Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Post Xterra Life



Returning from 24 Hours of Moab
Spanish Fork Canyon (2004)
I bought my 2000 Nissan Xterra in February of 2001 when the Southern Idaho landscape was starting to dry out and occasional warm winds were intermixed with the frigid gales blowing across the Snake River Plane. While true spring was still maybe a month out, I knew that soon the mountain bike trails in the South Hills would be ready to ride. Now equipped with four wheel drive, I was anticipating those rides requiring rugged travel on remote dirt roads that had, up to that point, challenged my Ford Escort station wagon.

So while it was technically winter when I bought it, spring was on its way -- so maybe it's fitting, 200,000 miles later, that on a Monday in fall, with shorter days and freezing temperatures on the horizon, I said goodbye to something I've possessed since age 24. Yes, it's just a material possessions, but even for something as superficial as a truck, I hope you'll allow me the catharsis of writing about my loss as I start the 2018-19 ski season without my green buddy. For 14 of the 18 years I owned it, that truck was my most consistent skiing, camping and mountain biking companion, but now, with mechanical problems rendering it almost un-driveable, I decided that it was time to let it go.

The First Road Trip

Shortly after I purchased it from a small used car lot on Blue Lakes Boulevard (with some generous help from my parents, for which I'm grateful), I left work early one afternoon and took it on it's first road trip to Salt Lake City. I was finally going to see what skiing Alta was all about. I went alone; it was just me and that truck. I didn't know anyone in Salt Lake, had no idea where I was staying, but I had to check out Alta. I can't thing of a better first road trip for that vehicle then to end up under the shadow of Mt. Superior, a peak we would become very familiar with over the years.

On the way back, I detoured through City of Rocks, where, for a kid who had never really driven an ATV before, let alone gone "4 wheeling", I looked for any chance to see what my new truck could do on the empty forest service roads. One chocolaty lagoon-like puddle was deeper than I expected and drenched my windshield with an opaque curtain of mud. I'm sure I let out some kind of childish expression of amusement -- maybe it was "Yippee", maybe "Whooo", maybe, "Well that was superlative!"-- I'm not sure. 
Ripping skins at Alta (2008)

That bravado was tempered somewhat later in the week week when a fingernails-on-chalkboard sound coming from the rear of the vehicle prompted a trip to the mechanic. It turns out I had just spun a bunch of gravel into the wheels during that weekend excursion through City of Rocks and the grinding coming from my wheels was easily fixed with a high pressure wash. But before learning that my truck just needed a wheel-well enema, I was overcome with the fear that my recently purchased low-mileage truck, bought from a place called "Practical Used Cars" (cut to the chase and just call yourself, "We Don't Sell Lemons") might already need major repairs. Now, at that time, I was middle-management at a television station in market 189 out of 211, so Twin Falls's low cost of living aside, any disposable income I had was going to lift tickets at Sun Valley and paying off my mountain bike. I wasn't really making enough to absorb major auto repairs. So when I heard that noise, I kind of regretted that mud-run in the foothills. As always, I blame marketing!
Visiting The Wave (2006)


Marketing Victim

If you don't remember Nissan's marketing blitz when they unveiled this rig in late 1999, let me refresh your memory. All the current auto commercial tropes of "seeking adventure" and "the freedom to explore" currently aimed at millennials were, in many ways, birthed by the Xterra at the turn of the century. (Damn, it sounds simultaneously cool and weird to use the phrase "turn of the century" as a legitimate reference point in my life.) Using a soundtrack of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Lenny Kravitz and Stereophonics, Xterra commercials had Gen X'ers dropping cliffs in kayaks, skiing powder filled slopes straight to their awaiting truck, repairing "owies and booboos" on the Xterra's tailgate with a First Aid kit that was nested in the door and, the ultimate in "distract you with bells and whistles", an interior bike rack*. So, if you watch the video I linked above, you could forgive me for being a little brainwashed into thinking that the truck was invincible.

*[I'd like to point out that the interior bike rack probably looked great on some product manager's desk, and probably gave the Nissan marketing goons an erection while planning their X Games inspired ad campaign, but it seems really impractical now. I would love to hear from a true mountain biker that ever used it. Seems a little bit like ironing blue jeans to me.]
The dragon jersey and mango FSR actually predate the Xterra, AND I STILL HAVE BOTH!
Cache Creek Trails near Jackson (2007) pc Randy Likness

The Partnership

Now, when I had that embarrassing realization that: a) off-roading is rough on a vehicle, even if it does have four wheel drive and b) I'm not mechanically savvy enough to repair any problems myself, I convinced myself to never again purposely test the limits of the Xterra. That was where I made a deal with my new truck: I would take that "professional driver on closed course" shit seriously and not make it do anything unnecessary, and the Xterra would be a reasonably reliable vehicle. And the Xterra kept up its end of the bargain, but that's not to say it wasn't challenged from time to time.

