Stop making sense

First, before reading this, go read some stuff by Endria Richardson, like this blog post, this essay, or this story. I’ve been reading a ton of her stuff lately and it’s very good. I’m linking to her to try to amplify voices of QT/BIPOC (over my own voice).

Second, this video with Angela Davis is wonderful and clarified a lot of things for me, so please watch it — it’s amazing.

But ok, if you want my thoughts, here they are. These are thoughts on racism in the US and the anti-racism work that is being done and contended right now in every sphere of our lives.

The air in the US is electric right now. Electric with the crackle of megaphones, the boom of fireworks, shouts of pain and victory and sadness. As the electricity sparks and sputters and arcs from the streets into homes and classrooms and clubs and friendships, does it dissipate?

People on TV right now talk about facts. They want crime rates to compare to incarceration rates. They want sober budget analyses. They want safe and sure precedents for police abolition. They want neat and tidy political discourse to come from people like Obama. They want historical analyses to give a fair trial to the true character of a statue of George Washington. They want calm, reasonable, logical debates. They want body counts.

This is like waking up to a bear tearing up your campsite and stopping someone from hitting it over the head with a cast iron pan to ask them to explain why bears exist. Like, why do you feel the need to reconstruct human rights from first principles? If you want evidence, go to a protest or read twitter and see the pain. There’s a fucking bear. Even if you just woke up and are not quite sure if it’s a bear or just a hundred impossibly coordinated squirrels, you better start throwing frying pans. Or at least don’t stop the people who are. Why won’t you just believe the millions of people telling you that things are not ok. They are so not ok, and have been so not ok for so long, that things have to change and they have to change now. And yes I do mean actually abolish the police, yes I do mean that white people in positions of power should actually hire BIPOC to replace them, yes I do mean that capitalism itself will anchor racism to this world as long as it exists because it is a system that places a price on human beings and extracts value from their minds and bodies and sorts people into groups and says some lives are more valuable than others. 

These are not my logical claims. I will not debate them.1 I will not tell you why I believe them and you shouldn’t expect anyone else to either. But you need to look into the eyes of people who have suffered and listen to them when they tell you that these things are true. When we trust Einstein that, in fact, a pencil in motion is slightly shorter than a pencil at rest, we don’t say “well I don’t know, this pencil right here looks about the same.” We trust Einstein because he was an expert in a field called physics. When a black person/indigenous person/person of color tells us that we need to abolish the police, we believe them because they are an expert in a field called racism.

It’s not up to you to discover anything. The world will not instantly make more sense or be more harmonious and ordered if you get someone to explain slowly and logically to you why Black Lives Matter. This may expand your personal satisfaction but it will not expand human knowledge. Anti-racism work has gone on for hundreds of years. People much smarter than you or me have thought quite a lot about racism and we should listen to them when they say that, no, the solution is not to turn color blind and commit to being nice to your neighbors. You don’t have to understand this from the axioms of the universe. That work is already done for you.

Yes, if you’re working on tropical Grassmanians or trying to design a post-quantum one way function, then you should use your facts, because this is on the frontier of human knowledge and you’re probably one of a few dozen people who knows what you’re talking about when you write your research papers. No one feels anything in their bones about “positroidal subdivisions of the (n-1)-dimensional hypersimplex.” But in anti-racism, please just don’t get left behind. Just sit down and do the work. (This post is not really about what “the work” is, but there is plenty to read about that.)

Please stop asking for facts, crystal clear gems carefully mined from the dirt and set in gleaming bands of erudite language. Stop asking for debate, play violence that is ok because each side know that they are just showing off their sharp minds and at the end of the day they can go home and everything will be ok because yeah, we really don’t know if we should embrace GMOs or not, and there is interesting policy to be intellectually debated there. When you ask BIPOC to debate their lived experience and justify their anger, you are doing violence. And it is not play violence. Stop asking for logic, steely logic that is so much stronger than throbbing bleeding hearts. Stop asking for precedent. Like, yes I’m aware it’s not safe to abolish the police. I don’t go for a walk and think oh hey let’s abolish the police for fun. But why the hell do you think its safer to have an armed security apparatus designed for the protection of property and the enforcement of the capitalist hegemony? Maybe there’s no precedent because things have been fucked up for as long as there were apparatuses that recognized a thing called precedent, and maybe precisely because of those apparatuses. Stop asking for performance reports that explain precisely why a more diverse workforce will make you more money.2 Even if you had to lose a leg for a more diverse workforce you should do it because white supremacy kills people

If riots are the language of the oppressed, then the language of the privileged is a witty remark, a bulletproof argument, a clever turn of phrase in an op-ed that the whole editorial board agrees, yes, is very nice and will make people nod knowingly and close the newspaper with satisfaction. The language of the privileged is a budget report, a statute, a briefing, a footnote containing a citation pointing to more language of the privileged.

Sometimes its important to speak the language of the privileged. In the work that has to be done, privilege — money, land, professional connections, eloquent writing, careful research, political and economic power — are some of the most useful tools that exist for tearing down privilege itself. But to speak this language about the need for change itself is to drown it in molasses.

Yes, clearly, I understand order is important. I think that’s probably one of the first things people that know me find out about me. I might be a socialist but I am not an anarchist. I appreciate order and structure and efficiency. But you don’t need order and structure and efficiency to knock out the bear that’s tearing down the flimsy walls of your tent. Believe the person who wastes a precious second to kick you in the shins because there’s a bear right there and you think there’s still a chance it might be squirrels. Feel the electricity. Embrace it and let it make your muscles twitch.

 

EDIT: this FiveThirtyEight story is relevant.


1Ok, if you must debate them, do it with me because I have energy for it that other people, for whom this is more painful, do not.

2My mom actually does roughly this, so I feel obliged to clarify that this is great for the purpose of making progress and change, but not necessary for starting change.

“Not an ideal plan” – six days in the desert in January

On Wednesday January 14th, I flew out of Las Vegas to conclude a week-long adventure around northern Arizona and southwestern Utah with two friends from school, Josh and Chris. Now, from a hotel room in Ellenton, Florida, here is a trip report of what we did. Maybe it’s a fun read, maybe it contains some good ideas, or maybe it’s useful for someone’s planning. Come to think of it, the title probably gives away that it’s less likely to fulfill that last function but hopefully the entertainment value is intact.

We flew in to Vegas on the 8th, Josh and Chris from Boston and me from Seattle and picked up our rental car, which was a new experience for me. Then we met my aunt in Vegas who very nicely lent us a bunch of gear, including a cooking supplies and a backpack (my camping stuff was still at school out East). We made a stop at Walmart just before they closed at midnight, then headed to In-n-Out for late night burgers. At this point, we realized that the East-coasters among us had been awake for 20 hours or something, so we hit the road and camped at a dispersed camping site that turned out to be just a parking lot several hundred feet of a large highway. We found a flat spot just past the parking lot, so we pitched some tents (badly) and went to sleep under the glow of Vegas silhouetting rolling dirt hills and cliffs.

The morning afforded a better look at the red dirt and rock of the surrounding country and gave me the very exciting sense that I was, after too many months, back in the desert. It’s hard to explain why I love the desert so much. I think it’s partly the wide open skies, partly the paradoxical feeling of privacy brought by the impersonal exposure, partly the aesthetic of copper-and-iron-laced rock and cactus and bush. Maybe it’s because the desert feels antithetical to my life at school in the brick and concrete maze of Cambridge, MA. In any case, it felt good to be standing there in iron-colored dust.

