The Climb

It’s when you become a parent yourself that you first realize just how deceptive parents can be.

My niece had one of those “ah-ha!” moments recently as she wrestled with a two-year-old on a relatively long drive. She remembered being a kid and helping her poor dim-witted mom read the road maps, becoming the navigator on many family trips.

Now, my sister — her mom — can read a map the way a really good surgeon can read your MRI. She has an intuitive feel for the things, knowing that those lines snaking along the page likely mean mountains and which back roads bypass traffic.

My niece suddenly realized that all that navigation had to do with other kinds of paths.

Every year around Mother’s Day, I like to recall that my mother’s deceptive ways focused on reading the way Baptist preachers focused on salvation. Now, my mom is a retired third-grade teacher who saw her role as a sort of “literacy goalie.” Nobody got past her without reading, and she considered teaching other subjects to non-readers akin to shuffling Titanic deck chairs.

“You can read up on math,” she would say, nearly at random. “You can’t math up on read!”

This view was not always embraced by the local school administration or those executing math-based federal grants. But the extended family voted New Board as a bloc, and we were bountiful in those days, so she was mostly left alone.

She seemed to plan my reading with a zeal and attention to detail usually reserved for Navy SEAL raids. And she also knew that if something wasn’t working, it’s best to just blow it up and move on. The summer I discovered baseball and bicycles was not as distracting as the much-later summer of beer and girls, but it left the formative me behind in what she considered the Tao of Book.

That’s when she brought home the Twain.

Of course, we knew Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in that way you “know” distant cousins. They were out there, but hardly a focal point.

“A bit too old for you,” mom declared, using a brutally effective opening gambit.  She said something about Tom and a kiss? What?

The suddenly-interesting volumes did not look exactly like the other books that multiplied like rabbits around the house, setting up little stacks in various corners. These common tomes ranged from the Reader’s Digest condensed books to various reference volumes. These newcomers, now, they had embossed spines and hard covers like the books in movies. And they were placed atop Grandma Nana’s china cabinet. This was our furniture version of Fort Knox, the domain of wallets and purses and medicines kept “out of reach” of us. The cabinet had an ornate carved top, which created a sort of tray with a two-inch wall. Inside, the good china — my little brother called them the “somebody died dishes,” though to be fair we also used them for weddings — offered certain crashing doom if the thing were jostled in the least.

That’s where The Climb came in.

You couldn’t just pull up a chair, because the tile floor was slick and there would be no second chance. So to reach something on the top, back next to the wall, required using the heavy metal kitchen chairs with their trusty rubber floor-protection feet. My sister, nearly two years older, only trusted herself as lookout, so I was The Climber. The body was the big deal — you had to hold yourself well back from the cabinet, rod straight, and reach up and over the railing, lifting straight up so as not to hit the little railing. If you’ve done any free-climbing, you’ve had to assume a similar position to reach up and out for a ledge handhold (A) and (B) you’re crazy, stop free-climbing.

The urge to extend the arm for a brace — just a little bit — against the cabinet was strong, and potentially fatal — the thing seemed to rock gently from even a long look. We thought about bracing the legs, but figured that plan lacked stealth.

So we turned the back of the chair toward the cabinet. My sibling steadied the thing until I was up there in wonder — they hadn’t painted the top and the raw wood looked like Death Valley in moonlight. The smell of old dusty wood is still with me, but we had them, had those volumes.

Soon, I got good at The Climb. Confident. Nearly jumping atop that chair. And speed was called for as mom often forgot things and returned home unexpected. So, from the strategic comfort of the living room couch, with its view of a returning mother giving plenty of time to return the books, we devoured the adventures of Tom and Huck much like kids today embrace the “Harry Potter” craze. Lacking action figures, I built prototype rafts out of twigs and eventually floated myself down Stafford Creek all the way to Elmer’s house, in a metal raft made from a sawed-off hood of a Dodge Dart (long story). We soon enough took sides — most were Team Tom, but I sided instantly with Huck on grounds of better adventures and lack of adult supervision. And the raft.

The school soon took some of us out of the regular reading schedules and sent us to the library for “personalized reading advancement.” There was disagreement on terms like “disruptive” and “age-appropriate language.” I remember looking up “obnoxious” and felt it was a bit harsh for labeling young kids.

We eventually did read up on science (nobody thought to put the biology books on a high shelf) and of course all the rest.

How much influence did that summer of mom’s Twain deception have on me?

Oh, I don’t know … but I do write for a living and my son is named Finn because nobody should face sixth grade as “Huckleberry.” And once-banned authors like Henry Miller still hold the allure of a nearby campfire.

So, soon enough, we will have a not-yet-reading list at our house and we’ll likely use the big cabinet in the living room corner. And I’ll leave the house and linger at the grocery, giving him plenty of time to drag the loveseat over and work on his balance, and I hope he enjoys the climb, because in the list of family traditions, we be a deceptive clan.

Roadtripping


Tricia and Bailey Blue
Tricia and Bailey Blue

The Kindness of Strangers

On my way to northwest Wyoming, I stopped over in Rock Creek, a bit east of Missoula. Rock Creek is a startlingly gorgeous narrow river valley, edged by steep slopes and popular to anglers. It is also embarrassingly known for its annual Testicle Festival. The latter being the reason I had not before ventured into this nook of the planet, instead passing by merrily and purposefully along I-90. I stopped at the Rock Creek Lodge for camping beta and was sent up the road about 12 miles to the Grizzly Campground, well off the beaten path and down a rocky, pothole-y, somewhat washed-out dirt spur.

On my way to Grizzly, I stopped across from an unlikely rock outcropping and slide area, snuggled up to a rustic cabin with a vegetable garden surrounded by prayer flags atop wire fencing. Beautiful. A mirage. Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep, all ewes, were eating the tender leaves and spring green grasses growing outside of the prayer-flagged garden. Some ewes climbed amongst the neighboring towering rock, their lambs running, nay veritably skipping, effortlessly up and down class-5+ scrambles. I turned off the engine and turned on the parking lights — I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon and, although I was stopped in the middle of the narrow byway, I hadn’t seen another vehicle since turning off the interstate.

Two lambs were especially playful, following one another up and down the slides, mystically leaping uphill from one rock to another. I caught my breath in one hand and held my heart in the other as one lamb ventured the highest of all before becoming airborne, leaping several feet outward and downward, directly over its playmate below, continuing her frolic up and down and over and over and up and down, tirelessly.

As daylight was waning and I still needed to find Grizzly, I reluctantly started up the engine and continued down the road. Once at Grizzly and still feeling buzzed from the prayer flags and Bighorns, I promptly backed into a good-sized rock strategically hidden by an evil clump of salal. I pulled forward and heard a nauseating clunk with a metallic scraping sound. After taking a peek under the car, I ascertained that it looked about as bad as it sounded, with much of my exhaust system now resting slothfully on the pine needles and loam below.

