Showing posts with label outdoorsAppreciation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label outdoorsAppreciation. Show all posts

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Philosophical Ripples from the River Rats

It is always enjoyable to see people having fun in the outdoors. I even like studying their exotic and expensive equipment. And I did so once again, this time with river rats, aka, whitewater kayakers. But I should have left well enough alone.

Once the first flush of interest was over I asked one of the kayakers whether his sport was good for his moral character. He acted as if nobody had ever asked him that before.

It isn't as silly as it sounds: hobbies, activities, and sports all have philosophical implications. Looked at in this light, whitewater kayaking is all about getting 'a thrill a minute', that is, risk and excitement for the sake of themselves. 


So how does one become addicted to the drug of excitement and go home and deal with the drudgery that is inevitable in normal living?

What would these river wild men around me think if they sat down and read Bertrand Russell's "The Conquest of Happiness"? Especially the chapter on "Boredom and Excitement."

A person accustomed to too much excitement is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper, who comes at last to be unable even to taste a quantity of pepper which would cause anyone else to choke. There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty. I do not want to push to extremes the objection to excitement...
And indeed, neither do I. What would be the sport that has the opposite characteristics of kayaking? Hiking, which has no excitement whatsoever. Naturally it is popular with women.

The whole issue of outdoor excitement shows that I am married to Aristotle's doctrine of the Golden Mean, as boring at this doctrine is to the young.


It might not be exciting, Pops, but it's delightful.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Son of a Son of a (Sagebrush) Sailor

Although I've never felt much of a need to read Sigmund Freud, his "Civilization and its Discontents" was interesting. In it, Freud mentioned that some people had described a powerful "oceanic" feeling; but he had never experienced it.

Perhaps Dr. Freud never had the experience of camping in drab, ugly, and half-dead forests in the summer -- to escape the heat -- and then busting out into the open in September. An oceanic feeling can be very powerful indeed. Better yet, this feeling can be used for a practical purpose: it helps to keep an outdoorsy lifestyle interesting, long after the tourist phase is over.

Recently this oceanic feeling provided a real phantasmagoria for me: breaking out into the sagebrush hills seemed like heading out to sea on a sailboat. Perhaps this was helped by reading Jack London's "South Sea Tales." (Gutenberg.org)  I even listened to some Jimmy Buffett songs for the first time in a long while.

For instance, as you creep out of the forest gloom, and head downhill into the sagebrush sea, you see trees hanging on to the gullies. They never seem to be thriving. They seem so frail, like the sand spits that stick out from the mainland into the sea. 

(Sand spits might only be a foot above the water level. You can't help wondering why they aren't wiped out by waves during the next storm. Despite the frail appearance, sand spits are waxing, not waning. That is, they are being deposited by currents along the shore.)

But what about these treed gullies? Are they waxing or waning? How and Why did they get there? In general trees invade grasslands because of fire suppression by the forest service and BLM. Fire favors grasslands over trees. So can these treed gullies be seen as the advance guard of the invaders?

It might not be an interesting subject to standard tourists, but it is to me, because of this analogy to sand spits in the sea, and my misadventure of nearly drowning (during my first sea kayaking lesson) off the tip of Point Pelee, sticking down into Lake Erie. (The Wikipedia article says it is the longest sand spit in freshwater.)

So things are working: I am finding things to think about when mountain biking, not just to look at. And nature begins to appear as a dynamic process, rather than a static object for syrupy sentimentalism or pseudo-religious veneration.

My favorite laccolith in the distance. But it is a mere runt compared to the Grand Mesa over by Grand Junction.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Shopping Orgy at the Best Outdoors Store

It is so strange going through small towns in the ranching country of the West. Especially shopping. You can not avoid the feeling that the purpose of life for these businesses is to be closed. No wonder there is a Dollar Store in the tiniest and most impoverished town.

Show Low, AZ, is one of the few shopping meccas for me, on my annual loop. As always, I visited a couple car dealerships. I come away shaking my head about how ignorant car salesmen are about the product itself. They only know about the process of selling: demographics, applied psychology, and filling out the paperwork. The average customer could not care less about the $60,000 pickup truck they just got suckered into. They only care about the monthly payment and whether it is huge and showy, and raises their self-esteem. Imagine that: a culture where people get a boost to their self-esteem by being a fool!

