Field Notes – Backcountry Hut or Detox Facility?

My wife and I, along with a couple of friends spent this past week up at one of the winter backcountry huts here in Colorado. The huts are always rustic and simple, yet have the basic accoutrements to make life comfortable in the backcountry. There’s a wood stove and plenty of firewood for heat, typically a small propane stovetop for cooking, oftentimes they have some limited solar lighting, have platforms or bunks with a basic foam mattress for sleeping and for ultimate convenience, a pit toilet. Basically, being at a hut is a practice in relative simplicity. Most importantly, few, if any of the huts have internet or phone coverage.

Before the internet and social media were a “thing”, a hut trip was one of the low-tech ways of socially connecting with our friends. Two or three of us would come up with a trip idea, book the hut, then contact our individual networks of other friends to see who was interested. 

The trips were oftentimes physically demanding and downright exhausting for some, but everyone shared the same experience and was then tied together in some way. Under one roof, people from different backgrounds, educations, geographic locations and physical capabilities could be equals and those differences became assets and opportunities for expanding our network of friends. The hut became the common denominator where everyone could find common footing.

This trip was much the same. Though our friends were also our neighbors who we’d known for years, we had ample time without distraction to actually get to know each other a little better. We learned more about our families and how it came to be that we eventually crossed paths here in Colorado. We had time, the most valuable commodity in anyone’s life.

Pressing issues to be addressed while in the hut were occasionally putting another log on the fire, speculating on how much snow would fall that evening, discussing the latest books we’d read, exploring the origination and future of the Social Security Administration (and it’s benefits and of course), what podcasts everyone had been listening to and of course, what was next on the menu for that day. 

But hut life isn’t always so easy. Without the internet, we actually had to think and try to remember what actor played in whatever movie it was we were trying to think of. No instant gratification! The horror! Over the course of each day, one topic of discussion would lead to another and before we knew it, the number of rabbits being chased down holes became relentless. 

As we were packing our gear to leave the hut, one of our friends confessed that she had experienced some withdrawal symptoms from not having access to the internet. She said there were many times during our stay where she had a subconscious and even physical reaction to grab her phone to look at news headlines, look up a topic we were discussing or just surf the internet. She even commented that she didn’t really realize how addicted she’d become to having her phone at the ready.

I knew this “issue” was a reality for many people after having read a little about Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) and News Addiction Syndrome in the past, but I was still surprised by the comment. Maybe my surprise was borne from my own strong personal reasons for going to a hut to escape those very things in the first place. I am certainly no Luddite, but I guess I still hold on to the romantic idea of getting to a place where I can be fully present with friends with as little electronic distraction as possible. 

If I’m honest, when we got back into cell coverage and my phone started spasming with alerts for missed calls and text messages, I felt disheartened that my respite from cyber connectivity was over. I did however have three and half more hours of driving ahead and intended to milk out every second of being “away”.  With that in mind, I even chose my antiquated iPod Nano to serve as our DJ for the drive instead of Spotify just to stay “disconnected” for a little while longer. When I was back home and had everything unpacked and I was properly showered up, only then would I check back in on the cyber world.

I always hope to return from any trip, domestic or abroad, big or small, with something tangible or positive to take forward. Sometimes it’s a new “backcountry” recipe that was implausibly created over a crude flame or maybe a newfound appreciation for a different culture. Sometimes it might be a small, offbeat comment someone makes along the way that will serve as a daily reminder of why I was in that place to begin with. This time it was indeed that offbeat comment.

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


Field Trip: Taos, New Mexico – A Photography Road Trip

Back in the 60s and 70s, my family would drive endlessly around the desert Southwest, sometimes enroute to Southern California to visit relatives. Though I probably didn’t realize it at the time, those trips were likely the gateway drug to my insatiable craving for road trips today. The white sands in New Mexico, Saguaro cactus and ghost towns in Arizona, cafes along Route 66, the beaches of Southern California…my youthful eyes and mind eagerly devoured these types of things.  

Today, there are of course a few differences. For instance, now I’m in the driver’s seat instead of the backseat and instead of packing a shoebox full of 8-tracks or cassette tapes, I’ll freshen up my Spotify library and podcast playlists. Those minor differences aside, the essence remains the same…a blank slate of possibilities, endless stories and potential adventures. 

Recently, needing to get out of the snow and cold for a few days, we took a little mini road trip to Santa Fe to visit friends. Santa Fe, and New Mexico in general, has always been our “go-to” when we need a mini reset and a little art inspiration. While there, our friends unexpectedly gifted me a set of film cameras, all of which were once used by his father. The camera that immediately caught my attention was a Kodak Retina IIIC Rangefinder. 

According to the serial numbers, it was manufactured circa 1957 by Kodak AG in Berlin, Germany. I love old cameras and to me that camera, working or not, was a piece of art. The Retina series of cameras was the vision of George Eastman and German camera designer, Dr. August Nagel (also co-founder of Zeiss). This collaboratively built camera was envisioned to be a competitor to the photographic icons of Leica, Voigtlander and Hasselblad and though it never attained the longstanding gravitas of those legacy names, the Retina was still considered a viable contender for the time. 

Upon returning to Colorado, I immediately began trying to figure out if the camera worked and if so, how to operate it. Not surprisingly, before I ever loaded the first roll of film, I knew I’d have to take it on a road trip, partly to pay homage to its history, but also to introduce it to a new life and make it a part of my perpetual longing for simple, analog ways. It seemed only natural we should go back to New Mexico to take the first photos with the camera, or at least try.

I’ve been around photography my entire life, early on from my father’s Agfa cameras and mysterious garage darkroom, to my first real camera, a 1980s Canon AE-1, and all the iterations thereafter up to my current Nikon Z digital systems. However, drifting back into film has planted a creative seed I haven’t had in quite some time. To that end, I ordered the necessary equipment to develop my own film at home as well as a 35mm film scanner. I know the full commitment would have been to set up my own darkroom and that idea certainly hasn’t been dismissed.

Our trip back down to Taos had all the elements of a classic road trip. What should have taken us four hours easily took us double that. We stopped at unassuming places along the way to take a photo, to explore, to dine at a local cafe and to learn a little history of places we’ve typically cruised through at highway speeds — slow and steady, taking in every detail.

We also experienced some dreadful weather in the form of ferocious winds and snow squalls which made travel challenging and unpredictable, the exact weather we were hoping to escape. Additionally, places we had hoped to visit were closed for cultural ceremonies or simply lack of employees. But in classic road trip fashion, closed doors and unanticipated roadblocks led to unexpected adventures and extraordinary discoveries. It was of course, “imperfectly perfect”. 

As for the film photography efforts, I’ll offer that it was as challenging as it was rewarding. Shifting back to the totally analog process from my familiar digital work flow took measured thought and deliberate patience, sometimes practiced in driving snow. Loading film or threading a cable release with frozen fingers was sometimes an ambitious effort. Interpreting an analog light meter, calculating exposure values, making aperture and shutter speed decisions without the convenience of chimping all forced me to slow down and thinkrethinkthen just cross my fingers before activating the shutter. Daunting and exhilarating. 

The photos themselves certainly can’t or won’t be considered earth-shattering or avant-garde in photography circles, but the amount of work I put into them gave me an appreciation for the process I rarely get from my digital work. No instant gratification, just learning something new, practicing patience, embracing the unexpected and anticipating the promise of what might be — the exact same elements I pursue when setting off on a classic American road trip.   

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

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.

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.

Field Notes: 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.

Field Trip: 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.