Wednesday, July 29, 2015

How Do You Tow a Van and Trailer BACKWARDS?

I was headed up the mountain for a favorite dispersed campsite of mine, in my van and small cargo trailer. Naturally I was nervous about a certain muddy rutted area, an area that has been touch-and-go in the past. But it was unusually dry there last night, so I plunged in confidently. Over-confidently as it turned out. And you think hubris is an ancient superstition?

1. Don't make it any worse. When you start spinning, you might as well stop. If ground clearance is a problem, you don't want to let air out of your tires.
2. Be patient, be calm; which was more difficult here because there was no cellphone service. Wait for a local person to show up. In fact, they did. But I had to spend a night camping in muddy holes. Actually it was pretty flat, and absolutely quiet. I slept well. Try to see a disaster as an adventure.
3. I was essentially on a one-lane deadend road. No tow truck could get in front of me to pull me forward, the usual way of being pulled out.
4. Can you be pulled backward when you are pulling a trailer? There is nothing strong on the trailer to grab with a hook. You certainly don't want to put the tow rope around the axle or spring hardware. Even if you bolted a towing hook onto the frame rails of the trailer, the stress needed to move the van will be transmitted through the weaker trailer. Not good: the strength of the trailer frame is meant for the trailer only. (The van weighs twice as much as the little trailer.)

The local folks talked me into surrendering gracefully and accepting a ride into Gunnison CO. (Oh what a blessing it is to not be macho, proud, and stubborn when the time comes!) 

There was a good local tow-truck company, but they weren't part of the Coach-Net network. Nevertheless Coach-Net paid the local company cash to come out and get me. Isn't that wonderful? It was much better than sending a tow-truck from a metropolitan area four hours away. Local tow companies are not only closer, but they have experience with the bad spots on the road, in question.

So what did the tow truck driver grab onto, to pull both rigs backwards out of the muddy ruts? He didn't! He pulled me forward. But wait, you say, how can he pull you forward when the tow truck is behind the van + trailer?

This is the first time I saw a winch being used. He extended the winch cable from the tow-truck to the first big tree in front of the van, looped backwards to the van, and hooked up the usual way. Thus the 6 inch diameter aspen tree served as a (stationary pseudo-) pulley.

After three feet of towing, I was out of trouble. Maybe I should go back to carrying a "come-along", that is, a hand-operated winch. I might have been able to do this myself. Still, this is the first time in 18 years of full-time RVing when a winch made a difference. The individuality of "I am stuck" situations is perversely fascinating.

So here is the guy who always complains about overly-thick national forests, who was saved by the fact that there was a tree nearby. My goodness, what if this had happened in the sagebrush or desert? (The tow truck might be able to drive around the stuck vehicle if it just means trampling some grass or sagebrush, but what if a large cactus was blocking the path? Or big ditches on both sides?)

So what is the moral of the story, besides getting Coach-Net towing insurance? (Thank you, John and Susan.) Most of the risk is concentrated on the outbound trip away from the main road. Also, consider the advantage of camping with the front of your rig facing the main road. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Failure to Summit

It is quite a balancing act to find the perfect topography for mountain biking: mountains and canyons that are fun to look at, but are not so harshly vertical to make pedaling a wheeled machine impossible.

There is a beauty to land that is felt rather than seen; felt from the pressure in your feet, butt, and legs. When steering, shifting gears, or leaning your weight, you feel the land like a wind surfer or sea-kayaker feels the surf of the sea.

On the way back we passed a group of hikers who were getting out of their motor vehicles (their most important outdoor equipment, after all) and getting organized to climb the nondescript mountain in the photo, above. There was something un-stereotypical about them that pulled me in. Perhaps it was the high dog/hiker ratio. Maybe it was the vehicles: not a single Honda CR-V or Subaru Forester in the bunch. And everybody was wearing long pants, long-sleeve shirts, and broad brimmed hats. (They were from Arizona.)

