The ultimate partner

How to do adventures outside with your SO; a subject I’ve thought of writing about for years, and under implicit prompting from Geargal Jill I’m taking a crack at it today.  It’s a desire many have, for good reason.  Building a lifetime partnership and outdoor adventures both rank high on the life list of anyone reading this, so why not combine them?  Rarely does it seem to be so simple.

That most of us take both things so seriously is the obviously hidden reason their combination often goes awry.  As valued as my more platonic outdoor partnerships are, adventuring with M is much more high-stakes precisely because I so dearly want it to work well.  Naturally this often leads things astray, and having it not do so is for me still very much a work in progress.

Secondly, most romantic outdoor partnerships start from a position of inequality.  Our marriage is I presume rather typical, in that M had never slept in a tent before she started hanging around with me, and for better and worse I’ve been the primary instructor in climbing, hiking, backpacking, camping, canyoneering, mountain biking, boating, and so forth.  There are obvious cultural factors which make this patriarchal state of affairs more likely than not, and which adds a potentially complicating overtone to the whole process.  I want to be a good teacher, and I want to eventually have an equal partner, but the heightened stakes of both failure and success and the inscrutable dynamic of marriage often has me generally short of patience and not teaching especially well.  The mishaps here are as innumerable as they are embarrassing.

M passing Packrafting 105 on McDonald Creek.

I do think that achieving some kind of parity in our interests in the outdoors will be essential for long-term happiness and equanimity.  That I have a two decade head-start makes this a bit complicated.  Like most of us M isn’t very fond of being “that guy,” a task which I don’t make especially easy, and her doing outdoor stuff almost exclusively in my company has given her a distorted sense of normal.  It’s important to like each other, and like the outdoors. Independently, and together.  Otherwise adventures become, emotionally, too big to fail.  Which means they probably will.

At this point my hope is that this evolving process will continue to make things easier.  In our case it’s made a lot more complicated by M’s extensive bearanoia; I’m quite comfortable going solo but she has a limited desire to go hiking by herself on days I have to work.  We’ve cut backpacking trips short on a few occasions because she just wasn’t sleeping much.  Compromise goes both ways, and the burden falls on me to take us on our trips, not my trips.  Doing this well centers on recognizing how different someone else experiences the world.  Understanding bearanoia is one thing I’ve learned among many.  Trying to understand just how much colder M can get is another, along with the seemingly categorically different rules by which her body produces heat.  It’s both a work in progress and an increasingly necessary part of my finding outdoor adventures fulfilling.

I’d value your experiences here immensely.

Osprey GrabBag: looks dumb, works good

I came upon the GrabBag by accident; didn’t even know it existed until a few weeks ago. I had been thinkering about using a small fanny pack for the GrizzlyMan, to keep map and food instantly accessible, and thought that such a thing might be useful for backpacking as well. On-the-go accessibility is an ongoing problem with backpacks. Absent Aarn packs, which I’d be more inclined to try were they less expensive, I’m not aware of any design which deals with the need to get at lots of stuff while hiking, easily, head on. Hip belt and side pockets have taken great strides, but are imperfect solutions, usually being small, insecure, hard to get at, or all three. As it turns out, the GrabBag is a better way.

It also looks really silly, but that is the nature of anything which can serve as a fanny pack.

The GrabBag weighs 4 oz with a fair bit of the very long main webbing strap cut off.  It’s an oddly potato-shaped pocket designed to be attached to the right shoulder strap (above) and clipped to the left.  The main zip is a #5, there’s a mesh organizer pocket within the main pocket, and a stretch pocket on the outside.  The backing is lightly padded and covered with 3D mesh.

The positioning of the bag on the pack harness is ideal. It’s easy to open with one hand, out of the way of arms and hands while on the move, and less prone to interfere while bushwacking than stuff in side pockets. As a hip pack, it works innocuously well.

Notice the right-hand shoulder strap attachments above. Also note the buckle tucked almost out of sight behind the mesh and padding. This mates with the 3/4″ long strap when in butt-pack mode.

