Saturday, November 30, 2013

Getting Your Butt Kicked by 70-year-olds

Yuma, AZ. Before I lose track of the theme of last post, I want to use a tangible -- and even life-and-death -- example to pound the nail home. Novelists and moral philosophers need to give more emphasis to distinguishing the Tactical and the Strategic in a person's life.

The world is more regulated than it used to be. Therefore, on a daily basis, a powerless individual must follow all the rules and be outwardly conventional. Rather than write off the modern world as a glorified prison, a non-defeatist must imagine how Strategic independence can thrive, like mushrooms, even when growing in the muck of conformity.

On the way back home on today's bicycle ride, the Old Boyz were kicking my butt pretty good. This is a good thing, all in all. Two miles from the end we had to turn left at a stoplight on a busy federal highway. Despite the advantages to road-cycling in a group, there are still pitfalls, such as handling an intersection based on how the other cyclists handled it.

The pitfall is in thinking that what was safe for them is automatically safe for you. It ain't necessarily so. I handled this intersection poorly. It wasn't terribly dangerous, but it could have been.  

I should have just told myself, "So you are going to be dropped at this light. The ride is almost over, anyway. Who cares?  I want to live to ride another day." But let's not just see this on the level of "practical" procedure. What is the principle involved?

The underlying mistake was that of not switching from the Battle (not letting those old buzzards get ahead of me) to the War (long term health, physical fitness, and fun).

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Serious Traveler in His Own Country

I used to believe it just wasn't practical or possible for me to be a real traveler (as opposed to a sightseeing tourist). By that I mean somebody who visits different cultures, notices everything, asks fundamental questions, learns a language, takes on a part-time job, and shops locally. Expense was the first limitation, but there are others such as personal safety, health, and having to leave my dog at home. Many of the most enriching experiences would require the traveler to have a gregarious personality that could instantly charm a stranger's socks off.

Therefore it was a pleasant surprise to accidentally stumble onto the practice of performing at least some of that in my own country. The USA is not just one country. There is a rural/metropolitan split that is huge. When a camper goes out and disperse-camps, he even becomes more separated from the mainstream metropolitan-suburban culture of the USA.

And that sets up quite an opportunity for the camper when he comes in to the Big City after a long period in the back-country.  Each time I do this, I try a little harder to milk the act. It is pleasurable and challenging.  The opportunity is even more precious because it is short-lived: in a few days the backwoodsman will start to become inured to the craziness of the Big City. At that point, the travel-experience is over.

There are so many questions that pop into your mind the first couple days. Why do they do this or that? Why all the rushing around? How do they tolerate the noise? It is a life almost completely surrendered to phony pragmatism -- a life of chasing around after toys and status symbols.

You are tempted to spout off, but you know you shouldn't. The questions that arise in the camper's mind would be seditious if spoken aloud.  And the issues are vast. Normally a person procrastinates on a project that is just too big.

In order to knock it down to size, it has helped me to focus on the baubles and trinkets in a Best Buy store. That is the epicenter of techno-narcissism, noise, commotion, and hype. While walking through the aisles you can recognize one phony necessity after another.

But soon the magic wears off, and the backwoodsman becomes just one more meaningless termite scurrying around the termite colony. Now what? Now you must follow along, playing by the same rules as everybody else, more or less. Is this defeat?

The good news is that conformity on a tactical level need not carry over into the strategic level. An outwardly quiet conformist can be radically independent on a strategic level. It is difficult, but of fundamental importance, to appreciate this split between the Tactical and the Strategic.

You want an example? Think of Rhett Butler, in "Gone With the Wind." He acted the part of being a good Confederate when it was necessary. He mouthed the conventional platitudes. He even became a "heroic" smuggler who broke through the Yankee blockade. But he did so for his own profit. He worked for long-term personal success, and let the fools around him go to the devil. But he usually wouldn't come right out and say so.

That is a good attitude to have when back in the Big City.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Rethinking the Tribal Dance

Normally I'm not as slow in finding some significance to an outdoor trip as in the last post. I did mention that it was the best group event in 16 years of full-time RVing, and that the little spring was the first gurgling of water that I had ever seen in the desert. But now I want to try harder.

There was a similarity between the ebullience of the dogs and gurgling of the water out of the side of the arroyo. Think of the 'irrepressibility of life.' I know, it sounds a little corny. But it's true. Perhaps it only seems like corny overstatement because we live in an age when we can take water, the stuff of life, for granted. The early explorers or settlers in the Southwest would not have needed convincing. They would have fallen to the muddy ground at the foot of the spring's trickle and prayed.