But this post has good news: I had a wonderful time at my favorite store for outdoor products. I didn't even know that that chain had a store in this town. 

Years ago my favorite store might have been REI. The last time I looked at their website, the prices appalled me. On top of that their greenie posturing is offensive to me. They have become a boutique for wealthy Blue-staters, living in metropolitan areas.

For awhile, some years back, my favorite store might have been Cabela's. But today, they are just a theme park for wealthy Red-staters. Their customer is the type who would spend $3000 on a puppy from a breeder because of its hunting pedigree; but then the guy goes hunting one weekend a year.

My favorite store is Sportsman's Warehouse. For the no-nonsense outdoorsman.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Newbie Couple Camps With an Ol' Desert Rat

There are some disparities that are made to poke fun at: men versus women, old versus young, northern Europeans versus Mediterraneans, city slickers versus rural hayseeds, and even newbie campers versus grizzled old "mountain men."

A long term bicycle club friend of mine visited my camp recently. She and her significant-other were embarked on their maiden voyage in a converted van. They don't know of my blog. So hopefully I can write about their experience with candor. Although it may seem like I am poking fun at them, their foibles and mistakes are no different than any other newbie, including myself at one time in history. They both have a lot of practical skills, and I suspect that their RV careers will be a great success if they keep with it.

The idea here is to describe a newbie's ideas, habits, and mistakes, in order to let the reader flush out the principles and draw their own conclusions. I will try to suppress my own shop-worn sermons.

They reminded me how difficult it is to be transitioning to RVing. "Honey, where did you put that spoon?"  Supposedly they have downsized from two middle class houses, and embarked on a life of 'Simplicity' and 'Nature'. But they still spent most of their time looking for crap. Which box is it?

Their van is not completely converted. They are still operating a bit like a weekend car-camper. That means cooking outside. This all seems very romantic until it rains or, more likely, the wind begins howling. All those boxes with troublesome lids, all that crap spread out over the mesa.

But we enjoyed having a fire at dusk, something that I never bother with, when camped alone. It essentially lengthened the winter day by an hour. How precious that hour is! There really isn't much heat that actually gets transferred to the human body, but it is wonderful anyway. She didn't care for my fire-building, though. She wanted to add 6 pieces of firewood at a time. I was building the fire on the down-wind side of the tallest rocks of the firepit. She thought the fire would look prettier if I put the wood on the opposite (exposed) side of the firepit.

How she came up with such a great meal from a one burner backpacker stove, I don't know. It seemed almost scandalous that these two liberal environmentalists would use paper plates! (And of course, I had to poke them on that, a little.) But of course, it made sense for people who are trying to minimize washing dishes. He noticed that I went into my trailer to retrieve a deep melamine bowl to hold the meal, rather than a flat plate. Here I finally had to shoot my mouth off: it makes no sense spending an hour cooking a delicious hot meal -- for a cold winter evening -- and then put it on a plate -- outdoors -- and watch it sag cold in 20 seconds. He bought it.

They taught me a fun board game to play inside their van. In fact, their rotating captain's chairs made for better seating in their van than I had in my trailer. But I was dressed in my insulated bibs, with a winter parka over the top, and a Thinsulated stocking hat. Then they would turn the engine on and run the heater. I finally had to say that I was getting nauseous. So I stepped out of the van, sat down on the gravel, and wrestled with removing my bibs, in the dark. Sure enough, somebody opened the side door of the van and almost bashed me in the head. I took every ounce of available willpower to resist screaming, "I can't live like this!"

Earlier in the day they disposed of some food on the ground. (They are good environmentalists back in the city, you understand, and like composting.) A couple hours after sunset there were two yipping screaming coyotes outside my door. They sounded like they were having a food fight with each other or some other animal, and somebody was dying. I am surprised that my dog didn't completely freak out.

Sure enough, at about 4 in the morning, the wind began blowing. I had to step out with a flashlight and weigh down some of that camping debris, so it wouldn't blow into the next county.