The long strap. Not only is it adjustable, so that there isn’t a huge length of webbing dangling down when wearing it attached to the pack harness, but the excess strappage tucks neatly behind the padded panel.  Paying $25 may seem daft for something so small and simple, but is well worth it when you think of the thoughtful detailing and exacting construction.

The stock pack comes with a nifty buckle for the left shoulder strap which mates both of the above in one piece of plastic. I lost it almost immediately. Osprey sent this replacement post-haste. Serious points for prompt and free replacement, a few points subtracted for the cheesy stitching. While I didn’t lose mine while it was attached to the strap, the tendency of this little buckle to jump ship while not under tension is something worth watching. On a long trip it might be worth rigging something like the above without the slots, and putting it semi-permanently on the shoulder strap.

Not only will the GrabBag be great as a fanny pack for evening strolls, fly fishing, and so forth while on trips, it works easily with every pack in the quiver. It might lift the burden for the MYOGer to produce her own side and hipbelt pockets, which are often a time and materials consuming nuisance to both design and sew. It will make the pack feel a bit warmer in hot weather, and having to undo three buckles to take off the pack is a bit much, but overall it does a modest but important job so well that I’m immoderately enthused, and plan on using it constantly.  I’ll keep this space updated accordingly.

Best of 2011, part 2

2011 has been an extraordinary year.  If the mission of this blog is to explore the cultural consequences of personal development as driven by outdoor adventure, this should have been a good year for blogging, which it was.  This time last year I wrote that day trips were bullshit, and that the packraft made further gear commentary superfluous.  Today I write that in 2011 I spent more nights in the wilderness than any other year in my life to date (excepting 2003 and 2004, when I was paid to be out in the woods).  I also write that last years use of the packraft to deepen my wilderness appreciation has grown enormously in 2011, and in new ways.

But that is the topic for next post!  This evening I write about gear.  My work at BPL has given me a new perspective, a more objective one.  Having half a dozen or more of a given product at your disposal is invaluable when assessing strengths and weaknesses.  And embarrassing though the excess of riches may at times be, not having any reason to be attached to a given item fosters clarity.  That being said, while I’ve used a lot of good gear this year, these days of reflective angst and (in my case) fantastic feedback remind me that the most enlightening physical things in my possession have not been the ones associated directly with trips.  They’ve been the tools of exploration and explication which have made this such a good year for blogging.

So first, the traditional gear of the year:

Werner Shuna: an amazingly utilitarian and aesthetic tool for packrafting enjoyment.

Haglofs Ozo: close to the perfect rain jacket, and in my world today rain jackets are important.

Rab Boreas: what I expect to be the most-worn garment of 2012.

Surly Karate Monkey: this bike is older than this blog, and even as my cycling interests change the Monkey evolves right alongside, with nothing lacking.

LaSportiva Crossleather: my opinions have not changed in over a year of use, and I made it through the Wilderness Classic with one blister.  They’re not perfect, but more than good enough.

And the less traditional, more abstract or tertiary items; just as worthy:

-Canon S90: far from perfect, but took a lot of good photos which were always satisfying to post here.

-The sewing room: what perspective on gear I may have is due in large part to the hours I’ve spent right here.  I haven’t made too many things, ever, with which I’ve been happy, but every one has been a fantastic learning experience.

-The Flathead: living in the drainage of one of the greatest river systems in the lower 48 is neither luck nor coincidence.  The benefit of doing so has been most of the trips written up here.

-Ya’ll: too bad there’s no less-colloquial neuter plural in Engrish.  Thanks everyone.  That I’m having the useful impact on people I know and those I’ve never met has been the most satisfying experience of the year, bar none.

And last on the gear front, a hint of the future.  Still a few things missing, but not for too much longer.

A Bedrock & Paradox holiday trip guide

The best gift for an adventurer is a great plan in a brand new place and a way to get there (gas $$, plane tickets, whatever).  Problem is, dialing in a destination typically takes trial and error, which is why so many vacations end up scratching the surface, doing the same old trips which might look good on the map but don’t show the area particularly well (been there Mark, Murphy is a good dayhike but Island in the Sky is best by mountain bike).  With that in mind, what follows are some states in the US, and what is in my experience the best way to experience them during one single trip.  This is emphatically not a “best trip in ____ ” deal.  The best trips don’t necessarily make the best vacations if you’ve never been to a given place.

