Saturday, August 30, 2014

Holidays as a Chance to Re-assess Your Sports

With the hordes coming out for one last fling (Labor Day) I made sure to get one last mountain bike ride in. Hiking works better on a holiday weekend because it is easier to escape the motor-crazed yahoos.

At first the slope was perfect (semi-steep) and the road was smooth. When it got rougher I got a bit discouraged, but then gradually got used to it and learned to like it. It does take some effort to see the benefits of rough roads.

But let's back up a step. I once had an outdoorsy friend who acknowledged that aerobic-exercise sports (e.g., hiking, bicycling, running, swimming) might be "good for you", but were dull and repetitive. He preferred sports, such as technical climbing, that emphasized skill and risk. He had a point that would probably help me if I would work harder on developing more technical mountain biking skills.

But there were times when it seemed like buying crap for his sport was the main attraction. There are many sports like that: they have their own glossy magazine that features an exotic and picturesque locale where one "needs" to go, once a year, to pursue a high-ranked version of the sport. (It would dishonor all that specialized equipment to go somewhere mediocre, you see.) A scuba-diver told me that the average enthusiast in his sport spent the whole year looking at glossy magazines, planning his annual trip, and trying to save enough money.

I experienced the same thing with sea kayaking, and gave it up before becoming a full time RVer. I didn't want the burden of carrying a kayak on the roof, nor did I want to be pinned down in the specialized locations that one needs to go to pursue an overly-specialized sport. And all that equipment! 

Now you might say that I should have switched to whitewater kayaking. But once again, it pins you down in a few specialized locations. I was a full-time RVer, and wanted to pursue my sport just about anywhere. And how does a single individual spot a car at the take-out point?

What about kayaking small lakes? There is some interesting wildlife in the marshy edges of small lakes. But kayaking small lakes is slow, unexciting, and takes little skill.

What this is aiming towards is the issue of choosing the right sports and pursuing them in the right way in order for your full-time RVing lifestyle to be genuinely interesting. From the examples above, and many more that could be given, let's see if we can educe the main principles:

1. The sport should contain a balance of physical conditioning, great scenery, and ever-increasing skills. If the sport is about nothing more than physical conditioning, how is it going to stay interesting when you reach the physiological limits of your body, age, and health? Furthermore, a human being isn't just a body. They need something to do with their brain in their outdoor sports.

2. Although just about any sport is more fun with other people, you should be able to pursue it as an individual. Let's face it, if you are always negotiating with somebody else about Where and When, you will give up. The vast majority of men are not the masters of their own time and calendar.

3. Get a dog. Rather than pursue your sport in solitude, share it with a dog. If you haven't been infected with the enthusiasm of a dog on the loose, you have missed one of Life's great pleasures. (So then, why are so many hikers cat-owners? It's a mystery.)

"I love this lifestyle, Pops!"

4. Many locations should be good for the sport, and these locations need to be compatible with your camping. The sport shouldn't pin you down to places with crowds, fees, and camping restrictions.

5. A certain amount of speed, and therefore risk, is needed to keep the sport interesting. But the risk should be manageable. The excitement of taking risks should not become a drug addiction.

It is non-trivial to choose land that lends itself to your outdoor sports. If you fail, the results can be over-crowding, accidents, or just plain boredom.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Sun Winds Down

It was better than a colorful sunset. Surprisingly I had never done this before: drive out of my way to a spot where the mountains didn't block the last hour of the sun. Then I made a cup of tea and sat on the front step of the RV and watched the sun set. What did I think? That if I sipped the tea slowly the sun would slow in its descent, and I could suck out another five minutes of daylight?

But the leisurely sipping seemed to honor the sun and season. It is that time of year again, when I always getting a funny feeling in the stomach and a lump in the throat. It is time to retreat from the highest altitudes. No matter how many times I have done this, it still seems significant and dramatic.

But why does this funny feeling only come at the beginning of autumn? It never feels this way in the spring. Shouldn't it be symmetric?

