NW New Mexico, 10/18–10/22—part 1

Through some glitch in the matrix it’s cheapest to fly in to Albuquerque one day and rent a car the next, even with the addition of a motel stay in between. I check in with a Dolly Parton look-alike, but the proprietor named on the wall plaque behind her is a Patel. In the nightstand drawer there’s the Holy Bible but also the Bhagavad Gita. Neither converts me but I’m pleased to have a choice.

At the buffet breakfast the next morning a tiny woman cooks eggs on a hotplate concealed behind a speaker’s lectern. People line up as if to receive communion; when she’s served them all and stands alone surveying the card tables she looks to be presiding over a summit. The eggs are pretty good, too.

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I rent a bike and ride three trail Santa Fe trail systems over the course of the trip. At La Tierra the locals have packed a lot of trail into small acreage, complex spiderwebs threading through the arroyos and dozens of numbered intersections. Dale Ball meanwhile has the advantage of some rock and terrain, which in combination with the altitude means I am repeatedly passed by shirtless, geriatric trail runners. Retirement looks nice.

The Santa Fe showpiece is the Winsor trail, which a friend has told me is possible to self-shuttle with $5 public transit. I’m so astounded to find this is actually a thing that the bus has pulled away before I fully register where it’s left me: at 10,000 feet, with a bite in the air and granite under my tires. This trail is significantly more technical and more remote than I would generally choose to ride for the first time alone. I pick my way down very slowly, forcing myself to come to a complete stop before ogling aspens.

aspens

That night I find myself back on the mountain for my absolute least favorite solo-road-trip activity: hunting for a campsite after dark. There are no open spots until a cluster of walk-ins just below the pass, where after a restless night of gasping flatlander nightmares I wake to the sound of an older woman lecturing a dog.

Max is a muddy-pawed Norwich terrier who for some reason, when I unzip the door, is permitted to run directly into my tent. “Oh, sorry,” says the woman. I can see only her legs but these are making no move at all to retrieve her charge. “Did you stay here by yourself? How marvelous! Weren’t you cold? I’ve always wondered about camping.”

“It’s not so bad,” I say, extracting Max from my sleeping bag. I’m not sure I’m awake. I’ve been in Santa Fe less than 24 hours and this is the third slightly strange interaction I’ve had with an older woman walking a dog. The first stopped me on the sidewalk for help restarting her iPhone. The second asked me where I was from and when I told her exclaimed, “Oh goodness! It’s terrible there!” At the time I thought she might be referring to the Sonoma fires, but in retrospect that’s probably not what she meant.

sanmiguel

Santa Fe is zealously committed to its adobe architecture. San Miguel Chapel, the oldest in the country, does not look all that different from the five-star hotel across the street.

I don’t vacation internationally mostly because I don’t have time. But also because, when I think of the places I can afford to go, I’m put off by the reasons I can afford to go there. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to rent a Thai beach hut—in fact at this point it may be the most useful thing anyone can do—but it’s uncomfortable if you think about it too hard, which of course being me I can’t help doing. It may be cowardice to turn away from that discomfort, but it’s a choice I have and so I fly domestic.

But as I sit on the steps of the old chapel, watching a high-heeled tourist remove the price tag from a dream-catcher, I am reminded there in fact is no avoiding it. There are academic terms to try on when we discuss the endless echoes of our violence to each other—racism or capitalism or colonialism or, or—but in truth none is adequate for the enormity of it, inherent and inescapable and inexpressible, every one of us subject and object, forever and ever, Amen. There is no idea like that but sin. I don’t believe in God but I believe in language, and I suspect that word may be as close to the truth as anyone will ever write.

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Ogden, Park City, Salt Lake City, 7/22–7/26

Planes, trains, and automobiles; cowboys and Indians; fire and rain

Planes

 

Outside the Ogden Air Force Base museum the planes stand serene against the hazy backdrop of the Wasatch, casting their own shade. Inside there are more—old bombers painted with pin-up girls and little Hitlers in crosshairs—and also a replica of a North Korean POW cell, complete with mad-eyed mannequins in bunks behind bars.

The placard includes a photo of three graduating seniors from the University of San Francisco. They’re sitting around a radio, listening for their draft numbers. One vaguely resembles an old classmate of mine. It’s not that I’ve never thought about this—that there was a time when men in my life would have been called away to die—it’s just that I’ve never thought about it while standing completely alone in a 28,000-square-foot aircraft hangar, citizen and subject of a commander-in-chief who Tweets in all-caps.