Ray and Mike, camped with their wives a few sites down and just about the only other human souls in Grizzly, walked commandingly toward my car, their superhero capes blowing confidently in the fragrant valley breezes. After exchanging very few words, the two immortals promptly crawled under my car, assessed the situation, and returned to their campers for supplies: metal coat hangers and pliers. Their wives returned with them to watch and take pictures as 86-year-young Ray and his son-in-law Mike, crawled under my car and MacGyver’d up the exhaust system so that I could maybe make it to a shop a couple of days later (it was currently Saturday evening).

We sat by their campfire that night and jawed into the wee hours. In the morning, before both couples took off for home in Missoula, they invited me back over for cowboy coffee percolated on a grill set over low flames. Later, I ventured down the road — car guts staying in place over the bumps and boulders — and borrowed Deb’s phone at Trout Bums fly shop, to see about finding a mechanic. I scored zero, so, making lemonade, I returned to Grizzly, pulled on my hiking boots and found a trail for me and my dog Arrow. Tsunami and her old shepherd-mix hips, stayed back at the tent to watch for squirrels and chippies. Along the trail, I met Daniel, who was successfully hunting the season’s succulent morels. Found out Daniel lives in a cabin with a garden and prayer flags and itinerant ewes and lambs. Beautiful. A mirage.

Sonja, mere days before she turned genuine cowgirl (riding horses and chasing cows)
Sonja, mere days before she turned genuine cowgirl (riding horses and chasing cows)

Wringing It Dry

Monday, I successfully made it from Rock Creek to Idaho Falls with the coat hangers still holding up the car junk (blessings upon you, Ray and Mike). In Idaho Falls, I stopped at a tire shop asking for a muffler shop; they sent me up the road to a local’s. After waiting to be squeezed in, about an hour or so with my big dogs in a grassy park nearby, it took all of 25 minutes and a modest $87.50 to have my car made whole and back on the road to the Hoback and beyond. I arrived at Sonja’s that night, somewhere between Daniel and Big Piney, in the midst of sage-filled fields back-dropped by three glorious northwest Wyoming mountain ranges.

For my entire stay, Earl, god of weather, fouled our backcountry skiing and camping plans with bouts of snow and hail tempered by daily rain and lightning storms. A late-spring melt rendered the USFS roads navigable only a short distance from pavement. The best laid schemes of mice and women … Making lemonade, Sonja and I arose early each day to visit her horses in the neighboring field, followed by dayhikes in the Wind River, Hoback and Wyoming ranges before the weather would hit, as it did each day by noon or so. I slept out in Sonja’s horse trailer along with the two big dogs, as indeed her rented hillbilly shack is diminutive. Afternoons would find us lounging in the shack with books, or settled in at the GRB enjoying shots of single-malt whiskey and a draft of beer.

Whatever, Earl, we put our arses to the wind and we rode it out. We wrung it dry!

On a muddy USFS road up the Wind, Sonja and I hiked beside fresh BIG black bear tracks running parallel with wolf tracks laid around the same time. The wolf tracks were at least three times the size of Arrow’s — and he weighs in at nearly 90 pounds. No recent sign of human activity was present, besides the boot prints Sonja and I were putting down.

Sonja’s recipe for Indoors S’mores, the absolute pick-me-up for stormy weather and thwarted back-county travel plans:

Graham crackers

Chocolate bars

Marshmallows

Bamboo shish kabob sticks

Stove burner (electric or gas)

Whiskey

Skewer marshmallows onto kabob sticks and toast over a low burner. Sandwich hot and bubbling marshmallows between graham crackers and chocolate. Allow chocolate to melt before biting into the gooeycrunchy mess. Laugh and point at the marshmallow and chocolate speared on your friend’s lips and cheeks, knowing you are suffering the same indignity. Chase this simple, childhood treat with one or two grown-up shots of whiskey. You will find this surprisingly refreshing!

It had been 10 days, so I packed up the big dogs, turned my car west and headed north to home in the upper Methow (Met-how). Through Montana, I traveled into more lightning and jellyfish rainclouds, their rain tentacles stinging the rivers and creeks into swollen anaphylaxis. Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.

Frickin’ Fracking

Can’t we just leave things well enough alone? Don’t frack the Hoback!

'Til we meet again
'Til we meet again

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some Good Sites

Vertical Girl 

Renacuajo Productions 

Conservation NW

The Center for Biological Diversity 

Wussing to Ward

“Extreme” is an overused word in mountain sports; usually it means doing something really stupid for sponsorship money if you survive — or it is yet again another dummy in a body bag — if you don’t. The word has been abused. “Extreme” has a different meaning in Boulder; it means someone will always be around to take you to the end of your endurance, or abilities, or both, and then push you for more.

“So, if we are going to park near the Greenbriar Inn, why don’t we just go get a beer?”

“Get your bike out of the truck,” she says.

“Hey, one or two beers couldn’t hurt.”

Betsy looks at me exasperated, as only an old friend can look exasperated because she may have had this conversation with me twenty times before.

“First,” she says, “it’s eight o’clock in the morning. Second, we are climbing to Ward today. Third, beer and climbing will make you toss your breakfast.”

“Oh,” I say, “and you forgot to add, ‘You wuss.’”

“You wuss,” she says and goes about getting ready for the ride.

The ride to Ward is one of those Boulder benchmarks like doing a sub-50 Bolder Boulder, or putting-up all 54 14ers, or driving a car that cost more than your education.

It’s 17 miles of moderate uphill from the Greenbriar to the Utica Street Store in Ward with an altitude gain of about 4,000 feet and this memorable mile-and-quarter climb at the end that will make you spit up pieces of lung.

The road to Jamestown is classically foothills beautiful with the Left Hand Creek cascading along the side the road. The bike lane gets a little thin in spots, but most of the folks, including the militias who shoot-up one of the side canyons and off-road-vehicle (ORV) folks who tear-up the backcountry, usually give us a wide berth.

In front of me, a wanker with a trailered ORV comes as close as he can to the bike lane and honks. I see the riders jump. But he’ll park his rig somewhere up the road, unload his ORV, and tear up a side canyon. Someone will take the time to stop and pee on his door handles.

After six-and-a-half miles, we turn left toward Ward. I’m hot, pulse is 130, cadence is 70, and I’m cranking the higher end of my climbing gears. I’m saving that big humping gear in the cassette for the climb into Ward.

Betsy is watching. I’ve never done Ward before. It is the thought of climbing to Ward that is actually harder than the climb. But then we are only half into this thing and I’m feeling good, as if breathing from almost every orifice of my body is an okay thing to do.

After a settlement called Rowena, the climbing moderates somewhat and I make adjustments with my cadence and gears. But I can feel the altitude gain in the limited amount of oxygen I’m able to suck in and with the dryness in my mouth, throat and chest.