My best guess is that we gringo/palefaces have a tribal memory of winter: winter is dangerous, winter is suffering. To escape winter by heading downhill and southward is a very dramatic thing.

This ritual had been so pleasant and satisfying, I couldn't help but think about how informal and inconsistent rituals of any kind have become. In 19th century novels, rituals are mentioned so often. Were they really considered that important by folks back then, or was the novelist just filling the page with ink in an easy way?

The decline of ritual might be a part of the decline of Formality, in general. There is no distinction between people any more. The Young do not honor the Old by calling them 'Uncle' or 'Mister.' Men do not honor women with little gallantries of daily behavior. Everybody is on a first-name basis with everybody else. A gentleman and a peasant wear the same slob-clothing. Everybody listens to the same ghetto music.

Formality is undemocratic, I guess. We keep extending the French Revolution to more and more categories. When do we get bored with this endless leveling?

This slouching in the standards of civilization has been going on all during my life. But civilization can't just slouch into informality forever, or it would have ceased to exist millennia ago. When does civilization take a spike upward? Are those rare and rapid events in human history, followed by many generations of slouching?

Yes, I know. Grouchy old men have always had that point of view. I was rereading the beginning of Boswell's "Life of Johnson" the other day. Even back in the late 1700s Boswell, a genuine Scottish laird after all, was complaining how meaningless the term 'gentleman' had become in degenerate modern times.
[Samuel Johnson's] father is there stiled Gentleman, a circumstance of which an ignorant panegyrist has praised him for not being proud; when the truth is, that the appellation of Gentleman, though now lost in the indiscriminate assumption of Esquire, was commonly taken by those who could not boast of gentility.
This topic is too long and difficult for this morning, and I am too lazy. The only thing that is certain is that there is no better place to think of these issues than a land delineated by orogeny and erosion, a land of mountain and canyon, of lifting up and wearing away.

Extra credit to any reader who can identify this peak in the Tucson area where I play out the spring equinox ritual. In a couple weeks it will be time for the Autumn Equinox ritual of camping with the sun setting or rising on some fine topographic feature.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Long Term Love Affair with a Certain Type of Land

While selecting a new tow vehicle I have been aware of the disadvantages of having once worked in the automobile industry. Consider the analogy of four middle-aged male friends, sitting at a cafe after golf. The geography of their table makes for some pleasant and harmless girl-watching, at which all of the men except one consider themselves an expert.

The foot-dragger is a middle-aged, male gynecologist, who has been putting in unusually long hours lately. He tries not to be a "wet blanket" on the discussion, especially after one of the men brags about how "hot" his new girlfriend is. But the best the gynecologist can manage is a condescending smile for the sake of his friend.

But I wonder, does the world-weary gynecologist really consider his ennui a higher form of wisdom? Or is there one part of him that envies the naive enthusiasm of his friends at the table?

This analogy doesn't just apply to someone like me buying a new tow vehicle. It also applies to a longtime traveler and full-time RVer. We naturally feel superior to the wannabees and newbies who drastically over-rate scenery and escapism. But don't we "old wise" ones want to hold on to something of the freshness and naivete of the newbie?

These two situations are best approached from the point of view of the "Zest" chapter in Bertrand Russell's "The Conquest of Happiness." I have been forewarned by his book against the conceit of feeling superior to those who enjoy topography and scenery. It's true that I spurn bar-coded postcards and photo cliches. But these are passive and mindless. It is far better to select land that the mass-tourist doesn't whip out his digital Brownie camera for. There are several choices. 

In my case it has been a long-term love affair with grassy ridgelines. There is a fine set of these overlooking the townsite itself of Little Texas #2, CO. Today my dog and I took advantage of the end of rain and hiked up these lush, productive, feminine, ascending rumples, starting at town level. For years I have lusted to do this, and now we finally have. I was not disappointed. 