We slept in that first morning, before heading out to the Grand Canyon for the first and biggest objective of the trip: a rim-to-rim-to-rim. We stopped several times at random gas stations in the middle of expanses of featureless dirt and dirt-colored bushes and were just beginning to wonder when the mile-deep canyon would open up in front of us when we pulled up at the gate to the South rim. We found the backcountry station and easily got a permit for two nights at Bright Angel campsite at the bottom of the canyon. Our intention, announced at 4:00 PM, of making it down to the river by the same night elicited some extremely raised eyebrows from the ranger issuing our permit and provoked the famous “well, that’s not an ideal plan, but…” In the end, he was very helpful and clearly wanted to help us get to the bottom. We hurriedly packed our packs and left South Kaibab trailhead at 4:30 PM. From the South rim, the Grand Canyon looked like a canyon within a canyon – as we hiked into it, a third inner canyon was revealed. The sheer scale of the space was the most salient feature of the national park as we hiked down the first switchbacks, covered in hard-packed snow that crunched quietly underneath our spikes.

As we descended into the canyon, the snow faded and we removed our spikes. At some point, Josh (in the lead) was inspired to start jogging, and so we ran down the trail, deeper into the canyon, surrounded by quiet except for the jostling of our packs, the clunk of our boots, poorly suited for running, and the light breeze. We crossed the Tonto Trail after a few miles, on an expansive grassy shelf, before crossing “Tipoff” into the next stage of the canyon. As we continued down the switchbacks into increasingly rocky terrain, the sun set over the canyon rims and we slowly came down from our run. We put on headlamps, but decided to walk through the twilight without them, appreciating the moonlight and pale glow of the desert rock. Night hiking in the woods is terrifying; in the desert, it’s peaceful, enchanting. When we finally approached the river, a pitch black tunnel yawned before us. We turned our headlamps on and emerged slowly on to the Black Bridge, a structure of steel and cable that loomed over the green Colorado River. From there it was a quick half mile to Bright Angel campsite, where we ate ramen and went to bed among a quiet camp, filled with occasional headlamps flitting from place to place.

We woke up at 5:30 AM the following morning and I boiled water for oatmeal. We left our tents up and began the long walk to the north rim. The first seven miles were uneventful, as we followed a wide, well-graded trail along a creek. We reached Cottonwood campsite as the sun was coming up, but quickly continued up the side canyon, climbing a little farther from the creek. By the Manzanita rest area, we were a bit tired, but it was still early and we started up the climb quickly. The trail quickly turned from long, straight stretches over rolling terrain to dense switchbacks up cliffs and through hanging canyons. The going got slower, but we got dizzying views of drop offs and rock fins as we climbed up the wall of the canyon, weaving in and out of pockets and grottos along the cliffs, sometimes on ledges blasted into the walls by trail builders in the 1920s.

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We reached Supai tunnel at 11:30 AM and ate lunch on the first patches of snow. For the final push to the rim, Chris stayed at Supai due to an old knee problem acting up while Josh and I did the last 1.5 miles in spikes (nice, but not completely necessary). The north rim was fully snowed in and linked together with snowmobile tracks. Suddenly out of the red rock, the snow and the pines felt a lot like northern Michigan. We filled up water at the ranger station and soaked in views of the humongous outcroppings formed by the ripples in the rim of the canyon before moving quickly back down to Chris. He had found a north rim ranger who chatted with us about his job and seemed, despite seeing the canyon every day, entranced by it. The final seven miles of the day were endless. The winding river that the trail paralleled seemed to never end, and each rock wall shooting up into the night sky only served to hide the next. We settled into a rhythm, hypnotized by the serpentine trail, soft rush of the river, and looming rock walls of the inner side canyon. At one point, we followed a young deer on the trail for several minutes. I was tempted to follow it when it finally hopped down and disappeared into the brush. We finally reached the lights of Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel at 6:30 PM and made mac and cheese, which was satisfying despite lacking butter. We ate it while defending against a curious animal that I’m pretty sure was a coatimundi. The moon was bright that night, highlighting the tall flakes of rock surrounding the cottonwoods and Bright Angel.

The next morning we got to see Bright Angel in the light for the first time. It is a fantastic campsite, situated by the creek and surrounded by cottonwoods and willows. There is bathroom with flush toilets and hard boxes to store food. We packed up and set out late, deciding to leave via the Bright Angel trail instead, this time. The trail was peaceful and wove in and out of the shade as it followed creeks up out of the inner canyon. We passed a mule train ascending to the Tonto Platform, and then reached Indian Garden campsite. We started up the final switchbacking 4.5 miles quickly (having treated some blisters) and began climbing a huge rock amphitheater that afforded views of the entire canyon. The trail found chinks in the sheer cliffs that armored the cavity in the rim and we steadily made our way past the 3 mile rest stop, then the 1.5 mile rest stop, then the final tunnel, and then the rim. The rim swarmed with tourists and gift shops and we stood waiting for the shuttle exhausted from the last climb. The long shuttle ride gave us time to brush the dust off ourselves and come back to the real world, and when we reached the car we wasted little time in driving out of the park, this time to the East.

We turned north at Cameron, AZ. The landscape on the way north was flat, broken up by occasional buttes and low cliffs. The sun set as we drove towards Paige, AZ. We were going to try to camp at Lee’s Ferry in Glen Canyon, but when we pulled up to the gate and contemplated the $30 entrance fee, we decided to keep driving to Zion. We drove through Vermillion Cliffs in the dark, passing by desert sculptures like the Wave and Horseshoe Bend without a hint of their existence. The road made tight turns to weave in and out of outcroppings, but it was empty and we passed no cars for hours in the inky darkness. We arrived at Kanab, UT at 7 PM and grabbed a snack from a grocery store (having selected Honey’s over Glazier’s in what is apparently an epic battle between the two small-town stores), and drove into Zion past a closed visitor station. We drove through Zion in the dark, the tall cliffs appearing as only pale splotches. The famous tunnel was no darker than the outside. We finally reached Watchman campsite and promptly went to sleep. I slept in the car because the forecast was supposed to be chilly and did not regret it.

The next day, we woke up late and went to the visitor’s center. After finding out that the Narrows was still flooded in freezing cold but unfrozen water, we decided Angel’s Landing would be the thing to see. We took the smooth hike up to Scout’s Lookout slowly, enjoying views of the vibrantly colored canyon.

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The last half mile on the ridge was surprisingly not icy at all (according to a ranger, this is unusual). The top, as advertised, had some good views so we sat there for a while. We cleaned up a huge pile of orange peels and chewing gum (ugh) and slowly wandered back down. We stopped at Sol Foods in Springdale, where we bought day old churro donuts that turned out, somehow, to not be worth the $1 we paid for 3 of them. We camped at a dispersed site that night just West of the park, which turned out to be fantastic – 2WD accessible, nice river, stone fire rings, lots of flat space. We cooked jambalaya and tried to learn to hacky-sack and even made a fire before we decided it was too cold and went to bed.