But the thing that surprised me the most was that my old bike friend didn't even remember to bring trail-runner sneakers so that I could show-off the canyon maze to them. So we stayed on top of the mesa, where the walking was easier. She had on some sort of goofy impractical female-type footwear, in a land of sharp gravel and cactus. But they liked the view. At least she wasn't wearing Teva sandals or Birkenstocks...

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Immortality in a Threatening Wind

What a nice morning it had been: moderately cool, calm, and sunny. Coffee Girl and I had just finished a mountain bike ride up an arroyo where, at the beginning of my travel career, I had stumbled onto a "cliff dwelling." Not an official one, of course. But it was possible to imagine turning it into a cliff dwelling or emergency shelter. Back then I took a chance in dragging my trailer upstream in the gravel arroyo, with only my rear wheel drive van. And I camped there that night, and made a fire in the little cliff dwelling, and amused myself with making shadows on the ceiling. (Plato would have been impressed.)

Alas, the cliff dwelling seemed less romantic today than it did way-back-when. This stung. Did it mean that my travel lifestyle had become too predictable and tame?

We laid down for the usual post-ride siesta, relaxing to a movie with a good musical score. But it became difficult to hear the movie because of the howling wind. What the hell was going on, out there!? Since I had already learned the hard way about opening 32" wide doors in the wind, I had a good cord attached to the side-door. Curiosity got the better of me. I opened the door no more than 6" before it almost exploded open into the wind. The finger holding the cord got a nasty rope-burn. 

But I was surprised and relieved that the door had not literally been blown off the hinges. The standard RV doors on cargo trailers are nothing more than aluminum-foil-clad styro-foam laminates, held on by thin aluminum trim that is glued to the door's perimeter. There is no tube frame!

I could not even re-close the door, let alone latch it. And all the time the wind was trying to rip it out of my hands. It was like being a sailor on deck during a storm, and grabbing ropes and ducking masts, all in a state of desperation.  I had to surrender by opening the door fully, which made it parallel to the wind, and therefore, stable.

Now what? Panic, that is what. I started trying to pound the door back into shape with a block of wood and a hammer. Eventually it did close, but it was so tight that it wouldn't re-open.

So I unlocked the ramp door in the back (aka, the stern) of the trailer. It opened by lowering directly into the wind. Thank goodness it wasn't the barn door geometry, like at the back of a van.

But now stuff was blowing out of my trailer, streaming across the mesa. I went chasing it. To a spectator, it must have looked like some slapstick comedy from the silent movie era.

A photo from the archives. It expresses the idea of this post.
But from my point of view, it was no joke. Objects seem to take on a life of their own in the wind. They balance and spin upright, like a spinning bicycle wheel. Sometimes your hand is a matter of inches away from grabbing the object, and then a gust removes it from your reach. These objects and the wind had become almost sentient and malevolent.

After a couple days, I have recovered full operation of the door and rebuilt the inner wood screen door, which had shattered. From the point of view of hindsight, this was a worthwhile experience, an authentic experience with nature.

Long-suffering readers are used to me advertising any experience with nature other than postcard idolatry, which I relegate to the tourist trade. Perhaps the reader has taken a sailing or windsurfing lesson, and experienced fear and panic from a strong wind. It is a primal force in nature.

But just think of humankind's relationship with the wind, through the ages. Most of all, think of what sailors went through in storms, when they were heeled over at 45 degrees, and sliding all over the decks. Most of them couldn't swim, and even if they could, hypothermia would have killed them anyway. At least my trailer and mesa stayed horizontal during this madness!

What courage and skill they had! And then look at me: I hadn't even noticed which corner of the trailer was making the most noise. If I had, it would have told me the wind direction.

While the fear and embarrassment were still fresh, I persisted in dwelling on the heroes of the past. Is it too swoony and moony to say that appreciating their courage and skill was an act of connecting with the eternal, the immortal?


Another photo from the archives, in this case, from my first blog post.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Autumn of Experiencing Nature in America

What should an experienced outdoorsman look for in a hackneyed location like Moab, UT? Certainly not the iconic red rock arches and canyons. They are justly famous, but you've seen them a hundred times in jeep commercials, cellphone commercials, nature pin-up calendars, etc. They belong to everybody and to nobody. They certainly cannot belong to you.