We stop for water and energy bars. While the ride has been moderate, I can’t begin to describe how good it feels to get off the bike for a moment and just stand still munching something gooey and drinking water. For a moment, there is no neutering saddle, no burning thighs, and my breathing is almost normal. We have five miles yet to climb to Ward.

The route is still moderate as we pass Lick Skillet Road and then after a while I can see the fateful right turn uphill for the approach to Ward.

Betsy drops back alongside me,

“You can do this,” she says.

“We could also turn around right now and be drinking beer at the Greenbriar in an hour.”

“Just remember —

… pace yourself,

… keep your cadence up,

… try to stay out of debt,

… go slow,

… don’t watch anyone else,

… do your own ride.

… and I almost forgot — you wuss.”

We begin the climb. Right from the start, the road slithers right and left and gets steep and stays steep. Now, I really do feel like I’m breathing from every orifice of my body. The road is now crawling straight with a turn ahead to the left.

“Slow down! Slow down!” Betsy yells at me and then drops in front of me and slows.

It’s true, the pitch has spooked me and I’ve started hammering the pedals to make the bike go faster and maybe end the pain sooner. I slow down and my pulse drops to something almost manageable. But there remained a sort of an inexplicable stink in the air in my lungs.

Huge amounts of air with little oxygen are sucked into my lungs and expelled immediately for another huge huffing suck of air. I try to slow my breathing and my speed without wobbling into traffic or the weeds.

I’m in the biggest gear on the cassette and I’m slowly spinning my way up the road. My breath is still coming in huge draughts of thin air. My chest hurts, my back is suggesting collapse and my thighs are burning.

I see the town pump on the right, and I know the store is not all that much farther.

“You’re almost there! Keep going. Keep going,” Betsy yells and pulls me up the road.

And then it is over. I have two wobbly legs holding me up. I’m stretched along the top tube with my arms dangling off the handlebars and my head down. I don’t think I’ll ever breathe normally again.

There are some pats on the back from an old friend. I’m smiling.

“Now there’s something — like the last pitch on Wetterhorn — that I don’t ever have to do again,” I say.

“How about we climb a little more and then go to Raymond?” Betsy suggests. “It’s only 10 or 12 more miles, mostly downhill.”

“How about no?”

“Wuss.”

Far From Home

It’s summertime, and since I’m a schoolteacher (sucking on the public teat whilst lazing away the sunshine months), and since my father-in-law likes to play nice and make up for decades of being a huge jerk to his kids, we board an annual airplane and head out of our high desert homeland toward a variation on a beach-front time-share hotel somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean.

This time it’s the Florida panhandle, the “Redneck Riviera,” near the nexus of Alabama, Georgia and the Sunshine State. As we descend, the window seat (perhaps my favorite part of these trips) reveals humidity in the form of huge towers of cumulus clouds and industrial progress in the form of a checkerboard swath of pine plantations — long straight rows of identically tall slash pines (this whole part of the state owned by the St. Joe paper pulp company) suddenly giving way to a brand-new airport hacked out of the monoculture tree farm like some kind of Amazonian outpost.

My brother-in-law, a packaging engineer from southern Indiana, picks us up and wheels us toward a distant row of monolithic boxes — a dozen miles of towering hotels lined up along the Gulf of Mexico, backed by stucco minimalls and lowbrow tourist trappings galore: shark feedings twice daily, novelty condoms, topless/oyster bars, backwater alligator tours and the like. We pull into our weeklong digs at the “Hidden Dunes Hotel,” where the formerly rolling white sand dunes are, indeed, hidden beneath the 10-story hotel and its parking lots, gift shops and swimming pool(s). A dune buggy roars up and a well-tanned shirtless fellow with a mullet and a huge round belly (a recurring theme) tells us we can’t park there, so we shuffle the car, grab our luggage and head to our top-story condo. We greet our relatives, then don our unused-since-last-August swimsuits and make a beeline down to the beach.

BLUE SKIES

The first few days were blissful. My wife, my daughter and I on the white-sand beach (quartz grains washed down from ancestral Appalachians “hundreds” of years ago, says the brochure, so as not to upset the Creationists among us), lazing and playing together in the surf. Our daughter is amazed by every shell she picks up. She giggles when the fish nibble on her ankles. She giggles even more when bigger fish nibble on the middle-age moles on Daddy’s back. She marvels at the starfish mommy picks up. She screams in delight when Daddy picks up a plate-sized crab and recieves a power pinch strong enough to draw blood. She chases after sandpipers and kicks up sand. She has no interest in the swimming pool and its array of floatie toys, and prefers to be in the ocean, which makes me a proud pagan parent.

It’s blazing hot: 96 degrees and Gulf Coast humid (hot enough for an official “heat warning”), but it’s no problem, since every outdoor moment is spent in pleasantly warm yet cooling ocean waters as our little drama queen narrates in real time:

“RUN FOR YOUR LIFE! HERE COMES ANOTHER ONE!”

Pummeled by waves. Sand in ears. Seaweed in bathing suit. Algae in hair. Tiny seashells in buttcrack. Gasping for air, she turns and faces the sea …

“RUN FOR YOUR LIFE! HERE COMES ANOTHER ONE!”

Pummeled by waves. More sand in ears. More seaweed in bathing suit. More algae in hair. More tiny seashells in buttcrack. A blank look on her face, she gets back on her feet shakes off the sea foam, and turns towards the surf …

“RUN FOR YOUR LIFE! HERE COMES ANOTHER ONE!”

Pummeled by waves. Additional sand in ears. Additional seaweed in bathing suit. Increased algae in hair. A collection of tiny seashells in buttcrack. She recovers, stands, turns again towards the sea, as if to mock Posiedon himself, and tells me “let’s go out a little bit further.”

Again, and again, and again, until, despite the level-50 sunscreen, Mommy and Daddy are sunburned and resort to outright bribery (popsicle) to coax the golden-haired mermaid out of the Gulf of Mexico and up to the frigidly cool condo, where we pluck algae from her locks (there will be no brushing of hair until we return to New Mexico), shake the seaweed from her ballerina swimsuit, and rinse the tiny hermit crabs from her buttcrack. We leave the sand in her ears.

After dinner, we do it all over again, then take moonlit strolls along the low-tide line in search of nocturnal creatures. My wife and I stroll hand in hand, marveling at the swell combination of ocean, parenthood and marriage, a powerful trio enjoyed by the power trio of our stable nuclear family: Mom, Dad, daughter.