With that in mind, and in no particular order:



Yosemite in the heart of the Sierra, and thus the heart of California.  It also has all the evil clusterfuckitude of both the most populous state and national parks in high summer rolled into one.  How to enjoy Muir’s cathedral snow-free and without the crowds?  Our patented Tenaya Canyon loop.

Befitting California’s status as the cultural psycho-ward of the nation, this trip is a bit spicy.  It should not be undertaken lightly, and demands fitness, solid route finding, and intermediate rope work.  If you’re acrophobic, don’t even bother.    First, pick a date.  You only need two days.  Reserve lodgings in Curry Village.  The tent cabins are quite nice.  Drive up to Tuolumne, park, put your food in a bear bin.  Get an early start, for reasons which will discussed below.  Your research should have provided you with a decent map and an aggragate of online beta.  The route isn’t forgiving, but in good hands isn’t particularly obscure.  If memory serves we only did two raps, and the massive manzanita thickets below the big slab descent was the hardest part of the whole day.

Ideally you’ll reach the final bit of boulder hopping and game trailing with enough energy to get it done in style, and thus roll into Curry Village before the insane dinner hordes.  Pizza and beer on the deck sounds good, but when we did it four years ago M didn’t eat, bonked, barfed, and slowed to a crawl in the forest (with lots of vomiting breaks) and we didn’t get into the civilized valley until six or so.  The line for pizza was 90 minutes at that point, so I ate microwave burritos from the store and M freaked people out by barfing in public.  Again, ideally you’ll have a leisurely evening and go to bed early.

The second day is hiking back to the car, which has a lot of up but more than enough ridiculous views to distract.  Get breakfast from the convenience store and get a jump on the crowds, but even if you eat at the lodge and have a lazy start you’ll hardly see anyone past the Half Dome cut off.  Tagging Half Dome would be stylish, but you must take the extra trail up to the summit of Clouds Rest.  The views of what you did the day before are tremendous, I’m aware of no better display of the slow majesty of glaciers.  The rest of the way back to the car is a cruise.

Bonus for the well healed: stay and eat at the Ahwahnee.



Go backpacking in the Grand Canyon.  So cliche, right?  Just remember that cliches become embedded for good reasons.  Also remember to backpack, not dayhike!  You need to sleep down in the ditch to even begin to understand.

You’ll be backpacking the Royal Arch route.  Hardest trailed route in the canyon?  Mandatory rappel?  Yep.  Enlightenment does not come cheap.  Haul lots of water, go light, bring 50 feet of rope.  A body rappel works (feet are on good holds the whole time) if you’re confident.  If not, one harness for the group.  Go light, the rough terrain does not go easy on superfluous burdens.  The rim may be cold, but you’ll sleep low.

Pick your season wisely here.  The dirt roads out from Tusayan get ugly when the snow is melting.  I made it in March, but only with the assistance of four-low.  Autumn is the best bet.  Summer is too hot.  Get your permit and make the slow drive out.  Camp at the rim, the views are tremendous.  Bring fine food and wine for both pre and post-trip.

Get started early, you’ll want to camp in Royal Arch creek and there’s no sense in rushing.  The ledge crawl section going down to the creek is overhyped, and can be avoided by going down-canyon right instead.  The talus field right below would be a good place to break a leg.  Recall, this route gave us yuppie 911.  Royal Arch creek itself is awesome.  You’ll probably get your feet wet.  The trip down to the arch is absolutely worth it, and would be a fine camp site.

The next morning might feel tense, but the trail down to the rap is obvious and the rap itself features a massive natural anchor.  The going along the river might be slow, but the massive amount of mica in the boulders is pretty cool.  Pop back up to the Tonto, and you’re back on developed trail and just have many miles and vertical left to complete one of the best loops on the planet.  There’s no good food in Tusayan, so grab Wendy’s to tide you over and run for Tacos Los Altos in east Flagstaff.  It may look humble, but is not to be trifled with.  The Fish Tacos and Chile Rellenos are both outstanding.



