Monday, January 15, 2024

Bought with my blood


1987 Koflach Ultra double boots

On August 10, 1987, I was riding my bike southward into North Conway, NH on Route 16. There was a wide shoulder marked as a bike lane, but that abruptly narrowed where some railroad tracks crossed the road. I edged to my left, closer to the line of stopped traffic in the travel lane. The Mount Washington Valley traffic jam was a standard feature. Because of it, I would typically drive from Tamworth to the Kanc, park my car wherever I could, and proceed by bike to do whatever I needed or wanted to do in Conway or North Conway. So I was miles from my car when a passenger in a stopped vehicle shot a door open into the narrow shoulder just as I arrived.

The impact drove the edge of the car door into my left thigh a couple of inches deep. I crashed to my right. From long experience, I swung the bike up above me so I could undo the toe straps and release my feet from the pedals. The ugly, flapped gash in my leg welled with blood. I pressed it shut with my gloved hand and asked the instant gathering of bystanders if anyone had a clean handkerchief. They kept asking if I was okay and offering things I didn't need. Eventually, a nurse on her day off showed up and did a nice first aid job to hold me over until the ambulance arrived. A police officer who had been tending to the impatient motoring public took information from the occupants of the car that nailed me, and took my bike to International Mountain Equipment, where I had made a couple of acquaintances in my short time as a new resident of the area.

The gash in my leg was deeper than anything I had suffered in a fairly full career of getting lacerated. I had to take the ambulance ride, complete with back board, because that's what they have to do when they scrape somebody off the road. I suppose in more desperate circumstances I would just have bound the whole mess up tightly and stayed off of it as best I could for a few weeks, but why not go for the posh treatment when someone else is most likely paying? The funny thing was, we were practically across the street from Memorial Hospital. The ambulance barely got one "whoop" out of the siren before they were pulling into the driveway.

As the doctor was finishing the long job of stitching up first the muscle and then the skin, I asked him if I would be able to walk.

"Could you walk before?" he asked. I knew the joke.

"I meant today," I said. "I have to get myself around."

He said I was cleared to walk as much as I found comfortable. 

The motorists' insurance company agreed to a settlement. The money paid for my medical bills, bike repairs, mountaineering boots, a sturdy tent, and a deposit on a rental house. I had just started a new job with a new outdoor magazine, and needed to upgrade my gear for the things I expected to write about. That endeavor didn't pan out, but the long process of its failure still managed to throw me into some adventures. The boots got a lot more use than the tent.

The picture above was taken today, January 15, 2024. I wasn't even thinking about 2024 when I got those boots and started finding trouble to get into with them. But I never got rid of them, even when I was temporarily doing other things for almost 30 years. I still might, which is why I scraped thick dust and fuzz off of them and put them on today to see if they're in usable condition. They are. Remains to be seen if I am.

I've paid with my life for my dreams and decisions. I mean I'm still alive, but the time has been spent on something other than what our consumerist society calls success. As much as it was startling and painful, I owe that lady in the car a debt of gratitude for unintentionally providing me with needed funds. Within a few months, the outdoor magazine started writing me rubber paychecks and I had to get by on unemployment for a while until I got a copy editing job with a newspaper, and supplemented that with a job at an outdoor sports shop. Life always hinges on accidents. Some of them are more obvious crashes than others.

Monday, September 18, 2023

What the Ruck?

 (Cross post from Citizen Rider)

 Scrolling through the teasers on my Google feed, I paused over the CNN headline, "Rucking is an easy way to fitness." I knew what I would find, but I had to see for myself.

Rucking is, as the name implies, the practice of walking for fitness with a pack on your back, containing an appropriate amount of weight for your current physical level and your training goals. The first expert cited in the article was at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, which lit warm fires of recollection because of how much time I spent propelling myself around that city under my own power. 

Annapolis at the end of the 1970s was a perfect car-free town. Two bike racing buddies and I lived and worked there without the expense and encumbrance of motor vehicles for several years. One guy was a naval architect, earning engineer money. His rental was the nicest, though still modest. The other guy was working as a painter, but moved over into carpentry before starting his own contracting business. Both of them gave up transportation cycling for the sake of financial success, but their time as non-motorized workers helped both of them to amass more money than they could hope to have done if they had been feeding and housing cars as well as paying Annapolis's exorbitant rents.