The next day we decided we didn’t want to hang out in Zion any longer, so we drove out to St. George through more rolling desert. We showered at the St. George rec center (which was ok enough, but far from great) and kept going all the way down to Vegas. We found a nice spot to picnic at the Calico Basin area of Red Rocks where Chris discovered that avocado and SunButter is “surprisingly edible” before we went on a short hike around Calico Basin on which we walked extremely slowly (especially after Josh made us climb a big hill). Afterwards, we went back to Vegas and sat in a Panera for several hours playing cards (which felt ironic), then Josh wanted to do laundry so we played cards for several more hours in a laundromat. At this point, maybe tired of playing hearts, badly, for no stakes, we decided we had better see some of Vegas before we left. We decided to walk Fremont Street and collectively experienced the most intense culture shock I’ve had. Going from eating ramen in dirt parking lots in the middle of the desert to being under an artificial sky showing space ships occasionally silhouetting zip-liners, weaving between dancers and costumer performers, and walking past “Heart Attack Kitchen” where “over 350 lbs eats free!” made me slightly concerned that it was all just a fever dream and I was actually passed out at the bottom of the Grand Canyon because I followed that deer too deep into the canyon…

We escaped unharmed, though, and returned to the same campsite from the first night where we made mac and cheese, with butter this time. The next morning we dropped off Josh at the airport to continue on to another adventure he had planned. Chris and I had until the evening, so we decided to rent a crash pad (Desert Rock Sports, $15/day) and do a half day of bouldering in Red Rocks. We went to Kraft Mountain and wandered aimlessly until some friendly climbers oriented us. We found The Pearl, a beautiful block of rock sitting alone, far from the cliffs from which it fell. We spent the morning projecting the eponymous V5 on the rock, which was amazing (fun movement on crimps requiring high footwork and weight shifts). Actually, I spent the morning projecting it after Chris sent it on his third try or something. After that, we mostly hung out and ate our Walmart donut holes, but we did manage to do Jones’n (V4) before we headed out. The area is amazing and full of huge chunks of rock with perfectly boulderable faces that have fallen and landed scattered around the base of the cliff.

We discovered that we still looked enough like high schoolers to go in and use the bathroom at a high school without anyone batting an eye and were sitting down to eat the last of our food when Chris stabbed himself in the hand trying to cut an avocado. He was fine but it did mar our otherwise miraculously injury-free trip. After that, we returned gear to my aunt and made it to the airport with no issues.

It was great to have a trip like this as a break in school. The short days and cold night in the winter are a little tough, but definitely manageable. It was good to sleep in weirder places, plan less, and walk more.

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FOP 13 bracelets

 

Three days in Wonderland

Last weekend, I completed a hike that became a goal of mine when I came to Seattle for the summer: the Wonderland trail in Mt. Rainier National Park. I won’t try to describe the trail too poetically; as one of the classic backpacking tick marks in the Pacific Northwest, it’s been described before. It’s a trail. It goes around a big mountain. It’s 93 miles long. It’s hilly.

I planned out my route somewhat loosely because getting permits for the campsites along the trail is notoriously difficult. My backup plan was to just camp at two of the three car-accessible campgrounds on the trail where it is possible to get a walk-up site, but it would be nice to get backcountry permits. I planned to start at Longmire and hike counterclockwise, which I guess is supposed to mean steeper uphills and longer downhills (though I’m not sure I really noticed this).

I woke up in Seattle at 4:30 on a Thursday morning and drove south to a Safeway near Tacoma to pick up food. I went with bagels, tortillas, a block of cheese, a bunch of Clif Bars, some nuts and chocolate, and an instant rice dinner that I planned to cold soak. Tragically, I forgot to grab the tuna packets that I’m a big fan of. I made it to Longmire around 8 AM and went to see about permits. Driving toward the park, the mountain looked smaller than it does from Seattle, until I got really up close, at which point it looked several times bigger than it does from Seattle.

I ended up standing around in the rangers office for about two hours because of other people getting permits as well, but I did manage to get two backpacking sites. The first was three miles off the trail near the White River entrance (Tamanos Creek) and the second was a backpacker site at Mowich Lake (one of the car campgrounds). Since I was running late, I packed up as soon as I got my permit. I discovered that I had shredded an avocado when I closed my bear can for the first time, so everything was a bit avocado-y. I made the questionable decision of leaving the chewed up avocado in the car and taking a fresh one that I had planned on leaving, and spent a lot of the rest of the day thinking about why I had left a potentially rotting avocado in my car.

Day 1: 30 miles, 8600′ elevation gain

The first parts of the trail are pretty everyday – just nice shaded trails through tall pines and ferns with a few bridged river crossings as punctuation. I made lunch around Louise Lake, which is very close to the park road. The Ramrod bike tour (which circumnavigates Rainier in a day) was going on the day I started so I saw plenty of carbon, lycra, and cyclists deep in the grind. I ate as I walked because I hate losing time and also the day was looking to be a long one. The bulk of the southern part of the trail is along a river in deep shade. It’s very pleasant, but my brain needed something to chew on after I was done eating so I broke out a podcast. It seemed early to need it and I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired. Upon hitting the southeastern corner of the park and passing an NPS trail crew working on a little paved trail to the roaring Box Canyon, the trail begins to climb steadily. It was my first significant climb, and it pretty much was no fun. Also, the mosquitos came out (though thankfully just for an hour or so). The hour or so of switchbacks was well rewarded, however, with an increasingly un-treed ridgeline walk as the trail ascends into Ohanpecosh Park and Summerland. With clear views of the bastion-like Mt. Rainier glaciers to the west, the austere and lonely cone of Mt. Adams to the south, and the jagged, rocky eruptions of the Cowlitz Ridge to the east, this was one of the most visually impressive sections of the trail.

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Though I was tired and the sun was sailing across the blue sky unfortunately quickly, the increasing elevation and views kept me entertained and motivated. Once up in the park, the trail was like what I imagine the high Sierra to be like: rocky shingles underfoot, alpine meadows undulating over glaciated ridges, thin and lively streams braiding arbitrarily across the bedrock, and reclining grey-white mountaintops encircling the whole scene. I saw several marmots, which was awesome because marmots are sick. I was still quite focused on moving fast and as I passed the Indian Bar and Summerland shelters I looked enviously at the hikers relaxing for the night. I was so focused on hiking I almost missed an enormous herd of mountain goats until another hiker I was passing pointed them out to me. Up in the park, even the dropping sun kept it feeling like the afternoon, but as soon as I dropped back down into the trees on the final steep descent of the day I realized I didn’t have much daylight left. At this point, I just dialed in, started another podcast, and set a pretty decent pace down into White River. I didn’t have much time and even less motivation, so I decided to skip the three mile detour to Tamanos Creek and take my chances on a car site at White River. As the sunlight dashed away down the pine covered valley, I made it down to flat ground where the final couple miles to the campsite felt extremely long. I did manage to run a bit for the first time since the morning to make it into the campsite around 8:30 PM. I had just started to look for open sites and was becoming pessimistic when an amazingly nice woman noticed me looking tired and campsite-less and offered me her tent pad since she was sleeping in her VW. This was extremely stress-relieving for me. PSA: let backpackers share your site if you don’t need it. They’ll probably just scarf down some pathetic-looking food and be gone by the time you wake up.