CALM BEFORE THE STORM

During the blazing afternoons, while my daughter naps and the rest of the relatives shop or watch teevee, I sip beer on the porch and enjoy the bird’s-eye ocean panorama. The basic elements of the scenery — sky, sand and water — stay the same, but exist in constant flux, and every glance offers an entirely new and different view. The ocean surface ripples and undulates, and the color of the water changes throughout the day. Waves build up, crest and crash upon the shore, each one displaying its final hurrah in a similar yet unique fashion. The shore itself is constantly on the move as currents move entire stretches of beach from one place to another in a single afternoon, creating pools and sandbars that come and go every few hours. The tides rise and fall with the changing moon. Schools of fish and accompanying flocks of pelicans arrive and move on. The dolphins parade past and vanish. Beer cans and broken plastic buckets and shovels wash up on the shore, spend a few hours in the sun, and are swept away by the next high tide.

Change at the ocean is perpetual and apparent, and every so often, on every stretch of coastline along the Gulf of Mexico, this dynamism is punctuated by the destructive force of a major hurricane — the storm of storms, and a great transformer of huge swaths of terrestrial and even sea-floor landscapes. Indeed, as chance would have it, evidence of one of the greatest changers in the history of the planet exists beneath the sea a few hundred miles south of my high-falluting top-story view: Chicxulub Crater, site of the meteor impact 65 million years ago that knocked the dinosaurs out of existence and extinguished the vast majority of all life in North America. I sip my cheap beer with lime in it and ponder that monster tidal wave of the ages, the ultimate agent of change.

I am fortunate enough to live in a land of expansive views, some of the best in America, I think, but with the exception of the shifting light and the movements of animals, my high-desert/mountain landscape remains essentially static throughout the days. Unless you’ve ingested something psychoactive, the sweep of sagebrush doesn’t undulate. The layers of rock in the canyon walls are always in the same place. Change exists of course, everywhere and always, but actual physical changes to the land where I live occur at a pace so slow as to escape a casual daily glance, and the only major destructive forces consist of forest fires and the occasional small mudslide or flash flood, none of which transforms the landscape in a major way. Mountains, even burned-over mountains, stay where they are. Things in my high-desert homeland are amazingly beautiful but forseeable, and the visible scenery is reliable.

And so it is with our daughter. Like the piñon pines that dot our foothills, she’s always growing, but that growth happens in small increments and cannot be detected from day to day. Like our seasons, our daughter is changing every day, but the changes tend to be gradual and occur according to an established timeline: solid food at six months, crawling at eight months, walking at one year, and on and on until she graduates from high school. When our power trio, the Elsie Clayton Experience, is at home together, our lives follow an enjoyable routine and the days blur together in general harmony. Storms come and go, fires occasionally flare up, but our household remains solid as a mountain, and we are able to build our life upon a bedrock of loving parental control.

But everything changes during a vacation, particularly one involving the extended family, for during these times our daughter is more akin to a fluctuating ocean, and we are forced to watch helplessly as she transforms right before our eyes.

DARK CLOUDS BREWING

In theory, being surrounded by one’s extended family is a good thing. In cultures around the globe, children are raised not just by their nuclear family but by grandparents, inlaws, aunts and uncles. Oftentimes, these relatives are responsible for some aspect of the child’s spiritual well-being, and they will take a child for a month, a season, a year, to teach them a skill or set of stories. We are newcomers to a town where folks tend to have deep roots going back many centuries, and I sometimes find myself envious of coworkers or friends who have a wide support network of family ready to help out with childcare or the last-minute baking of a birthday cake, not to mention big ticket items like births, weddings and funerals, and I often lament the fact that my daughter won’t grow up riding bikes with her cousins or walking over to her grandmother’s house for tea (something I know my mother would enjoy as well).

But, at the same time, such extended families usually exist within a shared homeland that provides a level of comfort and familiarity everyone involved can draw strength from. In addition, cultures — including small-town America — with deep roots and small families tend to have similar backgrounds and (roughly speaking) shared values, morals and heritage that bind the whole thing together and underlie important aspects of the life cycle, such as, say, how best to raise a child. Unfortunately, when you throw an extended family together in a beachfront condominium, none of the above apply, and it doesn’t take long for things to unravel.

It starts small: Grandpa stocks the fridge with dozens of small bottles of artificially orange-colored corn-syrupy “juice beverage,” the cousins drink it, and our daughter wants one too. We give her apple juice instead, but, one day, it’s all gone, so we relent and she drinks the fake kool aid — after all, we tell ourselves, we’re on vacation. During the dog-day afternoons, between bouts at the beach, the kids hunker down in air-conditioned splendor and watch cartoon after cartoon on a mammoth-screen television turned up way too loud. Our daughter wants to partake in this as well — all of her cousins are doing it — so we tell the kids they have to mute the commercials (which the other adults think is absolutely absurd) and hope for the best. A few hours of Sponge Bob, and her eyes glaze over, and, when we try to get her attention to tell her it’s nap time ,she pays absolutely no attention to us,…,just stares at the big screen, unable or unwilling to acknowledge the fact that Mom and Dad are speaking to her. Indeed, by the third day of the trip, with or without the television, we seem to have faded into the background, our voices and commands mere white noise, the verbal equivalent of the cheesy sailboat paintings on the walls, quite easy to ignore.

It grows: after days of niceties, the close quarters reveal decades old cracks in the family foundation. After angrily complaining that we hadn’t said grace in a meaningful way, Grandpa starts picking on a nine-year-old girl for eating too much, tells her she’s getting fat, and my wife, who had to deal with that during her own childhood, brusquely tells her (rather obese) father to leave the girl alone. Our daughter hears that and starts telling me she can’t finish her dinner because she’s fat. Another cousin, a highly strung seven-year-old boy, flips out when he catches a glance of our daughter changing out of her swimming suit and begins screaming “yucky, she’s naked, yucky.” Other adults suggested that I be sure to close the bedroom door next time so the whole family doesn’t have to see that. Our daughter hears this and tells me she can’t be naked anymore, despite the fact that she spends much of her day naked, or half-naked, or changing in and out of different princess oufits in the middle of our living room at home, all without one iota of shame.

Finally, there’s the shitty food. Most of the time, I’m a When-In-Rome kind of guy: a healthy eater who isn’t afraid to occasionally indulge in whatever the rest of my crew of the moment is eating, be it snails, Taco Bell, menudo or Little Debbie bars. Even at the peak of my vegetarian years, when the sound of sizzling meat made me gag, I went to a hockey game with my favorite mountain redneck cousin and somehow managed to wolf down a bratwurst. Likewise, we feed our daughter plenty of organic fruits and veggies, and she’s never yet had a bite of fast food, but we’re not Nazis about it, and now and then she gets a sip of soda pop, or a donut or industrial egg breakfast.

