Sunday, August 30, 2015

Benefits of Getting Outside the Comfort Zone

There probably aren't many readers who are interested in bicycling. Nevertheless I will write about a certain kind of bicycling as an example of a principle that applies broadly and beneficially to early retirement and full-time travel.  

Lately I have given advertisements for adapting to steep land by pushing the mountain bike up the hills and coasting down. This makes me uncomfortable, more so psychologically than physically. It helped to consider the history of mountain biking: it originated by using cars or ski-lifts to get up the hill, and then they would ride the bike down.

But I overlooked the examples of other "one-way" sports, such as river canoeing or kayaking, downhill skiing, hang gliding, and parachuting. None of these practitioners think that their sport is ruined by "one-wayness." They would probably have a hard time imagining it any other way. 

The "push up/coast down" style of mountain biking is somewhat similar to a surfer, who drops their belly on the board, and paddles out past the surf-line, and then turns around and takes a wild ride back to shore.

What is the result of this experiment? Back onto sagebrush hills near Gunnison where one can do normal "two-way" mountain biking, I have the pleasure of feeling like a young superman. The pay-off of suffering that discomfort in the San Juan mountains shows on every ride.

Gunnison, CO. High altitude BLM hills at sunset, after an evening thunderstorm. That gives it a "Brahms moping over Clara Schumann, in November" sort of mood.


This is a nice little example of the principle of doing things that are difficult instead of merely entertaining; of 'experiencing' rather than consuming; of reaching out in different directions instead of fixating on trophy scenery; and of living rather than vacationing.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Financial Turmoil As Opportunity to Crawl Out of the Information Gutter

If our consumption of information was analogous to food-diet, what diet plan would we be on? What is the informational equivalent of vegetarianism, veganism, paleo-carnivorism, or Old Roy dog chow? It is hard to see all the analogies. But one can be seen: most people are on an information-diet analogous to eating all of their food out of gas-station-convenience stores. That is, their informational junk food comes from the mainstream media, mainly television.

What a shame. The financial turmoil going on now should be an opportunity to ask fundamental questions about our banking and political systems. At the very least, the general public should learn how our system really works, not just in theory, but the brutal and unseemly realities of it. 

Who is benefiting from the basic policies?

What are the incestuous relationships between banking and political power?

How do they hide it or at least deodorize it from the general public?

Why are the losers so complacent to the winners?

Why is debt held up as the magical path to prosperity? 

How could the chairman of the Federal Reserve ever get such god-like powers in a country that sees itself as a "democracy" and a "republic"?

Could these bubbles and busts ever get so bad that the country reassesses its basic policies towards debt, banking, and political influence? Or will the crises just be used for a bigger dose of the policies that caused the problems in the first place?

From time to time I read editorials that make me think I have learned something fundamental about "our" money-and-power system.  But the editorialist never has to answer questions from the other side, so it isn't really a genuine discussion. But at least it's not the informational junk food of minute-by-minute, play-by-play, ups-and-downs in the stock market.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Becoming More Optimistic Around Motorheads

I've been putting it off: mountain biking up the famous high passes in Colorado's San Juan mountains. Remember that the main tourist draw here is the "adventure" of driving your noisy vehicle over the passes, and then dropping into the boutique towns of Ouray, Telluride, or Silverton in order to eat fudge, ice cream, or pizza. 

If I wanted to share the road with motor vehicles, I would be a "roadie" instead of a mountain biker.

Ahh but...the tourist season seems to be in a little lull right now, with most of the country busy with sending their urchins back to school. The hazy and smokey skies detract from the postcard scenery. So the timing seemed right for mountain biking up to Engineer Pass from Lake City.

There are tricks of the trade when visiting tourist areas. You always win when you start your day early. Tourists are on vacation -- that means sleeping late. Besides, most motorsport-people are exposed to the air much more than in a regular car, and they don't want to get too chilly. So I got started early enough to have cold hands and feet, and that ain't easy when you are climbing.

"Expectations engineering" is the most important trick of the trade. I resigned myself to bumper-to-bumper motorsport traffic up to the pass. Naturally I was relieved when only a half dozen of them passed me on the way up, and 15 on the way down.

People can be so effective in allaying prejudice when they offer a little friendliness. I had a nice conversation at the top with an ATVing couple. In addition, most motorheads slowed down when they passed me, so I didn't get coated with dust.