That’s exactly what I did. I greatly enjoyed my cold-soaked rice with tortillas and cheese, stretched half painfully, half luxuriously on my sleeping pad, and fell asleep looking at some very nice stars. At this point, I had pretty much settled my nagging doubts about whether I was physically capable of doing the trail in three days, but, simultaneously, the difficulty felt much more real having experienced one third of it than it did looking at the map. I fell asleep with a little bit of a confused outlook on the rest of the trip and a lot of soreness.

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Day 2: 24 miles, 8500′ elevation gain (Spray Park alternate)

I woke up feeling shockingly locomotive and ate breakfast at a relaxed pace before scratching a thank you note to my host in the dirt and leaving a $10 bill to cover half the campsite fee. Up first was a steep climb into the Sunrise area that was really fun with the first soft bloom of sun, fresh legs, and 40 grams of sugar from the instant oatmeal I had for breakfast. I ran a bit and made it up to Sunrise campsite in under a blue sky and a morning sun. The soft shallow glaciated bowls in this area were relaxing to walk across. The trail stretched out visibly for almost half a mile because the trees had disappeared, replaced by the fuzz of meadow grasses and flowers. There were a bunch of marmots scurrying with absurd and awkward urgency to and from their rocky caves. The trail kept climbing up to a broad high meadow looking out on a rippling spiderweb of ravines and ridges. I saw a rocky, pyramidal mountain banded by a small side trail and decided to drop my pack and make a quick run up to the top. It turned out to be Skyscraper Peak, elevation 7040′ which was the highest I got all trip. I shared the blocky and narrow summit with a fluffy marmot with a mottled coat before returning to continue on the trail as it dropped out of the high altitude.

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The next section of trail was boring and tiring. After descending down gentle switch backs to a river, I walked up and down on the steep banks until I saw a sign for Mystic Lake a half mile ahead. I decided to continue to there before getting lunch. During this half mile, I ran out of energy, got really hot, saw a bunch of other people, and generally hated the annoyingly hilly trail, but my tortillas with cheese did taste really good when I got to the lake. The next few miles were a forested cruise down to Carbon River, where I crossed a neat suspension bridge over the rushing river. The cloudy water thundered by like electricity down a neuron beneath the swaying and sun-bleached planks of the springy steel bridge.

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I decided to do the Spray Park alternate route, giving up a half mile of distance in exchange for some hefty elevation gain. I started on my last climb of the day energetically, running or half-running for a while before settling into a pushed hike. The Spray Park climb went on forever. At literally every point I looked up and estimated the distance remaining, the accurate distance turned out to be about twice that; even when I thought I was just a hundred feet from the top I had to climb for more like a two or three hundred feet. As the trees dropped away and the trail looped lazily around muddy tarns and scaly flagstones, views of Rainier’s shingled blanket of snow dominated the high meadows. I finally reached the point where the meadows started sloping downward, and dropped back down in to the world of orange dirt, green ferns, and shepherding trees. I started to feel pretty tired on my way down the steep switchbacks into camp and crept into Mowich Lake slowly. It was early, only just after 5 PM, so I tried to find the ranger station and see if I could move my permit to the next campsite 3 miles farther down the trail. The ranger cabin nestled next to the lake was closed, though, so returned to claim a tent pad, sat around for a few minutes, and ate the same dinner as the night before. My attempts to go to sleep at 8 PM with a bright sky and chatter from other campers were not particularly successful, but eventually I sunk into sleep.

Day 3: 31.5 miles, 8300′ elevation gain

I fuzzily woke up at 4:29 AM to a sprinkle of rain on my face. As I sat up to investigate, I had the unpleasant realization that there was a mouse curled up on my stomach inside my sleeping bag. This caused me to fully and somewhat frantically wake up and I sat around in the dark and light mist unhappily for a minute. I hope the mouse had an amazing night’s sleep because I feel like one of us should have come away with a positive experience. I decided to toss my stuff in my backpack and just get an early start since I was a bit worried about the day’s mileage and number of climbs anyways. I packed up quickly, pounded a caffeinated Clif Bar, and started down the first steep descent of the day by headlamp. The light mist continued as I hurried down to the bottom of the valley. There I took of my headlamp, shedded a layer, and set into the first big climb of the day eagerly. The hill turned out to have an astonishing number of switchbacks, gloomy corners, and wet ferns brushing against my up to my shoulders. The ridge and meadows I found at the top were brighter but with the same pale grayness. Between the continued sprinkles and the soaking grass surrounding the trail, I was thoroughly wet and generally wanted to just get out of the place. I made the long descent from the park thinking mostly about cheeseburgers and kicking myself for forgetting tuna. At the bottom I found the pounding and hungry Puyallup River and crossed a bridge between two fortress-like stone abutments. The next climb, which ascended into Klapatche Park was the most intimidating one of the day so I jumped in, eager to finish it. I surprised myself by feeling strong and fast most of the way up. Near the top, sheer crags loomed out of the fog and presented their flanks to the valleys of mist and pine trees. I think in clear weather, the views at this part would have been amazing, but for me it felt like walking through maze-like archipelagos of crests and cliffs and pinnacles emerging from the wispy cloud. Just as I began to drop down out of the park though, the air at my elevation cleared enough that I could see clouds snaking along the sides of the mountain above.

During the switchbacking descent, the air continued to clear and I thought I saw a huge lake in the valley below but it turned out to be an impressive cloud inversion laying like smoke over the bottom. I ran quickly on most of this section and got to the brown-colored South Puyallup River in good weather. I was prepared to hate the next climb, Emerald Ridge, because it was the last big climb between me and my car, but it turned out to be an amazing section of trail. The climb was stout but not unpleasant, there were expansive meadows of wildflowers, and from the crest at the top the views down onto the weird, orange, and rocky genesis of the South Puyallup afforded a totally different aesthetic experience from the rest of the trail. Also, there were marmots at the top, so huge bonus points for that.

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At the top, enjoying the view onto the mounds of dirt spilling out of Rainier’s dirtiest basin, I realized that, due to a miscalculation of distance on my part, I was behind schedule to make it back to the parking lot by the time I was aiming for, so I bombed down the next hill and ran across the subsequent suspension bridge. I attempted to charge up the next, and last, hill but bonked horribly and devoured a bagel in the hopes of fueling myself up to the top. This didn’t work at all, so I ate an oatmeal packet dry (I was out of filtered water at the moment) which was pretty gnarly but did the trick nicely. However, when I got to the top, I realized that, between my bonk and some distance marking discrepancies, I would have to keep up 10 minute miles or something to finish in time, so I decided to slow down dramatically and take it easy to the end. At this point, the weather was beautiful and a light breeze made the tall cedars creak around me. I had a pleasant walk down to the road, despite my ankles starting to really hurt, and finished the trail walking pretty slowly. Then I tossed my stuff into the van (which, amazingly, smelled no worse for having hosted my messed-up avocado for three days), and drove to Safeway where I got my standard favorite of hot soup and bread.

Random summer update

I’m writing from my family’s apartment in Seattle, which by itself means that this summer is pretty different from my last three. Being with my family (and dog) is amazing and I’m glad to be able to spend more time hanging out with my parents, walking the dog, and eating home-cooked Chinese food. We just completed a move from Minneapolis to Seattle that wasn’t particularly easy for any of us. The house we left was heavy with memories for me. It wasn’t that I was disappointed to leave on any rational level, but moving felt like losing something deeply ingrained in me. I think I still haven’t figured out what home means to me any more without that old wood house on 26th street.