The Sierras were much milder on the way back.
Donner Pass 2001
For example, still within in the first six months of ownership, the four wheel drive came up huge during a much longer, April road trip to San Francisco. I had made the trip once before, but not in the Xterra… and and thank god I had it. The blizzards started the first night of the drive outside of Elko. Visibility over some of the passes was shockingly bad. I think it was after either Golconda Summit or Emigrant Pass where I exhaled, exhausted and relieved, after finally descending out of the teeth of the storm. I was no longer searching for highway lines and reflectors to guide me through the swirling specs of snow dancing in my headlights. And while that white knuckle evening through eastern Nevada seemed bad, it was just the warm up for the next day's adventure over Donner Pass. By driving over during the day, the handicap of darkness was removed, but it was replaced with the hazard of traffic. As I crawled through the snow covered highway over the Sierras in what is still probably the worst storm I've ever driven in, I realized the signs outside of Reno mandating four wheel drive and chains aren't just a scare tactic for crappy California drivers. Most of that drive was spent in a cautious yo-yo behind a semi. I was close enough to use his taillights as a guide through the white mess, but far enough back to not eat shit if the thing went sideways. And while the trauma and stress of that drive have made some memories fuzzy, I'm sure, by the time I reached the safety of Auburn on the west slope of the Sierras, where the first palm trees and In 'n Out Burgers start signalling the drop in elevation, I patted the Xterra's Dashboard and said, "thank you".

That vehicle has been a part of my life longer than most of my current friends -- including my wife. Yet what I realized, when saying goodbye to it 2 weeks ago, is that it's hard to divide good memories with the truck from good memories with others in my life. Many adventures were directly tied to that truck: early mornings ripping skins at the trailhead, drinking post ride beers on the tailgate and ending abusive backpacking trips with the rewarding sight of its green chassis. It got you you to the trailhead and waited patiently to welcome you back.

During the first summer after Lex and I started dating, we spent over a week driving all over Idaho -- from the Payette River near McCall to Scout Mountain south of Pocatello. We were still learning things about each other: like she learned I'm very anal about how I pack the Xterra with gear, and I learned she had no problem shaving her armpits with a coffee mug and razor along highway 75 south of Stanley. Up to that trip, I had spent years exploring the wilderness of Idaho and rarely had anyone else to talk to but the Xterra, so I hope that explains my emotions in this blog as I say goodbye.

Canyonlands (2008) pc Randy Likness

The Long Goodbye

When Lexi and I bought our Subaru in late 2014, I knew the day would come when the Xterra would need to be put out to pasture. But in the spring of 2015, we bought a new house with a two car garage and a car port in the backyard, seemingly a sign that it wasn't yet time to let go. So while the Outback replaced the Xterra as our primary adventure vehicle, we still got some good use out of the Xterra. My dad would use it when he visited, and on one memorable Saturday morning, it helped Lexi and me tow two tons of dirt from our backyard fence install to the dump. Lexi probably prefers other Xterra memories to that one (which involved over an hour's worth of shoveling topsoil into the seagull infested hills of the Salt Lake County solid waste depository), but I like to think that the Xterra was pretty happy it could still play a role in our life. That dump trip and the subsequent hauling of  stone to our backyard in 2017 were unfortunately the last times I got any utilitarian use out of the Xterra. Taking it to The Maze section of Canyonlands, a romantic "last hurrah" I had for its farewell, unfortunately never materialized.

Either a bad alternator or a poor battery harness meant
I often had to jump the Xterra with the Outback.
When I pulled it out of the car port a couple months ago, it was to asses what my options were for unloading it. I needed to get the safety and registration updated, which meant it needed to be driven to my mechanic. So after jumping the battery with my Outback (an image that still seems incongruous to me, the plucky little Subaru having to bring the once mighty Xterra back to life), I took it for a drive to try and get a full charge in the battery.

The engine was erratic, coughing up a syncopated spasm of roars while trying to maintain life. I gave it gas, as much as I could while still being safe in my residential neighborhood, but even with the gas floored, I struggled to get it over 35. The needle on the RPM gauge bounced violently. It wasn't right.