When we weren't riding to get around, we were walking. Even if we had been carousing on a weekend, we never drank and drove, because we never drove. I mean, we did drive, if we needed to bum a car to go to a race or use a company vehicle, but the rest of the time it was pedals or plain old shoes. And if you needed to carry something, it went in a pack.

See where I'm going here? A walkable community would make "rucking" a daily experience. If I couldn't ride my bike to work on a given day, I would walk, and I still needed to carry some things. A day pack was part of the ensemble no matter what. Because my bike distance was short for the first few years, I would ride in street clothes and carry items in a day pack. Only when the daily bike distance pushed solidly beyond 10 miles did I start wearing riding clothes and putting more of the gear onto the bike itself. Those distances also eliminated walking as an efficient mode, but I still walked by preference when operating within a compact area.

America is gradually "discovering" walkability as a means of addressing multiple issues that some of us started paying attention to decades ago, when the problems would have been much easier to head off. So now we move at a panicked crawl in the general direction of community design and redesign that support simpler and lower impact means of transportation.

I have to wonder how many people load their fitness pack with some sort of neutral weight and drive to a pleasant venue in which to ruck, while doing nothing to improve the infrastructure and societal norms to help walkers and riders use their exertions as part of their daily life, folding it into the necessary trips they would be making anyway. It does require more conscious planning and preparation to walk or ride to work. It takes more time and exposes the commuter to the weather, cold or hot, wet or desiccatingly dry, whereas an optional fitness activity can be skipped, squeezed out of the schedule. The article talks about people throwing canned food or dumbbells in their pack and suggests using "specially made fitness sandbags" instead. Ooh, and you can get packs specifically designed for rucking, rather than a readily available multi-use hiking pack. You're rucking kidding me...

The Navy rucking coach is dealing with a student population with very scheduled lives, a dress code, and rules of conduct when they're out and about. Their options are limited for free-range urban hiking. This illustrates that the people who defend freedom are some of the least free, and explains why so many of them lean conservative. They color inside the g-dd-mn lines, why can't you?

Some people might not feel safe walking in their neighborhoods, or venturing from their safe zones far enough to get all of their errands done. Annapolis from 1979 to 1987 was safe and compact, so that a single person could obtain anything they needed without making a major trip to a shopping destination. I don't know if it's still true. Development has pretty well mutilated the area outside of downtown. No one I know lives car-free there, and most have occupations that require motor vehicle use.

Ironically, living in a rural area where I am surrounded by hiking opportunities, I can't do a lot of walking for transportation. I could, but the motorized majority drives to suit themselves on roads with no accommodation for anyone on foot. Only a few people walk except in villages and towns. Outside of that, they're mostly on roads where they have at least a slim chance to stay off to the side. The choice in that slot is to stick an elbow into the lane or wade into the tick-infested grasses.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Trees are a vegetable

 A new resident in town expressed some dismay at the logging going on in the area, cutting down "hundred-year-old trees." After several of us explained together that you'd be hard pressed to find a tree that old around here, the logger in our group said, "Trees are a vegetable. They're just like anything else that you grow to use, they just take longer."

Immediately I imagined little hikers among the broccoli stalks, or awe-struck, staring up at the majesty of lofty corn, or whacking aside the ferns of carrot tops.

Particularly in the eastern half of the United States, most of the forest you see is many generations removed from the primordial glory that greeted the first Europeans who arrived at what they considered unoccupied land. Forest reasserts itself wherever humans are not currently clearing land and keeping it clear. National forests and private holdings support trees as an available resource. You want wood? You need to grow trees. As the logger asserted, they're a crop. They just grow on a longer time scale than your typical farmer's market fare. Most forest survives now as a working forest. In other words, its days are numbered by interested observers measuring it for harvest.

You get used to having the trees around. When I moved to my current location 32 years ago, the forest on the mountain out back was mature hardwood and pine, unbroken for miles. It was easy to move through, because the understory had been shaded out for years. That meant easy bushwhacking in any season, and a generous variety of skiable lines without having to trim anything. When cutting began, it started first on the farther end of the small mountain range that forms the center of town. Even when it finally hit nearby, the first operations just opened a few moderate swaths. Much more drastic cutting had already taken place on the far end of the range.

The ice storm of 1998 took out a lot of treetops at elevations a couple of hundred feet up from road level. That storm devastated hundreds of square miles of forest -- thousands, really, if you look at all of eastern North America. It dumped the tops of trees into the spaces between their still-standing lower sections, in addition to toppling whole trees where they had space to fall. The lower parts might still leaf out and live on. You can still see some of these survivors today.