Remarkably I only had to push the bike for the last two miles. The air quality was better than I expected, and it was fun to get the viewscape of the Ouray area at the top. But I didn't bother with the camera, except for a closer view on the way down.

As an added treat, I got my first close look at a porcupine. Thankfully my dog, Coffee Girl, did not respond to it.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Can Land Be Too Steep?

Although Mother Nature might not be friendly to me in the San Juan mountains of Colorado, there is a way to partially win. It isn't my favorite place for camping or recreation. The land is just too steep for dispersed camping and mountain biking. There are too many ATVs and Jeep Wranglers on the dirt roads. The tourist-boutique towns are over-priced and gimmicky. It is the best tourist scenery in Colorado, but you know how long that lasts.

Hiking works better on harshly steep land. The ascent is always a fun aerobic blowout; the descents are simply drudgery and trudgery that must be tolerated. But I am addicted to looking forward to descents on a mountain bike.

I have found a trick of the trade that helps me, and it might be useful to some of the readers. Rather than focus on achieving some goal on an outing -- and thereby talking yourself out of going, altogether -- focus instead on being defiantly lazy on an upcoming outing. Think about your dog, camera, clouds, or wildlife. To hell with grinding your way up the hill. Why shouldn't you please yourself? Why do things on other people's terms? There is no paycheck waiting for you at the end. 

With that mindset in place, I will go. Once the joy juice kicks in to the bloodstream, it is easier to surrender to an aerobic orgy, and enjoy it! But the key thing is not to head out on a trip with that in mind.

But does he practice what he preaches, you wonder? This morning was rainy and I was starting to get demotivated, enough to call off the day's outing. But wait: maybe it would rain halfway up the mountain, and I would be forced to jump on the bike and quickly return to the van. 

What was so bad about that? I didn't want to go to the top of that silly ol' mountain, anyway! 

So I started in on the mountain, and soon was pushing the bike more than riding it. This is the same mountain that caused me to post, "Summiting: Ideals and Suffering," in the tab at the top of the screen.

The dirt road actually had fresh bulldozer tracks on it, so I could ride up some of the mountain, unlike last time. The descent would be sweet indeed.

And then it happened: the lucky break with the recent bulldozing and the usual 'mood modification' chemicals in my bloodstream caused me to summit once again. 

Arguably, the 14-teener with the most interesting shape is the "Unc", Uncompahgre Peak, near Lake City, CO

But the thing that was cute about it was that I preached against summiting, all the way up. Let the external conditions work their magic on me, if they will. I am just the passive victim here of forces outside myself.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Some Big Wings Soar

Sometimes I think a person who has escaped the cubicle and the rat race can undermine their own cause by puffing up with expectations that are too grand and romantic. No matter how you envision the perfect lifestyle, daily life still has to be built one humble brick at a time: perhaps a better diet, working on your rig, taking the dog for numerous walks, watching thunderstorms build up, reading and writing, investing, or keeping a keen eye for wildlife and birds. 

Lately I have drifted away from photographing birds. The great advantage of being a bird watcher is that it can be done anywhere and almost any day. But that is looking at life the way a Baron d'Holbach or utilitarian philosopher would. There are advantages to their approach, as I was writing about last post.

Or there is that other utilitarian, Benjamin Franklin, who wrote a classic line in his autobiography: "Human Felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day."

But their approach doesn't inspire a strong interest or passion in something. So I switched back to the rival philosophical camp, the Romantic one, to revive my interest in birds. This approach might work for many people.

You could take off on a walk up the ridges and mesas of open BLM country. But mountain biking will work even better because it puts the mind in the mood of graceful flow. Up you go, getting warm even on a cool morning. You notice a cooling breeze that brings relief, but also sucks you into a way of thinking, a way of being affected by what you see. The endorphins and dopamines do their job as usual, as do a gain in altitude and an escape from the lowly clutter of towns. (Extra credit to any reader who can insert the canonical quote from William Blake at this spot.) Also, I managed to make a through-route out of a previous dead-end route.

Therefore the Romantic in me was prepared to see any thought that popped into my head as a higher form of Wisdom. An unusual view popped up, at just the right moment. 

The white tail and wing patches grabbed my eye. At first I thought I was seeing my first bald eagle, but they have white heads. Another bird of the same size and shape glided circles nearby, but since it was dark and drab, it was probably his mate. 