They were attempting the trick that I had been thinking about: taking an ATV trail partly up the nondescript mountain, bushwhacking through a dead spruce forest, and then, hopefully, popping out onto that beautiful flowery and grassy ridgeline, for a soft boustrophedon walk to the top.

The next day I came back and tried it. The ATV trail turned out to be flattish and smooth enough. But where was the point to cut away from it and bushwhack through the dead forest? I had hoped to see better through the dead forest, and to get a peek at a bright green spot, the tell-tale hint of the desired grassy ridge.

No such luck. Eventually I realized that the chance was missed. Now what? What a desirable question that is! It is fun to be stymied by nature. To hell with maps or GPS gadgets. Let it be an honest duel between the mountain and the man, with only the sun to steer by.

Would the ATV trail eventually give me a peek through the dead forest to the giant "park" (meadow) that dominates this area? If so, I could tromp my way back to the dirt road.

This time, it worked. We emerged onto miles of open and soggy meadow, graced with una brisa fresca. There is no pleasure sweeter than feeling openness and a breeze after the buggy claustrophobia of a dense and vista-free forest. I felt giddy, and wanted to put my arms out wide and start turning, like Julie Andrews at the beginning of "Sound of Music."

Ahh but Mother Nature still had a few tricks up her sleeve. The meadow looked dry on top. But you never knew when your step down would produce a squish. I was finally appreciating Gore-Tex hiking boots! The meadow was a plurality of semi-parallel swales. A swell word, 'swale', and this is the year for it. One syllable, fun to say, and of "origin unknown" according to Merriam-Webster.

The grassy part of the meadow fell off into a bushy part. One has to be careful not to be suckered into supposed through-routes of grass, only to land in a cul-de-sac of unwalkable bushes.

This was great sport. It was like kayaking through a marshy estuary, and keeping your senses attuned to the slightest current in the water, which might suggest a through-route, and finally debouch into an open bay.

Out in the middle of the soggy meadow there was a good view of the mountain that I had somehow missed:

From this angle it looks so easy to find the isthmus to the soft curves of the mountain.

There is a certain type of land that brings a smile to my face, and why shouldn't it? No shape is more pleasing to the fevered male imagination than a reclining earth-goddess:

Stripped of modern perversions of nature, and spurning the prudishness of the virginal Henry David Thoreau, there is no reason to be uni-sex or puritanical when "nature-writing." Nature means all of nature, not just some of it.

Instead, let us embrace the timeless classics of Mythology 101, by seeking out productive land that embodies the Female and Mother principle, while consigning the Male principle to the sky...

...with all his bombast, showing off, and undependability.

Or better yet, consider the brief drama of the two opposite Principles temporarily cooperating with each other:

Be that as it may, was I ever going to make it back to the van? It helps to look for rocky lines through the soggy meadow, because you stay dry along them. I successfully navigated my way through the bushy cul-de-sacs, only to end up in larger cul-de-sacs of meadows and dead trees. But we kept on until the dirt road could be peeked at through the dendrological detritus of the Rio Grande national forest.

Out we popped onto the dirt road, and just a few feet away from my big white van. An unsuccessful summit, but a successful meandering loop.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Can Old People Still Learn?

It is funny how a somewhat vague idea can grab you sometimes. But you suspect that there is something valuable hiding in that vagueness, so you wrestle with it on a blog. It might be one of the better reasons for blogging.

Currently I'm on a 'learning counter-intuitive habits' kick. I am beginning to see the development of new habits and capabilities as an example of learning at its best. Think how far it is above the learning of a mere factoid.

But this is not a sermon for developing sheer willpower, like some crazed Puritan, and forcing yourself to develop a new habit which actually repels you, but which you have come to believe is 'good for you.'

Rather, it is about the exquisite tipping point, half-way from habit A to habit B, as if you were trapped in a Escher print.  


Wasn't it Edward Abbey's "Desert Solitaire" that described the transition of Arches National Park into an over-improved tourist trap, replete with a paved auto-loop, visitor's center, and entrance fees? You could probably walk into a bookshop, head to the "Travel" section, and find a book with a title like, "Top Ten Auto Loops in America's National Parks."