This one is easy.  Go to Crested Butte.  In late July.  Bring your mountain bike.  Ride the Alpe d’Slate to 403 to 401 loop.  Get a beer out on the deck of the Brick Oven.  Then ride it again the next day.



Utah, on the other hand, is tough.  It’s hard to argue against skiing and mountain biking, but the one thing Utah has truly in a way like no other place on earth is slot canyons.  There’s a very good case to be made for a thru-hike of the Narrows as the best experience for a serious first timer, in one day for the fit, two for the contemplative, but Zion is too much of an anomoly in the Colorado Plateau.  Too big, too lush, too much water.  The Swell has appropriate remoteness, the Escalante is suitably labyrithine, but since this this is rapidly trending towards some rather technically demanding recommendations, I’ll go with my gut and say that the Not-Mindbender Fork of Robbers Roost is the best overall canyoneering experience in Southern Utah.  Remote, obscure navigation, high-stakes anchor building, no bolts, a delicately exquisite main canyon and hard fourth class exit: it’s all here (don’t mind Tom’s upgrading, it’s a soft 4A, and should probably be a 3B).  Maybe Mindbender and Mindbender are good too, and the campsite at the end of the dead-end road out on the point is unrivaled.

Get a big steak at Ray’s in Green River on the way out.



Go in early August.  Bring the fly rod.




Yes, Yellowstone is technically part of Wyoming.  Backpack the grand southern arc: along the east shore of Yellowstone Lake, across and over to Heart Lake, over the road and through the woods to the Bechler up and back over the Continental Divide, mandatory diversion to Shoshone Geyser Basin, then out at Old Faithful.  Eat dinner at the Snow Lodge, and breakfast at the Inn.  Not vice versa!  Stay in the Inn, and call yourself to request a room in the old part.  A room in the 150’s is recommended.


New York

A day hike in the ‘Dacks: start in Keene Valley and shoot the ridge south of John’s Brook all the way to Marcy, hitting every summit.  Hike back along the creek, and hitch a ride back to town.  Get some pie at the cafe.

The time and space for argumentation, addenda, and your input on states I screwed up or didn’t list is below. Have at it!

The Crown of the Continent Grand Tour

Lake McDonald and the Larches from Mt. Brown.

Training for 2012 started today!  Took in a speedy hike to the Mt. Brown lookout this afternoon, 1:50 up, 3;30 round trip.  (4300′ of gain, 11.5 miles total).  12 meters/minute average climbing rate.  Not bad for having spent the last 3 months drinking beer and fly fishing.

I’d like to do at least two big trips next year.  The first will be either Hardrock (if I get in) or the Classic.  The second will be the trip I’m about to detail below.  Doing a hiking and packrafting trip to Isle Royale in the fall would be nice, but that (time off, $$) might be a bit of a stretch.  (The cost/logistics of an Isle Royale trip are considerable.)  We may or may not live here for years and years, and in general putting things like this off are bad policy.  The idea began while talking with Justin back in September, and the final catalyst was finishing off a BPL guide to backpacking and packrafting Glacier and the Bob yesterday.  Ergo, I present below the ultimate Crown of the Continent Grand Tour.  If you can only do one trip in Glacier and the Bob in your life, do this one.

Start: Monture Creek TH, north of Ovando.  Time of year; late July to early August (Middle Fork below 2000 cfs, South Fork @ Twin Creek above 1000.  Ideally.).

Day 1: Hike ~25 miles up Monture Creek, over the pass, down to Youngs Creek.  Catch some fish.

Day 2: Inflate packrafts, float the fun whitewater of lower Youngs Creek, and the gorgeous placidity of the upper South Fork of the Flathead.  Catch fish.  Camp a bit short of the White River.

Day 3: Take out at the White River.  Hike over White River pass, then north.  Camp just short of the no camping zone along the base of the Chinese Wall.

Day 4: Hike along the Chinese Wall, then down past Larch Hill to Spotted Bear Pass.  Down to the Spotted Bear River.  Unlikely to be floatable that high.  Catch some fish.  Camp at Pentagon Creek.

Day 5: Hike over Pentagon Pass, down Dolly Varden Creek to the Middle Fork.  Inflate the boats and float as close to the start of Three Forks as possible.  Catch some big fish.