Luckily Seattle is turning out to be pretty rad, complete with ocean views, big hills, cool weather, and nearby trails.

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I’m working in a lab this summer under the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington. It’s great research experience and good exposure to some applications of computer science, etc., etc. I have actually been enjoying it, even though it does essentially entail sitting at a desk all day. My project is building a generative model (see here and here) for flu hemagglutinin sequences (see here) with the goal of creating chimeric hemagglutinin proteins (see here) for improved flu vaccines (see here). Just yesterday, actually, my pile of linear algebra finally spit out some proteins that looked kind of protein-like.

I realized that this is the first summer in three years that I’ll survive without living outside. I’ve been missing camping — the simpler schedule, the lack of commuting, the showering, the worrying about fitting in workouts, the emails more than once a week. I’ve been trying to make up for it with weekend excursions. Seattle is a good home base for a weekend adventurer. My weekends so far have included:

  • A run up Mt. Teneriffe after a hike to Teneriffe Falls with my mom that turned instead into a frantic run up to Mt. Si (that didn’t even include the haystack) when I realized I was going to miss the shuttle back to Seattle if I didn’t bomb down the mountain as fast as I could.
  • A 40 mile bike ride around Bainbridge Island which involved plenty of hills (as advertised) and made me realize how hard biking is/how bad I am at biking.
  • A failed attempt at Kaleetan Peak on a very misty day where I got lost and cliffed out near the top.
  • A run up Mailbox Peak (and a bushwhack to Dirtybox) that was really fun and satisfying, even if it wasn’t cracking any Strava leaderboards.

Failing on Kaleetan was pretty annoying and made me feel pretty bad about my abilities. I ran about 3.5 miles up to Melakwa Lake in the rain and mist and found the steep climbers’ path up to the peak. I made it to the false summit before loosing the trail as it dropped into a couloir before the final climb. I ended up on a knife-edge and it got really scrambly really quickly. I couldn’t see more than 20 feet in the mist and I got pretty sketched out by the possibility of slipping, so I turned around and was definitely much happier for it. It was a bit of a bummer to run back to the car without any summit and the climb seemed a lot less scary when I was warm and back on the ground. I was pretty glad I felt strong on Mailbox the next week.

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What I’m really excited for, though, is an upcoming trip I’m planning on doing to the Wonderland trail around Rainier. I’m planning on only staying at front-country campsites to avoid having to worry about getting a backcountry permit, which means some pretty long days. I’ve definitely never hiked this long before, but I’m pretty sure I’m capable of doing it. Either way, it’ll be nice to do a longer trip and to get a chance to try out the ultralight tarp and backpack that I’m just starting to sew now. I’m also going to try to take a trip to Desolation Peak, of Dharma Bums fame, both because it looks like a sweet mountain and also for the pilgrimage to a temple of Beat writing.

I don’t have anything else going on, so I guess this concludes a fairly aimless post to match a fairly aimless summer. Looking forward to the sun rising tomorrow morning.

– Conlan

FOP 2018 Trip Report

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Last week, I lead my first trip with the Harvard First-Year Outdoor Program, or FOP. My co-leader, Kayla, and I took 8 incoming freshmen into the White Mountains of New Hampshire for 5 days of backpacking, bonding, and introspection. This post is part trip report, part personal reflection on how it went.

The week leading up to the trip was a blur of workshops, meeting friends old and new, and careful planning. Though the schedule was busy, I enjoyed all the programming and appreciated the time to plan. Finally, all of the forms had been completed, the candy bought, and the tortillas collected, and it was time for the FOPpers to arrive. Without time to think, I fell into a sort of leadership role. It was somewhere between my role as a captain of high school sports teams (in which I was quite comfortable) and that of a peppy, fun summer camp counselor (in which I was quite uncomfortable). The trip started the next day with a 4 am wakeup and Eli from basecamp gleefully waking up our FOPpers by banging on doors throughout Matthews.

The first day was nearly without incident; we reached camp (Perkins Notch tentsite) as planned but one FOPper did fall and cut his elbow on a rock. We cooked and noticed a subset of our group separate off during dinner cooking, but put it off as first-day social weirdness. We set up a haphazard tarp, did an only moderately successful activity on equity, inclusion, and diversity, then went to bed. I cowboy camped both due to limited tarp coverage and me wanting to. I was awakened around 3 am to an extremely unwelcome mist of rain and quickly moved stuff around at camp and set up a tiny personal tarp for Kayla and I. The rest of the night was spent huddling miserably under a tiny bit of coverage while my face and the bottom of my sleeping bag were soaked. Kayla’s down sleeping bag got similarly wet and neither of us slept well.

We woke up to heavy rain and made a quick breakfast, but still didn’t get out of camp for a full hour. Spirits were low among both the FOPpers and leaders. Eventually, we filed out of camp without a morning activity (something I later regretted). The day was supposed to be 4 miles up and over Carter Dome — steep but short. We didn’t anticipate a very hard day, but when we started climbing, it quickly turned into an epic slog. FOPpers were wet, cold, and miserable, the trail was challenging, and the rain refused to let up. I have a hard time with motivation on the best of days, so starting up a chant or song was impossible for me that day. I settled for riddles, which the FOPpers caught on to reasonably well.

When I, in the lead, finally reached the top of the mountain, we were surrounded by clouds and curling fog. There were no views, it was still raining, and energy was low, but we still mustered up a cheer, took a summit picture, and Kayla gave a rousing speech about our accomplishment. We began searching for our trail down the mountain and were having trouble finding it. Stumped, we headed back to the FOPpers when, dramatically, the clouds parted and we saw looming over us Carter Dome. After a conference, we sheepishly returned to the FOPpers with a bribe of candy and explained that we had to keep climbing, yes, that big mountain over there. 

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Fake Carter Dome

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Real Carter Dome

More trudging uphill and a viciously steep descent later and we were standing at the doorstep of Carter Notch Hut, late, tired, and still soaked. The people at the hut were nice and let us fill water and use bathrooms, but directed us to a tent site taken up by a large puddle. We made do and cooked Thanksgiving dinner, ate, and fell asleep in the dark. Kayla and I were disappointed with the day. We worried that we could have done more to keep energy up, to maintain group unity, and to turn difficulty into proud accomplishment. 

In the afternoon, a FOPper had approached us complaining about an ankle injury. It continued to hurt throughout the afternoon, and by the time we reached camp the FOPper was sure that they wanted to leave the field. We made arrangements with base camp to meet a van the next day to complete this evacuation and also drive us to a campsite farther along our route. This served in principle to make up for the lost day of hiking, but we were also grateful that it would mean fewer difficult days in the remainder of the trip.

I gave away my sleeping pad and sleeping bag and because of this woke up at midnight freezing cold. I ran over to the bathrooms at the hut, then sat around the stoves and resignedly made myself hot water bottles. Kayla, also in soaking cold gear and also having given away most good layers, joined me in a comically miserable huddle. The hot water bottles were amazing.

We woke up in the morning and made the short hike out to the road with considerably higher spirits with clearer weather and an easier route in front of us. During the rendezvous with base camp, two more FOPpers revealed that they had legitimate reasons to need to leave the field as well, so when the vans dropped us off we were 3 people fewer and our packs were a couple pounds heavier. The campsite (Wild River Campground) that night was very developed — sometimes backcountry is nice but sometimes a bathroom is nicer. We had a fire and dried out clothes and had a very successful talk in the evening about school.