We could have fighter jets without the fighting, you know. There is no rule against this; we only have to decide that’s what we want.

Trains

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The railroad museum is closed but there are a few big steam engines under a pavilion outside. I’m inhaling creosote and running my hands over rivets in a pleasant state of foamer reverence when two large families enter from the other end of the walkway.

The kids scatter and the parents lean on the railing in the shade. “There used to be a train like this at the park,” remarks one woman, “but they got rid of it after a little girl fell off the top and died.” Jesus, I think.

“It was so sad,” she continues, wistfully. “I loved that train.”

Automobiles 

The little Chevy I rented is black. It’s so hot out that I burn my hand opening the trunk.

I return the car when I get to Salt Lake City—to save some cash, I mean, not because of my hand—and use Lyft. My first driver is from Ethiopia and works with refugees. I tell him about my job and he replies that in his past life he did something similar, as a reporter for Boeing’s corporate magazine. It was the ’80s; he wore a cologne called Editor. “You know,” he says, “to cover up the stink.” We have a good laugh about this.

My last driver is saving up to skip town. She tells me her family disowned her for leaving the Mormon Church. “You can’t escape LDS in this city,” she says. “I just want to go somewhere I can be me.”

The only thing I don’t love about where I live is sharing it, the attendant inconveniences of crowding in with millions of others who wouldn’t belong anywhere else. “Come to California,” I say anyway, and mean it. “California would love to have you.”

Cowboys

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At the rodeo:

  • Paragliders descend into the arena bearing the Utah and U.S. flags.
  • Breast cancer survivors release pink-dyed doves from a dozen plastic pet carriers.
  • A woman in a fuschia jumpsuit enters the ring on a pair of white horses, one foot on the back of each. She’s holding another American flag, this one on a pole with fireworks shooting out the top. After a few laps at a casual gallop they start jumping barrels that the rodeo clown has doused in lighter fluid and set on fire.
  • There are several rounds of mutton-busting, an event in which one deposits a small child on the back of a sheep, sets the sheep loose in an arena, and incites a thousand people to scream at it until the child falls off. On the Jumbotron the six-year-old winner is asked if he’d like to go again and replies flatly, “No.”
  • Horseback musical chairs is won by a six-foot-something man strategically mounted on a Shetland pony.
  • A woman is pulled “randomly” from the crowd to remove the rodeo clown’s pants with a bullwhip.

Everything about this is gaudy and absurd; it seems to lack any sense of irony. It’s awesome; it’s pure; I love it. It’s the most American thing I’ve ever seen.

Indians

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It’s Pioneer Day. I’m in Salt Lake City for Outdoor Retailer, which could be characterized as a convening of businesses that profit from public land. Either because of or despite this, depending on how you look at it, the trade show is leaving Utah in protest over the administration’s threats to the state’s newest national monuments, which contain indigenous religious sites, rock climbing, and uranium.

Not so far away is another convention, a pow-wow in a screened-off section of Liberty Park. Before this was public land it belonged to Brigham Young, who presumably took it from the Shoshone or the Ute. Now legally it’s mine as much as either his or theirs. There’s an argument to be made that this is more democratic. There’s an argument to be made it is unjust.

Those are the facts at hand but from all of them, and the flash and whirl of the fancy dancers, and the rise and fall of the elders’ chant, I’m unable to make any sense. There’s only a fog in my head and stomach, abstractions and static—ownership and inheritance and freedom and loss. It’s all significance and no relevance. It’s pulsing with the drums.

Laugh all you like, but until this moment it’s possible I didn’t fully grasp what other people mean when they refer to feeling. I’m not saying, exactly, that I understand an emotion only as the the animal chaos that precedes a thought. But when you live in language you have to wonder what it is, this antecedent. More honest? Less true?

Fire

I’ve only just reached the ridgeline when the storm breaks, in long, steady rolls of thunder I can feel in my ribs. A group of guys who passed me on the climb reappears going the opposite direction. “Time to go!” one shouts.

In all my outdoor pursuits I am accompanied by a continuous film reel of unwelcome scenarios. I’m going to get injured or lost; I’m going to run out of food, water, fuel, or daylight; I will encounter a mountain lion or a swarm of bees or a serial killer; I’ll break a shoelace, trespass on a pot farm, die slowly of appendicitis. There is literally one hazard I worry about less that other people, for some reason, and it’s lightning. This has always been the case, and sure enough as the steel-cast sky flares bright again I feel nothing but a mild interest in seeing more.