Indeed, the human mind has a predisposition to loop-routes, rather than out-and-backs. I did too of course, at the beginning of my RV career. I wondered if I would ever find enough loops to make bicycling (or hiking) a big part of the Good Life.

My inclinations were just the opposite of geographical reality: most dirt roads started at the side of a secondary road; then they headed up into the mountains, getting steeper and rockier as they climbed. Finally they just crapped off altogether, perhaps at an old mine, abandoned ranch, or water tank, or at an impossibly vertical side of a mountain. You could only turn around and come back down.

This seemed so disappointing and frustrating. After all, wouldn't I see the same thing again? How would that be any fun?

But reality eventually won. Instead of a 'grin and bear it' attitude towards geographical reality, I came to think of it as 'my idea.' Over time I became addicted to the rhythm of the out-and-back. The scenery didn't look the same on the way down, because I seldom looked backwards on the way up. The relationship between the dog and the mountain bike reversed itself on the way down. Instead of getting an aerobic blowout, I got lazy, thought about safety, and enjoyed the scenery on the coast back down. It seemed like eating dessert.

Thus a "problem" turned into a new habit, Counter-intuitive Habit #3, Enjoying out-and-back trips. It might have been the first success in my new lifestyle.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Counter-intuitive Habit #2: Navy Showers

Well, thank goodness that last post is over. It doesn't happen very often: this blogger flipping into "prophet" mode, and coming down from the mountain top with stone tablets, full of warnings and proscriptions to the Children of the Wheel.

So let's just reiterate the bottom line: Counter-intuitive habit #1 = Learning to start an outing going downhill, when it makes sense.

At the moment I am trying to entice a friend to come up and camp with me. She has the most perfect rig I have ever seen for hook-up-free camping, down dirt roads, on public land. And coming from me, that is worth something. It is a "Tiger." In fact, considering how illogical most people's rig-choices are, it might make sense to say that choosing a Tiger is on our official list of counter-intuitive camping habits. Let's let that stew awhile...

Unfortunately I suspect that she is still a slave of "real" showers, as one gets at New Mexico's state parks. My sermons have not inspired her to renounce sin, apparently.

Very well then, when I was a lad my father, a sailor in World War II, was disgusted with the wasteful and decadent showers that I always took. A hundred times he said something like, "We only got a gallon and a half per day on the ship, and that was for Shit, Shower, and Shave." I was not impressed. I would just park myself under the hot spray, and count on erosion to do the job. I barely used a wash cloth. The shower only ended when the water turned cool. Thus, when I started dispersed camping without hookups, I really wondered if I was doomed to failure. 

It helped to break the problem into pieces, and to use words exactly. The sheer quantity of water was not my weakness -- the temperature was. To this day, I despise swimming in cool water. But as long as the water was plenty hot, it turned out to be pretty easy to be happy with less of it.

That is particularly true if you want to minimize trips to somebody's water spigot, and you want to minimize the weight and cost of camping. Water is the heaviest thing that you have discretionary control over.

As with any habit that initially appears abstemious and puritanical, I helps to visualize it in a positive way. Believe it or not, I get pleasure from visualizing a molecular layer of surfactant and a couple layers of water molecules starting at my head and running downhill, until they exit at the toes. I know that sounds silly, but it works.

Although it takes a certain amount of trouble to set up the shower in a small rig like mine, this can be turned into a positive thing if you visualize it as a "sacred" ritual, or at least the moral equivalent of cultural rituals like "getting the tea going" or entertaining guests with a complete meal. Let it be leisurely -- it helps you savor it more.

Or consider reading a broad historical survey of human civilization. Think of how important water has been! You could easily make a long list of turning points where water was crucial. And if that isn't enough, consider how much of your own rotting carcass is water. But does anyone living in a First World economy every dwell on such things, deliberately? Wouldn't it be great to actually appreciate this marvelous and fundamental material? You do that every time you take a navy shower. And it isn't just sentimental abstraction -- the appreciation is solid and real.