Day 6: Battle down Three Forks, catch some fish, enjoy the awesome scenery.  Camp a bit beyond Granite Creek.

Day 7:  Float to Spruce Park, run/portage Spruce, continue floating down past Essex.  Camp on a gravel bar near Coal Creek.  Pick up food cache.

Day 8: Float down to Nyack Creek.  Hike up Nyack, bushwack over Red Eagle Pass, bushwack down until Red Eagle is floatable, camp at Red Eagle Head.  Catch some fish (state record Cutt was caught in Red Eagle Lake).

Day 9: Float Red Eagle to St. Mary Lake.  Hopefully cross the lake.  Hike over Siyeh and Piegan Passes.  Dinner at St. Mary Hotel.  Might as well get a shower and bed, too.

Day 10: Hike over/through the Ptarmigan Tunnel, packraft the Belly River to the confluence, hike up and camp at Lower Glenns Lake.

Day 11: Hike over Stony Indian Pass, packraft the Waterton River down to the lake, hike up to Lake Francis.  Camp.  Catch some fat Browns in the lake.

Day 12: Hike over Brown and Boulder Passes.  Packraft a bit of upper Kintla Creek (perhaps?).  Catch some fish.  Camp at Upper Kintla.

Day 13: Hike to the foot of Kintla, packraft the creek, packraft the North Fork down to Polebridge.  Walk to the Merc.  Have a beer.  Have more beer and a big steak from the Northern Light Saloon outside at a picnic table.  Contemplate the metaphysical and spiritual equivalent of smelling this cooking.


Optional extension/logistical options for out of towners:

Fly into Missoula.  Hitchhike or hire a ride on Craigslist to the start.  After lunch/dinner in Polebridge, keep floating as far as you can.  It’ll likely take the better part of two days to float, under summer water levels, from Polebridge to the Pressentine Bar fishing access.  The Kalispell airport is only a ~3 mile roadwalk away.

The Year in and of Water

Yep, still autumn, despite snow building in the mountains.

2011 has for me been defined by water.  Snow travel, packrafting, and fly fishing have been just about all I’ve done, other stuff like biking and climbing mountains didn’t make the selection very often.

Skiing was a mixed bag, mainly in that by winter’s end I had progressed enough to know how much I don’t yet know, and how much I still have to learn and grow.  Driving out to Glacier this afternoon I was impressed with how low the snow line has crept, and how dense the snowfall looks up high.  For me, winter is still a time of truncated possibilities, with avalanche hazard being the chief limiter.  But that is a problem for the future.

The Middle Fork of the Flathead, today.

The recent past has been all about rivers, about traveling through the land on their terms.  Packrafting had me seeing waterways as I never had before, but fly fishing really got me paying attention.  Many of my most satisfying days out this year have been, by my usual standards, shockingly low mileage.  Fishing has me going slow in the woods like nothing else ever has, and that alone has given me a more detailed experience.  But there’s a lot more.

As this episode of The Season says, “…some idea of how the whole shiteroo [sic?] is bound together; that’s what I get from being on a river.”  There’s a reason so many people freak out about fishing, and fly fishing in particular, and I’m starting to get it.  I’m also beginning to think that the popularity and elitism which goes along with fly fishing isn’t just about the more engaging way of fishing, but the places you get to fish in.

Also the Middle Fork, today.

Not only have a taken a good step on the road to enlightenment, I’ve gotten a lot better at catching fish.  I no longer just tap a fuzzy thing into a calm patch of water and hope circumstance favors me, and as a result of some sophistication I’ve caught Rainbow, Brown, Brook, Cutthroat and Bull Trout in all manner of places this summer.  I’m still not sure I’ll fly fish into winter, but the lines of fish I could see in the tails of deep pools today were awfully tempting, and the lone trout I saw actually feeding on the surface made it hard to not regret having passed on reloading on flies and bringing the Tenkara today.  Even though I caught a bunch of fish in the same pool seven weeks ago.

Lots of fish live here.