It sat dormant a little longer, but the next time I went to drive it, I couldn't get it into reverse without it dying... and the battery wouldn't hold a charge. I know nothing about cars, so I speculated on it's demise: maybe it was the transmission, maybe the engine, and maybe a bad alternator. The cost of any of those items exceeded my idea of "reasonable repair costs" for a vehicle I didn't need anymore. So, eventually, I called up KUER to have them tow it away for free. I never even got the official last mileage. I know my dad topped it over 200,000 on a trip about a year ago, but the battery was stone dead and I didn't feel like jumping it just to see the odometer. And maybe the other reason I didn't want to jump it is because hearing that engine roar, even feebly, one last time, would be heartbreaking.
When you have an Xterra, no need to ask, "Which skis should I bring?
How much beer should I buy?" BRING IT ALL! Sun Valley (2008)

Wearing a shirt I got from 24 Hours of Moab in '04
Think I have a problem letting go?
When I bought it, the salesman told me the previous owner was a fishing guide that needed something bigger and more powerful. I paid $21,900 for it, minus $3,800 for my '95 Escort. It was the first vehicle I ever chose myself (my dad picked out the Escort for me as a reliable vehicle for college, which it was) and in 26 years of driving, it was one of only three vehicles I've owned. So a few Sunday's before it was towed off, I drank beer on the tailgate: a Barrel Aged Rye by Payette, to celebrate its life. I thought an Idaho beer, sharing the name of a river that was all too familiar to that truck, seemed like the most fitting beverage I had. There was just enough light left on that cloudy day for me to sit in the shelter of the trunk and stare up at Broad's Fork Twin Peaks, framed under the canopy of the rear hatch. I always say that I spent my life following my skis -- they're what led me out west and why I moved from Twin Falls to Salt Lake, but whenever I traveled, explored, skied, rode, hiked, rafted and even stood up for a friends wedding in the remote north of Minnesota, I got there because of my Xterra.
One last look at the mountains from my driveway.

I would love to think that someone at the reclamation yard where they dragged it on November 12th might have the talent and resources to bring it back to life and take it on more adventures, but if not, that's OK. I hope though, in that case, the Xterra at least enjoyed that last look up at the Wasatch with me.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

I've Been on the Disabled List - That's Why I Haven't Been Writing

How It Happened

Just another weekend drinking
and watching the grass grow.
A numbing fire blazed within my leg as soon as my foot folded over. With all my weight shifting back to my now useless right leg, I curled my body and tucked myself into a protective roll. Tumbling in a painful heap onto the tennis court, I could see, out of the corner of my eye, the unnatural bend in my ankle. All this from mis-planting my foot while making a last second adjustment on an easy forehand.

"Here it comes." That was the last sentence I said before spraining my ankle. It wasn't directed towards myself or the ball, it was directed towards Lexi; a sort of vain attempt at predicting what I thought would be a winning shot. Misfortune seems to always wait for the height of hubris when doling out punishment.

I can't beat Lexi at tennis. Even though she no longer plays competitively, her years of focus in her "pre-Mason" life are more than enough to draw on when going up against my still developing tennis skills. But I still enjoy hitting the ball back and forth with her, like we were doing on that cool Sunday morning. It was June 10, the second Sunday in a row I had chosen to pretend to be a tennis player instead of riding my bike. I had ridden the previous two days, and after Saturday's punishing ride up Millcreek (the first 4,000’ day of the year), a mellow Sunday of tennis and brunch seemed nice.

There was another reason I wanted to get back out on the court – my serve was improving. The reason Lex and I never play a full game isn't just because I'm not good, it's because I really can't serve; that underhand "bounce and bunny hop it over the net" shit doesn't really give you much of a chance against your opponent, so mastering an overhead serve has been on my checklist since Lexi started teaching me. And thanks to her tutelage, I sensed I was getting closer to consistently serving. I still couldn't do the full wind-up, (instead just starting with the racquet in "back scratcher" position), but more and more of my serves landed in the "box" (yeah, I'm still not up on the nomenclature), I found myself getting more competitive. There's something about putting all the elements together and seeing the “shape of create” (my term for when something you are creating starts to faintly resemble what you picture in your mind) that makes me a little giddy. So it was that during a Sunday morning rally, initiated by a somewhat acceptable serve by me, my excitement grew (not like "I'm good enough that I think I’ll buy a headband and multiple racquets" excitement, but more like, "Wow, maybe I could like actually win a game against Lexi" excitement) and I made that fateful misstep.

And it’s that excitement that produced the "Here it comes," utterance. And if there was ever a tennis themed metaphor for the value of humility, it would have been a scruffy faced Bjorn Borg, standing over my crumpled body with a flaming Wilson racquet in one hand and a walking boot in the other saying, "You thought you were better than your wife? You must have lutefisk for brains,” because I'm sure that's an insult where Borg is from.