But after a few days with my Midwestern in-laws, my wife and I realized that we simply couldn’t go with the flow, for while Grandpa was kind enough to buy us all plane tickets (the 6 a.m. departure time somewhat mitigating this kind gesture) and spring for the condo, he refused to spend an extra penny on groceries, or let us borrow his car to try to seek out (likely unavailable) healthy options somewhere in town, which meant that the fridge and cupboard was stocked with the cheapest possible foodstuffs, all of it sporting a “GREAT VALUE” logo. The bread was white. The bacon smelled rancid. The coffee was pale AND decaf. The lettuce was iceberg and brown. The hot dogs dyed red. Eventually I hit the simmering hot streets and managed to round up some survival food — Quaker oats, natural peanut butter, apples and oranges, some decent rye bread — but by then my wife and I weren’t feeling so well, and our daughter was both constipated and moody as hell.

THE STORM

In retrospect, the slumber party probably wasn’t the best idea, but Elsie rarely gets to see her cousins, so we relent and let the three girls (aged three, nine and 12) sleep three to a bed in the next room over, where they (probably jacked up on the “juice beverage”) jump on the bed and giggle away the wee hours of the night. The next morning, she’s grumpy and defiant, and wants nothing to do with her parents. She shakes off our hands when we try to walk together down to the beach, then, due to the fact that her girly girl cousins don’t like the muck and sand of the ocean, decides that the ocean isn’t any fun and tells us she wants to go to the swimming pool, where she demands water wings and proceeds to swim and play games with everyone in the family except us … “No, not you Daddy, I want to swim to my Grandpa.” By day five, she’s traipsing down to the pool with her uncles, checking out the gift shops with her aunts and chewing her first-ever bubble gum, courtesy of a cousin, and we don’t see her for hours at a time.

As parents, our child’s growing independence is a mixed blessing. When she finally weans herself from the boob, her momma breaks out in tears of sadness, even as she welcomes the return of her body. When she’s fully potty trained, daddy gets wistful over the fact that he’ll never change another shitty diaper, even though he couldn’t wait for the day to arrive. Every milestone is celebrated and lamented, for each of them embodies, for the parents, a degree of helplessness in the form of “letting go” and accepting the fact that their child is marching toward adulthood and, ultimately, a complete separation from Mom and Dad. “They grow up so fast” is the ultimate cliche, and every parent will hear it (and say it) a billion times, but they’ll concur with the sentiment: the magical moments slip away, and every one of your child’s celebrated steps toward independence feels like a knife in the heart.

Those painful feelings are hard enough when our daughter’s evolving along on the preordained milestone path I mentioned above. They’re extra painful when the budding independence is thrown in your face in the form of a horribly hateful tantrum that erupts when you’re calmly and lovingly trying to sing her to sleep. Seems she had a different vision of how the night should unfold: another slumber party. So when things didn’t transpire like she planned, all hell broke loose, and I was treated to an amazing display of my daughter’s budding vocabulary, as well as level of furious, if temporary, hate-filled diatribe directed right at me …

Unadulterated anger: “YOU’RE NOT MY FATHER ANYMORE. YOU’RE NOT MY FRIEND.”

Blatant untruths: “YOU’RE MEAN TO MY FRIENDS AND YOU BREAK ALL THEIR TOYS.”

Sheer drama, while pounding on the walls and door: “I WANT A HAMMER TO BREAK DOWN THIS DOOR!”

Hitting, kicking, screaming and, finally, as loud as her pure little almost-four-year-old lungs could yell, the ultimate twist of the knife: “I DON’T LOVE YOU ANYMORE!”

Ouch. But I must maintain my composure. Don’t laugh at the absurdity of it all. Don’t cry at the jab. Most of all, remain calm and don’t match her anger with anger of my own — let my heart break a little bit, take a deep breath, then pick her up in my arms and hold her securely in my lap, chest to chest. This increases the fury momentarily, but I continue to breathe deeply and encourage her to do the same. Breathe in. Breathe out. Just like the waves crashing on the beach, a visual she can relate to. Breathe in. Breathe out. Just like the waves.

The fists stop flying. The screams subside. The wrathful Kraken of a few moments ago sobs a few more times, puts her head on my shoulder, and soon falls asleep in my arms.

SKIES CLEARING

On the last day of the trip, while the rest of the family drove to an outlet mall, the three of us took a ferry to a nearby undeveloped island and did some exploring. It was a small taste of wild Florida, a glimpse of what this part of the world must have been like a couple hundred years ago: long, empty beaches devoid of umbrellas, jet skis and the smell of cologne; tall white sand dunes anchored in place by native oats and grasses, and groves of native longleaf pines shading sawgrassy bogs. We strolled down the beach, picking shells and chasing the crabs, grateful for this last day together. A gap in the dunes appeared. We passed through it and into another world: a huge wiregrass meadow, surrounded by palmetto palms and tall pines, and echoing with the croaking of frogs and the songs of thousands of birds. We sat and listened. No roar of air conditioning. No family dramas. Not even the sound of crashing waves. Nothing but us and the frogs and the birds. A small bird landed in a nearby shrub and sang its trilling song. “Redwinged blackbird,” my daughter said.

It was the highlight of my trip.

AFTERMATH.

It would be nice to just end it there and pretend like everything was healed by our family foray on the island, but it wasn’t. For weeks, our daughter, not yet even four years old, continued to tell us she was fat, and that she shouldn’t be naked. On the plane ride home, she blamed a boy on the plane for stealing her toy and trying to hit her, something a cousin had (falsely) accused her of doing numerous times in the condo. And it took quite awhile for her to start eating veggies again.

This trip was a taste of what’s to come: LOSING CONTROL AND LETTING GO. Try as we may, Mom and Dad will never be able to shield our daughter from the tsunami of outside influences. Friends, teachers, relatives, movies, music, books … all of these things will shape her in ways we cannot even imagine, and, before we know it, she’ll be making ALL of her own decisions based upon what she thinks is right, and we certainly won’t always agree or even understand where she’s coming from. Today, it’s Grandpa making her cognizant of the fact that “fat” is bad, or a cousin teaching her that lying is acceptable. Tomorrow, it’s a minister telling her that her natural urges are sinful, or a girlfriend offering up that first cigarette.

But that’s the way it goes. We can provide her with a stable and healthy home. We can support her interests and encourage her to follow her heart. We can do our best to model good behavior in our own lives and actions. We can try to steer her toward positive influences. But nothing we do can keep her from the fact that suffering and confusion are facts of life, and in the end, all we can do is love her and hope for the best.

Cleared for Take-Off

I’m 15 for a moment
Caught in between 10 and 20
And I’m just dreaming

Counting the ways to where you are…

21 May 2010
3:00 PM PST, 1500 HRS, 2300 ZULU
San Diego Lindbergh Airport, SAN
Flight, Terminal Nine (9)

I am sitting in a black leather chair, laptop warming my thighs, the white power cord an umbilicus to the wall. I will board in a short time, but am taking advantage of the electricity now to charge global positioning units, the laptop, one Blackberry, one iPhone and six rechargeable batteries. I hope to have enough time to cycle through another six before I have to unplug.

