Thanks; part 1

As married adults M and I were content, for over a decade, to ride through the holidays and end of the year without much intentionality. This year that changes, to fit the raised stakes two kids and their indoctrination bring. So we’re currently on the road, working on new habits and traditions. Doing old things, and knocking a few off the big some day list.

The veneration of lameness

This spring I found myself delivering the quintessential adventure parent explanation, caveat, or excuse: that it is possible to have kids without becoming lame.  That I was at the time struggling to both carry a conversation and hike decently fast up a short hill would seem to suggest lameness, at least insofar as my parental aerobic capacity is concerned, but I nonetheless maintained that one can in fact have kids, more than one, and still get out and experience the woods and the mountains and in fact not become lame.

On the one hand this is true.  This past weekend we zipped north to Glacier, went fishing, went boating, hiked most of the way up a mountain, and camped out in a meadow.  We saw many mountain goats in one spot, and on one occasion watched a group gallumph over to lick up our pee.  We wore multiple coats while hiking uphill in August, on a bracing Saturday where the windchill at 7000 feet barely got above 40F.

On the other, we also only went 2.5 miles on our mountain hike, caught no fish, and bailed on our second float when cold drizzle refused to dissipate.  The big child threw small fits over hiking uphill, about hiking downhill, and about my choosing the “wrong” trail back through the brush off the river.  The small child made cute noises riding uphill, and downhill, in the backpack, as well as wailing repeatedly when put in his carseat, and insisted on flailing his way along riverbanks, tripping on cobbles and adding to his vast array of leg bruises.

Soon after bailing on our float we got a flat, limped into town on the donut, found the one place open and able to plug it on a Sunday, and gladly took the chance to visit with friends and be, as the big child called it, “in town.”

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As with any thing, the needs of small people are different, and the same, as big people.  They thrive on novelty, on the right amount of ease and challenge, and struggle with boredom.  They find it hard to regulate when hungry or tired.  These needs are simply scaled down.  Adults, especially adults who have been around a bit, like to see what is between two mountains by viewing it from all sides.  Little people and their minds are content with seeing the two mountains via their emissaries, the little rocks which have fallen off into the valley in between.  Little people almost do well getting outside and having an adventure, again, today, but once things proceed much beyond a few miles the wants of the little become subservient to those of the big.

Which reminds us that adventure, especially in the internet age, is always found in the mind anyway.  There is nothing more adventurous than trying, really trying, the impossible task of understanding another person.  Is this task more weighty with progeny than with a spouse?  Your answer tells everything.

By this metric we’ve had profoundly mixed results in a battle with lameness since little person number 2 came along.  Understanding the two of them at home is simply easier, if by easier I mostly mean more predictable.  With answers readily accessible.  Beyond that, after deciding have we the adults sufficient energy, sufficient motivation, sufficient bravery to take everyone and everything important out into the woods this weekend, it becomes a question of matching big person ambition and rules to little person energy.  Do we care to do what is, externally, a boring and short float?  Does that stretch of talus and tundra have enough sections which are walkable by a toddler?  Is there anywhere the national park backcountry campsites are close enough together?  If backcountry adventure is, first and ultimately, about using the implacable, unknowable, constant world (Lacan’s Real) as the only hopeable consistency in a world shaped slippery by language, then taking kids out into this is simply the same old task, layered and fortified.

And nothing is more lame than giving in to our fear, of failure, mainly to dare and to thrive.

New nature

M and I were both afflicted, as midwesterners, by birth, with a thirst for what Chiura Obata called Great Nature.  It took over a decade of our adult lives and residences in a fists-worth of name brand destination towns for that thirst for novelty and spectacle to settle, and for us to put more time into appreciating the larger neighborhood.  The last two years have made that more accessible, Helena being our least renowned and, in a two hour radius, most un(publically)explored of our home towns.

Intimacy lessens the need for spectacle, but after a time habit can only be cracked by the heat of novelty.

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So we enjoyed North Idaho and Central Washington, where the trees are stately and comingle, cedar and ponderosa and fir and cottonwood all harmonious in height and girth along the same river or pond.  A cathedral of verdure which prompts at once the leisure of a timescale beyond our comprehension, and an anxiety on considering how close so many other forests might have been, elsewhere, in places where the march to the anthropocene was in circumstance more hurried and definitive.