If we can't appreciate something as fundamental as water, isn't it likely that we are handicapped in general when it comes to experiencing anything authentic in nature? Maybe that is why we see Nature as a visual Dairy Queen, and nothing more.

There's something about seeing two apparently-dissimilar things, and then struggling to see a commonality. It certainly raises the impact on you. It is what thinking is all about. There are other ways to think, of course. One could see superficial details and nothing else. How empty and sterile that is! Or, in the opposite vein, one could start with generalities (platitudes, concepts) and then notice only those concrete things that confirmed one's a-priori prejudices.

A couple posts ago I was singing paeans to rockhounding as the proper metaphor for so many things in life. And then there is the little matter of actually putting the idea into practice! How hard it is for me to adopt the attitude of a rockhound when it comes to my reading. Everything that a rockhound does right, I do wrong when reading. The difficulty of sifting through the detritus of books gets me feeling discouraged and sour.

Ahh, but I have a success story to try to please you with. Somehow I stumbled onto a best-seller from the 1980s, "The Name of the Rose," by Umberto Eco. I don't understand the praise given to this book by over-zealous reviewers on Amazon. But a good literary rockhound can still find a few things of value in the book. It certainly was a clever idea to write a history book, of the Middle Ages!, as a detective story.

Consider this little speech of the main character:
"...solving a mystery is not the same as deducing from first principles. Nor does it amount simply to collecting a number of particular data from which to infer a general law. It means, rather, facing one or two or three particular data apparently with nothing in common, and trying to imagine whether they could represent so many instances of a general law you don't yet know, and which perhaps has never been pronounced."
Perhaps the reader thinks that this is a beautiful quote. Let's hope so. Still, that isn't good enough: talk is cheap. For 4 points of extra credit, let the reader describe what is in common between the pyramidal topographical entity on the left and the squared off entity on the right:


But we don't want to over-praise the imagining-of-commonality as a "positive" process, and then belittle the making-of-important-distinctions as a "negative" process. What counts is that we lean against what is too easy to think. The desired result is a set of parallel tiger stripes of clear thinking.


Monday, November 18, 2013

'Best in Show:' Wild Canids in the Canyon

The reader might be familiar with the semi-recent movie, "Best in Show." The spine of the plot is a dog show, but it is not really a 'dog movie.' Rather, it's a comedic mockumentary about their neurotic human owners.

Today's hike in Zion country (southwestern Utah) turned out the opposite: it was the humans who were acting sensibly, and the dogs who were nuts. We had five dogs in our party, eight humanoid-companion-units, and a neighborhood dawg, Blue, who tends to join any frolic taking place on her BLM land.

As we drove up, I thought my kelpie, Coffee Girl, was going to crash through the windshield with excitement when she saw all these playmates. All of the dogs, no two alike and weighing from 10 to 80 pounds, got along beautifully. I get really charged up by the frantic synergy of dogs. You could think of this walk as a linear-BLM-version of a dog park.

Vertical wall of a red sandstone arroyo. What could cause such a weird bend in the whitish layer?

Up we all went, up the arroyo towards one of the famous mesas of the area. I was surprised to see puddles and mud on the arroyo floor. After about a half mile, we saw a tiny spring fast-dripping water down into the arroyo. Upstream, the floor was completely dry. I've never actually caught a desert spring "in the act" before!

Ahh dear, if only we had had a geologist along. (And you know who you are.) We saw the remains of interesting and scary collapses of sedimentary rocks into the arroyo. How can you know how close you were to being a victim of one of these events?

Atherosclerosis (plaque buildup and fibrosis) on the walls of the red sandstone canyon?

Our little tribe of RV-outdoorsmen put a couple more clicks on the ratchet wrench today, as John and Susan (and Carli and Jake, their canine companions) joined in their first outdoor frolic with the rest of the tribe. I thought of Star Trek: the Next Generation. Remember the "Borgs", who were always trying to swallow up (assimilate) human populations? "Resistance is FYOO-tile."

Looking from the inside of a void (in a red sandstone canyon wall) to the outside.