“Are you coming down?” The last rider has stopped and is looking over his shoulder at me.

“I’m going to wait for it to—”

BOOM

“No way. Listen, I’m a professional guide and I’m telling you to —”

B-BOOM

“Get off the mountain!”

” I think I’ll just—”

“Let’s go! You’re coming with us!”

I’m impressed by his intensity so I follow him. The fine dust of ten minutes ago has liquified to treacherous grease in the downpour. I’m going to eat shit on those tree roots, I think, and I do.

Rain

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I’m lost and pushing my bike up what the rest of the year is probably a double-black ski run. The first people I see to ask directions are a pair of retirees hiking hand in hand. In addition to their respective favorite routes back to town (he likes wildflowers, she goes for views) they have a variety of other advice for me, some items less actionable than others. Buy property, they tell me, retire early. Hike with trekking poles. Marry your best friend. Dance in the rain.

Salt Lake City, 1/11–1/13 + Denver, 3/12–3/15

I was lucky to find work at a nonprofit I believed in right out of college and have been there since, the professional equivalent of marrying your middle-school crush. To mitigate this I have become a dogged hunter of “broadening” experiences, including, this year, the Outdoor Industry Association’s leadership incubator—something I have weaseled my way into despite not belonging to the outdoor industry, per se, never mind its association, and arguably not qualifying as a “future leader,” either.

Consequently I am experiencing severe imposter syndrome in the lobby of the Salt Lake City Marriott. The rest of the cohort works for Real Companies selling Actual Things and speaks in a different set of acronyms (I hear “PLM”—product line manager—as “BLM”—Bureau of Land Management—for at least the first half-hour of the meet-and-greet). Everyone’s roughly my age, but because they live in Bozeman and Boulder and not San Francisco or New York they are mostly married homeowners, many with children. And needless to say, they look much better in the puffy-on-plaid uniform than I do.

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Alternate realities

They also of course know how to ski: there’s an hour or so in the schedule in which to do this, but because it would take me that long to get rental boots on the right feet I stay by the fire with an expecting mother and a food poisoning victim. They’re asking genuine, unprompted, and totally answerable questions about public lands and I am quickly out of breath, in part with enthusiasm for the subject and in part from the altitude.

Exhausted from 48 hours of effort to simultaneously evangelize the entire industry and not spit on myself while talking, I surprise myself at the end of the week by disintegrating into tears over a casual airport dinner conversation on immigration policy. The inauguration is a week away. It’s the sort of out-of-body experience in which I observe myself as exactly the sort of Berkeley-dwelling, bleeding heart, tree-hugging nonprofiteer snowflake I must appear to be and perhaps—relatively speaking—am.

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In case it wasn’t obvious, I’m in front communing with nature/failing to assimilate. Also in case it wasn’t obvious: this was a great group of people. I’ve never had so many interesting conversations in one sitting: it was, in the industry parlance, rad.

In Denver for the second portion of the program a few months later the meltdown takes the form of my storming out of an improv comedy class, of all things. It turns out I literally cannot bear to be told by an arbitrarily empowered stranger to close my eyes, quack like a duck, or do any other goddamn thing, thank you very much, and the more everybody else does anything in unison—even as a game!—the less able I am to do the same thing. “But I want you play with us!” says a classmate, smiling, beer in hand. “Well, I want you not to tell me what to do,” I hiss. Her eyes widen and she takes a step back. Shit, I think.

And this is how I find myself standing alone in the snow in the moonlight, realizing, per usual, the exact thing I came to learn in the exact opposite way I was supposed to learn it. The ability to lead is not the same thing as an inability to follow—a problem that in a lifetime of snarking on school assignments, spoofing the cool kids’ t-shirts, arguing with traffic cops, casting lone-dissenter votes, and disputing “insubordinate” performance reviews I’d still somehow never looked squarely in face.

There is value in the instinct to turn the other way: at scale it will stop wars, save lives. Even at its most isolating it’s not something I would change about myself even if I could. But it’s not enough and it’s not unworkable. I followed the instructions and fit it into matrices in class. I’m working on it.

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Quit calling me Goose

Yosemite, 6/3–6/5

The valley in summer is as hot and buggy and crowded as I would have thought, but I’m here for a trails workshop and spending much of the day indoors anyway. The point was to learn to use tools, become handy … but I can’t help but maneuver into my comfort zone—i.e., bullshit—and instead wind up debating fundraising language with a rep from another nonprofit. His expression suggests he may fake a seizure in order to end the conversation. Whatever.

valleyfloor
Not pictured: hang gliders landing the meadow, a serious blow to what remained of my interest in rock climbing.

