Field Notes: Seeking Adventure, Reservations Required

A friend texted me recently agonizing over the fact the canyon up to one of the popular ski areas in Utah was gridlock and it would take them over two hours to go just a few miles. However, she included, “At least we have a parking reservation so won’t be turned back”. 

I constantly have to ask myself, why is this acceptable to voluntarily spend our time and money plunging ourselves into a self-inflicted cesspool of frustration? Everyone complains, but still we go. And ski areas aren’t the only places suffering from the haughty weight of overcrowding and overuse. Our public lands and parks are also experiencing the fatigue of “over-enjoyment”. 

In 1872, Ulysses Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Act into law and the first National Park was born. Later, Teddy Roosevelt would establish five National Parks and eighteen National Monuments during his tenure as President. Obviously, there was some rudimentary desire as a nation to protect some of our country’s most iconic and wild places. 

Those places, once seemingly worthy of adoration and protection are now relentlessly under siege. And while this fact is ostensibly acknowledged by all, the issue deepens. Predicting what was to come, Edward Abbey sarcastically proclaimed in his 1968 book Desert Solitaire, “Progress has come at last to the Arches, after a million years of neglect. Industrial tourism has arrived”. 

Although I prefer my secret spots in the backcountry to camp, mountain bike and ski, I have ocassionally camped in more popular public lands campgrounds. The experience is most oftentimes just an extension of the nearby tourist towns…overcrowded, noisy with an ambiance of anger and entitlement. It’s about the same experience I could have “adventuring” in the parking lot of IKEA? Again, how is this acceptable to anyone? 

There was a study published in the open access journal PLOS ONE where academics postulated that people’s social identification with a crowd led them to seek out and enjoy more dense locations. What? Does this mean our level of social identity and worth is measured by the density of the places we go? That seems like a horrifically despairing conclusion, but a quick look around and it seemingly has merit.

In the dense social media world, when people (influencers) find their latest Garden of Eden, they often love quoting Henry David Thoreau to add theatre and sensation to their photos. Thoreau was unquestionably someone who saw boundless value in the quiet contemplation of nature, so naturally his words are ideal for the experience. But true to the PLOS ONE study mentioned above, the experience must then be plunged into communal concentration in order to have worth and validity. And from there, the masses follow. This prolific social sharing and resulting commando-like assault of places perhaps isn’t the model of spiritual discovery he himself ascribed to, or would have approved of.

I too have read Thoreau on occasion, though I could hardly consider myself a practicing or conscientious Thoreauvian. However, something I recently read helped me understand a little of what perhaps makes Thoreau, his thoughts and his beloved Walden so appealing.

In David Gessner’s book, All the Wild That Remains, he makes comparisons to Thoreau and the literary works of Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, both poets, writers and advocates to the preservation of the wild and mystical American West. In his comparisons, he references Joseph Wood Krutch’s belief that Thoreau’s magnetism emanated from the fact that he was “a finder, not a seeker”. Stop and think about that for a second. Gessner then posits that all these men capture our imaginations because they found something, as he states, “that we ourselves, mired in our grown-up lives, will never find”.  

I suppose as long as the majority of society accepts this reservation only, overcrowded, frustrating way of life, the questions will keep being asked and the answers will remain elusive. Sadly, this could be the beginning of the end to spontaneous adventures. On a bright note, at least people not familiar with some of our great poets and philosophers will get to read their works via Instagram.

In crowds we seek and in solitude we find.

Climb high. Ski fast. Pedal hard.

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Field Notes: A New Lens

Exactly 120 days ago my morning mountain bike ride went from a pleasurable outing to a near catastrophic nightmare. The crash, which I still can’t remember the details of, unfortunately landed me in the intensive care unit of a Level 1 trauma hospital.  From there, the lens with which I view the world changed exponentially. 

The first couple of weeks following my crash I was primarily focused on managing the pain, which day and night was relentless. I was ceaselessly shuffling between the couch, a chair, a different chair, the bed, the floor or wherever else I could find safe harbor from the constant paroxysms of pain. 