The next day we woke up late and went on a day hike in perfect weather through bucolic woods and streams, stopping at a waterfall and breaking for lunch at a panoramic view over the Basin where we turned around. We hiked back with a spring in our steps from the lighter packs and short day and passed a relaxed and fun evening at camp wherein we met a fellow pre-orientation group from Tufts.
We woke up early on our final day of hiking. After trying to convince our FOPpers that we had found a pineapple growing in the woods (which, in fact, I had carried throughout the trip for a nice surprise), we left the campsite with fresh biscuits and jam from the grandparent-ly campground hosts. We returned to the Basin Rim and descended in good time, passing another amazing waterfall. We got into our last campsite, Basin, early and easily. I briefly thought I had lost the cheesecake filling for the fuzzy cheesecake activity when I left it to chill in a stream, but after some frantic searching it was recovered and we spent a night around a campfire, eating cheesecake and saying nice things about each other. 

Pickup day was a blur of coordination with people across the state, broken cell service, changes of plans. We rolled into the Quad with relief that everyone was back and launched into a relatively painless de-rig. One final activity on Weeks Bridge over a moonlit Charles River and it was a trip.

Despite involving short hikes and lots of bathrooms, this trip was harder than any I have done before. The constant focus required to think about everyone else’s well-being was far more taxing than managing one’s own. I’m going to wonder for a while whether there was anything we could have done to avoid having to evacuate three FOPpers. In the days after the trip, I was seriously wondering if I could lead again considering how difficult it was and how I wondered whether the trip was a failure. But writing this three weeks later, it seems wrong to call the trip a failure. Each FOPper got something out of the experience, even the ones who left, and the ones who stayed seemed to get quite close. Kayla and I were delighted that all of the FOPpers who left showed up happily to our first reunion over ice cream last week. Furthermore, Kayla and I learned a ton, which has to have some value.

I’ll never think about leading the same, and I’m excited to come back next year and do better.

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14ers and the impact of recreation

This post was written for our crew blog and was posted first here with the thoughts and musings of other RMYC crew members.

The 53 14,000’ peaks of Colorado, known as the ‘14ers,’ are the most well known peaks in the state. Climbing them has taken on an almost mystical allure. Watching climbers pore over their ticklists and single-mindedly bag one peak after another, it is tempting to dismiss the 14er craze as just that: a fad, a perversion of the joy of climbing mountains into an uninspired quest for summits. But the reputation of these peaks is deserved. The trails up their grand flanks are picturesque, challenging, and (for the most part) well-maintained. The views from the top of a 14er are unparalleled. And, most of all, these mountains are inspiringly, impressively, and breathtakingly big. To climb a 14er is to take on a significant challenge and be rewarded for victory with a grand summit.

In Colorado though, uncommon beauty and challenge comes with a price: crowds. Each day, hundreds of people may make their way to the tops of Colorado’s more popular 14ers. Though all are motivated by the pure desire to hike hard and reap the rewards of a lofty summit view, not all are prepared to hike the mountains well. Human impact has grown to the point where the efforts of organizations that seek to protect the 14ers such as the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative have taken on a desperate tone. CFI estimates that 35,000-40,000 people climbed Mt. Bierstadt in 2017, a staggering number of large animals to be climbing over a fragile alpine environment evolved to handle at most some marmots and mountain goats. The trails widen with overuse, the flora of the tundra suffers, and wildlife either leaves or becomes unhealthily accustomed to humans.

Working on Mt. Evans, a Front Range mountain blessed, and cursed, with easy access from Denver, our crew has experienced this traffic first hand. Though the hiking impact on Evans is tempered by the rare presence of a road to the summit, our crew still greets around 50 people each day, and we only see the quieter weekdays. Observing, one is torn between the joy that these people have the chance to experience an amazing natural area and the sense that it is too much. Many hikers are unaware of the best ways to hike with low impact on the alpine environment, and some are unprepared for weather and personal safety issues. Our quest to make the trail more sustainable seems urgently necessary on a busy summer day.

As mountain climbers, outdoorspeople, and hikers who enjoy a good challenge, our crew enjoyed hiking Mt. Elbert and the Mt. Democrat, Mt. Lincoln, and Mt. Bross cluster on two of our weekends off. But this past weekend, we were collectively exhausted by the crowds on Colorado’s highest mountains. Searching for a more peaceful hike that would be more faithful to the experience of climbing a wild mountain, we embarked on an ascent of West Buffalo peak in the Mosquito Range. The trailhead parking lot, at the end of a long and winding road outside of Buena Vista, CO, was empty when we arrived. The trail took us to a ridgeline, but at this point an ascent required leaving the path and heading up over raw talus and gravel. The trail was nothing compared to one up a 14er. The climb and wayfinding were consequently more difficult. The heights we attained at the summit were some 800’ short of the great altitudes one gains on a 14er. But we were left with a reinvigorated sense of adventure and the achievement of climbing a mountain off the beaten path.

The paradox of outdoor recreation in high use areas like Colorado is that the very users one hopes will enjoy a trail begin to slowly ruin it. The benefit of easily available recreation are clear: I would not be here if I didn’t truly believe in the value of hiking up a mountain both for one’s appreciation of nature and for one’s soul. However, the need to preserve our natural recreational resources is equally strong. This is why the work of conservationist organizations like CFI and conservation corps is so important. I encourage anyone reading this to climb mountains, as many and as high and as hard as possible. I hope it will help you appreciate the natural beauty of our world and do some good for your heart. But I also encourage you to tread lightly, to read up on your Leave No Trace practices, to stay on the trails and to help build and maintain them. I am confident that outdoor recreation can be sustainable and healthy not only for the human users but also for the landscapes where they walk. But this is a process that will take hard work and not only love but respect for the vulnerable giants that are the 14ers of Colorado.

Happy trails from Trail Crew Charlie.

Photo credits to my crew.

West Buffalo Peak trip report

On July 27, 2018, tired of the crowds that plague 14ers, I hiked West Buffalo Peak with Caleb and Pio, two crew mates from my trail crew this summer. This is a 13,300’ peak in the Mosquito Range northeast of Buena Vista. Since information seemed to be sparse online about this hike, this is a trip report and somewhat of a guide to help others who follow us.

We began from the Fourmile Creek trailhead, which is reached by following CR 375 north from Buena Vista until it terminates. To our pleasant surprise, there was no one else at the trailhead when we arrived. The trail continues along an old road for a little over a mile before dropping down to parallel Fourmile Creek. The trail then ascends to reach a junction. We took the left turn, whichever one isn’t the Salt Creek Trail. I can’t remember what the sign labeled the trail we took, but my topo has it as Tumble Creek Trail. It proved to be very well constructed and seldom hiked, which meant a great hike for the next mile or so. Upon reaching a ridge line that is both the boundary between Chaffee and Park Counties and the San Isabel and Pike National Forests, we had to leave the trail and cut cross country to the right, heading east. Trees persisted for only a few minutes before we reached open meadows of alpine plants and, eventually, talus. It was about a half mile to a false summit, and then a slight descent to the base of the true summit. The climb to the top is not as hard as the climb from tree line to the false summit, though the terrain changes to uninterrupted talus, making the going a bit slower. NOTE: this part of the hike is off trail and goes over fragile alpine plants. Please tread lightly, rock hop when possible, and avoid making a concentrated impact on one route. Leave no trace so this mountain can remain relatively wild and untainted by recreational use.