So Now I'm Walking in a Totem Pole

Can you believe I have cankles
of this quality at 42?
Thanks to the torn ligaments on my ankle, I get to spend 30 days in a walking boot, which does allow you to be mobile, if your idea of mobile is a tree trunk strapped to your lower leg. I was told this was the best prescription for ensuring my ligaments heal correctly. So, while it seems like a miracle of musculoskeletal regeneration, apparently ligaments should reattach on their own. Our bodies do pretty amazing things. I picture my ligaments, in the moments after the incident, whipping around and flailing like downed powerlines, just completely set loose and chaotic. That can’t be reality, but it is kind of funny to think of them like those inflatable crazy armed promotional men outside mattress stores and auto dealers.

Maybe a cosmic reason for this was that I couldn't let my friend, Jared, who was scheduled for knee surgery at the time, blow his summer solo; I could at least bear some sympathy pains. I'm going to put myself on the DL for a bit in solidarity with my riding/skiing partner. Although, when he told me he was "weight bearing" out the door of his surgery when I remembered how I went through 2 weeks non-weight bearing after my ACL/meniscus surgery in 2013, I’m thinking, “Fuck you Jared!”

“If It Doesn't Stop You, It Doesn't Have to Stop You”

Here’s the “Revenant” moment for me. [After seeing Leonardo Dicaprio somehow self-heal while evading bears and Indians, I compare every injury recovery to that ordeal.]
“If it doesn’t stop you, it doesn’t have to stop you.”

That's what I said the Friday prior to the High Point Park incident. [I like labeling my major injuries with the locations at which they occurred, it gives them a somewhat historical feel.] The context of that Friday mantra was after I got all the way down to Corner Canyon to mountain bike and realized I had a broken spoke. I could have just headed into work and made up the ride later, but I wanted to ride, and I didn’t want excuses. So I went back home, got Lexi's mountain bike, jacked up the seat and struggled through my normal pre-work mtb ride.

First of all, let me say that riding a 27 after years on a 29er meant I will never again complain about my bike choice (which I don’t do often), but for all those times I struggle on a switchback with my monstrous wheelbase and question if I made the right choice, I just have to remember that ride. The 1.5 inches less of clearance had me hitting roots and rocks that I usually cruise right over. I even fell over at one point -- not crashed, mind you -- FELL OVER because a root essentially stopped me in my tracks.

As I neared the top of the Clark's climb, thinking about all the excuses I could have used not to ride, and how I fought them off, I thought, "If it doesn't actually stop you, it doesn't have to stop y0u."

The Trauma of Being Stopped

Well, a sprained ankle did stop me.

I've had moments like this before, where within an instant of making a mistake in the saddle or on skis, you realize you've crossed the boundary between broken pride and a broken body. As soon as I felt that inferno in my leg, the sensation of my ligaments tearing, I realized that my casual Sunday now had a trip to the ER in the cards. I haven't been so certain that I was headed for the DL since a road bike crash shredded a hole in my knee in 2005 (now known as the Melon Valley Incident). As soon as that realization hits you, the trauma comes from realizing you have been stopped. I remember in 2005, one of the most traumatic thoughts of that day was, "Shit, I was going to ride Fisher Creek tomorrow."

It's in those quick moments that your mind goes into a hyper-bargaining mode with any spirit that will listen, "Please, let me go back. Let me change this. Can't I just hit the rewind?”

Then there is faux optimism: “Is it possible it could look worse than it really is?"

It's now 21 days since I sprained my ankle playing tennis with Lexi. All the goals I had for the summer were gone. A year ago, Lexi and I were camped on the banks of Ross Lake, finishing a long day of hiking from our camp at Lightning Creek to Devil's Creek. Now, spending 5 nights traversing the Cascades with 55 pounds on my back seems so impossible.

11 more days with the totem pole. And then physical therapy as I try to get me anemic right leg back into form. Here it comes.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Presence of Mind

As rapid as water runs, so does the present become the past.

Presence… it's not just on of Led Zeppelin's least favored albums; it’s the elusive white whale of my pursuit of tranquility.

I want to talk about meditation; it's something I've played around with for 20 years now, yet I never feel like I can say, "I practice meditation." "Practice" infers some ritual progression that's an essential part of my life. I instead feel like I wrestle with meditation.

Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac "practiced" meditation, at least if you are to believe what they wrote. Reading about Kerouac's visions while meditating in in the pines of North Carolina or on top of Desolation in the Cascades depicts the beauty and goal of meditation. I'm afraid I have yet to acquire any existential inspiration from my meditation unfortunately.