Music catches my ear over tinny speakers buried in acoustic ceiling tiles. I’m 15 for a moment, caught in between 10 and 20…

I know this song, but distracted by the electronics and Transportation Security Agency announcements, I can’t place it.

And I’m just dreaming
Counting the ways to where you are…

It takes a moment longer to realize that this song is one I’ve sung often, late in the night, driving to yet one more mission, or on the way home, speakers blaring, windows open, trying to keep awake.

How fitting, then, this song, these lyrics, and I’m just dreaming, counting the ways to where you are… should play now, as I wait for a plane to take me north, to deep forests and thick nettles to search for a pilot gone three years.

A much-loved man with thin hair and thick logbooks, with years of experience and a brand-new plane, refuels and, like Amelia, is never seen again.

This was supposed to be my weekend home to relax, play a fierce game of Scrabble, maybe bake a pie. I’ve been on the road every moment the children have been gone, and sadly, a few minutes that they’ve been home, too.

The sea is high
And I’m heading into a crisis
Chasing the years of my life
… there’s still time for you|
Time to buy, Time to lose yourself
Within a morning star

No one has opposed these missions. The children are used to this life, were born into it. They love the gadgets and widgets, the carabiners and glove wraps, the radios and dog toys. They understand why we, a motley crew in orange, do this, but it can be a little harder to justify it to myself when I see their waving hands and smiling faces as I leave our home, leave them.

“This we do, so that others may live,” is the motto of search and rescue.

This pilot has been gone three full cycles of the calendar, 12 equinoxes, and there is no hope that he is waiting around for rescue.

But this finding him is incredibly important in so many aspects. His family will know. His friends can begin their own processes. There are matters of being able to say goodbye, but also matters of being able to lawfully close accounts, insurance, other legal intricacies.

It is also important for the searchers. We, too, are able to know. Searchers puzzle and work a missing-persons case like a dog worrying about a bone, but without conclusion, without knowing, there is no resolution. The worrying never ends. We second-guess ourselves, wonder where and why and how and when we failed. Did someone die because we did not find him or her in time? What did we miss? How do I fix it so it does not happen again? Search is a great mystery, but rescue, or as in this case, recovery, is the great answer.

There are other tangibles. If we find him, we keep someone else, perhaps a dog walker, or a mushroom picker, or a young couple out for a forest picnic, from finding what is never a pleasant scene. We are able to better predict future incidents, based on what we learn from these missions. Perhaps that knowledge will someday be used to expedite the search, and find a survivor in time.

The sun is getting high
We’re moving on… 

My plane has just made its final approach, I hear over monitors. It’s time to close the laptop, and break out the maps, interview reports, a steno pad, a pencil, a highlighter. Time to unplug the phone and GPS, store the batteries into their plastic bag. I’ll be flying the next few hours, so this will give me some uninterrupted quiet time to think about this missing man, try to picture where he might be, how to cover a lot of ground in a little time. Maybe even close my eyes and get some rest. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.

And I’m just dreaming
Counting the ways to where you are…

As I am putting my phone away, a text message chimes from my son. “Good luck, Mama! Find your man! I love you!”

I am cleared for take-off.

Noise in the Mountains: Why do we have to shout in our public buildings?

For the last 30 years, I have lived in passive-solar homes that I designed and constructed. They are all different, but they’ve all been blessedly quiet, allowing us to create our own aural space with conversation or music or silence. It was when I began producing stories for public radio that I became aware of how noisy most buildings are, including buildings that by definition should be quiet. It’s one of the first things you learn when you try to record people “out in the field.” Microphones can amplify unwanted noise: Heating and cooling blowers sound like a B-52 flying through the room. Fluorescent lights emit an urgent, high whine. All sorts of industrial gray noises lurk in between. I ended up conducting many an interview on the back porch.

Make it stop!A few years back, the Town of Telluride was preparing to build a gazillion-dollar new library. The chosen architects held what is known in the trade as a “charette,” (sha-RETT n.: “A meeting where architects pretend to listen to the public, and then follow the path of least resistance”). A few literary types and I showed up and sat in the old library around a table on which was placed a model of a big, fat domino of a new building. I had come to make trouble. I shined my flashlight on the model to simulate how winter sun would penetrate the interior spaces. For starters, half the building was an underground parking garage that would get no sun at all. And they were going to heat this big box with a standard HVAC (Heating/Ventilation/Air Conditioning) package, which is noisy, and libraries are supposed to be quiet. I even pulled out my little cassette recorder and passed around the headphones so everyone could hear the din of the old library’s heating system. Most of the time we don’t notice the noise because our ears are marvelous biological machines that can tune it out, but on a physical level, we are still stressed and strained.

Too LOUD!I could see the architects were unmoved. They already had their bid from the HVAC guy. They were stressing that their design had a “feature” (n.: “a (relatively) interesting little shape stuck on top of the big honkin’ domino”). It was a vertical tower, shaped kinda like a mineshaft, that had no function but  “to pay homage to Telluride’s heritage.” And that’s the way it got built, with a Victorian brick façade that failed to disguise the domino.

In these pages, I have previously scolded architects for their overeager acquiescence to convention and failure to educate the public. In their defense, the ’70s are long gone and they have to make a living dealing with a fickle public. Design it fast. Build it fast. Build it cheaply, and maintain every cubic inch of interior space at an even 71 degrees. To accomplish the latter, use tried-and-true 1940s technology that gulps fuel, rattles, creaks, groans, hums and whines. Provide seizure-inducing industrial light fixtures in rooms that could have been day-lighted by the sun. Blow room air through mold-friendly ducts and crawl spaces. Finish interiors with an indiscriminate array of toxic fibers and goo. In general, give as little thought as possible to the physiology or psychology of the room’s human occupants.

You’re supposed to be quiet in a library, but in churches, schools, theaters, courtrooms and halls of government, you’re supposed to talk, and the building is supposed to be quiet. Noisy examples abound across the Rockies, even in landmark-grade buildings in affluent resort towns. My tape recorder will attest that the worst acoustics in the mountains can reliably be found in city council and county commissioner “chambers.” If I had the archives and Jon Stewart’s editors, I could get a great montage of some of the thousands of times as a reporter I heard the phrases “we can’t hear,” or “we can’t hear in the back.”

Masonic Lodges and other such local gab halls generally also lack the charming acoustics of the Sundowner Room at the Holiday Inn. And many a downtown mountain bar or restaurant has the curse of being located in an old Victorian Boxcar space (long and narrow) with hardwood floors and big windows (any sound roadie will attest that boxcar gigs are the worst).

ZOOOOOOOOM!In the 21st century, small towns in the mountains, resort or not, often have downtown bottlenecks where snow plows, snow making, garbage trucks, recycling trucks, buses, Harleys, cops, ambulances, train crossings, honking drivers and barking dogs all converge, producing, it seems a safe bet, historically high decibel counts coming from the streets.