But today was just about floating along, looking at the world as seems only possible from a packraft.  The brilliant thing was that at the end, I was able to fold things up and saunter back, not subject to the whims of shuttles and the labor of packing a big boat.  I’ve written enough lately about the virtues of packrafting that I don’t feet the need to say more.

Compare with the same place in May.

I’m looking forward to a winter of learning, and then another summer of clear rivers.

Simplicity: Gear

It’s too bad Ryan Jordan’s blogging is so stochastic. When he does write, it’s always worth reading and is usually one of the more thought-provoking things I’ll encounter online in that particular week.

The most recent post is no exception.

In it he discussed favorites bits of gear (and when I say gear I mean outdoor gear, of course), and in doing so illuminates two ways of understanding simplicity: practical simplicity (which might be summed up as efficiency), and natural simplicity (which has to do with kit that helps illuminate and reveal the experience at hand, and is thus properly difficult to summarize).  He goes on to discuss how rare the blending of the two is, how infrequent it is that a truly clean and efficient (not the same!) piece of gear also serves to cleanly illuminate the experience of being in the wild.

I can’t disagree.  And after I thought about this for a minute, it struck me as quite sad.

My 80″ by 90″ Spinnaker tarp this past weekend.

This sadness might be the central contradiction at the heart of modern wilderness recreation, which historically is itself an absurd idea.  Our not so distant ancestors would have presumably been appalled that our lives had become so full of ease that we now seek out hardship in the outdoors purely for entertainment (in the complex sense).  It’d be an interesting historical study to examine the accounts of explorers since Christ and try to determine when, and under what circumstances, human enlightenment started to be a conscious end sought.  It’s hard to read the journals of Lewis and Clark without supposing that for the captains at least, “fun” featured prominently in their months in the wild.  So to with Powell, in every subsequent voyage after the 1869 trip science is less and less of a screen for the joy he obviously found in the Colorado Plateau.  And the Kolb brothers too; even reading through Ellsworth’s breezy account of their epics one cannot but see fun and personal challenge as the primary mover.

The paradox here is that while we make seek to recapture some primeval simplicity by going outdoors, our ancestors even going back further than instinctual, tactile memory allows were tool makers.  Gear allowed them to expand across the globe, and while we need far less than we think, humans are still too naked to do without substantial technology in all but the mildest places on earth.

It traces back to the paradox of us humans going outside for fun in the first place: we’ll cut gear (insulation, shelter, food) down to the minimum allowed by our idea of what safety will mean, and no further.  This gets us closer to our ancestral experience (or so we think), and facilitates natural simplicity, but the process of doing so when for comparatively little weight gain and considerably less contemplation we could walk out the door comfort all but assured points towards some kinds of simplicity only being simple when looked at from a very limited perspective.

I’m taking skill out of the equation here, and perhaps oversimplifying generally, but the point stands.  Simplicity is then a mere product of human engineering.  Right?

I’m not so sure.  Our gear has become so good, it does so much work for us, that our practice of outdoor adventure becomes more and more vulgar in its ease and leisure.  This isn’t to say we ought to wantonly cut gear and carelessly suffer, but we should remember that more refined, aesthetic, and noble ways of enjoying life have to do with “creating something beautiful” which can be shared with others, not with an experience which is in the moment always beautifully comfortable.

(And yes, I know I’m avoiding Ryan’s exit questions.  My answer would be something to the effect that gear makers, even the cottage shops, make a profit selling aspirational gear rather than experiential.)

The Bechler

“He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.”

-Thoreau, “Walking”

It’s autumn.  Eh.

The kids know what this time of year means, not the crystalline leaf-spangled trails of us old folks, but back to school!  Work the last month has been hopping, such that I made a deal with myself Wednesday night: if I got the subpoena I was expecting I’d testify Friday and get on with it.  If I didn’t, I was going to Yellowstone.  I hedged my bets, packed my pack, and loaded the iPod with podcasts, but didn’t buy food or fuel.

I got the subpoena Thursday morning, but the public defender called a few hours later to cancel it.  The hearing was postponed (again).  Suddenly, I felt a bit ill (and not just at the glacial pace of the criminal justice system). By 4 pm I was headed south.  I needed some quiet time to reflect, be alone with myself, and get things back in perspective.