But that doesn't mean you should just give up, and relegate Moab to the tourist trade, as I used to do. When the weather was still a little summer-ish, my dog and I started a mountain bike ride before most of the tourists were up. As always, we wanted to beat the heat.

We started going downhill; not far, maybe 300-400 feet. I was shocked at how chilly it was getting. In fact, I wished I had gloves on! At the bottom of the canyon I was amazed to find a "crystal house" of dew, that is, preternaturally dense dew, glazed onto grasses in a little swale. 

It reminded me of the ice crystal house in Dr. Zhivago. The movie was filmed largely in Spain. The dew here and the ice crystal house there are one form of homologousness. I smiled when thinking of the larger one, between the Southwestern USA and Spain. (Extra credit points to the reader who can supply the magic quote from Thoreau's "Walking", involving ice crystals.)


The dew was so thick that I could barely see the plant that was hosting it. And on all sides of us were red cliffs and deserts. There are no tour buses coming to this spot. Its magic belongs to me -- but not for long! Thirty minutes later, it was gone, evanesced into the aridity of Utah. (Extra credit points to any reader who can supply the famous quote from MacBeth.)

On another ride, we got close to Tourist Central, Arches National Park. I am proud of my principles, and wouldn't sneak over the boundary. There were cars backed up for a mile to get into the park and see the famous red arches. What will they see other than something they already expect?

But on some un-famous land, where campers and bikes and dogs are allowed to be, I saw something that really grabbed my eye: the early morning sun was reflecting off one red surface and illuminating a not-so-red surface with its red light. (There is probably some classic quote out there that mentions 'reflected glory' or 'dressing me in borrowed robes.' What am I thinking of?)


If I've said it once...the skin is not only the largest organ in the body, it is also the most under-rated sensory organ. I hate heat. Finally it is time to enjoy the exquisite pleasure of sitting in a chair outdoors, and doing nothing but feeling the tender touch of chilliness on your skin, while you boldly face the sun, and feel that it is your ally instead of your enemy. Not a puff of breeze. Not a single flying insect.

During the recent holiday, I saw and visited with young families camped in my area. Here Junior and Pops are investigating who-knows-what, as the red humps of the park hover in the background.


It is so sad to realize that the young lad won't be able to do this kind of camping when he is even his father's age, let alone mine. But he will be able to pay who-knows-how-much for a motel room in Moab, and then park in a 5 mile long line at the entrance gate of the national park.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Seeking Authenticity in the Natural Experience

There weren't too many mountain bikers around in my time on the Uncompahgre Plateau, near Montrose, CO. First there was muzzle-loading rifle season, and then the archery season. I do feel a little nervous riding my bike with hunters around, but I make the best of it by wearing a flaming bicycle vest. I even got a bright orange safety vest for my dog.

There is something admirable about the bow-hunters, something atavistic, noble, and honest. And quiet. One day a bow-hunter came by my dispersed campsite. I took an instant like to him, and my dog immediately charmed his socks off.  Normally, when I converse, it seems as though it is my job to keep the conversation alive, for the simple reason that the blockhead can't think of anything to discuss, other than 'where ya frum?'

But in this case, I let him do 90% of the talking. He was raised on a real ranch as a boy. He spent some time as a professional hunting guide. He has hunted in Idaho, Montana, and Alaska. And oh my goodness, he had great stories about close calls when cleaning a carcass, with a bear smelling it and circling around. And the one about being trapped between wolves. On and on the stories went. I just sat there and soaked it up. 

He took out his 9 mm semi-automatic pistol, removed the magazine, and let me play with it. This is his personal protection device against mountain lions and black bears. I had just told him about coming within 100 feet of a large adult black bear, a few days earlier. And my stupid dog went after the bear! But the bear ran so fast (and so noisily) through the sapling aspen forest, that she gave up in 5 seconds, and returned unhurt.