The workshop also includes a bit by the park geologist, whose job it is to investigate rockfall in the middle of the night and shoot LiDAR at El Cap. He’s pretty cute and also talking casually past my farthest points of reference in space and time: of bedrock 2,000 feet below the valley floor, of using cosmic rays from another solar system (????) to measure isotopes in flecks of quartz. In combination with the heat this is dreamlike and soothing. “The granite you see is the guts,” he says, “of hundred-million-year-old volcanoes.”

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Less problematic than the last time I went this way.

At 10 p.m. that night I’m hiking back down from Glacier Point when I encounter a mule deer glowing electric white, like it’s Harry’s patronus* or being abducted by aliens. In reality it’s backlit by the headlamp of an off-duty ranger, who mitigates my initial disappointment by walking the rest of the way with me and reciting draft tour scripts that didn’t pass muster with his supervisor. These include a talk on the cultural role of selfie sticks and another I would have titled, “Did you guys have any idea how badly this park fucked over the Miwok?”

The following evening finds me at the base of Yosemite Falls. I’ve never been before, and in the fast-failing twilight the hurtling plumes appear as a massive, warlike spectre, emitting a howl from another world. I have water on my face, my heart in my mouth.

* J.K. Rowling’s marketing team says mine is a falcon, so.

some sensory experiments

In June, spent mostly close to home, I considered something I suspect that only we know: the smell of dust in fog.

Pogonip, Santa Cruz

I do not know the words or word for this—but there’s one that’s almost right and good to have:

Petrichor (/ˈpɛtrɨkɔər/) is the scent of rain on dry earth, or the scent of dust after rain. Constructed from Greek, petros, meaning ‘”stone,” and ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.

(Did you catch that? The veins of the gods, I tell you!)

In middle school I read All Summer in a Day, that wretched story about a place where it pours for years at a time. As with a lot of Bradbury (or perhaps a lot of what I read in middle school) I remember little of the writing or the plot but everything of the anxiety, the clammy palms. It is the seminal work on FOMO.

But this is the West, not Venus. Here it will rain rarely and exclusively when you don’t want it to—in my case, lately, when I want to climb things that cannot be climbed wet. But the consolation that day was to doze belly-down on the warm rock riverside, on granite polished pale pink and glassy smooth, to hear nothing but the loud, mad river, to weigh raindrops ending long falls on my spine. It might have been the strangest thing I’ve ever felt.

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Vollmer Peak, Berkeley

High place in a dry year

No chance at all that this should be the break
Not now, in drought, in summer, and in dust
In fading day to wait is a mistake,
Still the warm wind breathes in my ear, “It must!”
Perhaps in light that falls from ruptured clouds
And spills across the mirror of the bay
Or the electric air, or in the sound
Of bowed-back eucalyptus roaring, “stay.”
No sense in that, nor reason to the thought
It will begin the instant that I go
But doubt’s the only faith that I’ve been taught,
So this is what I praise: that I can’t know
If under skies like this I one day might
Be sure of rain as I expect the night.

Resaca, 5/17-5/18

I rode across my first-ever state line—in St. Elmo, in the rain.

Scenic, I know.
Scenic, I know.

The neighborhood is named for the novel by hometown hero Augusta Jane Evans, apparently the first American writer to earn more than $100K.

Behind her in silent grandeur towered the huge outline of Lookout Mountain, shrouded at summit in gray mist; while center and base showed dense masses of foliage, dim and purplish in the distance—a stern cowled monk of the Cumberland brotherhood.

I have a more westerly conception of what qualifies a mountain as “huge,” but otherwise this is fair enough.

* * * * *

The first dog was small but caught me completely by surprise, preoccupied with admiring the countryside and, to be honest, myself—for what until that moment I believed was courage in riding alone. This delusion ended abruptly in a frantic sprint up the road, where I had about a mile to twitch away the adrenalin before my next pursuer—a border collie—came streaming out of the tangled underbrush to snarl and feint at my front wheel.

One wet, green valley further on the problem escalated into a German shepherd, at which point I would have stopped somewhere to cry about it had I considered it safe to do so. The organ of the imagination hemorrhages fear:  in mine, pit bulls now stalked every red-dirt and gravel driveway. Each alighting bird and flash of reflected light on muddy puddles appeared in the corner of my eye to be the first lunge of some slathering hound; the crinkle of a Clif bar wrapper in my own hand was the hard scrabble of paws on pavement.