So I want to talk about the painful side of meditation. That seems to be the side with which I'm most familiar. While many practitioners out there cherry pick their experience, like Alta did when posting on Instagram this season, I'm going to share my struggles. I think we could use some frustrated depictions of meditation. I want to make those of us struggling with monkey minds feel a little better. Think of it this way, it would be like, if after you assembled that model Sherman tank as a 13 year old, and felt disappointed when comparing it to the picture on the box, you could flip the box over and see another image, this one with blotchy paint, airplane glue smears and a gun turret that will spell death for any enemy… provided they approach you exactly straight on.

Ironically, if you were to take my unofficial definition of the term "practice": making mistakes in the pursuit of perfection,  then I do practice meditation, much in the same way I practiced trying to catch fly balls as a kid. After misjudging yet another pop-up off my dad's bat that went over my head, throw my glove in disgust.

My makeshift altar on a trunk full of old Playboys.

Sure, when meditating, they tell you, "let things flow in, and flow out, then come back to the present." Sounds easy, yet I see things flowing in and desperately run around trying to shut the windows and doors, hiding behind the couch like I do when the missionaries come around, squinting my eyes and saying "Go away thoughts, I'M TRYING TO BE TRANQUIL GOD DAMMIT!"

A few weeks ago, I was asked to be "present". I tried, but I explained to the person that when I close my eyes, focus on my breath, and "be present" -- I don't feel calm. I feel like I'm trying to grasp water. The "present" surrounds me, plentiful and for the taking, but without a bucket, I'm stuck trying to grab it up with my hands.

I've mentioned in previous posts that, when trying to calm my anxiety, I think of a rock in the middle of a stream -- the future and past constantly running past this rock which  just IS.
By the time you see the future, it's already the present.

When I thought of the rock, the water, oncoming and receding events, it all seemed so ridiculous. Being present is like stopping time, not really possible. It lasts only as long as it lasts.

But that doesn't mean we can't "be" present. Equanimity surrounds us. It is always there, just like the stream flowing around us. Tranquility is as close as us, we are a part of it. Tranquility isn't something we possess, it's a current to which we belong.

Monday, May 28, 2018

What are You Gonna Do, Bleed On Me?


Very little says "you're old" more than having to take daily medication. For anyone with diabetes,  what I'm about to say is going to sound a little tone-deaf, but realizing you are now at the mercy of the "pharmaceutical industrial complex" is somewhat disheartening. And plus, every day?! I legitimately wondered about getting a seven-chambered pill box with the day of the week labels.

The cause of this "lifelong treatment" is what I refer to as my "Ragu blood", (although I prefer Prego, go figure?). Apparently, my blood is thick and rich, prone to clotting, and about a month ago was the cause of some problems I initially ignored.

It started with a cramp in the leg, then in my thigh. From past experience, I did think it might be Deep Vein Thrombosis, (something with which I've had past experience), but did you know if you search enough on the internet, you can find a rationalization to be both scared to death and completely assured that nothing is wrong? In spite of my "ignorance" method of self-treatment, on April 21st, I started getting this sever pain in my chest when I breathed. It eventually subsided over a few days, but when I went in for my routine checkup a week later, my doctor ordered tests that indicated I likely had a pulmonary embolism.

Thirteen years ago I was on blood thinners for 6 months when a major bike crash led to a similar clot in my leg. The dietary restrictions and periodic checkups were a nuisance, and that was definitely in the back of my mind as this latest episode prompted my doctor to say the words "lifelong treatment". But here's where I'm going to applaud "Big Pharma" and their annoying 2 minute drug commercials which make you wonder if they are the only ones making money in this world. As Arnold Palmer, Chris Bosch, and some random Nascar driver explained while playing golf, Xarelto is preferable to Warfarin and lets you eat lettuce and not worry about monthly blood tests. Who knew I would be the target audience for one of those commercials so soon -- thank god it was blood thinners and not that damn little blue pill.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Endless Streams and Mountains

In Sunday's post, I tried to reset my goals for writing-- refocus my intentions for this blog. Part of the strategy is to use a framework to write around when I have trouble feeling positive about what I'm writing. Recently, when sitting down to write, I felt like passion was getting lost between "ideas" and "output" -- probably because I could never quite decide what I wanted to write about. Inspiration never seemed to be my problem... commitment to a firm topic was. I thought it might help if my writing and a thematic and consistent germ I could lean on for those days when my creativity was nebulous. So the framework I chose was to use the words of Gary Snyder and other writers I admire as the germ for my content.