In addition to the broken and rebuilt structural body parts, I also sustained a traumatic brain injury, fortunately not a catastrophic one. I was told not to overstimulate my brain while it healed itself so I should avoid reading, electronic screens, no driving of course and no loud noises or being around erratic movements. For a couple of weeks I essentially just moved from dark room to dark room. 

My brain injury mercifully healed quickly and I was assured by neurological professionals that all my cognitive abilities were intact, though I still needed to reassure myself I was “okay”. Having always found comfort in reading, I dug into my small collection of valued books and started re-reading my favourite compendiums by Hillerman, L’Amour, and of course a healthy measure of Abbey. I actually read nine books in a span of four weeks, something I hadn’t done in quite some time.

Being a photographer, I also spent my involuntary idle time reading more about the photographic virtuosos like Bresson, Adams and Ho. I read more about artists such as Frida Kahlo, who unquestionably exemplifies how art can emerge from adversity. 

At six weeks post-crash my wife was understandably skeptical of my brilliant idea of packing up our little teardrop camper and heading out for a little photographic road trip…skeptical especially given I was still braced and harnessed up. For me however, I was desperate to remove myself from that constricted emotional hole. I needed some form of normal life, or at least to get a glimpse of it again. If nothing else, I could take my cameras out for a ride and feel like I was doing something, anything. Thankfully, she acquiesced, we hitched up the camper and headed out.

Over the next seven days we chased some incredible fall colours down to the San Juans and explored long abandoned ghost towns along some nervy four-wheel drive roads. We spent an implausibly beautiful night in the open spaces of the Utah desert where the stars above were preposterously abundant and flamboyantly illumined. High in the Rockies we camped alongside ice-laced alpine rivers and lakes with nighttime temperatures dipping well below freezing. Admittedly, I needed help doing some of the things around camp, things I could typically do in my sleep, but that little excursion did more for my recovery than all the physical therapy sessions combined. 

Within two days of getting my medical leash slackened at twelve weeks post crash, my wife and I hopped on our mountain bikes and went for a ride. A week after that, I climbed a backcountry peak with a friend and skied back to my truck, twice. Anxious? Nervous? Yeah, it certainly messed with my head a little, but the more sinister, the more ominous thought was NOT doing those things again. I finally began to feel as though the foundering ship I’d been on had started to right itself again and I could begin to see an end to that execrable episode. 

The general consensus among a plurality of photographers is the focal length most equivalent to the human eye is somewhere between 40mm and 50mm with an equivalent aperture of f/1.8 to f/2.8, hence the designation of “the classic view” lens. Scientific sorts will argue the focal length of the human eye, based on the curvature of the eye and the average distance between the retina and the eye lens, will have a typical nominal focal length of 22mm with an aperture of f/2.1 to f/3.8.

Photographic acceptances and scientific postulates aside, I am 100% convinced I now see with a wider, faster and sharper lens on life than I did before my crash. The colours around me seem more exact, more brilliant. The details around me are far more comprehensive, more inclusive. My focus a little quicker, the big picture a little bigger. The appreciation of my life outdoors intensely more acute.

With my personal view of the life becoming sharper and more enhanced after this unfortunate affair, maybe my photographic pursuits will benefit as well. If Frida’s story taught me anything, there is beauty and art to be extracted and created from the most tempestuous of times. Here’s hoping.

Travel far, ski fast, pedal hard, live simply.

Map My World

I love maps, the real fold out ones, and have for as long as I remember. When my parents would take us on holiday it was always on a road trip out here in the west, usually pulling a camper. For the weeks leading up to the actual departure date, I would study the old Rand McNally fold out maps or a bound atlas of all places we were going. 

There was no Google or Siri back then to give me every detail of the route so I had to find the starting and ending point on the map then fill in the blanks myself. I’d carefully follow the lines from point to point, noting every town, every named forest or park and commit every highway number and every turn to memory. Once we’d leave, I would l follow along the map as we drove letting my mind sync what I was physically seeing with the corresponding place on the map. 