I even backtracked to the trailer because I forgot my camera. But it didn't matter. We got such a late start (0800, blush) that the best light was already passed. Next time, sunrise. 

Perhaps it does the reader more good to be teased into imagining these rumpled ascending ridgelines, rather than to be spoon-fed photographs that he can passively consume. At any rate, I have found my long term love, and hope that you find yours.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hiking Should Be More Interesting and Less Donkey-like

Clearly it has benefited me to do a fair bit of hiking during my years as a full-time RVer. It would have been easy to underestimate the pleasure of hiking and to get discouraged. I'm glad I didn't let that happen. Still, it would be nice if people who enjoy the sport even more than I do would divulge a few of their secrets and principles.

This would be far more helpful than the typical hiking blog post. Why even read the post if you already know what it is going to say: that they walked X miles and climbed Y feet along the Pioneer Trek trail; and that it took Z number of hours; and they walked to Emerald Lake, by way of Bridal Veil Falls; along the way there were some breathtakingly-beautiful wildflowers, sunsets, bunnies and Bambis, etc. Yawn.

Too harsh? Because 'the medium is the message,' the internet favors chirpy posts, globbed over with Photoshopped digital postcards. Must I throw in the sugar pill that 'there is nothing wrong with any of this?' But it is an opportunity missed. Trumpeting that opportunity is the theme of this post.

Walking for a practical purpose seems more natural and interesting to me than "normal" hiking, aimed at scenery and exercise.  But that is another topic. Today let's restrict the topic to "what can make normal hiking more interesting?"

Why do some people enjoy hiking so much more than other people do? To many people, outdoor exercise is a dreary or uncomfortable thing that they probably 'should' do because it would be 'good for them.' I think that this is the first syndrome to avoid. We should learn to want to hike.

1. Start early in the day. When you are chilly, you do want to walk. You don't have to nag yourself into it. Hiking tends to be a hot sport. It is slow-moving, and the air feels dead.

2. Don't aim at long boring hikes. Steer towards short, intense ones. Duration is inherently boring and donkey-like. Intensity is stimulating.

The best way of avoiding getting sucked into long boring hikes is to avoid car-pooling. Go somewhere close, and drive yourself. When you are bored, turn around and go home.

3. Other people can be a source of fun on a hike, but a dog will be fun  -- almost automatically. Obviously she must be off-leash to count as a wild and joyful canine. Study the dog. Let her infect you. Be more like her and less like a Camelbak-humped, bipedal beast-of-burden. A dog's enthusiasm is centered on being a predator. They are not interested in punishing themselves for being a few pounds overweight by hiking a certain number of dreary donkey-like miles.

See if you can adopt a predatory attitude towards what is out there. Hunting and fishing are more natural than typical, city-slickerish, Honda-CRV-driving hiking. But that would take us off onto another topic. Let's just say we need to find the 'moral equivalent' of hunting and fishing. Go off the trail. Get lost, get scared. Take a chance with the weather. Come back with manful boasts about what you did.

Finding a rare flower or rock, or sneaking up on wildlife -- and outsmarting them -- are other examples of thinking in a predatory way. So is nailing the perfect postcard. But wouldn't this contradict my usual disdain for postcards? Actually my objection is to mooning and swooning over beauty. It is too nambie-pambie. And beauty by itself doesn't make outings interesting.

4. Aim at trails that have a lot of contrast. Nothing could be more boring than claustrophobic hikes through an over-grown forest. Similarly I find a hike completely above treeline to be lunar and sterile.

The other day I was hiking along a ridge near Little Texas, CO. The forest would get thick and miserable for 15 minutes, and then I would pop out of it, off to distant views, and a cool breeze. This cycle of Agony and Ecstasy happened several times. It was glorious. You can find hikes like this at the lower treeline as well as the upper. This is frequently overlooked.

Imagine a hiking trail laid out along this serried ridgeline. In and out of the forest gloom, in and out of the view and breeze. The hiker would be like the sun popping in and out of the puffy cumulus clouds.