With yesterday being Snyder's 88th birthday, it felt especially poignant to start this project using his work. So I'm starting with the first poem in Mountains and Rivers Without End titled "Endless Streams and Mountains." This may seem a bit academic at first, like some sort of "poetry appreciation" assignment, but think of it as my way of keeping the literary tradition alive in a world of emoji's and hacked tweets.

A major chunk of "Endless Streams and Mountains" is a scenic description. A footpath along the water, mountains and fauna described in detail, it's all rolled out in a linear treatment as the narrators eye's scan the horizon. These flat pieces of nature are where the life is... in fact, the few humans in the scene are the ones that seem flat, as in this excerpt:

a trail of climbing stairsteps forks upstream.
Big ranges lurk behind these rugged little outcrops--
these spits of low ground rocky uplifts
     layered pinnacle aslant,
flurries of brushy cliffs receding,
far back and high above, vague peaks.
A man hunched over, sitting on a log
     another stands above him, lifts a staff,
a third, with a roll of mats or a lute, looks on;
a bit offshore two people in a boat.

At first reading, without any context, it could be a description of so many places that contain mountains and rivers: the Pacific Northwest, the Sierras, the Sawtooth. I assumed that it was probably some locale Snyder himself experienced, but as I near the end of the poem, the narrative changes. And now, the first line, "Clearing the mind and sliding in / to that created space." seems to stand out more.

The landscape is artwork, "created space", a 13th century (or 12th, it's kind of unknown) scroll which also contains comments, made through the years, by various owners. That's explained in the second half of the poem.

"Endless Streams and Mountains" isn't about experiencing a place, it's about viewing someone else's illustration of a place. In fact, the poem ends with the narrator walking out of a museum in Cleveland, looking at Lake Erie and saying, "Streams and mountains never stay the same."

We all see streams and mountains differently, through filters created by our own experiences. Lately, at times of anxiety, I've been using some images inspired by the Mountains and Rivers Sutra by Zen Master Dogen to help calm me. One of those images is imagining a large rock in a river. I think particularly of a spot on the Big Wood River north of Sun Valley where I've camped numerous times and just stared at the running water. There are some rocks all across the river, and they are not moving, even in the high flows of the spring. The upstream and downstream, the past and future, are of no concern to the rock-- yet as the rock is in the middle of constant change, it itself is constantly changing.

Poems, blogs, words, art, even photos are our opportunity to share our experiences with others. Just like Snyder says at the start of the poem, "slipping into that created space". At the end, he punctuates it with:

The Fashioner of Things 
    has no original intentions 
Mountains and Rivers 
    are spirit, condensed.

We choose to make our impressions in all sorts of ways, usually based on something we experience. I'm not writing this blog because I wanted to write a blog, but because something made me want to write a blog. There are no original intentions, for us or in nature... that's probably what makes nature so amazing; everything in it is the result of something else.

It's the impressions of mountains and rivers that give them life, likely give me life. And that's where immortality comes from.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Where did the ski season go?

The sunscreen in the beard adds a nice "aged" effect for this
introspective shot of an aging skier in an existential crisis.
Did we really every have one?

Over the past few years, I've maintained that this infrequently updated blog-- located on a domain I pay to reserve-- is my creative outlet. The title, "Skierssummit", infers it's devoted to SKIING, the activity that in many ways has steered my life, but I always intended for my blog to be more than just the typical self promotional "stoke-tool". This blog was my opportunity to exercise my literary muscles on topics I choose and I enjoy. Now that I'm in the technical writing field, writing for myself seems even more important to my life. But here it is, May 5th and the season passed with nothing written on this last ski season. In this post, I have a few brief theories I'll share as to why I never really got this blog "up and running" for the 2017-18 season.

The "Share" Culture is Much Different Now

Even though MySpace is still out there, good luck finding my original blog on that platform. Over 10 years ago, MySpace was where I did my most routine, public writing. MySpace was this new, personal web page designed for sharing and it made AOL look like, well, MySpace does now. Flash forward a few years, and with the advent of WordPress and Blogger, personalizing your blog became so much easier. MySpace was on it's way out, but blogs still survived. But somewhere in the last five years, we went from blogs, which were primarily "written", to Tweets and Instagrams, which are more impulsive reflexes.

If blogging was designed for "navel gazers" like myself to publish erudite prose on our passions, then Twitter and Instagram were designed for the primal screams we make when we watch professional wrestling or Chipendales dancers -- intellect is not necessary -- just be brief and let us know what you're feeling.