My success at converting to navy showers was helped by avoiding the "back and forth" syndrome. Most people are more successful at eliminating bad habits if they snap over to the new habit all at once, and never "reward" themselves by backsliding into sin. There is a fine quote from William James on that, if I could find it.

Aw hell, I'm wasting my breath. Trying to talk a damn woman into navy showers is like convincing her she can be happy without Bed Bath and Beyond, or Trader Joe's, or Costco.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Developing Counter-intuitive Habits When Camping

I just got back from an unusual mountain bike ride, that is, one in which I was successfully miserable. It started going downhill. Oh what a sinking feeling that is, literally and figuratively! It is so easy to dig a hole for yourself so deep that digging out of it will be pure misery. The same could be said of hiking down into a canyon at the beginning of a hike.

Consider for a moment how unnatural it is: when you were a child, your mother trained you to finish off your carrots and peas first -- bleah! -- before you earned dessert. That is the feeling you get starting a mountain bike uphill. You can get so addicted to the rhythm of depleting yourself on the ascent and to the smug satisfaction of resting at a scenic high spot, before turning around and whooping it up on the descent.

Now consider the opposite: descending at the beginning, and being chilly. When you turnaround now, it is later in the morning, and you are digging out of your hole in warmer air. That is just plain perverted!

And yet, when camping high in the summer to stay cool, you find most of the roads below you. So what are you going to do but start your rides downhill? It is useful to be able to learn to like this sort of thing, and I was practicing today. 

I have discovered a trick of the trade, and wrote it up in the tab at the top of the screen, "Summiting: Ideals and Suffering." Imagine taking some famous philosophers along with you on this ride: half of the bike club consists of ascetics, poets, Romantics, early Christians, Thomas Carlyle, and Nietzsche.

The other half of the club consists of that dreary string of Utilitarian philosophers, such as Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill. (Ralph Nader would be a good addition to this list.) These are the people that Charles Dickens satirized as "Professor Gradgrind" in one of his novels.

'The greatest good for the greatest number'? The 'avoidance of pain.'? Comfort, utility, safety, long life, standard of living, and quantity as the standards of value? How does any of those maxims help when you are digging your way out of your hole, you are hot, your shin is banging the pedal, and you are twisted sideways to push the damn bike?

But the other half of the bike club tells you that your voluntary Suffering is noble, manly, and glorious. As you fixate on this vision, you do start to cheer up. You develop a disdain for the complaints of this rotting carcass known as a human body. "Reality" exists in an Ideal, not in flesh. And you do surmount the challenge. (If it doesn't kill you, that is.) People, that I would ordinarily poke fun at, have actually given me advice more practical than all the pragmatists, utilitarians, materialists, and men of common sense put together.

I am still looking for a chance to reread the opening of an interesting book by Neff, called "Carlyle and Mill." John Stuart Mill had initiated a friendly contact Thomas Carlyle, who was virtually a bete noir of Mill's sect of Utilitarians. Carlyle was working on his history of the French Revolution. He asked Mill for comments on the one and only draft of the book. Mill took it home.

And it was burned in an accident. Neff gave such a moving and poignant portrayal of the scene when Mill had to give Carlyle the bad news. Carlyle rose heroically to the challenge of starting the book over again from scratch, and he completed it. Would Professor Gradgrind have been able to do the same?

Forgive me. I intended to make a paragraph-list of a half dozen counter-intuitive habits that help a camper get the most of his lifestyle. Instead, I went off on a sermonette about noble suffering. My excuse is that I am still trying to develop the habit of starting a ride downhill. Next time, the list.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Why Isn't Heating Your Home Free?

The forests in Colorado are no longer merely worrisome. They are well on the way to complete destruction. Here's an example of what I saw near Little Texas #1:

I asked the visitor's center if the Rio Grande national forest was the worst. Surprisingly he said that it was worse elsewhere. Bark beetles.