It’s harder to get away from the noise in our homes too, especially smaller homes with open floor plans, and there are unanticipated scenarios — Mary’s playing the piano in the living room, Bob’s watching NFL in the kitchen, Dutch is singing in the shower and lord knows what Alice and Pierre are doing in the bedroom. The mechanical cacophony adds new sonic layers: furnace whoomping (or swamp cooler huffing), fridge droning, dishwasher whooshing, doors slamming, toilets flushing, drains draining, washers and dryers buzzing, telephones and doorbells ringing and sometimes the shrieking of smoke and burglar alarms.

No wonder we’re reduced to noise-canceling headphones competing with LOUD home-theater systems. Indoors or out, sonic privacy gets harder to achieve, and many of us resort to individual electronic immersion. So just a little nudge, next time you create or reform a space for humans, think about noise.

NOTE TO READERS: A basic premise of this blog is that MG readers spend a lot of time being their own architects. Whether it’s converting your old Volvo for camping, designing a chicken tractor, building a greenhouse, a tree house or your dream house, we are all creating an authentic regional vernacular. The intent is to share personal experiences, trials, tribulations and critical opinions, always looking for ways that everyday life can be better for everyday people.

I hope this blog includes the encouragement of excellence in design of public space. Readers: What are examples in MG country that you like? I admit to liking the new Salt Lake City Library, Yellowstone Lodge, the Taos and Santa Fe plazas, both the old and new Denver Art Museums, Crested Butte’s “Butler Building” theater in the park and KPRK’s art deco radio station in Livingston, Montana.

Hope to soon have a Gmail address for sharing JPGs.

Why I run rivers, lurk in dark places, dawdle in secret oases

I just got off a river trip with a bunch of scientifically minded folk who are passionate about rivers. While we lived a wet dream of high-flow waves, sun, sand, camp games (and maybe a few good beers among those so inclined), they hooked me up with a raft of information on Colorado’s water needs and politics. Back in the research facility, bleary-eyed from staring at online documents, and stiff-necked from puzzling through a virtual tempest of predictions and planning processes, I figure that I shouldn’t keep all the fun to myself.

Let’s take a look at some boat-mates ridin’ the waves …

(Above photo courtesy Nathan Fey, Director, Colorado Stewardship Program, American Whitewater)

… and a cool slide show from the gang in green at Interior.

Flowing at 24,000 cfs (visualize a wall of 24,000 basketballs per second flowing through a canyon bottom), the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument is big enough to delight, drench, scare and otherwise satisfy the crap out of any self-respecting river-rat.

Uncontrolled by dams, the Yampa can seem more than a little alien to a lot of folk who regard rivers as a resource or a scourge, depending on where and how high the waters flow, and this is why I’ve been digitally lurking through the chambers of power for clues of just where the Yampa may fit into the grand schemes of water politics.

  • The Yampa’s yearly flow is a player in the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s strategy of using “identified projects, water conservation, agricultural transfers (both permanent and nonpermanent) and development of new water supplies,” to meet Colorado’s future water demands, as is laid out in the  Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI 2010).
  • A whole quiver of arrows is needed to mark current diversion projects on a Colorado Division of Water Resources map:
Members of the Yampa River Awareness Project were worried enough about the options for “development of new water supplies” to lure my distinguished river-mates onto the wild waters. They see a mighty straw sucking at the Yampa’s bounty; sure enough, one proposed trans-mountain diversion would create a pipeline-feeding lake in the brush-covered hills a few miles upstream from Dinosaur, and (proving how water crosses political and state lines) another straw is proposed for Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River. In politics, water tends to run towards power, so if you see yourself playing a role in where and how high your favorite rivers flow, it’s high time to decide which of the Initiative’s options will best float your boat.

If you’ve had about enough clicking, reading and fact-checking, watch these quirky Colorado River District films on water supply fun and games, and then go dawdle in some secret oasis in the nearby faraway.

(Courtesy: Nathan Fey again [sometimes, it’s good that somebody brought a camera])

Face the Camera

The film crew arrived the day after my partner, Laurie, was given the heads up, not a warning exactly, but a familiar blunt blow: her job might be on the chopping block. Nothing new. She’s heard it before, plenty of times, over her twenty-five-year career with the National Park Service. Such as it is. She used to work on trail crew; now she maintains a historic apple orchard, which means she works outside, physically, all the time. She’s no longer seasonal, not yet permanent, but a so-called “term” employee who gets some benefits but must reapply for her own job every four years and is, even at that four-year juncture, officially not supposed to be re-hired. Though she has been. Four times. All this to say her job security, like that of most people who work outside physically all the time, is complicated and tenuous, very nearly ridiculous, and most of the time, she doesn’t care.

“Career” as C.L. Rawlins used to say, “rhymes with beer out here.”

By contrast, the young and likeable leader of the film crew, a one-time seasonal in our little valley, had already secured a permanent job at headquarters — a windowless office building many hours from the actual park out along the I-5 corridor — and now he’d re-arrived with the mission of recruiting volunteers. His job was to make five-minute high-quality video clips, mini-PR films, complete with stunning scenery and inspirational stories about people who work outside.

Will you be in the orchard tomorrow?  he asked.

No, Laurie said. She wasn’t being surly. Just telling the truth. She’d planned to take the day off.

Then she went directly to the woman who has been helping her out this season to offer a little advice.

Just do your regular job, she said. Run the weedeater or the chainsaw. Make sure it’s dirty, loud and smelly.  Don’t do anything pastoral.

But the crew didn’t show up.

There are plenty of problems with the idea of PR in the parks. There’s little advantage for taxpayers in pumping up the base, so to speak, getting nature lovers even more psyched about nature, and frankly, little purpose in gaining new constituents. Enough people love the parks. They’re always high on those ever-dwindling lists of things people are glad to pay taxes for. So what’s the point? To get volunteers to come do work they’re not good at, projects that take many hours of planning time away from people who could actually do the work? Or, worse, to convince young people that volunteering can lead to a career working outside when real paid outside jobs are as endangered as salmon or wolves (and similarly romanticized, come to think of it). It’s complicated, yes, and ridiculous; it’s best not to think about it at all, to just work outside and play outside and drink beer outside and be grateful. But some days it’s harder to do than others.

The film crew showed up the next day.

Laurie didn’t run the weedeater or the chainsaw for the filmers.  She climbed into a nice pastoral apple tree while they asked questions about where she’s from — the suburbs — and how she got where she is — by doing labor for twenty-five years.

Then they asked her to say this: I work for the National Park Service.

Again, they said. With more enthusiasm.

I work for the National Park Service, she said.

One more time, they said. And this time, face the camera.

Jonesing

Jonesing bad.