Look, I have accounts on both Twitter and Instagram. And I value brevity in any form of communication (Hemingway would have killed at Tweeting), but when so many out there are using these channels at a break-neck pace -- posting once or twice a day -- it makes the act of blogging seem like studying Latin.

That's one reason blogging has become more difficult for me -- the idea of blogging seems antiquated. The next reason is more personal.

No One is Asking for Another Angle On Bitterness

There was another reason for my lack of interest in blogging during the 2017-18 ski season. Even though I tend to relish suffering from "Early Onset Grumpiness", (I would like to try and make this next point without sounding like a Trump voter -- but it will probably be easier to just take a deep breath and go all MAGA): skiing in the Wasatch is changing in a way that I really don't like.

I spent 2 hours to drive up here... I'm
enjoying my cofeee.
Alta isn't the resort I remember. I distinctly remember, less than 20 years ago, reading something on their site (I feel like it was part of a customer survey they sent me) about how they felt fixed chairs were an important part of keeping runs from getting crowded.  Quite a middle finger to those looking for a Vail experience. Now in 2018, they've essentially sold the locals like me down the river in exchange for the vacation skier who wants to tell all their friends back in Jersey how they skied Main Chute. [Note to self, next blog is about me skiing Main Chute.]

On top of that, the backcountry is getting more and more crowded. If you aren't at Spruces by 9 on a weekend, you may not find a parking spot.

But the most soul-crushing part of almost every journey I made up the Cottonwoods this winter was the depressing prospect of battling traffic and tourists, even on subpar days. Thanks Ski Utah, you have turned my favorite recreation into a trip to Ikea on a Saturday afternoon.

Look, Alta can run their business how they want. And guess what, I'll probably ski there again next season.

And for all the traffic at the trailhead, Wasatch backcountry is still pretty sublime. Plus, I keep hoping the growing legion of "turn-earners" will serve as a bullwark against resort expansion.

And as for the East Coasters that now encroach on my turf... well, at one time, I was a tourist visiting the Wasatch. 

But despite all those rational responses to my grumpy reactions, every time I sat down to write this season, I felt like I was always typing with anger instead of passion. Coming at the page with a negative point-of-view seemed like a stylistic choice 10 years ago, now, it's just cliche. Adding a little curmudgeon to the recipe may add some humor to my words, but in a world where everyone tends to use social media to promote their idea of how the world should operate, adding my brand of bitterness to the mix seemed pretty banal.

I'm not a positive person by nature, so for me to come to this realization was no light matter. Nearly every blog draft I wrote this season seemed like I was wearing a red "Make the Wasatch Great Again" hat, and I just couldn't feel good about that. It would be different if I had some positive posts to go along with it, but I struggled to find inspiration for a positive post.

So What Will I Write About?

I turned 42 nearly a month ago. I'm firmly "in my 40s" and it's hard not to wonder where my life went. A week before my birthday, on one of the first weekends all ski season where I wasn't driving up the canyon or traveling somewhere, Lex and I went out for brunch downtown and visited Ken Sander's Books. I knew this treasure chest of a bookstore had some hard to find and signed editions by Gary Snyder, whose poetry and essays are always in my mind when I'm in the wild. Sure enough, they had signed copies of "The Real Work", (a collection of interviews and essays), and "Rivers and Mountains Without End", (a collection of poetry published in the 90s that was the result of 40 years of his work). 

I bought them both as birthday presents to myself. Admittedly, I already have too many books, but there is something to savor about owning "analog" literature. It's grounded in ink, the words are printed, they are permanent.

Where am I going with this? Back to my ideas for this blog.

Gary Snyder. To call him a member of the "beats"
is to vastly underestimate his contribution to
naturalist literature.
Adding to my Gary Snyder library led me to checking out his timeline and, at age 44, his Pulitzer Prize winning "Turtle Island" was published -- I'm just 42! I'm not saying, "I can win a Pulitzer" (I don't have the time or enthusiasm to chase that goal), but I am saying, "There is no age limit on sharing your message with people."

So that's what will motivate me on this blog. I'll write, with the help of Gary Snyder's and other authors work, a celebration of nature, the outdoors, the wild. Yes, I still may have an axe to grind on occasion, but when I read Snyder's essays, he somehow figured out a way to be an activist, a critic, an optimist and a poet all in one. If I can strike that balance, then I may be able to find more enthusiasm to write. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Flask Counts as First Aid, Right?

Jared gets video of AirMed landing in the backcountry
I want to talk this week about Leo DiCaprio's "Possibles Bag". [Stop snickering!] Well, more specifically, Hugh Glass's "Possibles Bag". For me, "The Revenant" was more than a voyeuristic 3 hours of backcountry trauma with a grizzly bear snuff film thrown in; I also saw in this story of man surviving against the odds of nature, a lesson for backcountry skiing.