When I finally walked back to my trailer, it was the middle of the afternoon. I had been listening to him for 4 or 5 hours. It was an impressive reminder of Man as a Hunter/Gatherer, and the oral tradition of 'swapping lies' around the campfire. There are few examples where male foolishness is more charming. Ultimately it was responsible for the epic and legendary poems and tales that began the tribal literature of many peoples.
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In a few days it was time to declare victory for my stay on the un-touristy Uncompahgre Plateau, and drive past a very touristy area, especially at this time of year: the periphery of the San Juan Mountains between Ridgway and Telluride, CO. The leaf-peepers were certainly out in full force, and rightly so, considering the yellow-blazing aspens. They would pull over at the official 'scenic overlooks', walk as far as 10 feet from their motor vehicle, hold up their smartphone, and snap-away at the breathtakingly beautiful scenery.

Although I probably appreciate the scenery as much as any of them, I didn't even bother with photographs. It is not a negative statement about scenery to acknowledge that the buzz starts fading away after just a few minutes.

At any rate an outdoor or 'nature experience', like they were having, does not inspire me. It's not wrong, it's just shallow.
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On to Dolores CO, one of my little sweethearts on the annual loop through the Southwest. For the first time since the Fourth of July I was in ponderosa forests again. Even better, the parent rock was sandstone. Sheer bliss it was to mountain bike on packed and troughed dirt trails, with few rocks and roots.

Last year I wondered how many zillion miles of non-technical trails you could have on flatter, non-touristy areas in the West. It would not cost a lot, and it would benefit small towns with weak economies. What is blocking this, other than a lack of appreciation of smooth trails on non-touristy land?

'Non-touristy scenery' does not mean 'boring.' Rivers, wildlife, no fees, no restrictions against horses or dogs, beautiful spacious forests, grass, colorful oak bushes, a perfect altitude and sky... and yet there are no tourists holding out their smartphones here. Real land has balance.

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.


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.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Cabin Fever of the Mind

In an earlier post I played at visualizing cold wet weather and mud as medicine. Not only does it postpone the wildfire season later into June, when the monsoons are only a couple weeks away, but it also rebuilds a healthy appreciation for sunshine in your own mind.  Depending on where you live, you might not need any help in appreciating sunshine; but a gringo in the arid western states certainly needs help.

What Southwestern weather is supposed to be like, in May and June.
And Mother Nature is at it again. When cabin fever reaches a crescendo, you can fight back, but don't fight back too soon: there is an art to enjoying a miserable day. Your rebound is robbed of its glory if it isn't prepared by a nadir. Artificial aids are permitted: consider watching the first five minutes of the latest "Jane Eyre" movie, the one with the faint lighting and the haunting score by Dario Marianelli.

It is quite amazing how tuned in you can get to the amperage and voltage of your solar controller. Even doing pushups on a muddy trailer floor brings instant relief.

But even better, slap on some rubber-bottomed mudder boots and take the dog frolicking in wet snow and mud. People who have never had a dog might not realize how medicinal it is to watch your dog enjoying the very thing that you think has got you down.

Yesterday I would go for short walks during the day's more-lucid moments. Once I was walking through the forest and doing my best to fight the anxiety of hope, but usually losing. Then I looked down to the grass and saw the faintest shadow of my own body. There is an exquisite point when you are torn between reality and your own imagination.


I want the shadow to be objectively real. I don't want to bounce around in the prison-confines of my own mind. That is just another type of cabin fever. And yet, Reality is such a bitch goddess at times, leaving the Imagination as the most effective tool.

So, am I getting a bit crazy to attach so much importance to a barely visible shadow? Let's look as some of the usual symptoms of insanity. There is nothing destructive or unhealthy about this pleasure. It is also quite practical: the trailer batteries need to get charged up. 

In fact, to doubt one's sanity in this example is really just confusing Sanity with mere Conventionality. Look at what a huge industry scenery-tourism is. Do people think it is necessary to squander vast sums of money to appreciate nature? If so, it is because they visualize nature, beauty, and pleasure as objects to be consumed, hopefully in an ostentatious or bourgeois-respectable way. 