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This is why there is such a hunger for The West, and perhaps the main reason why US national parks continue to grow so starkly in popularity when so many factors, crowding and expense, would push against them being so: people want to feel small.  Inarguably small.  There is majesty in Iowa skies rolling September gold beyond all horizons, but that majesty is cut within four corners framed by humanity and human exploit.  And thus, because we don’t want to be members of our own club, not to trusted.

After his first trip to the Sierra high country Obata wrote that “It evoked in me the days of the gods.”  No atheist who has been acquainted with August hail, or with miles who refuse on the way back to shrink, can argue with this.  And so, it is periodically important to go somewhere new, where new mosses grow on familiar trees, where rivers carve new rock, where hills heave to different rhythms.  To relearn things sedimented over by routine.

Blue bike tales

Last week, at a yard sale, we saw this pretty blue Trek Antelope 850, and for $40 and in excellent condition I just couldn’t not take it home.

A little digging reveals this Trek is from 1990, close to the vintage of the Bridgestone MB-5 which was my first real bike.  Functionally identical performance between the Bridgestone and Trek, and the Trek has all original components, save the rear tire.

I was nostalgic to re-discover the ride quality of the mountain bike of my youth (second clavicle fracture, endo, 8th grade), but not enough to put up with silly gearing, janky shifting, and less than snappy braking.  I also wanted to maintain the original finish while dealing with the many, expected scars and rusty bits, and to that end I stripped the frame and put on 4 coats of clear before tackling the parts swapping.  So the far too big 28/38/48 rings got replaced with 24 and 36, with slightly shorter 170mm road cranks with a narrower q-factor.  The stock 13-30 7 speed freewheel is a very pragmatic range with nicely spaced jumps, so that stayed, shifted by an ancient thumb shifter I cobbled together by JB Welding a downtube shifter boss to the baseplate of a Sturmey-Archery thumb shifter.  An RX-100 shifter in friction gets the job done.  A future upgrade might be a proper stem shifter mount and another paddle so I can put the front derailleur back on.

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Raiding the parts bin revealed one functional Arch-Rival, for the front, and one functional Tektro canti, for the rear.  It didn’t take too long to recall how to set both up, and the result (at least until winter) is excellent.  The original front tire and its dry rotted sidewalls got confined to the shop rafter museum, and a new Kenda K-rad went on.  Surly Open bars, random brake levers, and new silicon grips complete the build, along with a vintage SR stem that gives more reach and (along with the bar) a healthy, comfy, and unfashionable amount of cockpit flex.

And it rides awesome, though the shakedown got highjacked by LB graduating to a full pedal bike, taking to it from the first trial with only a bit of assistance at the start.

He’s been riding his Cleary Gecko for almost two years, but as a run bike with the cranks removed.  On his first outing back then it became obvious that not only did he need more strength for pedaling, but that learning to both pedal and work hand brakes at the same time was too much.  The steel Cleary, with pneumatic tires, is a lot heavier than the aluminum Yuba with solid foam tires and plastic wheels, but after he mastered modulation hand braking became second nature, and speeds in our hilly neighborhood went up, way up, frighteningly so at times.  But LB has earned my trust with his judgment around streets and cars and bumps, and when a few clean runs down the gently sloped walk in front of his future elementary school begat multiple laps around the block and then back home, I was content to follow, the no-longer toddler making all the decisions.

Naturally, now he doesn’t want to do anything else.

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There are a few in hindsight obvious things about setting a bike up for a ~40 pound small person.  Tire pressures, obviously, can be very low.  The 25/14 gearing on the Gecko is well balanced.  Other things, like keeping the engagement of the brakes light, did not immediately occur to me.  The levers allow for lots of reach adjustment to suit small hands, and the custom small diameter bars and grips make the bike comfortable.  When he outgrows the Gecko, likely by next spring, he’ll surely be ready to add shifting to his skillset.

I’m still looking for whatever makes learning to ski as natural as a strider makes learning to ride.  The next phase of storage installation in the bike and ski room is not too far off.

Low water Dearborn

I was reminded recently that packrafts frame boating differently than just about any craft.  Little Bear has recently kindled an interest in fishing, as well as a tolerance for all day endeavors, so I seized the last vestiges of spring which rush out of the southeastern Bob and charge through the northern remnants of the Big Belt Mountains, in the former of the lowest stretch of the Dearborn River.  200 cfs exactly, a good bit higher than the 140 cfs I enjoyed on a short solo overnighter this spring.  Key points here being that 150 cfs is plenty to packraft the Dearborn from highway 287 down to the Missouri River, and that this stretch of the Dearborn is one of best of the somewhat limited options for packrafting local to the Helena area.

