it home well in time for dinner, with my recently foggy head chemical cleared and primed for nostalgia.  The past year has been a bracing and excellent one, and our little jaunt around a green and rainy city had done well putting all of that on display.  Pubs are and have always been about community, and that doesn’t just mean that being buzzed makes it easier to be neighbourly (though it certainly does not not mean that, either).  Insofar as the human mind would never functionally exist without others in the general, metaphysical vicinity, a thing which highlights that, which wedges space into the cracks in routine, is important.  And in no small part due to a legal quirk, Montana breweries currently do that very well.

Bob Open 2018; what is the point

This is how all those other people experience backpacking.

A thought that echoed through my skull with each step, achilles and calves and quads miles beyond tender and enduring the powdery downhills, sprinked with edged loose running rocks only because of the trailhead and car and beer and fast way out waiting, 3 miles further.

This* is hard.

Something grating through my skin, less like cuticles dried and tight from a day and night of baking out under blue skies than the pinkish diaper rash growing, from sweat and waist deep creek crossings and unhardened skin and the fat, more than usual, sitting an inch either side of the base of my ass, rubbing with each step.

Maybe I should retire.

There are two sides to my backpacking future.  One has to do with knowledge and instinct and the calm to put them together, day after day.  With proper planning and implementation I’ve hauled myself and a big bag of gear across and through all sorts of places, with an efficiency subject to the continual pushback of a wild we know less and less by default.  These are the things I’ll carry with my for the rest of my life, to be only slowly blunted by time, and which are already outstanding in other realms, calm and distance that make a 55 unit day of crisis not loom too large out at the office.

The other are my feet and legs and core and the muscles and tendons which move them, and these are things evidently already in decline.  Another Dave, Millar, wrote about how the only vestiges of his professional life would be in his sons’ eyes tales and photos and video of what his body used to be able to do, before age and anything less than hours of practice each day allowed that strength and supplesse to drain, sink plug pulled and only the scum of nostalgia left behind.  Floodwaters receded as the source dried out, the improbable logs of stories left in places increasingly remote and unlikely for each year gone past.

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I shouldn’t be too dramatic here.  I know the past well enough to clearly see the few flashes of my true hiking potential, know the volume of work it took to get there, and most especially how infrequently those two points have been connected.  As much as I’ve loved being outside over the years I still am at best ambivalent to regular exercise, something obvious this year, as a literal handful of hiking days over 10 miles saw my body done in by 28 flat miles with a pack in the upper 20s.  I’m not entirely sure how truly daunting it will or would be to maintain “decent” hiking fitness without taking too much energy away from the kids or work or working on our house, all things currently possessed of vastly more intellectual intrigue, but I do know it would require a heretofore unseen dispensing of lassitude and leisure, not something I’m sure I want, for both more concrete reasons and because the prospect of more immediate and comprehensive life accountability is scary.

A ritual like the Bob Open is important because of how objective and unhuman it is, which makes the level of feedback on intrapersonal matters very high.  After the sheen of unknown is worn off any fear left in the days immediately preceeding is due less to ambiguity about life or death than about the quality of work done over the past 12 months.  As we sat in Trixie’s and the tables pushed together filled to and beyond capacity I was less worried about my own preparation than that of others.  As the stories filter in a week later it seems that 2 of 16 finished, that no one was injured, and that there were quite a few close shaves.  Which is just what it should be.

 

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My level of mourning at having left the Bob so early has, a week on, nothing to do with the decision itself.  Back in 2012 my only regret at having flown out from the middle of the Wrangells, on what it still the heaviest route I’ve attempted, was not having had the wherewithall to recognize a month prior that my head wasn’t on straight, and stayed home entirely.  My regret is not being in a place to experience any of the transcendence that only seems to come after 70 miles.  Self-understanding, of an inscrutable, nearly pre-linguistic sort; being able to look back from a ridgeline and see where one peak flows into another, know which valley has lush pine and which stunted spruce, which fresh deer tracks and which flinted limestone chunks, where a clean spring trail might run, and when and why you might use it.  An excess of distance within a concentrated time does not simply connect the dots, it leaves a psychic web tied to your brain all the way from your point of beginning, and though it gets dusty, once strung not even the car door will snap it.