Of course every new town we’d come to was an adventure. Without Google, Yelp or Siri, we’d roll into some random small town and have no idea what the most recommended place to have lunch was, where the best coffee was or where to find the cheapest gas. Basically, we’d just drive around until we’d find a service station, then drive around some more until we found a café that looked “open”. If there was some sort of establishment promising a three headed snake farm or the world’s largest foil ball, well, then all the better. As a bonus, those mom-and-pop cafes always had free “local” maps in those cluttered information stands near the entrance so I would happily leave with a library of new materials to pour over as we continued our travels. 

I was never really all that big on buying a bunch of crappy souvenirs but instead chose to anchor my memories to points on the map. Okay, maybe there would be the ocassional leather chaps from Mexico or “must have” bag of polished rocks from a truck stop in Arizona, but those were one-of-a-kind treasures not to be passed up. When we’d get back home, I’d retrace our entire route on a map, and along with the associated brochures I’d picked up, could vividly reconstruct the details of every town, café, National Park, historical marker and point of interest (like the three headed snake farm!). I could spend days dissecting each section of the trip and put it all back together like a jigsaw puzzle. I would take all those experiences, lay them across a map and have a visual story I could commit to memory, ones that in most cases have lasted a lifetime. 

I’m not saying that I don’t use a GPS from time to time when I’m in skiing the backcountry or out mountain biking, because I do. I have a pretty fancy Garmin watch that tracks my route, measures calories burned, keeps me abreast of the barometric pressure changes, tracks my elevation gained, etc., and yes, I love studying the output and data when I get home. But even for the places I’ve been hundreds of times, I still love looking at a physical map before I go. If I’m going somewhere new, I’ll always take a physical map and compass with me just in case the electronics fail, and they will if you use them enough. I figure it’s like sailing across the ocean, you may have all the state-of-the-art electronic navigation systems available, but if they fail hundreds or thousands of miles from land, you damn sure better know how to use a sextant and a map or the results may be quite unsavoury. 

Today, decades since those family road trips with my parents, nothing has changed — I still love maps. Wherever we go, domestic or abroad, I still love buying a genuine hold-in-your-hand, fold out map and will spend hours and hours studying it before we leave. And yes, I still pick up those free maps and brochures in the information stands at service stations and cafes.

I love the tactile feel of a map, even the sound of the paper when I’m unfolding it (and trying to re-fold it). But more importantly, there is something that makes me feel connected to a place if I can actually see a paper map of it, use my finger to trace the places I might want to go, become familiar with the town names or see the graphic contours of the landscape and how trails intersect with them. Once I finally get there, all the experiences will begin to fill in the blanks on the map…the languages, the people, actually seeing the landscape, seeing the landmarks, eating the local food and all the other experiences hiding in the fabric of a physical map. To me, a map is nothing more than a story waiting to be told or another adventure to be had. 

Climb high, ski fast, pedal hard, live simply.

Invisibility cloak

At this very moment, I’m camped somewhere in Utah. It’s well below freezing outside but I’m comfortably burrowed in my little off-road teardrop camper, tapping away at this keyboard. 

We ordered this camper back in the spring of 2020 in anticipation of being able to hit the ground running once I jumped into an early retirement in the spring of this year (2021). Well, that was the plan, but the pandemic hit and all the global supply issues meant our little camper would be stuck in the build queue for almost 17 months. As frustrating as it was, I can say with all honesty it’s been well worth the wait.

We finally picked it up in late August and as of tonight, it’s night 17 on my way to a goal of 20 nights for 2021. With the snow falling in the high country back home in Colorado, I decided to come west where it’s at least a little drier. However, as I’m figuring out it’s only marginally warmer. 

In the roughly seven months since I’ve retired, I’ve come to some realizations about how I want to spend my time and who I want to spend it with going forward. That’s a nice way of saying I’m starting to realize just how much I love having time to myself AND how much I like doing whatever I want, whenever I want. I guess I never realized how accustomed to “noise” I’d become working in an office for all those years. Maybe it’s similar to living in a large city and not noticing the honking and sirens after a while. Some people find comfort in the noise of life and constant interactions with people. I do not. Sometimes I just need space to think and chase creative ideas around. 