It is difficult but important to learn how to appreciate the positive side of Suffering.

5. Are you new to an area and having a hard time making a choice? Perhaps there are so many possibilities that you find yourself procrastinating and doing nothing. Then park at the bottom of a cell tower, and hike up its road. Many hikers think they need to be on an 18 inch wide, official, hiking trail. Not so. Roads sometimes provide more open views and faster walking.

There are many more techniques, and I truly wish that people who do more hiking than I do would explain what works better for them, and why! Don't just tell us What and Where -- we could get routine information of that type from the visitor's center.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Thinking Yourself into -- and out of -- a Hole

No doubt most readers have experienced dead-ends when they were trying to solve tough problems in life. Even worse, there is that dreaded feeling that the more they think about the problem, the less good it is doing them.

Yes, it infuriates me how large and expensive vans and pickup trucks have become. Perhaps the best way to start is with a sense of humor.

Consider the more-or-less useless car reviews written at the big name websites (Edmund's, Car and Driver, Car Connection, etc.) When it comes to a specific model made by Corporation X, their reviews are bland and innocuous. How could they be otherwise? The reviewer is at the mercy of the corporation for a freebie car to test drive. Typically the corporation flies the reviewer to the assembly plant, puts them up at the airport Marriott, wines and dines them, gives them a tour of the automobile assembly plant, and perhaps an interview with a high-level executive.

Even if all of this didn't butter up the reviewer, the reviewer has to realize that a negative review will mean that, next year, a rival reviewer will be the first to get the new car. And the corporation might become an ex-advertiser with the reviewer's employer.

So does this conflict-of-interest make reading car reviews a waste of time? Not completely. Reviewers can get away with being candid about entire categories of vehicles. For instance they are having fun with the minivan-ization of the so-called crossover utility vehicles. These are the vehicles that have virtually replaced the heavy, gas-sucking, truck-based SUVs that every other suburban soccer mom drove between the early 1990s and the late 2000 Aughts.

We aren't talking about Toyota RAV4s and Subaru Foresters. We are talking about the Chevy Traverse (and its corporate twins), the Toyota Highlander, the redesigned Nissan Pathfinder (better called the "Mall-finder") and even the larger version of the new Hyundai Santa Fe. These are good vehicles, but they are also thinly-disguised minivans for 30-45-year-olds who don't want to look old, married, and stodgy.

I was hanging out at a bakery in Little Texas, CO, the other day, and watched one crossover "utility vehicle" after another roll in. I noticed that the side panels were stamped with a slight crease around the front and rear wheels. No matter how superficial this was, it still made the mommy-mobile look more "rugged" and "truck-like". This trick really works! It was funny. (Serious trucks and SUVs have flare-outs in the fenders around the wheel wells. It is supposed to make you think of muscular shoulders.)

And that is the right attitude to have. Laugh it off, while continuing to try to beat the system, no matter how restrictive and idiotic the modern vehicles have become. In fact I noticed something on somebody else's pickup truck that might come in quite handy for a guy like me. Next time...

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Be Careful What You (Don't) Wish For

Before this, I had only heard an adult woman scream -- really scream -- once in my life. It was a college girl having an argument with her boyfriend. Then she started running down the sidewalk, with him chasing her. As luck would have it, I was the first person on the sidewalk for them to encounter.

"Pass" would be a better word than "encounter", since the latter implies a confrontation. I had decided, with only a second or two to think about it, that I wasn't going to confront the boyfriend, despite being a young man at the time, and therefore, a bit of a fool.

But I always wondered how I decided to keep out of it. Was there something about their body language or her scream that suggested a harmless lover's quarrel? Can a woman's scream be broken down into a language as a dog's barking can?  Dog owners learn the language of their dog's barks (plural) after a couple years of practice. There is something charming and Saturday morning cartoon-like about my dog's raven-bark. But her coyote-bark is completely malignant. (I guess it is analogous to a mainstream RV wife's assessment of bachelor boondockers.)