It wasn't as apparent in the movie, but when I read Michael Punke's book, I learned the magnitude of the moment when Tom Hardy's character takes not only Leo's gun, but the small leather bag around his neck. That "Possibles Bag" (everything a trapper could "possibly" need) was essentially the difference between life and death for a trapper-- a small bag containing a little food, a way to start fire, a knife and ammo-- the essence of ultralight.

Still a few bridges out on the High T and
climb to Greely (skier Jeff Monroe)
In many ways, this was the first weekend that really felt like a typical ski weekend. Skied both days. A pretty good backcountry day Saturday on the relatively safe, low angle slopes of Powder Park. Then spent a short day at Alta on Sunday where I was finally able to ski the High T. I didn't take all the way, and we had to side step over enough geological specimens on the way to Thirds that I felt like I was mining, but the turns in Greely and Backside almost felt like I remembered to this powder starved skier. Every chair loaded on Supreme and I was able to ski Catherines without my Prophets taking any shots. (Yes, I'm still on my rock skis, but I think we're getting close!) Catherines being covered is a good and bad thing since it also means that the furlined jacketed tourists bootpacking all the way out can get another season out of their east coast planks. But even though it seemed like a typical ski weekend, events on Saturday carried a little more weight and made me question what possibly do I need to carry with me?

I've always struggled balancing weight savings with having everything I might possibly need; my 32 liter backpack fills up quick, even for a day ski tour in the Wasatch. When scrutinizing my supplies, I think "Mountain men got by with far less, you don't need it" but it never fails that I'm reminded later of something else I should have squeezed in.

At first, this could have been a blog about how ill-prepared I am for "nature's call". When I saw a skier wandering around the trails of Mill D with a roll of TP, looking for a place to squat, tt occurred to me, "I don't have toilet paper!"  That should demonstrate how ingrained my need to be prepared is. In my whole 13 years of backcountry skiing, I have had to drop trow in the backcountry a whopping total of two times-- that's it. Hey, it probably means I'm due. Being without some Charmin might just be my personal version of a grizzly attack.
Playing it safe in Powder Park (photo Jared Hargrave)

But I don't think it was any coincidence that earlier that morning as I looked at other skiers in the Spruces parking and questioned how much gear they were toting, that my need to have a Kate Moss pack collided with the need to be prepared. Because for the second time in my life (hey, same as the number of times I've number two'ed, coincident?!), I was involved in a true backcountry emergency requiring an air lift.

A young woman broke her leg while skiing in the Powder Park area of the Mill D drainage. Jared and I, with the assistance of a local guide educated in outdoor emergency care and another skier assisted her boyfriend in stabilizing her for rescue. While I watched the guide pull a SAM splint and "Eskimo Rescue Sled" from his pack, I realized how meager my first aid kit was. Tape, bandaids and moleskin wasn't going to do shit for her, or me for that matter if I ever got into trouble.

Now, the best equipment you can have in those situations is probably your brain. Knowing what to do goes a lot further than just having all the gear. Somewhere I have my thick Outdoor Emergency Care manual that I used when training for ski patrol over 10 years ago. I should crack it open and review a few things, provided I avoid that picture of the fishook in the eye. (Let me tell you, if that happened to Leo, it would have been over for me-- walking out of the movie.)

When I was 12 years old, I remember going to Boy Scout summer camp and for some odd reason (probably because I was an odd kid), feeling the need to bring my first aid kit to breakfast. Strapping that tin box to my belt like some kind of khaki batman was probably more about expressing character than any expectation that I would need to perform frontier medicine in the Bear Paw mess hall, but it was a microcosm of a tug of war I still have now: questioning what really is appropriate to carry for First Aid? Short of staying at home and drinking a beer instead of skiing, I don't think you can ever know what all you'll need in your First Aid kit.

So I'll probably make a few edits to my pack. Squeeze in that SAM splint, a few extra Voile straps, maybe even my CPR mask. But I'm also taking a somewhat spiritual approach to this, and that is in my concept of Backcountry Karma. That's the bank in which we, as members of the alpine touring community (the Backcountry Sangha as I call it), need to make deposit whenever possible. What happened to that skier on Saturday could have happened to any one of us who skis, and thankfully for her, some of us willing to help; but that has to just be an extension of the golden rule. We would want someone to help us. I know that won't always be enough when the grizzly rolls on top of you, but it has to count for something, it's definitely not a situation where you can ski on by.

Unless you get a fishhook in the eye, then sorry, you're on your own.