This isn’t stoke.  That more immediately chemical process is bound up with faster mastery/risk/reward cycles, and on a trip like you might take during the Bob Open you could go 3-4 days with only a few stokey moments.  Throwing webs within the landscape has to do with the kind of understanding that is only voluntary in the conception.  Once you’re out there conditions will surprise you, and plenty of folks have only continued to the end because all other options are less pleasant.  Scale and distance conspire to show you how big the world can be, and you are left in a very objective place to find out your location within it.

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I’ve never been especially fond of exercise itself, and while a few decades of practice have blunted the early reticence wrought by gym class and the purpose of health, endorphin allure has rarely been enough to get my out the door multiple times a week.  I enjoy cold, wind, and rain in my face, but my most nature position remains what I’m doing right now; sitting in a fairly plush chair, reading or writing.  Being able to see the world from a less civilized perspective requires effort, if you are too far towards mere survival and white noise will drown out the tinkling of the soul.  It is a scary thought that love and fascination for other sides of the human experience might make the wild side far from my reach, at least for a little while.

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*Having planned to float Danaher and the South Fork down to cross from Spotted Bear to the Middle Fork and up Granite Creek, and with the water too big for what my judgement could manage that day, I camped the first night at Basin Creek Cabin, then hiked the next day out to Benchmark and an easy ride home with a friend opting for a short trip.  45 straightforward miles had me pretty well cooked.

Boycott Colorado?

Boaters, fisherfolks, and anyone interested in the subtleties of US public land law will know that stream access laws in the western US vary enormously from state to state.  It is worth considering, especially in the age when the “non-consumptive” side of the outdoor industry is finally flexing political muscle, why the issue of stream access has enjoyed comparatively little publicity.

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This chart was published in High Country News, and is as a good a single source of current information as any.  HCN is properly reknowned as a lefty, pro-public access publication.  What makes this chart noteworthy is that the information was pulled from the distinctly right-leaning PERC, who don’t bother to hide their bias but nonetheless have accurate information.  In short, Colorado is among the worst when it comes to recognizing public access.  Most egregiously, while the water in a stream is available for public use, where creeks and river pass over private land the riverbed is considered private.  Wade fishing, dropping an anchor, or even hitting a rock can all be construed as trespassing.

I’ve yet to see a compelling argument that such a stance does not conflict with federal law, in that the US Supreme Court has held that the public holds navigable waterways below the ordinary high water mark, and that “streams which are navigable in fact are navigable in law.”  Which is to say that the range of waterways available to the public is very broad indeed, to the point that even the progressive Montana stream access law is not as extensive as it could be.  The only available conclusion, when it comes to Colorado, would seem to be that the state has made a deliberate choice to cater to (generally wealthy) landowners, persistently.

The logical follow-up from that is not why fly fishers are suing in an attempt to overturn Colorado’s law, but why the outdoor industry, as part of their general embrace of Colorado, has not put public pressure on the state to cut this crap out.  OR moved to Colorado for the foreseeable future, and it is almost easier to list the companies not based there.  Scott and Tenkara USA are worth noting, in the fishing realm, along with conglomerates like Exxel Outdoors (Sierra Designs, Ultimate Direction) and private companies like Big Agnes, and yes, Alpacka Raft.  The Packraft Roundup is being held in western Colorado this year, logical due to the proximity to so many more potential floaters and customers, less logical when it comes to the range of waterways and yes, the politics.

One answer is that many of the higher ups in these companies probably have no clue about the state of stream access, in their state and in others.  Last winter I had multiple folks, longish time Colorado residents and visible presences in the outdoor industry, try to convince me that their state did not have an extensive history of being hostile to floaters.   The other is that the outdoor industry, for all their new found piety in public lands advocacy, still defaults to the position of their most prominent association, who in turns lists as one of its most prominent accomplishments defeating an excise tax which would have brought about one of the largest increases in conservation funding in US history.  Pushing back against a nutbag president via telegenic national monuments is one thing; taking a stand closer to home is more difficult.