The summit afforded a grand view of the Collegiate Peaks and much of the rest of the Sawatch Range. The rocky area that forms the top felt nothing like the parks-in-the-sky that high-use 14ers can become. Instead, the three of us, alone, felt like we were standing on a particularly large pile of rocks that we had undertaken to climb. (I mean, this is what climbing mountains always is, but it doesn’t always feel like it. It’s nice to be returned to something simpler.) In an unexpected invasion of our private summit by civilization, we were treated to some fancy flying by some fighter jets roaring overhead, perhaps from a nearby Air Force base.

From the summit, a dramatic ridge line leads to East Buffalo Peak. We had hit turnaround time, but this extension seemed well worth it for those with more time and energy.

On the descent, we decided to make a loop of it and hike down the south-southeast slope of the mountain to rejoin the trail near the junction. This required a healthy amount of bushwhacking and is not recommended unless you carry a GPS (I use my phone). I’m not sure this saved any time, but it added to the fun of the out-of-the-way hike to wind our own way through aspens, lodgepoles, and boulders. With the return to the parking lot, we estimated it was a 9 mile round trip with moderate elevation gain. We stopped on the summit for pictures and it took about 4.5 hours to complete.

Though perhaps not quite as magnificent as a 14er, and though it requires some off-trail hiking, West Buffalo peak was a reaffirmation of my love of climbing mountains. It was free of the crowds that crawl over 14ers and instead provided freedom for our small crowd. It was pure, in a way. Some hikers, trying to climb that big mountain on the horizon. I highly recommend this hike or others like it in the Mosquito Range as an alternative to the busy Collegiate Peaks on a summer weekend.

A reflection on conservation corps

Yesterday I finished my third season of serving as a crew member with a conservation corps, and my second season with Rocky Mountain Youth Corps. I don’t expect to return as a crew member for reasons I’ll go into below, so this is a sort of reflection on this season and my experiences with conservation corps, positive and negative.

First, some logistics. I was on Trail 3 this season, led by Nate Ventura and Rebecca Thering. We spent two 8 day hitches in Dinosaur National Monument building and repairing barbed wire fence along the park boundary. Dino is a beautiful exhibition of Colorado desert landscape: red canyons, sagebrush-covered hills, and vast expanses of rolling rocky grassland. The desert always leaves me with a clean feeling of freedom and excitement about living so close to the earth, and Dino was no exception. The work, however, was less than desirable. First, the heat and relentless sun made being outdoors physically challenging. I routinely drank upwards of six liters of water a day and that was without forcing myself to hydrate more. Building barbed wire fence entails lots of pounding posts into unwilling and rocky ground, interminable digging and tamping to place wooden poles, miles of sagebrush to remove with hand tools, and, of course, heavy, sharp, brutal, springy, and stubborn barbed wire. But I’m often willing to embrace harsh conditions in conservation work. What made our month of fencing so long is that not a single person on our crew was psyched to be building the sort of artificial, restrictive, animal-unfriendly, and passively violent sort of boundaries that barbed wire forms. Though we did some good work replacing old four-strand barbed wire fence with “wildlife-friendly” fence including a high visibility top wire and a smooth bottom wire, this was not conservation work. Looking over the long lines of razor-straight, shiny new boundary we left behind us, my pride in my work was marred by embarrassment. This is not how the West should be.

All of this meant that our last day in Dino was one of relief and celebration. We spent the remaining six weeks of the season on six four-day hitches working with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative doing erosion control and trail delineation on the Mt. Evans trail starting at Summit Lake. This entailed rock work. Lots of rock work. We made walls, staircases, check steps, retaining walls, and cairns in an effort to stabilize and make clear the steep and confusing trail as it climbed over Mt. Spalding on the way to Evans. This was a dream project for me. The 30 minute strenuous hike in the mornings was a favorite of mine, as was rock work, which is simultaneously physically challenging, technically difficult, and very fun. Furthermore, as day hikers loved to joke (creatively, they thought), our office view was great. At over 13,000’, looking over the peaks of the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, the worksite was pure and breathtaking. We shared the rocks with marmots whose bushy tails waved wildly as they bustled from hideout to hideout and mountain goats who waited impatiently to extract the salt from our pee on impossibly steep cliff sides.

On our time off, we road tripped around Utah, road tripped around Wyoming, climbed some 14ers, explored towns like Buena Vista and Nederland, and hiked aimlessly. To get the obvious and cliched out of the way: it was an amazing season.

The fact that I’m currently nursing a creeping sense of dread about returning to a life of academics and collegiate athletics at Harvard shows how much I appreciate the simple lifestyle of trail life. Most days, my biggest priories were hauling myself up the mountain to work and getting food to eat, in large quantities and at high frequency. I slept as the sun went down and woke … well we woke up about three hours before the sun rose. But I like waking up early. Right?

The challenge of each day, I realized, lay within the day. Looking to the future didn’t raise anxiety, because the reason the morning hike was hard didn’t lie in the future. It was just hard, now. Then I finished and I was happy. In essence, my running stack from which problems were pushed and popped was cropped short. I realized that hard things don’t make life hard, but rather the anticipation of more hard things. This is starkly different from college, a land of looming deadlines, exams, and races. The tyranny of the future.

The hardest part of conservation corps for me is the fact that, during a season, I am forced to live so closely with my nine crew mates. Why, then, did I choose a second season with RMYC, which uniquely features a 24/7 model in which even our time off is spent together, often in the very close confines of a van? Being a member of a crew rather than an individual has its benefits. Primarily, the people are cool. Sweet. Awesome. Radical. Weird. In a word, influential. I worked with people both startlingly similar and wildly different from myself and came out having learned something from all of them. Rebecca taught me how to journal. Phoenix taught me how to dance and enjoy. Devon taught me to appreciate freedom, America, and ice cream. CJ taught me how to make quinoa burgers (and other, deeper things too, but the burgers are tasty). Caleb taught me how to go for a walk. Pio taught me how to be patient and hardworking and how kindness always pays off. Katherine taught me about the human experience, even if I didn’t quite understand. Libi taught me the meaning of being your own person, proudly creative and unique. And Nate taught me how to make beautiful gems of thought emerge from the dirtiest of dirtbagdom.

There are practical benefits to living with a crew as well. We were provided with food and gas on our weekends, allowing us to go farther and live more cheaply than I would alone. Some highlights: we slept under the stars on the dry and rough sandstone swells of the Utah desert. I careened through water-sculpted slot canyons into the heart of the red earth on a run. We entered Arches National Park on foot, not noticing when the bizarrely shaped slick rock changed to NPS-protected bizarrely shaped slick rock until someone noticed a little sign in the rocks (this is how the West should be). We gazed at the Wind River Range of Wyoming like the white teeth of a glacial shark, beckoning, but threatening. We ascended the gently massive slopes of Mt. Elbert on a perfect summer morning. I took a joyous, half-running tour of the kingdom of high peaks that is Mt. Democrat, Mt. Cameron, Mt. Lincoln, and Mt. Bross. I ran up deteriorated roads to mountain lakes of whose presence I knew only by word of mouth. I led companions crashing through aspen thickets on the way from out of the way, trail-less, talus covered mountains in the Mosquito Range. I lay in a wind-carved hollow at the top of a crag high above our campsite in the pinyon-juniper forest. We drank coffee and smoothies in the mountain towns of Buena Vista and Salida. We burned clean pinyon and juniper on the rocks over which to roast marshmallows and swap stories. We became closer to the land, and in some way, we thusly became closer to ourselves.