A poor internet signal at the moment keeps me from doing thorough homework on the What Bird website. So far I have checked out various hawks, eagles, and vultures; but this bird doesn't match any of them. The bird-identification websites always show pictures of a bird from underneath, the usual position of the observer!

My camera was zoomed out to take this moving photo. Isn't it great that their auto-focus capabilities have gotten so good that it could focus on a moving bird?

Once again, one of my happiest moments occurs at high altitude on open land, with birds playing gloriously with thermals or ridge-lift. Am I really too old to take up hang-gliding?

Saturday, August 8, 2015

A Tree Island in a Sagebrush Sea

It doesn't seem like such a great idea to camp on a bare ridge of sagebrush during the monsoon season. Lightning can be pretty scary. It seems better to have some trees nearby. But I don't want to go into a thick and gloomy forest.

That is the value of a tree island near the higher end of the sagebrush, and just below the lower tree-line. It is pleasantly surprising how attached you can become to a tree island. By luck there was a two-track road ascending the ridge-line behind my dispersed camp in this photo. It looks like such easy pedaling in the photo, but I had to push the mountain bike in a couple places:

There is an entrapment pond on the far side of the tree island. But it is so close that it provides an entertainment show for me. I saw my first weasel. Disgusting little creature: a snake on wheels. 

Something strange happened when camped near this tree island. The wildlife became individuals, with quirks that identified them as the same individuals, day after day. A raptor developed noisy arguments everyday with my dog; and in doing so, it ceased being anonymous; nor was it merely some abstract being that expressed the quality of "raptor-ness." It became something more solid and real. Contrast this with the usual eyelash-fluttering over wildlife  as a symbol of something, perhaps of pseudo-religious holiness or perfection.

The middle of the tree island is quite dense, but here and there you can see through it. I could actually cut a nice clean walking path through the tree island, using nothing more than hand tools. It is a little bit astonishing that a forest could be so finite that little ol' me could affect it.

This experience was the very opposite of the romantic approach to Nature. Here I wasn't swooning over Vastness, freakishness, Infinity, the Perfect, the Pristine, Solitude, Mystery, or any other abstraction loaded with religious imagery and causing palpitations of the heart. 

How sane and solid this makes the human mind. Perhaps I am under the influence of the evil Baron d'Holbach, one of the leading atheists of the Enlightenment, a couple decades before the French Revolution. In quote after quote, he castigated the meaningless word-play of theologians and metaphysicians.  He thought a finite creature like a human being, should concern himself with finite issues, described by meaningful language. Only then would he be able to improve real life.
"In a word, whoever uses common sense upon religious opinions, and will bestow on this inquiry the attention that is commonly given to most subjects, will easily perceive that Religion is a mere castle in the air. Theology is ignorance of natural causes; a tissue of fallacies and contradictions. In every country, it presents romances void of probability, the hero of which is composed of impossible qualities... 
But men, prepossessed with the opinion that this phantom [God] is a reality of the greatest interest, instead of concluding wisely from its incomprehensibility, that they are not bound to regard it, infer on the contrary, that they must contemplate it, without ceasing, and never lose sight of it."
A distant laccolith through the end of my little tree island.
Yes, I know. The term, atheist, sounds unsociable and disrespectful of other people's feelings. But I am not really interested in a religious debate or in offending people on their religion.

Rather, I see it as beneficial to apply the atheistic mindset to how I visualize nature, in order to avoid excessive romanticizing. Let me balance my perspective by looking at nature clear-eyed and realistically, as the Baron was trying to do with other things. 

And isn't that why we read books: to assimilate and to apply the general principles in the book to our own situations?

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Worshiping the Wind

Perhaps one of the readers is up-to-date on El NiƱo and this remarkable summer in the Southwest, a summer of monsoons starting in May instead of July. The result has been the absence of wildfires, and an explosion of greenery and flowers. And bugs. This has been the first summer in years when I applied bug spray before going out on a mountain bike ride. Well it's about time I was made to appreciate how little I normally think of flying insects.  

The appreciation of something else goes up, too: a nice breeze to keep the bugs off. It's a miracle drug. Normally I praise the breeze in passing on to another subject in these posts. For once, let me talk only about the wind.

It's odd that so many people dislike breezy days. I used to, too, earlier in life. Some of these preferences are explainable: people with allergies are not helped any by the wind. 

Also, many people don't wear hats, which is too bad, considering how well the right hat desensitizes you to wind, sun, and rain. They would be surprised how much a simple string, on the hat, helps.  Hats used to be an indispensable part of normal, respectable clothing. When I watch a costume drama, say, a Jane Austen movie, I admire the prettiness of the lady's bonnets.