I was skiing along the other day at our local mountain when I bumped into an old friend. For the purposes of this story, we’ll call him Jones.

Jones and I had corresponded via text message the prior evening about meeting up for some runs. But since cellular service is unreliable at Arapahoe Basin, it was convenient to ski up to each other on the cornice instead. His delightful-sounding plan had been to get up very early and secure one of the coveted front-row spots on The Beach, then grill some meat and wash it down with a brewski or two after cutting through fresh powder all morning.

The only problem with Jones’s plan was he didn’t get to the Basin in time to secure a spot on the front row. April and May are party months on the Beach, where real estate is in such high demand that arriving any time after dawn basically means you should’ve slept two more hours and come up at 8 to fight for a mezzanine spot.

When I saw Jones on the cornice, he informed me he was row-parked just like everyone else who didn’t make the cut. “What happened?” I asked. He turned and looked at me with a grin, like what he was about to say could’ve been called trivial.

“I think I’ve lost my jones.” Then he kept right on skiing to our drop-in point.

It was the first time I’d ever heard those words. Suddenly my mind filled with questions. Can someone really lose his jones? How does that happen? Is it a long process or an overnight thing? What happens to the jones once it gets lost? Is there some big jones graveyard where all the excess joneses go to be buried? Is that graveyard in the suburbs? Does life as a whole start going downhill once you’ve lost your jones? Can it be found?

I had more questions, but right then I needed to start skiing again so as not to be left on the cornice. The only thing I said to Jones about his shocking disclosure was, “Really?” Then I let it pass, to be posited on my own time later.

Truth be told, it’s perfectly acceptable not to want to wake up at oh-dark-thirty just for a decent parking spot in a free dirt lot. I don’t think that alone means you’ve lost your jones. But Jones knew exactly what he was talking about — he is neither ignorant nor naive when it comes to this kind of thing. On the contrary, Jones has dwelled in many a high-altitude community over the past 15 or 20 years, and he knows exactly what a jones feels like, and is. For him to say he lost his, well, I took him seriously.

This is why you jones.

Personally, I don’t think one can lose his jones. I think it can fade, just like hairlines do, but I don’t think it ever really goes away. A jones, to me, is not just a desire; it’s one level above that, sort of this ever-present zest that steers your decisions and keeps your priorities straight. Surfers jones for ground swell and offshore winds. Skiers jones for light, dry powder. Climbers jones for the rain to stop.

To jones (as you probably know, it’s a wordsmith’s chameleon, usable either as a noun or a verb) is to want something more than you might want, say, sprouts in your salad. It’s not an inner urge reserved exclusively for one realm of life, but rather a general quirk to your personality that applies to many realms. I don’t think every member of our race is born with a jones inside him, because there are some slugs out there who seem to lack any zest whatsoever. But those who are lucky enough to possess a jones — I don’t think they can lose it simply due to age and the been-there-done-that syndrome.

How does a jones evolve, then? Naturally. When I picture myself as a man in my 60s or 70s, God willing, I picture myself on a backcountry hut trip with some close amigos or family members, watching the powder mount on the hill out the window. I highly doubt I’ll be bounding out the door in full winter gear to make 7 a.m. powder turns. But I am optimistic that my jones won’t let me sit there past 8.

Buy the Newest, Lightest, Shiniest Gear Today or You Could Die Out There

Buy the newest, lightest, shiniest gear today or you could die out there.

There’s a single paragraph in Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of A Reluctant Businessman in which he talks about solo expedition kayaker (and grandmother) Audrey Sutherland, who at that time had paddled more than 8,000 miles around the world. One of the quotes attributed to Sutherland is one of the main things I took from the book:

“Don’t spend money on gear. Spend it on plane tickets.”

Not that you shouldn’t buy a new climbing rope every few years, or ride your bike without a helmet because that would be “buying gear.” I think what Sutherland is saying is that you don’t need the latest, greatest stuff on the REI floor to have a good adventure.

A little over a year ago, I was rolling my bicycle into the Pacific Ocean after 3,000 miles of riding, from San Diego to St. Augustine, Florida. One of the big questions of the ride for me, besides “Do I have a saddle sore?” was “Is my bike going to make it?” I had bought my Raleigh Team USA from some guy in Broomfield for $100 after seeing it in a Craigslist ad. The bike was 25 years old when we started our ride. I had wanted to try riding that bike across the country in some sort of way of showing all the people we met that you didn’t need to be Lance Armstrong, or have his bike, to do something fun. Plus, I mean, it said “Team USA” on it.

In the end, nobody really cared about my bike besides me. But it made it, 3,000 miles, and when I got back to Denver, I put my old city tires back on it and rode it to work every day, just like I had all the days leading up to our two-month bike ride. Was the bike a little heavy for riding across the country? Maybe. Did I have to do a lot of work on it along the way? Yes. Did it make it? Yes.

Was the adventure way more memorable than the gear I bought for it? Absolutely.

This is America, and we’re constantly bombarded with ways to spend our disposable income. We need to replace our phone that’s four months old, or get a car that turns its windshield wipers on immediately when the windshield gets wet, or get a bigger, more defined television to slowly die in front of.

In the outdoors, you need gear, yes, but you don’t need all of it, all the time. A friend of mine who does about twice as much climbing and skiing as I do has about 2/3 of a reasonable rack for climbing, borrows ice tools, and has an avalanche beacon on a kind of permanent temporary loan from someone. He does have way nicer outdoor clothing than me. I am envious of his stories, not what he’s wearing in the photos I see from his trips.

When I worked at the REI store in Phoenix, we used to have a couple of guys who would come in without fail every single Saturday. Both of them knew more about gear than I did, and they would show up and engage anyone on the sales floor for hours about the materials in this tent, or this rain jacket, or this GPS. It was like they were coming to a class to learn more about gear than anyone. Some Saturdays, I would be pretty tired of giving up all my weekends (I had a full-time job on top of my part-time REI gig) to work at the store, and I just wanted to go up to them and shake them, and say, “Your gear is perfectly fine! Go use it! Some of us have to work Saturdays — you don’t! If you want to buy something, let me sell you a map so you can pack up a backpack and go do some cool shit somewhere.”

Sometimes I hear people say things like, “I’m kind of a gear junkie.” That’s fine, whatever floats your boat. But you really don’t need to know that much about gear to do most things in the outdoors — how to fix some basic things on your bike, sure; how to use rock and ice climbing gear in a fashion that doesn’t endanger you or your partner, yes; how to operate a stove without burning down the forest, yes. But if you’re not Steve House or Ueli Steck, you can probably go ahead and climb with the fifth- or sixth-lightest soft shell, and crampons from 2004. Really. And your tent can weigh six ounces more than its closest competitor.

For the record, you know what you can buy for the same price as an Arc’Teryx Alpha LT jacket? Flights to and from Jackson, Wyoming, from Chicago in August.