I think one of the harshest realities of this whole COVID thing has been its actually forced people to be by themselves. For a world so connected to everyone else, I’m sure that’s probably put a large part of our society in a very uncomfortable place. I’m also pretty sure there are people who aren’t liking what they see when they are forced to look inward instead of only outward. 

I for one was built for this isolation. As a matter of fact, I tell people all the time that I’ve been training for this very thing since 1961. I’ve always loved having time to myself, even as a kid. I could occupy my time for hours by simply throwing a stick in a creek and following its journey downriver. I could sit in the desert and stare into the distance for hours, trying to pick up as many details in the vastness as possible. Part of becoming an Eagle Scout required I spend a couple of nights all alone in a tent out in the desert. For some kids in my troop, that was a traumatic experience! For me, it was utopia and I never wanted it to end. I knew the Troop leaders knew exactly where I was, but it was fun to pretend I was completely off the map and not a sole on earth could find me. 

Since getting the camper, I’ve humourously started thinking of it as an invisibility cloak. I can hitch this thing up and simply disappear for a few days. No internet, no social media, no news, no stupid politics, no calls, no texts, you know, just like being invisible. Other than my wife, I didn’t tell a single person I was leaving town, much less where I was going and how long I’d be gone. I quietly hitched the invisibility cloak to my Tacoma under the cover of darkness and drove away. I’m sure once I get back home I’ll have lots of emails and texts to delete, but until then, I’ll bask in the joy of being invisible.

So, now that I’ve sufficiently disappeared, my only plans for the next few days are to shoot some desert photography, explore some new trails and roads, sip a little whisky by a campfire and catch up on some reading. My only regret being off the grid at the moment is I can’t connect to my Spotify account without cell service, but at least I have my old iPod Nano for just such an emergency! I guess that’s a small price to pay for the privilege of being under “the cloak”.  

And now I hear the pitter patter of light rain hitting the roof…just as my laptop battery is dying.

Invisibility cloak…yeah, thanks Harry Potter and Hiker Trailers, I’m totally diggin’ it. 

Time for some sleep. 

Lost in Lobato

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A few years ago (2004) I read an essay by Alison Gannett in a holiday Patagonia catalogue. In the essay, she talks about wandering through Africa, looking for somewhere specific, but getting lost in the mountains of a place called Lesotho. By abandoning her “goal” for a short time, she learned things about the people of some random little village and more importantly, some things about herself. As is most often the case, the original goal is sometimes not the end game, but instead the journey becomes the purpose. This article has stuck with me for a long time (obviously) and to this day remains an important reference in my own journey through life. You can read it here if you’re interested:

http://www.patagonia.com/ca/patagonia.go?assetid=48936

This past week we did a little road trip down to Santa Fe. Instead of blasting down I-25 at the speed of lunacy like everyone else, we opted to cut over into central Colorado, do a little biking, explore a couple of places we rarely get to and take those lesser used roads as we made our way to the Land of Enchantment.

I don’t think anyone who knows me would be shocked by the fact I would take a circuitous route to get there, or anywhere I go for that fact. For a few days before leaving, I’d been looking at maps and reading about the areas we’d be driving through trying to get a little info on local history, interesting characters and some local’s faves for food and drink.

When I look at maps thinking about a road trip, I always seem to find myself tracing those dull, almost translucent lines across vast expanses between the thicker, more heavily fonted direct lines indicating major roads. The way it worked out in this trip was that I had a Point A (Boulder) and a Point B (Santa Fe), but connecting those points involved doing so via Point D, then Point E en route to Point C while passing Point G, but only after stopping at Point F. There is life in all these places and I want to see it and experience it.

Leaving Buena Vista after our first night and heading south toward New Mexico, I found myself lost in thought while imagining the area a hundred years ago and what life in those vast open spaces much have been like. As we continued on, I remembered reading about an old bridge crossing the Rio Grande and how at the time it was considered a structure “modernizing” travel by efficiently connecting some of these remote communities in all seasons. The Lobato Bridge eliminated the need to travel dozens, if not hundreds of miles to find a bridge to cross the river. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to try and find it.