Then the dogs started acting like aliens from outer space. Debbie's dog, Rupert (half miniature poodle/half wire-haired Jack Russell Terrier), tried serial suicide attempts. His best one was getting on top of a 20 foot high embankment that was too steep to come down, especially the last 6 feet of vertical drop. He slid down to John or my outstretched arms several times, but he just wouldn't trust us and come into our hands.

Just then, Blue, the neighborhood loaner dog, climbed up to Rupert from an easier direction. She went right to him, turned around, and made an easy descent back down to the floor, as Rupert followed her. Say what you want about goofy dog-people anthropomorphizing their dogs, Blue deliberately rescued Rupert.

I braced myself as we approached what looked like a raven resting on a wooden post, and studying all of us. We were no doubt putting on quite a show. We decided that it was a mostly black red-tailed hawk. Most unusual. My dog, Coffee Girl goes nuts over ravens and sometimes, hawks. The next time we looked in that direction, she was on top of a 15 foot high vertical bank. She leaped off, onto a steep lower bank. She made quite a kerplunk when she landed but she was not injured, probably for the same reason a ski jumper survives as he lands onto a steep slope. But my goodness, how does a dog practice a stunt like that? What gave her the idea to be so reckless. (Rupert, probably.)


Break in the morning clouds just catches the topographic curvature.

On the way out we found a weird slot canyon through some grey sedimentary layer. Mark is threatening to go back there and ride down the dry waterfall and then down the slot canyon. Once again, the Rupert-effect is twisting one of the tribal members.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Whose Voice Could Be Out There?

Is that who I think it is? I heard what I thought was Mark's voice. My dog, Coffee Girl, perked up her ears. She too caught it. But where were they?

We were resting at the high spot of a dirt road that our friends were taking from their RV park (blush) in Virgin, UT. We had biked from the other end of the road, where we were dispersed camping.

It was dead calm, so maybe a human voice really could carry through all that hum-drum Zion scenery.


You can see the road in the left semi-foreground of the photo. And here they come: Jim & Gayle, Bobbie, and Mark, raring to summit on this road. 


It was fun to watch the gang coming to us on the summit. Better yet, the "incompatibility" of boondockers (me) versus RV-parkers (them) has been turned into an advantage. 

I was promising to take them down a secret canyon, and back to the main road. It would be the first time for me, too. But I cheated a little the previous sunset, and had walked up the canyon from my dispersed campsite. When I found the ATV road out of the canyon, and up onto the mezzanine of the mesa, the sun was setting. We got back to camp at deep dusk.


There was something symbolic about the voices that I heard. They were the voices of camping/outdoorsmen friends, lost in a vast scenic area. Regardless of how scenic it was, it would have been empty without them, just as my 16 years of full time RVing was emptier than it should have been because I didn't have a tribe like this to share the good times with.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Fabian Lifestyle Improvement

Once again it is winter, daylight-wise. 

A precise solar calendar of cliff and grassland. Just walk to the same spot every day.

And that means that this camper is once again fighting the Early Bedtime Syndrome. This is no laughing matter, at least for some of us. Nothing degrades the quality of sleep like going to bed too early. What if I could make a lousy two minutes of improvement per day? Just think, an hour per month!

In working on this project, you can't help but appreciate how general this issue is. Once I was biking up Snow Canyon (St. George, UT) and passed a mother who was towing a baby trailer behind her bike. In it was a 25 pound youngster. I kidded her about persisting with this hill-climb over the next year, and getting stronger and stronger as the child gained weight. She smiled and referred to some folk tale (or fable) about carrying a calf when it was young, and continuing with this habit until it was a cow. Five points of extra credit to any reader who knows the name of this fable.

Indeed gradual daily improvement of just about any kind is capable of producing enormous improvements over time. This is an old idea which we all know. In "Rambler #2" (Quotidiana.org), Samuel Johnson said, "...it is not sufficiently considered that men more frequently require to be reminded than informed."

But even more than being reminded we need a way for our active Will to act on this principle. Why is it so difficult to move from Platitude to Practice?


A scenery tourist in the Southwest, where the topography is dominated by erosion, would be most admirable if they saw in these "sermons in stone" something more than just eye-candy. If they could see the result of slow, relentless erosive forces, and somehow get inspired enough to incorporate that principle into their daily lives.

Human-sized slot canyons near Socorro, NM.
Not great eye-candy, but there are metaphors here.


Although my battles with the Early Bedtime Syndrome might just be one trivial example from a wide world of examples, it is a near-perfect avatar. Because time is easier to measure than just about anything else, it is easy to detect small tick-tocks of progress; and that means steady encouragement.