It worked.

Old Faithful, at 7 hours distant, is for all intents and purposes a state away.  I rolled into the Rainbow Point campground north of West Yellowstone around 1030 and stepped out of the car to the calls of a Barred Owl and coyotes.  I fell asleep on the pine needles under the full open arms of the milky way and slept well.  Woke up in the chill of pre-dawn, found coffee and a huge breakfast in an empty cafe, and got shut down buying an on-the-trail Guinness with my early grocery run (you can’t buy beer in MT between 2 and 8 am; which has dented many a well-started fishing trip).  On the trail by 9am.

Rainbows for dinner, Saturday.

I was out for three days, caught three different species of trout in three major drainage systems on both sides of the continental divide, and returned home late Sunday unscathed, but not unchanged.  As it ought to be.

More pointless bullshit

I’m not saying that television is vulgar and dumb because the people who compose the Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.

-David Foster Wallace (RIP)

It was a topic that came up over coffee at Ed and Laurie’s house Sunday morning; that all the things we do for entertainment are no more purposive nor less absurd than anything else we might do in any given moment in any given year.  We being contemporary American humanity of a certain echelon, and yes I am including feeding ourselves (I have stood in line behind the choice-striken at Qdoba.).  Our collective quest for entertainment is of course another word for fulfillment, or if you like happiness, and just as the DFW predicted over a decade ago, the sophistication of our quest and the range of options available has all too often subsumed the urge which moved the rock down the mountain in the first place.  We spend so much time worrying about and looking for entertainment that we have forgotten what it feels like to be entertained.

Or, if you will, in simpler terms:

Obsessing over new bikes parts you don’t need = watching something on TV/internet because you can’t think of anything else

Riding your bike with friends on a new trail = watching a movie because that is what you want

You are what your will eats.

Ed, Laurie, Aaron, Norm.  North Fork of Fish Creek, MT.

Naturally, partway through last week (Tuesday around 11am) my thoughts turned towards the weekends entertainment.  That is to say, I had a full schedule lined up for the work week already, had spent the previous weekend largely consumed with my non-serious job, and wanted to complete the range of things I find fulfilling by enjoying the perfect autumn weather outside, on an adventure.  Aaron sent an email invitation for a big exploratory loop on the MT/ID border, which removed all indecision for Saturday.  Proximity to the southern Bob and a record-high late season water table had me heading for the North Fork of the Blackfoot for packrafting and fishing Sunday, and the weekend was complete.

The old-growth Red Cedar was extraordinary.  We measured one trees circumference at around 260 inches.

I took my time leaving home Friday evening, and got in to the trailhead well after dark.  I set up camp under a vast, nuanced net of stars and slept well, waking up at daybreak covered with dew.  I fortunately had a foresight to keep the stove and coffee within arms reach.  The four from Missoula arrived presently, and we were on the trail by nine.

Of all the human-powered, mechanized, gravity assisted systems of entertainment I do, mountain biking is the most concrete and immediate.  I recognize dirt, rocks, the swoop of the earth, from walking, my most natural activity.  Skiing and boating, while overall better evocations of human flight, lack that razor connection with everyday experience which makes descending on a mountain bike so damn fun.

I had a lot of fun on Saturday.  I’ve also been exceedingly casual about my cycling since the GMAR, and it showed: I had one good long climb in me.  By the second, headed up from Goose Lake on the Stateline Trail, I was pedaling squares when I wasn’t walking.  It was 230pm, and only the known first third of the 30+ mile loop was ridden.  Ed, Laurie and I turned around, while Aaron and Norm pushed on.  We three enjoyed the fantastic descent down into Fish Creek, I crashed at slow speed on some mud and broke my rear brake level, Laurie crashed at slow speed on a switchback and went into the bushes (laughing the whole way), and Ed realized, after owning it for over a year, that the zipper on his jersey was sewn on backwards at the factory.  We arrived back at the cars at six, split two beers, and bailed to Missoula for big burritos and sleep.  Norm and Aaron pushed over the uncertainty and closed the loop in 12 hours.  A very impressive effort. If I may be so bold, since I first started Thursday Night Riding with them years ago they’ve both matured massively as riders, opening the Pandora’s Box that is endurance mountain biking.  Aaron’s talking about the AZT 300, and how hard it would be to train up here in snow land.