They would be better off to stay home and enjoy the miracle of gardening, help their dog deliver a litter of squirming puppies, or look for faint shadows on a cloudy day.
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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Balanced Scenery

'Balance' is a subtle form of beauty in a landscape, but it is a real one. It is also a rare one in the West. When people show postcards of western scenery and describe it as 'breathtakingly beautiful', they are being narrow and philistine. What they mean is that something in landscape -- hopefully reddish -- is freakishly large and vertical.

The truth is that much more balanced scenery exists in the East and the South, and a little bit in the Great Lakes region. Imagine a place that actually has pretty forests full of a variety of trees that have leaves (!),  a creek, a barn, and some productive fields. In most of the West (other than the Willamette Valley in Oregon) forests are nothing but dreary monocultures of some species of needle-tree.

The lack of balance and variety in the West just means that I have learned to appreciate those rare places where it can be found. One of those places is southeastern Arizona. That is the theme of today's postcard.


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Mesa Minders

OK I admit to feeling a naughty grin when I looked down on the mesa where some Lazy Dazers are camped. My dog and I were on a mountain bike ride on a higher mesa popular with my breed, near St. George UT.

They are down there somewhere. I thought I saw them.

Zooming in, I can see somebody's rigs, left-center and slightly to the right of center.


An allegory popped into the mind: do you remember that episode in the third season of the original Star Trek, called "The Cloud Minders:"  a community of exalted intellectuals, musicians, and poets live in a city called Stratos that is levitated in the sky. They do nothing but pursue intellectual and aesthetic pursuits all day. Meanwhile, down on the planet's surface, live the miners who do all the grunt work that allows the elitism and luxury of Stratos to exist. 

As I looked down on the Lazy Dazers and grinned naughtily -- and haughtily -- the allegory grabbed control over my mind. Why was it so powerful? It was not caused by the visual stimulation alone, impressive as it was. Maybe it was a (musical) leitmotif that kept playing in my head.

And yet, what was so special about that leitmotif? In fact I didn't even know if it was used in the "Cloud Minders" episode. (I had heard the leitmotif in another Star Trek episode with a classical Greek theme.) Maybe that is why all this came together and affected me so strongly. 

I was being given the opportunity of combining outdoor scenery and exercise with an allegory from somebody else's story, and then combined that with some music from another context. My imagination was being teased and provoked into working. "Imagination" basically means combining things, making comparisons, or forming connections. Perhaps you could take this experience as a template for getting the most from an outdoor experience. Even better, it just seemed to happen by itself; these outside factors just seemed to impose themselves on me. 

Finally we made it to the edge of "Stratos." Here Coffee Girl looks down onto the squalor of the Lazy Dazers lowly earthbound camp.


The Lazy Dazers use a certain approach to nature that is well-intentioned, but mistaken. Every day, they visit the scenic freakishness of nearby Zion national park. Is that the way to give Nature a chance to make its maximum impact on you?

I never go with them, probably because I look "down" on their approach. I can't see the difference between what they are doing and a 7-year-old who wants food to be exciting. For him that means going to a Dairy Queen and pigging out on one of their lacto-globular sugar-bombs.

Or compare their approach to nature to an adolescent boy who masturbates twice a day while looking at genetic freaks in Playboy magazine. Meanwhile, a couple desks away from him in the classroom, there is a nice, average-looking, young woman that he won't even give the time of day to.
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(Must I add the disclaimer that this post was written in the spirit of raillery, at the expense of people who are doing so many things right that they can afford to be good sports about getting zinged a couple times? They are having a wonderful time together, and I am envious.)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

If Eclipses Don't Terrify Anymore, What Good Are They?

Whew, what a relief! Tonight is supposed to be cloudy, so I needn't get up at 425 a.m. MDT to watch the Blood Moon total lunar eclipse.

Now isn't that a terrible thing to say? But admit it, how many times have you watched the media buildup to some celestial event -- be it an eclipse, a comet, or the Northern Lights -- only to be disappointed by the actual event? But like most people, I want the event to be interesting.

Why then are these celestial events such let-downs? We tend to forget that throughout the superstitious and religious period of our history, celestial events were truly frightening. That made them NEWS. But thanks to our scientific knowledge [*], celestial events have devolved into mere visual entertainment. As eye candy goes, they are rather slow and unimpressive. Compare them, as visual entertainment, to action scenes and special effects in a movie.