Recall the quotes from William James about breaking bad habits: what matters is not the size of your improvements, but rather, the un-interruptibility of your progress. Take baby steps forward if you must; but never take a step backwards.
_________________________________________

My title refers to the tactics of Fabius Maximus, the great Roman general. Those with a classical bent might enjoy reading the linked article on Wikipedia, and the classic chapter on Fabius in Plutarch's "Lives." (Gutenberg.org)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Seasonal Travel Style "Perfected"

Every traveler is prone to romanticism. Thus it is hard to admit that I have "arrived" as a full-time traveler, that is, reached a final "destination." I don't mean geographic location; I mean lifestyle arrangement. Nine months of travel -- emphasizing dispersed camping and mountain biking -- is complemented beautifully by three months of gravel-lot rental in Yuma. 

There are other types of complementarity: when traveling, I am alone, which is not the best lifestyle. During the winter sabbatical from travel, I get to enjoy my (road) cycling with as many as fifty friendly acquaintances. I also get to switch from mountain biking to road cycling -- these are really rather distinct, although you might not think so, if cycling isn't your thing.

After three months of non-traveling, the appetite comes back. This is both a positive attraction to travel and a repulsion from the downside of living in a boring suburb outside Yuma, the traffic, the train noise, etc.

It is not that you can't have a good time traveling in winter in the Southwest, but if you are ever going to take a break from traveling, winter is the time to do it. North America shrinks drastically in winter, so you are not giving up as much as you would to abstain from travel during the other seasons. Actually I think North America is largest during the shoulder seasons.

I am looking forward to reading history books and giving (classic) book reviews, while giving my blog a rest from travel topics.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Patience of Rockhounds

When we were camped in the wash near Moab recently, a half-dozen trucks drove by one morning. It took a few minutes before I could tell what they were up to. They were rockhounds.

How strange it seemed for somebody to be pursuing an inexpensive and, may I say, old-fashioned activity. The outdoor sports around Moab are usually more flamboyant. It's as if each tourist is locked in competition to out-glamor every other tourist, in a frenetic orgy of adrenaline and dollars. Since I feel drawn to just about anything that is out-of-step with modern times, these rockhounds started me thinking...

What fraction of the time does a rockhound come up with anything interesting? How can anyone be so patient?


Perhaps their patience isn't so unique. A dog sniffs for a rabbit, and chases across the field with all the hope in the world; and it usually comes away empty-jawed. How many times does a professional salesman hear, "Maybe. I'll think about it," before he actually closes a deal? What fraction of the time does a book or music hunter land something great?

Anybody doing anything difficult must fail most of the time. Only the trivial stuff can be routinely successful. What a great metaphor rockhounding is for so many things! And that includes the "piecemeal pilfering" theme that interests me these days.

When it seems difficult to be patiently hopeful, it would symptomatic of our times to get touchie-feelie and psychologize and emotionalize it. What interests me is how much of the problem is actually intellectual, that is, a mistaken idea, which as usual involves a misleading comparison.

I am prone to thinking in terms of "pie-charts." If some factor or component only shows up as a 2% sliver in the pie, I want to jump to the conclusion that it "isn't that important." That's just the opposite of the way that a rockhound thinks. Or take a walk through a pharmacy and note what percentage the active ingredient is!


Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Case of the Purloined (camping) Playmate

A couple posts ago I was celebrating having camping playmates who actually mountain bike. That's the first time I've been that lucky in 16 years of full time RVing. And they could even dispersed camp!

Sigh. The gods punish men who look too happy, lest they get cocky. My playmates have been lured over to the emoluments of an RV park. So goeth the Way of all Flesh. (Or at least married flesh.)

And what is the big attraction? Showers. Bottomless hot water tanks for taking a shower. At least I have the satisfaction on this pulpit of rejecting the extremism of both the False Prophets of the Desert (aka, the Ascetics), as well as the mainstream Sybarites. Few things are more sensible than a navy-style shower with hot water.  Effective and non-wasteful. One gallon is enough. It is helpful to visualize a simple graph of Benefits versus Gallons.

Remember that one of the quiet, but profound, satisfactions of RV camping is the daily discipline of looking at what you consume, and asking yourself whether you are at the point of Diminishing Returns. Don't think for a moment that a Man of Reason simply adds the vices of the Ascetics to those of the Sybarites, and then divides by 2.