Now look what happens when the hatless one is a man with an extreme comb-over or a woman with high-maintenance "big hair."

Or consider a motorcyclist, who is so chilled by the wind, and must lean into it, that you couldn't expect them to ever really appreciate the wind. 

Or a golfer, canoer, picnicker, barbecuer, patron of an outdoor cafe, or people having a wedding ceremony in the outdoors.

In my case, staying cool when bicycling is of more interest to me than staying warm. If the weather is really chilly, I will just hike. A bicyclist becomes used to his sense of touch becoming his main sensory organ. Or call it 'mechanical or tactile pressure.' Your skin is always bathed and refreshed by moving air.

Or course there are sports that depend on wind, such as kite-flying or wind-surfing. But sailing is the quintessential wind-harvesting activity. Any exposure to sailing is likely to change your attitude about the wind, and for the better!

Would I really appreciate the wind if it weren't for the bugs? Probably not, at least not as consciously. So let's think of the bugs this summer as an advantage.

And in the mean time think of those consummate appreciators of breezes: those little hot-shots who disport with "ridge lift," and converted me to the religion of the ridge-line.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Giant Waves on "Ugly" Sagebrush Hills

It has been a couple years since I rode a unique trail near Gunnison, CO. I probably praised it back then. It might amuse readers to hear a 'small-government' man actually say something good about a federal land-use agency, the BLM.

Seriously, this is a great trail. How many people were key in making it a reality? What were their job titles? Was it really so superhuman that it couldn't happen more often? I'll probably never know any of the answers. All I can do is ride it and praise it.

It starts off the way a -- literally -- civilized trail should start: at the edge of town. It should lure people out from their mundane townie existence to the underutilized public land around them. The trail should be non-technical at the beginning, so that it welcomes a broad cross-section of townies, not just 20-year-old male super-jocks and racers. The number of people should be so large, and they should use the trail so frequently, that it becomes an integral part of their lifestyle, culture, and identity.

And it does. The trail heads through some austerely plain sagebrush hills. It must have been laid out by a surveyor's telescope. There is only a few feet of elevation change the first few miles. But because these are hills, the trail's isocline must trace huge sweeping sinuous curves, with a wavelength of a half mile or more.

A few miles away from where this post took place, the BLM hills are quite attractive. Try to imagine the S shaped curve through this land if somebody laid out a trail on a clean isocline.

I didn't photograph the trail or the land. It was not visually impressive, but it was quite impressive in other ways. Somewhere or other, Samuel Johnson dis-recommended metaphors unless it compared a thing to something grander, infinite, or eternal. That thought made me imagine the appearance of this trail from a hot-air balloon. 

Or compare it to sea kayaking on a body of water that produces waves large enough to make you feel swallowed up in the trough. Only then does the vastness of the lake or ocean really impress you. Here, in the ugly sagebrush hills, the grand and graceful S-curves really bring it home to you.

My dog, bike, and I were visible from a not-so-lonely US highway 50. The tourists would stop in at the usual places to load up on the usual things, and then rush off to more spectacular, stereotypical sights in the area. How many of them even looked up at the uninteresting sagebrush hills where we were so happy?

What could be a better use of your time than to create beauty by imagining it in something where it is difficult to see? It's as if all land contains a latent image of great beauty that we must somehow fix/develop into a visible image. But more than just a vision, it takes effort and pain. Here the BLM and a wide variety of trail-users should feel pleased with both themselves and with "civilization." I don't get "warm and fuzzy" feelings very often about my society, but I got 'em here.

I've lost track of the number I am up to, now, in developing Counter-Intuitive Habit # N+1. But it was warming up quickly on the east-facing slopes. BLM country is rattlesnake country, and I worried about my dog.

It feels so natural to let the dog charge ahead of the bike. But, as usual, "natural" just means "it is what I am accustomed to." I got into that habit when my first dog, a miniature poodle, evinced an alpha-male personality. And I egged him on. I loved the compliments from people, "Gee that little poodle acts less like a poodle than I have ever seen before!"

But in fact, it is more prudent to make the dog follow the bike when the rattlesnake risk is higher. This turns out to be easy and natural -- that word again! The risk is concentrated on the return trip when the temperature is higher. Fortunately the dog is hot and thirsty by then, so she doesn't mind following the bike.