Perhaps you are dissatisfied with this grim truth. Maybe we can think of some other way to make such events interesting and significant. Consider this quote from John Stuart Mill's famous Autobiography:

He (a certain English intellectual) saw little good in any cultivation of the feelings, and none at all in cultivating them through the imagination, which he thought was only cultivating illusions. It was in vain I urged on him that the imaginative emotion which an idea, when vividly conceived, excites in us, is not an illusion but a fact, as real as any of the other qualities of objects; and, far from implying anything erroneous and delusive in our mental apprehension of the object, is quite consistent with the most accurate knowledge and most perfect practical recognition of all its physical and intellectual laws and relations.

The intensest feeling of the beauty of a cloud lighted by the setting sun, is no hindrance to my knowing that the cloud is vapour of water, subject to all the laws of vapours in a state of suspension;
This is a fine sentiment of Mill's. So why doesn't it inspire me? It seems so luke-warm and watered-down, so dull compared to the sheer terror about eclipses in a superstitious age. Thus it is not an adequate solution to the blandness of a modern, utilitarian, and scientific age.

The way around this deficiency is to admit that visual beauty is an insipid thing and to stop expecting too much from it. Even if it impacts you with force, it soon fades away -- sooner, in fact, than the total eclipse itself.

If nature isn't terrifying anymore and if mere prettiness is inadequate, in what direction should we move? I don't have a good answer for eclipses in particular, but maybe a bit of progress can be made for natural experiences in general. We need to find tricks-of-the-trade that make nature powerful and serious.

What about the link between music and the landscape? I am not talking about programmatic music, such as Beethoven's Symphony #6 or Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" or anything that school teachers made us listen to in grade school. But there are times when a certain piece of music fits the character and mood of an outdoor experience. Finding such music and making the link could help to put mystery, excitement, and meaning back into nature.

Recently I have been camping and recreating with some other RVers. We have a history of "F Troop" style operations as a group. But the mood and motion of a group can float through your mind during an afternoon nap, after the event. There is something about those naps that seems like a "religious experience", even though your rational mind knows that it isn't. Lately I might have found the perfect piece of music that fits the mood of these group events: it must be a small ensemble piece, not a symphony and not a concerto. Still working on it. 
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[*]An early step in this demystification was when philosophers noticed the circular shadow of the earth crossing the moon. You could only conclude that the earth was spherical. I believe Aristotle mentioned that, in a matter-of-fact sort of way. And yet the myth still exists that "people" thought the earth was flat until Columbus.

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.

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.
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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.
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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, July 7, 2014

Dealing with Disappointment on the Trail

Can eyeballs 'smack' in anticipation, like lips? I think they can. At least that's what mine were doing the other day on a mountain bike ride on the Unc, as one commenter calls the Uncompahgre Plateau in western Colorado. I have a special fondness for wild roses, especially when I notice them for the first time, usually in mid-June. I am fond of the seasonal ritual.

But the first sighting of this June disappointed me. The roses were waning and withering. Too late.

Oh certainly, this is just a minor disappointment along the trail, but it seems valuable as a simple and quintessential representative of an entire class of disappointments.  It is important to decide what attitude we should have about these disappointments.

It caused me to recall something said by a bicycle tourer. It was one of those statements that sticks with you because it stands out from commonplace chatter.

He said that he only remembered the little disasters and misadventures that occurred on his tours. The perfect weather, the pretty scenery, and the days of smooth clock-like progress never stood out in his memory. Expressed more brutally, they were meaningless and forgotten. 

Here's another example of the right attitude from a cycle tourer on the Great Divide Route on CrazyGuyonaBike.com :
But I went that way an hour ago. It didn't look right, it didn't feel right, it didn't match up with the next set of directions on my AC map. I am now three hours lost, it's 90 degrees, and I'm not riding the bike, I'm pushing. And there ain't no shade.
 You gotta love a guy like that!

So the wild roses were a dud. Now what? What is this disappointment good for? What would you have me do?