We didn’t have a map with us but through my previous reading and tracing lines on maps in my office, I thought I had a pretty good idea how to get to it. My basic information was from the small town of Antonito, Colorado I needed to go east on Road G. Of course in the town of Antonito, Road G was not marked as Road G, but the totally intuitive 5th Street, or maybe it was 6th Street? I eventually deduced 5th Street (or 6th) would turn into Road G because it was the only road heading east which extended past the city limits. I suppose I could’ve pulled out my GPS, but what fun would that be?

About half an hour after leaving the pavement, Donna gave me “the eye” and asked, “Do you really have any idea where you’re going?” Well, I sort of believed I knew where I was going so I threw out some confident words and soldiered on east at 35 mph leaving an impressive contrail of dust — which would eventually settle back to earth without anyone but us and a few crows ever having seen it.

Eventually, that immense and vast landscape seemed to fall off a little and there it was, the Lobato Bridge. Built in 1892 by the Wrought Iron Company of Ohio, this bridge is the southernmost crossing of the Rio Grande River in Colorado and remains one of the few one-lane truss style bridges in the Western United States. This was state of the art engineering back in the day and probably one of the crown jewels for the Wrought Iron Company, yet it was now likely nothing more than a footnote in the county records of Conejos County…unless you’re me looking for these random types of things.

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Lobato Bridge in Conejos County, Colorado

There were no souvenir stands with commemorative pins and cheap 50/50 cotton-polyester blend t-shirts featuring Minions standing on the bridge and no 64 oz. tankards of pop on offer, but this was good stuff. It was obscure, historic, way off the beaten path and certainly contained infinite stories related to the history of the region. I looked around and could imagine a family traveling this way in a horse drawn wagon taking hours if not days to travel what I had in about 45 minutes. I imagined them being blown away at the modern convenience of this bridge as they made their way east or west across this huge expanse of openness and how appreciative they must have been for this simple bridge, something we take for granted every single day.

After another 20 minutes of impressively lengthy dust contrails as we continued east toward the communities of Mesita and Jarosa, we spotted a lone grave a little way off the road. Literally no one or nothing for miles and strangely there was the grave of Torrey Marie Foster. Who was she? How did she die? Did she die here on the spot or was she placed there for some reason I’d never know? I saw no remnants of an old home site anywhere nearby to maybe explain the situation. I honestly intend to at least try and find the answers to these questions about Torrey.

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The grave of Torrey Marie Foster, somewhere in Conejos County, Colorado

After another couple of historic bridge crossings, more singing along with Taylor Swift on our iPod (loudly and without shame), Native American Pueblos, random antelope sightings and more meandering translucent line following, we finally made it to Santa Fe, about six hours after we originally thought we’d arrive.

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Taos Junction Bridge near Pilar, New Mexico

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San Lorenzo de Picuris, Picuris Pueblo, New Mexico

While certainly beautiful and featuring some amazing food, the original idea of winding up in Santa Fe as the terminus of our road trip seemed a bit anti-climactic. Turquoise tourists working themselves into a consuming frenzy clogged every nook and cranny of the city making it near impossible to take a single moment to consider the history of the place or enjoy any of the abundant art galleries. We found ourselves feeling anxious and frantic instead of relaxed and inspired as we had hoped. I didn’t even feel like searching for and buying that commemorative rubber tomahawk I really wanted. We did manage to get a couple of good mountain bike rides early in the mornings, but that was about the extent of it. Honestly, after just a few hours in town, I think we were both ready to hit the road again and do some more exploring off the beaten path.

I know it sounds super cliché, but I’ve again pleasantly reaffirmed that for me, the journey really is the destination. I love staying off those thick red lines on maps and seeing where those translucent gray lines will take me.

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Backroads between Mesita, CO and Jarosa, New Mexico

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The Taos High Road near Nambe, New Mexico

I love getting lost in places like Lobato. And like Alison said, in the end getting to Santa Fe never really mattered at all.

Climb high. Ski hard. Travel far. Live simply.