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.