Logging cuts deeper and can be tailored to achieve a desired outcome, as opposed to the losses from wildfire and wind events. There have been few -- if any -- major wind events in the east since the Hurricane of 1938. As for fire, the last really large scale event in these parts was the disastrous fires of 1947, which mostly impacted Maine. Here in the border towns, old timers will tell you about how the fires managed to come over the line in places before they were finally extinguished. With the droughts we've experienced in recent summers, a repeat is possible.

Not all loggers follow best practices. Some cuts are ugly and damaging. A liquidation cut might strip a parcel before it's cut into house lots and lost to us forever. A working forest remains a forest. For the most part, nature reasserts itself even after an ugly cut. And not every drastic-appearing cut is a bad job. It's not a hairstyle. It's a business decision. A wise business person won't ruin the future of a resource. Most loggers already view time from a tree's perspective. It's a renewable resource, unlike mining or oil and gas drilling. Loggers have an incentive to leave the forest functional, where those other industries don't. I'd much rather live next to timberland than a strip mine or a fracking operation.

Animals and birds need open spaces and edge environments in addition to mature forest. Natural processes only provide those in limited places. One reason humans suffer from "problem" wildlife is that the open spaces and edges are provided by the clearings around homes dropped into the the formerly wooded area. It's a thrill to see wild animals until the bears get into your garbage, the deer eat your garden, and the coyotes make alarming noises too close to your bedroom window at 3 a.m. Then all of a sudden "somebody needs to do something," and the animals usually pay the price. If you want to see a real problem animal, go look in a mirror. A nearby logged area provides the open area and edge along with a measure of privacy that the animals seem to prefer. I've seen less of the local deer herd since the cut uphill gave them more sunshine and encouraged low growth for easily accessible browsing. They'll still probably come eat that one peony I keep trying to coax to flowering maturity...

As much of a jolt as it may be to see a big logged area, it's much worse when that area is then invaded by problem animals operating unnecessary motor vehicles for no reason other than their own erosive enjoyment. I get to listen to that now, to poison the peace of my own back yard. Out of sight is not out of mind when it's not out of earshot. Engine noise carries a long way. It's a constant reminder that the environment will only become more driven by natural rhythms once humans have basically eradicated themselves.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Once all in blue

The temperature is 35 degrees. Mixed rain and snow fall steadily. Weather like this keeps a lot of people indoors.

"There's no bad weather, only bad clothing," says the proverb. The raunchy weather was a selling point for me when I came here to enjoy the way that the low summits simulate the conditions of higher peaks without the inconvenience of traveling far.

It was the outdoor industry's "Blue Period," and the rise of Gore-Tex. You could get parkas and shell pants that weren't blue, but they were probably red. A few of the cool kids sported the black Marmot parka, but blue really dominated the scene. Soft shells would not exist for decades.

Once I scraped together the coin, I got a blue ensemble: a Kelty shell oversized to fit over a duvet in case I had to spend a night out, and some affordable North by Northeast shell sidezips. The parka came first, paired with some basic LL Bean ripstop wind pants with a reinforced seat and knees custom sewn by a friend with more experience in the gear business. The Gore-Tex sidezips were part of upgrades I made when I started ice climbing as part of my brief career as an outdoor writer. I had moved to the mountains to spend as much time as possible on them.

A day like today would have inspired me to suit up and go out, to enjoy the effectiveness of my clothing and the utter indifference of the mountain environment. Love of the mountains is entirely one way. The mountains don't know you're there. They just do their mountain thing.

Late winter and early spring are the most inconvenient time to get around in the higher elevations around here. The winter snow leaves slowly, augmented by spring additions that are always heavy and wet. All that white stuff has to turn into water and soak in or flow down. I would try to find a place that had already melted clear, if I couldn't negotiate a passable route to higher elevations where winter was hanging on with firmer snow. Sooner or later it all turns to deep applesauce.

Due to the Covid-19 crisis, the Forest Service has closed most major trailheads, and even quite a few I would consider minor. I have a perfectly good mountain range out my back door, and I don't have to burn gas to get to it.

Blue clothing stands out against the browns and grays of the landscape during most of the year up here. That never bothered me. But now I have replaced as much as possible with gray and brown clothing so that I don't stand out. On my home mountain, I'm on other people's land whenever I climb very high. The land isn't posted; New Hampshire's tradition is that we all use the land. I just don't want to test anyone's tolerance by letting them see me doing it.