But right now, I’m just enjoying wandering, going for a walk knowing that no one will call my name to help with dinner in a minute or two. We were tied together, bound by our 12 passenger white Ford Transit and our communal food and stoves. It is crippling, to not be able to go where you want, when you want. And this is why I don’t thing I’ll ever be a crew member again, despite the amazing experiences I’ve just written about. I’ve thought that leading a crew might soften this sense of helplessness because the power to decide is returned, to some extent, to the crew leaders. But more likely, I think, I’ll enjoy outdoor work with a professional trail crew, or as a coordinator for a conservation corps. Or something weirder, like my crew leader who is leaving to work at a wolf sanctuary in rural New Mexico after this season.

Being a part of a conservation corps is hard. It takes you along for the ride of your life, but you’re strapped in tightly. I don’t know if I’ll return. It’s been hard. But it’s been rad.

Photo credits to my crew members.

A summer reading list

I’ve discovered to my pleasant surprise this summer that my relationship with reading, previously one of dread and specters of slogging through required school reading, has changed to one of real enjoyment. I’ve taken fill advantage of my newfound ability to read without obsessing about each word and academically poring over pages as they slowly go by likes minutes in an unpleasant workout. What follows is my thoughts about the books I’ve read in 10 weeks of trail work, van driving, rainy evenings, mountain climbs, and camp free time.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — Philip K. Dick

This, unsurprisingly, read like the movie it became. I finished it in a day and the only themes I could extract from it were straightforward and provided no more than easy entertainment.

On the Road — Jack Kerouac

Though not as inspiring or beautiful in plot and imagery as The Dharma Bums (an truly inspiring book I read last summer), Kerouac’s ability to make readers feel vicariously the unfettered joy, freedom, and impulsiveness of his characters was once again impressive. Though my own life is hardly similar to those of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity, I like to think I was inspired to live just a little more joyously and crazily by reading their adventures.

The Pearl — John Steinbeck

This book is extremely short, an adaptation of a folktale by Steinbeck. This origin was readily apparent as the themes were simple (the destructive power of greed) and the plot predictable. However, Steinbeck’s elegant writing and the resounding truth of the morals made it a nice read.

Legends of the Fall — Jim Harrison

The first story, “Revenge” was a compellingly and vibrantly written story of the classic themes of love, broken hearts, and revenge. I found it a very entertaining read both in plot and in its evocative imagery of the deserts of the American Southwest and northern Mexico. “The Man Who Gave Up His Name” seemed to me an elegant discovery of the innate beauty of life and yielded one of my favorite quotations in a while: “the point is to be dancing in your brain the whole time.” The titular story, although apparently one of Harrison’s best known, seemed less compelling. It reminded me strongly of Wuthering Height: a complicated story of a hermetically rural family and its doomed love affairs. Though a well-constructed and entertaining story, it didn’t seem as significant as others in this collection. Throughout these stories I was struct by Harrison’s ability to vividly and easily convey scenes both familiar and alien.

Travels with Charlie in Search of America — John Steinbeck

An easy read, this book riffed on mostly well-worn themes of road trip novels like the importance of wandering over roots, the similarities of seemingly disparate peoples, and the value of raw experience over sterility. Though none of these struck me as groundbreaking, the relaxed prose and amusing descriptions of Charlie made this entertaining and well worth a read.

The Farmer’s Daughter — Jim Harrison

“The Farmer’s Daughter” resonated with me somewhat inexplicably. Though the plot was a dreary story that presented rural Montanan life in a rather negative light, the themes left me with the sense of hope and freedom earned by the protagonist. “Brown Dog Redux” was a celebration of the hidden wisdom in Brown Dog, an incorrigible bum who is one of Harrison’s popular characters. I haven’t met him in Harrison’s other books, but the story was still sweet enough. “The Games of Night” brings the fantastical concept of werewolves seamlessly into real life to describe how close to other animals we actually are. It was very interesting to see fantasy themes expressed sincerely and truly to life.

Blood Meridian — Cormac McCarthy

This book was like nothing I’ve ever read before. The first thing a reader notices, and perhaps struggles with, is McCarthy’s spare and image-rich writing style. Words are not wasted on plot and character development; instead, the evocative descriptions of the harsh and alien desert in which the story takes place are allowed to breathe and fill the book. Aside from the inherent beauty of these images, the plot of this novel is almost incomprehensibly violent. But rather than seeming obscene, McCarthy’s unflinching plot reveals human emotions and instincts in a raw and terrible form. One is left in awe of the fundamentality and necessity of war. In particular, the character of the Judge epitomizes the prideful and aggressive man. After reading Blood Meridian I was left with nothing short of a new perspective on human nature.

American Gods — Neil Gaiman

I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time because the other Gaiman books I’ve read have been engaging, novel, and clever. American Gods did not disappoint to be a great read and a well-constructed work of fiction that explores the cultural beauty and identity beneath the apparently godless landscape of America today. While nothing groundbreaking, it was entertaining and the 700 pages only took me a week or so.

The Orchard Keeper — Cormac McCarthy

As in Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s spare writing made it difficult to follow the plot and I never figured out exactly what had happened until the end of the book. It was filled with rich descriptions of landscape, but this time of the old and damp southern Appalachia instead of the brutal, sterile desert. Strangely, McCarthy describes very little the emotions or motivations of the characters and instead lets their story speak for itself about the lives of people, good and bad, in Prohibition-era rural Tennessee.

Into the Wild — John KrakauerI couldn’t spend more time in the outdoors community without reading this story that has become a touchstone for young people seeking something greater in the wilderness. Chris McCandless’s disgust with mainstream modern life and his desire to find rawer, purer experiences by adventuring into the wild resonated deeply with me, as it does with many of my crew members. More divided are opinions on McCandless’s actions and their consequences. Personally, I believe he found precisely what he was looking for and never pretended otherwise. In a world lacking his sort of genuine drive, it rings hollow to call him foolish.

Walden; or, Life in the Woods — Henry David Thoreau

Partially inspired by the influence this book had upon Chris McCandless, I decided to tackle this linguistically and philosophically dense essay. The reading was slow and I had to push myself to stick to a 20 pages a day regimen to finish. I was left with a portrait of an idealist; Thoreau’s ideas about the value of a simple life among nature were convincing, but his belief that this would yield a transcendence or higher meaning was more dubious. While I agree with the means of life he advocates, the decidedly transcendentalist ends he was seeking seemed superfluous to me. I think that the joy obtained in living a non-materialistic and carefully observed life are perfectly sufficient without any notion of God.

The Monkey Wrench Gang — Edward Abbey

This book was highly entertaining. It was a feel-good, action-packed, easy-reading celebration of Abbey’s values of environmentalism, radical action, counterculturalism, and individualism. I was inspired to look at what our establishments do to our environments. To walk through the desert and appreciate not the lack of water, but “just the right amount of water.” And maybe, to do my part to maintain the beauty of this world. Don’t worry, I’d probably build trails and cut down tamarisk instead of blowing up bridges.