As part of the homework needed for buying a new tow vehicle, I don't find too helpful. It is just a male pissing contest about whose pickup truuuuuck is rufffer and tufffer than the other guy's. 

People with a lightweight trailer are better served by, even if you have no interest in that particular type of trailer. What matters is that their towing forum pertains to 3000 pound trailers, of whatever type.

One day was discussing the need for electric brakes. My cargo trailer has a GVWR of 3000 pounds and is not legally required to have electric brakes. I worried about whether I should buy a trailer with brakes or just take a chance. After all, new tow vehicles all have anti-lock brakes as standard equipment, and that is a big plus. But if you want to downsize your tow vehicle, 3000 pounds is still a load to brake, and if you lack electric brakes on your little trailer, then you will just wear out the brakes on your tow vehicle faster. Thus it probably will cost you money to not have brakes on your little trailer, regardless of safety.

The good news is that you needn't decide this in advance. Most single axle cargo trailers on the dealer's lot (3000 pound GVWR) will probably not have electric brakes, just to keep the price low. But it is easy to have brakes put on after-market at trailer repair/welding/hub greasing shops.

But I had decided I would forgo brakes on my little cargo trailer. Besides anti-lock brakes on the tow vehicle, I had no reason to tow during rain or snow. I don't even tow at night, nor on windy afternoons. Case closed. Simplicity, minimalism, frugality, and all of that.

There is such a thing as being too high up, too close to the big peaks when you are camping in Colorado. Mountains are cloud makers. I got fed up with the fog and rain of Crested Butte and decided to retreat to 7000-8000 feet near Gunnison.

In fact I fled during a morning rainshower. Didn't I just get done saying that I never tow when it is raining? I slowed down for a small tourist town.

Then I heard the woman scream. It was different than the one mentioned above. Once again it seemed like I only had a second to "do something."  Then a large white dog came trotting out of the yard. He crossed the highway, while being completely unconcerned about traffic. I hit the brakes and swerved, but didn't overdo it. I just missed the dog, and so did the other cars.


I took this as a significant and lucky warning. My arguments about not needing brakes on my trailer were a little like the bullshit people gave when seat belts were new: "I'm only driving to the grocery store, so I won't put the silly thing on. I'll "save" the seat belt for when I go on long drives."

The next day I made an appointment for installing aftermarket electric brakes on my little cargo trailer.

Adding brakes to a small trailer is a bit expensive ($600) because of all the parts and wiring. But it will cost a lot less to maintain the brakes, because the entire plate (brake shoes, springs, electric actuators) is replaced as one modular unit.


Friday, August 8, 2014

The Lure of Incomplete Information

If only I had a nickel for every time somebody said, "Buying a DVD doesn't make much sense, because once I've seen the movie, it isn't interesting anymore." They are correct of course if they are thinking purely in terms of how the story turns out.

But I prefer to ignore that issue and focus on identifying classic lines from classic movies. These become philosophical building blocks, comparable to Aesop's Fables, famous quotes and speeches from Shakespeare and the Bible, and the proverbs of folk wisdom.

The same thing can be said of classic jokes. For example, consider one of Jack Benny's, from the days of Radio: menacing footprints are heard approaching, as he is walking down the sidewalk at night. It  turns out to be a mugger. The mugger tells Benny, "Your money or your life." There is a long pause after that. Benny finally blurts out, "I'm thinking about it!"

There was a joke similar in spirit in Sydney Pollack's mid-1990s remake of Billy Wilder's "Sabrina." Harrison Ford played the money-making ogre. After his playboy-younger-brother is taken to the emergency room after sitting down on glass champagne flutes, the Harrison Ford character tells a business associate and doctor about it, on the telephone:

Doctor on the other end of the phone, unheard by the audience: " ... "
Harrison Ford: "Uhhm we have no idea. Mother thinks the glass flutes were left on the chair by some guest."
Unheard response on the other end of the phone: " ... "
Harrison Ford: "He's not going to sue his own mother."
Another unheard response.
Harrison Ford: "Well he's not me."