As will be discussed here soon, I spent seven intense years and hundreds of days getting the know the waterways of the Bob and Glacier, such that in the later half of my explorations I very much took for granted my estimates for what would be floatable, what would be good floating, and what might not make hauling the boat worthwhile.  We’re not far from the outskirts of the Bob, but the scale of high elevation (read: no big snowpack) and the orographic peculiarities of our many smaller ranges create a very different set of rules.  I’ve hit on a few truly outstanding backcountry floats (the Dearborn being one), and been skunked quite a few times, skunked meaning I carried all the gear way back with full expectations, only to not even consider assembling my paddle.

The above photo, of the ravenous bear in pursuit of trout, was taken a couple hundred miles from the Dearborn.  I took not a picture on our recent float, as the Dearborn with it’s many mild to moderate riffles, turns, and high and sudden cliffs has all the ingredients of an excellent float.  Things don’t drag, in terms of either paddling engagement or scenery, until the final third, when the land opens up and vacation cabins dot the banks like squonking goose nests.  The Bear, at this point, had eaten almost all the gummy bears, and expressed a fervent desire for the float to be two hours shorter.  Which prompted a responsible and character-focused dialogue on embracing, not merely enduring, the less shiny parts of cool routes.

At not quite four he had no trouble grasping that this had been a trip worth the nuisance.  We even caught a few small fish, brook trout, one of which we gleefully slew to take home and eat.  There was squealing when splashed, and a pointed moment when he pointed out that the royal we had failed, and that it was me and me alone who had messed up boat speed and gotten him splashed in the face (true, though I did it with intent).  There was also much fascination with the activity of ospreys, the cry of a red-tailed hawk, and size and profusion of merganser chicks, and the infinite kaleidoscope which is the freestone riverbed in summer.  As there should be.

I repeat, I was stunned we saw no other boaters, on such a glorious, weekend, day, save lower cabin residents on inflatable sharks and walmart kayaks.  I suppose the many riffles were a bit too low for larger rafts, and rocky enough that piloting a hard shelled craft would necessitate serious attention, but I still felt like we were getting away with something.  Which I suppose we were.  Our fellow river dwellers were mystified that we had come all the way down from the highway, and that day, and with a small human along!

Montana has one of if not the best stream access law in the Western US, and the first and most scenic part of this stretch of the Dearborn was the location of the keystone battle which brought about that law.  This first half, which appears almost entirely roadless (if you’re not looking very carefully) is not dissimilar to the South Fork of the Flathead in difficulty, size, and charm.  It’s almost disorienting when you realize that those hills, cliffs, and forests are mostly private land, that absent special permission there is no way through other than on the river.  A place to be celebrated, for many reasons.

Hike your age

Things have been quiet here of late, and the simplest, least important reason for this is that by the standards set by the past 12 years we haven’t been doing much.  But as will be explained later, that will slowly change.

Getting out with two kids, one one and one nearly four, does not happen easily.   Outside winter, keeping a toddler content in the woods is not overly complex; when warm and well fed and walked enough they get plenty of amusement as a passenger, lacking the vocabulary or developmental cause to protest.

Keeping a 40 pound and fully sentient child content in the woods, one wrestling with his own increasingly layered independence, and for whom the world can easily be far too big too quickly, is intimidating.  The gap between our world and his is, when he is still beyond words, taken for granted.  It is too easy, amongst the many complex whys and weighty words repeated when overheard, to assume that his world is now, finally ours.  Success for the big people and the biggest little person too easily collapses together.  On a trip to the grocery store that keeps our personhoods apart.  The stakes with a vacation are necessarily higher.

How far could Little Bear walk under his own power, how long would it take, and could we provide a route and destination he’d enjoy along the way, and most significantly keep consolidating a love for walking in the woods?

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As it turns out the answers to the first two questions are 7 miles, and 6.5 hours, from Sylvan Lake to the Harney Peak Lookout (visible just left of center, above) and back.  This is a superlative hike, with beautiful granite and pine/aspen forest, plenty of rock steps and boulders in the later third to entertain a little person, and a ridiculous climax at the CCC-built lookout.

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It’s been a few years since I hiked my age, and more than a few since I’ve hiked double my age.  That this hike went so well for everyone, and that LB said he didn’t want to go home, on the sixth and last day of our trip, was a needed boost for outdoor morale.

More miles this summer.

Tiny Adventures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I don’t write here anymore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.