I have to consider that it was no beast but my own head that ruined the ride. But that’s me, really: never bitten, still shy.

* * * * *

At Resaca it was raining and cold and had been for several days; absent dysentery, camp conditions may not have been miserable enough to be authentic, but they were certainly miserable enough. While waiting for the main event I ate frybread and browsed the sutlers’ tents: leather goods, pearl buttons, and pamphlets purporting Lincoln’s Fascism and Marxism (whichever you like). I met some sort of grizzled commander who walked me around the Federal camp. “I’m from California, too,” he said. “But I got out of there as soon as I could.”

Confederates in the Attic had readied me for crazies, but for the most part I met perfectly good-humored people who enjoy camping with their friends, riding horses, and shooting guns—which all seems American enough to me. Whatever your politics, you feel the cannon fire in your bones.

The battle done, two bugles traded lines of Taps across the meadow. The last notes hovered over the ground with the cannon smoke—I’m sorry, but they did—and we all did remove our hats, and there was nothing pretend about it.

* * * * *

As I left, teenage boys in camouflage Carhartts were towing stuck cars out of the muddy parking area on their ATVs. They were sending up furious fountains of slop and grass. They were having a hell of a time.

oops

Failure to pursue a degree in a real subject is apparently not the only mistake I might have avoided were I better read. Here is Robert Hass on Mary Hunter Austin in What Light Can Do:


In her autobiography she remarks on her reason for taking the science curriculum: ‘English I can study myself; for science I have to have laboratories and a teacher.’ She had already acquired a passion for the outdoors, though her mother had cautioned her to ‘not talk appreciatively about landscapes and flowers and the habits of little animals and birds to boys; they didn’t like it.’

I, robot

I’m a narcissist with a desk job, so naturally I found “What Would I Say” irresistible:

What Would I Say
This is usually what I’m telling myself, yes.

Also fairly representative:

  • Correction: I rode around drooling
  • A little bushwacking and SEO
  • How long should I expect to remain fetal in mainstream media?
  • Base jumping is thankfully *not* on the road bike
  • Good news! They’ll bus me there from REI.
  • Might as well have some bread?

OK, so any algorithm with access to my Facebook page can plausibly narrate my life. That’s no surprise, but generating the evidence at the click of a button still fuels my fear that everything I write I’ve already written—a suspicion difficult to dismiss when I remember that I’ve already written that, too. Great.

Last year one of my friends whacked his head on a rock after parting ways with his mountain bike. He spent the rest of the day repeating himself—not the vague regression of the merely forgetful but the exact, robotic iterating of TBI. I had heard the infinite loop described, but it was something else to watch: each run-through of his questions identical in phrasing and inflection and accompanied by perfectly duplicated gestures, every wave of the hand a piece of carbon-copy choreography performed with the precision of some eerie droid ballet. If our brains are only computers, his was conducting repairs while in safe mode: no new input, no new output.

“AliaBot” reminds me that this is true even when we’re not concussed. It’s got me wondering what I ought to feed the machine.

that time again: no place like in-home

Our second issue since the big makeover. One more and I think we might be on to something.

Land&People magazine
Behold the dazzlingly ambiguous cover family!

One thing I learned (or rather, learned not to ignore) in this production cycle: Day-in-the-life pieces really benefit from the photographer and writer doing their thing on—it’s true!—the same day. The feature edit that ensued when we couldn’t make this happen was definitely one of the more elaborate acts of slice-and-dice I’ve ever done, challenging to the point that in the end I undertook it literally.

Low tech, high yield, I swear.

This was an interesting exercise, if somewhat unsettling to see an arts-and-crafts representation of what I usually do in my head. But I think it turned out OK.

Elsewhere in this issue, I got to interview the members of a ’70s river-rat cooperative, one of whom provided a quote I plan to poach for my own use the next time I have to explain the general orientation of my life around outdoor sports I’m not even good at.

It goes through stages. When you start [whitewater] rafting, you tend to think in metaphors: this is how I want to live my life, flowing like a river. Then you get into the technical aspects: trip-planning, the gear. You do it for the sense of accomplishment. Eventually it becomes a social thing, something you do with your best friends.

And on the design sign, I successfully lobbied for inclusion of a barely relevant kitten and an eagle shaking hands with a moose. National Geographic we are not, but I defy anyone now to say that open-space real-estate transactions can’t be made adorable. You can peruse the proof here.