No matter how many times I rewatch this movie I always laugh at this joke. This seems odd, because I hardly ever laugh at the lame jokes of movies and television. 

What both jokes have in common is incomplete communication -- the audience must fill in the gaps with their own imagination. Without that trick, the joke wouldn't be all that funny.

But now that you mention it, isn't that the trick that increases our enjoyment of many things? I recently had someone, not terribly experienced at RV boondocking, email me for a list of camping sites in southwestern Colorado. I tried to convince him that being spoon-fed a list of such places would detract from his pleasure, since it depends of the effort of finding the campsites. Once again, it is incomplete information that creates mystique, fear and doubts, drama, and ultimately, triumph. Sure, I could have given him fairly complete information, but that would have reduced him to a passive consumer -- his opportunity to be an honest adventurer would have been destroyed.

I return to this part of Colorado (Gunnison) every year. There are no famous tourist traps right here, although they are close. The big peaks are visible, but off in the distance. There is a mildness to the sagebrush hills in the foreground that lends itself to dispersed camping and non-technical mountain biking.

It takes effort to bring my camera along on mountain bike rides, because this landscape -- that I love the crap out of -- isn't vertical enough for standard gee-whiz internet postcards, as if the world really needs any more of them, anyway. Sunrise and sunset are the only times when the camera does this land justice. But I don't really care, I'm not living for the camera.

A lonely Gibraltar of decomposing granite, set amongst a vast sagebrush sea... how's that for purple prose, befitting the travel blogosphere?
Once again I think it is the incompleteness, the subtlety, of this landscape that affects me so strongly. I like the big peaks off in the background, rather than having them slosh right into my eyeballs. It is like standing on an ocean shore, and watching the fog lift. Off in the distance an uninhabited island appears...

Monday, August 4, 2014

Just Discovered a New Blog about Consumer Culture

We all get into ruts on the internet, reading blogs that talk about the same thing every time, or are thinly disguised infomercials, or are mere boob-toob level entertainment.  I just found a great blog on consumer culture, money, and financial independence called Living Stingy. It is intelligent, acerbic, and full of common sense. Why did it take so long to find this blog?

The title of the blog is unfortunate. The writer really doesn't allow comments, which I think is a mistake. Well too bad, it is fun to read and written with mordant wit.

Admittedly I am a bit prejudiced when it comes to style. I like to see a writer observe concrete things that seem bizarre to him. Then he must try to explain those things, and in the process of doing that, the blog post moves towards more general and universal principles.

At any rate, give this blog a try and tell me what you think of it.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

A Practical Way to Get Started on the Origins of World War I

If you are interested in the centenary of the Great War but don't know where to get started, consider this brief article by Eric Margolis. Recall the old quote by the Latin poet, Horace, that "fleeing vice is the beginning of virtue." In studying the origins of the Great War, the first mistake you must avoid is the British bias, which is also the bias of Anglophiles in the power establishment of the American Northeast.

Many people see diplomats as empty talk, talk, talkers, as well as duplicitous scoundrels. But the diplomats at the end of the Napoleonic wars crafted a peace that lasted a hundred years in Europe -- not complete peace of course, but there were no general European-wide wars for a hundred years after their peace treaty.

But halfway through that remarkable century of progress, something new happened: Germany became a united country, and started industrializing and arming itself at a rate that soon threatened to make it the Big Cheese of Europe. The former Big Cheeses couldn't stand to see themselves become second-rate powers. It is not an easy transition. The Balance of Power in Europe simply failed to accommodate a rising Germany. 

The USA faces the same problem today. It must gracefully bow out of running the planet and let China take over meddling, bombing, invading, and occupying half of the countries on the planet. A lot of good it will do them.