Perhaps it is time for the outdoor industry, and those whose days and dollars allow it to exist, to put the squeeze on Colorado (and other states) until its public behavior is a little more consistent?

My best time of year

At work we have three recesses a day.  The kindergartners would not mind another, and from a no-window office my sense of the how the day evolves is generally driven by these three openings, which together add up to just short of 90 minutes.  Some days I hardly make it out of my cave, and I rely on second hand evidence of the world outside.  One day last week first recess was brisk, but pleasant; no rain and just warm enough to climb the monkey bars bare handed.  Second recess, at lunch, saw unusual kids lingering long over their food, and more clients than normal requesting to play inside with us.  By the end 50 pound children came inside soaked skinny with snow piled on their shoulders, and by the time I drove home things were heavy and thick, with windshield wipers barely keeping up.

That evening I hiked to the top of the backyard mountain, where snow was drifting 8 inches deep.  Visibility went between 100 yards and 1 mile with each gust.  A few scoured places up on the ridge revealed prickly pear already swollen and ready for summer.

Up until last year I would have said autumn was my best season.  Delicate, colorful, nostalgic.  You can find the same yellow emotion in desert cottonwoods as mountain aspens as hillsides larches.  Plus, hunting season.

But now I know that spring is for me.  The days are long, and on this side of the Divide, mostly bright.  Valleys dry out, hopefully over weeks rather than days, while the mountains remain fat with water.  Squirrels and birds and ponderosas wake up, and just like us humans are able to endure the next round of blizzards with equanimity, knowing what is soon to come.  The world around us right now is long, and full of potential.

 

 

Bar of Montana: Metals

Montana is not entirely a culinary wasteland.  I can name three truly exceptional bakeries west of Bozeman Pass, and our effete little slice of Heaven here in the Queen City has two outstanding locations for real pizza.  However, you can count the number of good Mexican restaurants in FWP regions 1 through 4 combined on just one hand, and have enough fingers left to do more than just express your feelings to SLC friends, who get both Hectors in their backyard and In n’ Outs every 10 miles up and down the front.

What Montana does well is beef, particularly burgers and steaks, and most particularly serving those things in very nice bars.  Not the sort which excites cultural tourists from Bend or Issaquah, though there are lots of those, but the sort apparently wholly lacking in rats, staph infections, or aspirants to be the next Kazinski.  Places you can wear a non-plaid collered shirt without being assumed a government agent, places your very active toddler can run around at 2 in the afternoon without anyone minding.  Until more people, more non-white people, and whatever else makes small-city food in places like Arizona so, so much better on average, this is what we have.

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Butte, America is the quintessential Montana town because it is so unlike any other in the state.  High on a cold and sunny hill right to the west of the Continental Divide, Butte was for a time the richest cities on earth, and the largest in the US between Chicago and San Francisco.  IWW organizer Frank Little was lynched in Butte in 1917, and as late as the 60s the union presence and the associated cache made it a mandatory stop for Democratic politicians.  In Montana being a Butte native still enjoys outsized gravitas in both politics and bar fights.  Butte is Helena’s tough sibling; higher, colder, sunnier; who enjoyed far higher highs and still enjoys broader notoriety, and whose decline into old age has been prolonged and marked by a certain grace, as well as ever growing evidence of ever more serious decay.

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The Metals bank building is one of the tallest still standing in town, which makes Metals Sport Bar and Grill easy to find; turn off the interstate, drive north, and look up.  The entrance is marble, and ceilings and 20+ feet up, and the bar and tables are built with surprising ease around the old bank paraphenalia.  You can even have a meal in the vault (the door alone weighs 32 tons).  The menu is standard upscale pub stuff, with some Montana twists, like pasties and poutine.  Don’t look past the burgers (the french onion is divine) and waffle cut fries.  The beer list is solid, but not huge.  If you need more, three breweries lie within walking distance.

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In most things human Montana is not gifted with the charms on abundance, but that makes what you do find all the better.