Believe it or not, there is something good to talk about. I saw pickup trucks going up my road everyday to cut up and haul out a load of firewood. They are my heroes. 

I asked one about the catalytic converters in the chimney of wood stoves. His experience was bad. In fact he removed it. But catalytic heaters, oxygen sensors, and computer-based control of automobile engines are pretty reliable. So why couldn't the same be true of wood stoves. (Please don't complain about the cost. Wood stove customers will squander an extra thousand dollars for a stove that is nostalgic or fashionable, so what is wrong with a few hundred dollars for something that works?)

Why doesn't the forest service increase the amount of firewood cutting by a ratio of 50? Does it allow commercial companies to harvest dead trees and sell firewood? If not, the answer is pseudo-religious ideology (and lawsuits) of the well-funded Big Green lobby.

There are a lot of expensive McMansions in Colorado. Virtually every square foot of private land already has a house sitting on it. The ultimate status symbol is a house that sticks out prominently on a cliff or mountain, and 'borders the national forest', in real estate salesman cant. I saw some of those pretty close to where I was camped.

And what do they see out the prominent and expensive windows in their McMansions? Dead spruce trees, as in the photo above. Perhaps the real estate lobby will start fighting the Big Green lobby. That would be interesting to see. Then again, forests like in the photo are great for the woodpecker lobby.

I wish I knew more about the politics, pseudo-religious ideology, and junk-science of forest management around here. I suppose Big Green sees wood stoves as evil because they spit out carbon dioxide. If somebody pointed out that forest fires put out a little of that...

...the Green true believer would counter with, "Yea but that sort of carbon dioxide is natural and is coming from the Cathedral of Nature."

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Flag Controversy and the Meaning of Travel

Somehow I have gotten sucked into the thankless and unpopular task of shaming reforming the travel blogosphere. After a thousand-and-one microscopic how-to details, somebody needs to ask What is the Point of travel? What does it mean? What are the fundamental benefits?

In fact it has long been recognized that 'travel broadens your perspective.' That's an interesting word, perspective.

So let's light one candle rather than curse the darkness when it comes to the Confederate flag controversy that has been raging the last couple weeks.  As a young man I spent some time in the South. My background was that of a typical, smug, brainwashed yankee -- from the Land of Lincoln, no less.

I had a part-time job at a Holiday Inn as a bus boy. Many of the cooks and waitresses were negroes, the first negroes that I had ever been around. One night, a pretty young negro waitress pulled me over with "...kaBLOOnie, I have a friend who would be just perfect for you..."  Actually she gave a pretty good sales pitch, but a young buck is usually suspicious of hearing about somebody's friend with a 'wonderful personality', and all that.

After running through all the girl's attractions, she rather matter-of-factly concluded "...and she is white." The way she said that made an impression on me that I still remember. She was slightly embarrassed, but not much. She sounded so natural, low-key, and common-sensical.

I came away from this experience, and others, wondering if I had been fed a pile of crap about race relations in the South, about the "Civil" War, Father Abraham, righteous freedom-loving yankees, etc. At the very least, my smug yankee moral superiority was taken down a notch.

Looking back on it, this was a travel experience at its best. No matter how many terabytes of "information" we absorb from our surroundings, and no matter how books we read by the winners of a war, our perspective is freakishly narrow, and yet we don't even know it.

I am skeptical about reading and political generalities and slogans. There is nothing that keeps your mental "feet" on the ground like actual experience. And travel experiences can be the best kind because they are outside your own milieu: they make you ask questions you never asked before.

Unfortunately most of the noise about the Confederate flag is the usual cant and catchphrases. Once again the blogosphere has missed an opportunity to contribute something that traditional media couldn't succeed at.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Camping Neighbor, of All Things

It has been a long time since an impudent camper had the effrontery to move in on my dispersed campsite. My campsite. I took an instant dislike to the guy and to his large wide-jawed dog.