The early tick season has been bad, particularly with deer ticks. They're the small ones that are harder to see and feel. I've already had one attach to me. I am not showing any symptoms of the several nasty diseases they can carry, but I never  assume that my luck will hold. Even though nothing has leafed out, the little bloodsuckers are apparently hanging out there, reaching with their front legs for any creature that brushes their perch. A nasty wet day when I can wear shell clothing provides a nice bit of body armor.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Social distance was the whole point

The people who introduced me to backpacking in 1980 were avid bushwhackers. They had spent their high school years going to the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia, particularly the Dolly Sods. On a pleasant and mild October weekend in Alexandria, Virginia, they enlisted my buddy Jim and me to join them for a trip to the Sods, which they described as weird, remote, and worth visiting.

Lingering summer in the Tidewater gave way to early winter on the heights. The Sods lived up to their description. Artificially treeless over much of its area because of logging, fires, and topsoil loss, much of the plateau is grassland and peat bog. Stunted spruce are flagged by the prevailing wind into a distinctive shape. On that trip, gray skies released occasional showers of snow pellets. Our guides were well dressed and properly equipped. I was cold, poorly fed, and fascinated.

Our guides led us away from the dirt road on a compass heading. Jim and I had no idea where they thought they were headed. It didn't really matter. We wandered through the complete variety of terrain and vegetation, following the two leaders who argued about their compass headings and which way we should go next. I don't know if they ever really knew where we were, but we completed a meandering loop over several hours and returned to the road about a mile from the cars.

The idea that map and compass matter more than a dotted line on a map and a blaze on every other tree stuck with me. Map and compass make you independent. The trail often does follow the most sensible line through a given set of topographical features, but the ability to interpret a map and read a compass gives a hiker a more complete understanding of the area, and the ability to improvise. As time went on, most of my hiking took place on marked routes, but I would look to the sides for interesting possibilities.

Bushwhacking is a great way to disappear. This can be true in a very final sense, but also in answer to a temporary need, whether it's a simple need for a minute or two of privacy behind a tree, or a broader need to stay apart from your fellow humans. It's not available to people in more densely populated areas where open space is rationed. Dense population also increases the chances of running into someone whether you are on the trail or off. I have enjoyed hiking with a close friend, when such companionship was available. Other than that I'd rather go unnoticed.

Our guides on that 1980 trip liked the Sods because it was too far for most people to bother driving all the way to it from the population centers around DC. It got discovered during the 1980s, though. As the population inexorably climbed, the small percentage who would make the trip swelled to an appreciable number. And the ATV craze struck the locals out there, desecrating the nearby Roaring Plains. I moved to a place that was relatively undeveloped, but now I have to skirt the dwellings of various neighbors as I climb the slope behind my house. The peace of a natural environment has given way to massive logging and its attendant threat of development to follow, and to the intrusive habits of "normal" people who like to drive around in circles on ATVs, shredding the land and the quiet of a pleasant evening. There isn't social distance enough. It could be worse, I guess. There could be tar sands or natural gas deposits underground, attracting even noisier and more destructive human activity.

People with time on their hands and a need to stretch their legs are rediscovering what's left of  natural environments wherever they live. Will it lead to a greater appreciation of them as we move on from this, or will it be dropped and forgotten like a plastic bag, once the trinkets within have been extracted?

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Beech Day

Early November sometimes brings unusually mild temperatures. On a break from yard work, I went for a short walk into the woods.

Lush growth of moss on this stump.
My nearest neighbor is always quiet.
Blue sky and sunshine.
This one is worth making bigger.
November's backhanded slap of sunshine is still welcome.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dear God...

Don't let me ever again be the annoying f*** in an outfitter store.

I'm sure they are my penance for having BEEN the annoying f*** in an outfitter store back when I was thrilled with myself and my outdoor activities. Soon after I started going backpacking and climbing I found myself working in an outfitter store. This amplified my annoying newbie qualities by adding the little knowledge that is a dangerous thing. I still shopped other outfitters when I went on trips to places like the Adirondacks or North Conway, NH. It gave me ample opportunities to annoy.

I would hope I had paid my karmic debt by now, but as long as one stays in the outfitter business one sits in the cross-hairs of know-it-alls and half-informed customers who want to make sure you're doing everything absolutely right when they have no real idea what that is.

When -- if -- I ever manage to get out of the outfitting business, if I still like to go out and I need gear, let me please always remember to shop quietly and not embroil the sales people in my spirals of indecision or other psychodramas.