This is a ride worth doing, and I’ve given more than enough hints for you to find it.

Autumn is here.  Compare to the same view last August.

I like to think that my/our outdoor pursuits are of the noble, refined sort.  Refined in a more literal sense, stripped of cultural connotations.  It is easy to be a fan of, to be entertained by, the adrenaline of descending singletrack or ferrying to make the only line in a boulder garden.  It takes a more refined, discerning, patient, mature, and I would say complete appreciation for how personal growth is driven by experience, and is in turn at the root of entertainment and fulfillment, to love and embrace the full human-powered experience.  Frought as it is with blisters and the decidedly un-telegenic.

This is why I find it difficult to be patient with the increasingly solipsistic direction of  some adventure media, and the simpering which so often goes hand in hand (from folks who ought to know better).

My packrafting and fishing Sunday provided plenty of moments which obliged me to dwell on the more refined virtues of adventure entertainment.  I’ve only gotten holes in my seat twice, and I’ve only run the North Fork of the Blackfoot twice, and for some twist of fate they’ve come together both times.  It is not a run where you could get by without a seat.  Folding down the backrest and strapping my folded pack under it worked ok, but the extra slippage was not appreciated during the endless power ferries and snickersnacks.  Or that time I got pinned, flipped, and swam.

I stopped to fish the deepest pool on the run, to regain my humor after slipping backwards off my improvised seat and loosing my line for the upteenth time.  Many casts and three different flies brought several rises but no takes over 20 minutes, until the uncared-for tail end of a drift with a #18 Stimulator brought a rock down on the end of my line.  My Amago bent double, two hand were barely enough, and I had to rush forward into waist-deep water when it ran downstream.  When I finally brought it upstream a ways and into view, I was stricken dumb at the salmonesque Rainbow at the other end of my 6X tippet, such that I almost let the line snap when the fish took another run upstream.  Back into waist deep water, digging into the gravel to stay upright.  The fish eventually, finally got tired, and I brought it slooowwly toward the gravel bar (I didn’t have a net).  When I gently reached for the line (standard tenkara landing technique, not suited to 24″ fish) the fish gave one insolent toss of the head, snapped the tippet, and was gone.

I’d let all fish go without handling them if I could do it without leaving hooks in mouths all over Montana, but I was pretty upset at the time to have not officially closed the argument with that fish.  Very upset.

But that, as they say, is fishing.  And a fitting cap for a weekend of the most refined entertainment.

A Question of Scale

Paige emailed me today asking about the progress of the Alaska move. The real and only answer is that I’ve been thinking about it, a lot. She did attach her and Luc’s argument in the affirmative.

(I heart Ronald Jenkees.)

That argument, in more prosaic terms, is that Alaska has big wilderness of a kind the lower 48 categorically does not, and that given my increasing fascination with anything less, not moving is just denial. Everything else; the isolation and darkness of winter being the most salient objections, ought to fall by the wayside given that I’ve let proximity to the wild filter every decision relating to employment or residency or school since I left undergrad.

Except that year when we moved back to Iowa for M to finish school. For while location and the spiritual and recreational resources it provides are my first priority, they are not my only one. I’ve tried, on several occasions, in different ways, and at different times, to make the outdoors a vocation. It was never ultimately satisfying. I’ve built a career, and at the moment have a very happy job, doing what I think my moral position as a human demands of me. I find it fulfilling, and would not stop or substantially alter it even if I became rich off the lottery ticket I’ve never in my life purchased. This career, and any job I can see having while pursuing it for the next ~35+ years, will require me to work pretty close to full time. The human side of it, driven as it is by relationships, demands it.

So then, given these life choices, does it make sense to move to Alaska when my primary enjoyment of it would be in 2-3 day chunks? Or it is better to stay in the lower 48, with its easier access and the resultant abundantly weekend-sized pieces of terrain, and fly to Alaska for vacation?

That is what I think about when thinking about moving to Alaska. That and the phat dance music.