But he was a real camper, and you have to admire that. All his junk was in the back of a regular cab pickup truck. No cap. In no time he had his tent and tarp set up. He used a shovel to dig a drainage ditch to empty out some of the puddles that were threatening to trap us. (So I'm not the only person who does silly things like that.) The campsite was at 10,000 ft. It was raining day and night, as it is prone to do in the Colorado high country.

Coffee Girl sneaked away from me and went over to see his rather intimidating dog. But he was young and playful, and soon they were wrestling and frolicking to their hearts' content.

He had an amazing ability to spot elk on a ridge above tree-line, maybe 2000 feet above us. With his naked eye! He got out his snooper scope, and it was all I could do to see them in his scope. That wasn't the only example of his phenomenal ability to spot wildlife.

There was a good reason for this skill. He had been a hunter and guide all his life, including Alaska. But he lived in Texas, so Colorado was his area of expertise.

My dog's collar slipped off because it was too large and loose. I admitted that I had made of mess of adding another hole in the collar by trying to drill through the nylon collar. He suggested that I heat a nail on the stove and then poke/melt it through the nylon collar. Well duh, why hadn't I thought of that? It worked well.

Perhaps the lousy weather drove us to more conversation than we would normally have had. The last thing he did was tow me out to the main road with his four wheel drive truck. We left quite good buddies.

But what is the moral of this story? Have I made a mistake by camping alone too much? I seldom feel a desire to "converse" with most people. Why is that? Is that the sign of a recluse or misanthrope?

If disappointment results from excessive expectations, well then, we must pound our expectations down into the mud. But then we give up entirely, which is not a happy ending either. That is the conundrum: no matter how you adjust your expectations, the result seems unhappy.

There might be a third choice, a subtle one: don't expect a good result today, but leave the door open to a lucky event in the future. I find it difficult to maintain such balance and equipoise.
So goes my usual thinking. But what happened with this fellow shows that the calculus of expectations doesn't explain everything. It was easy for a stranger's conversation to please me, under the right conditions. What a pleasant surprise! Maybe this applies to other curmudgeons out there. It is why I am writing about it.

Perhaps the secret lies in the topics of conversation: most people rattle on about the standard Ten Questions. They want to be some sort of entertainer, with their dumb jokes. The quips remind me of television or Facebook. Or they think they are going to win the other person over with their magnetic or attractive personality. I simply am not "buying" what they are selling.

But I love talking to people who know things, who approach any new topic with a sense of perspective, know tricks of the trade, and how to solve problems.

I guess that is it: they are selling "themselves", while I am more interested in things.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Historical Picture for the Modern Fourth of July?

Will internet search engines ever get better? They are supposed to be so good now, but I don't believe it. All they do is match keywords, buzzwords.  And then use your search as the input to an advertising algorithm. They don't respond to thoughts or ideas.

For instance, we are on the eve of  "our" most obscene national holiday. A more optimistic person would have merely said "most ludicrous and hypocritical" holiday. I have trained myself to tune it out, rather than dwell on it with sourness, and then lash out at what America has become.

But it would be better to find something more constructive. What if internet search engines were actually good, and I came to them with a thought instead of a keyword? What history books or novels could I read that would inform on the situation an American finds them-self in, today? 

Who else has experienced pride in their country when they were young, and then grew to despise their country? Was it only grouchy old men who did so, and if that were true, did that alone invalidate their opinions? How did they handle the transition from Pride to Disgust? Did they manage to put it to good use?

There are probably illustrations from societies that have experienced defeat.  Consider what the southern states went through, in light of the novel, "Gone with the Wind." Or consider what Germany went through in the 1920s.

But those are defeat-based pessimisms. In contrast, modern America has not been conquered by outsiders, militarily or otherwise. Perhaps the existence of nuclear weapons will ensure that it never will be conquered militarily. Instead, it has merely degenerated, voluntarily, to a travesty of what it once was. The most relevant society and historical epoch might be nominally-successful Rome, which degenerated into a militaristic empire by the time of Julius Caesar.