Monday, August 20, 2012

Hot, Hot West

A day after it sparked, I drove by the Waldo Canyon Fire that devastated the Colorado Springs area this summer. Returning from a family visit in Denver to my summer home at Philmont Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico, I watched from I-25 as a white mushroom cloud billowed into the still-blue sky, dwarfing the city at its feet like a beast out of science fiction. Some nervous motorists pulled off the highway to snap a picture or call a loved one. It felt like I was witnessing the opening battle of World War III.

Later in the summer, on my way back home to greener Massachusetts, I raced across the starved plains of Nebraska, a graveyard of withered cornstalks and dead prairie grass. Several times I crossed the North Platte River. At over 700 miles, it's one of the nation's 25 longest streams, twisting down from the mountains around the Colorado-Wyoming border to meet the Platte, Missouri, Mississippi, and on. But this summer, the North Platte was no more than a desolate gully, parched as the land around it. With a grim hypocrite’s smile, I drove on.

Before putting key into ignition, I had not put the two parts of these experiences together: 1) me driving my gasoline-powered car, and 2) an extreme weather event: one a raging wildfire tearing through suburban neighborhoods, the other a record heat wave withering the goods of America's breadbasket. I should have made the connection.

Cars and wildfires: a deadly connection.
This summer's horrific blazes and the searing drought that has caused them are the latest and greatest indicators that climate change is breathing down our necks and into our hometowns. In a recent article for Rolling Stone, longtime climate watchdog Bill McKibben puts things into startlingly clear perspective, using basic math to show just what a predicament our species has gotten itself and the rest of the planet into. I won't go into the specifics, but read the article and you'll reach the same conclusion I did: we need damn-near-impossibly big changes or else we're toast. Very burnt toast.

McKibben's solution is that we must create a serious, attention-grabbing villain out of the fossil fuel industry and its supporters. If this is WWIII: Earth vs. Man (and how can we not consider it a crisis of such proportion?), then the CEOs of ExxonMobil and Shell are carrying AKs on the front lines. We must cross the trenches and start firing from the “Earth” side if the conflict is to avoid Armageddon. 

Yet today, with temperatures once again rising into the nineties, I will drive my car, burning a fossil fuel, puking more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, heating up our one and only planet one more nauseating fraction. In fact, I'll need to stop at the pumps today too, where I'll swipe my debit card into the service of the menace.

I commit these acts of treason every day. But then again, who doesn't?

Can we live meaningful lives without cars? Surely we can. But with few doing it, it's hardly the easy choice, and sometimes it hardly even seems logical. We're so far from a gas-free culture, is there any point in me sacrificing for a ship nearly sunk? Maybe I should just buckle up and enjoy the ride. Hey, I vote democrat and drive a compact car that gets 40 miles per gallon – that makes me a good guy, right?

Indeed, cutting back my fuel consumption has proved a huge challenge this summer. I need to drive not only for my job, but in order to escape the sometimes stifling environment of that job. If I want to get away from the pubescent white males and headstrong white fathers that overpopulate the Boy Scouts of America, I need to drive. (Tangent: you'd think I could hike out somewhere into the vastness of our 556-square kilometer Philmont “wilderness” and escape, but you'd be surprised how ubiquitous those campers are. No matter where you go, eventually they will find you, solitude will be ruined, and in a barrage of thoughtless questions about water and bears and whether they're there yet, you'll be reminded of all that you're running from. Don't get me wrong, I love working at Philmont. Most days).

So we drive. We drive to the watering holes of Taos, to the fourteeners in Colorado, at least to the haven of the St. James Hotel four miles away, where we sulk with our beers and find comfort in company our own age.

Yup, driving has seemed pretty much essential to my mental health this summer, so I'm pleading the fifth and calling myself Benedict Arnold on this one. I'd like to think that within the next year I'll land in a city where I can largely stop driving. We'll see. What I can say is that I have made great progress in one responsible choice: meat consumption. (According to Environmental Defense,” writes PETA, “if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off U.S. Roads”).

A few weeks into the season at Philmont, after one particularly grotesque dinner of mystery slop, I made the call that I wouldn't eat meat in the dining hall again and that I'd cut back in tastier environments as well. Aside from a few chicken salad lapses, I've held to it. Philmont has finally felt enough heat to start providing decent vegetarian options, making it far easier. So like most of us who are “serious” about being green, I'm making the relatively convenient changes, the ones that don't require too hard a step away from comfort. But can I be better? Can we? Not yet, it seems.

And once again, that other maddening question comes to mind: is it even really worth it? When is the cost of sacrifice too high in freedoms lost, pleasures denied, and wrinkles gained? Edward Abbey told a bunch of environmentalists, “It's not enough to fight for the land. It's even more important to enjoy it while you still can.” When do we listen to him and trade in our tedious preachings for a case of beer in the trunk and a weekend in the mountains? I've always tried to avoid puritanism, but I've never felt more like one of those stuffy uptight bastards than when I'm telling someone they shouldn't drive a truck or eat a cheeseburger.

Looks like Ed wanted to sell his gas-guzzler. Are you selling yours?
More Abbey comes to mind, that hater of all things puritan. What would Ed have done had he stuck around long enough to witness this climate crisis? A firm believer of the holiness of here and now, he wrote in “Science With a Human Face” that this sensory reality of taste and smell and feel is “what we know … all we can know … all that we could possibly need.” It's hard to imagine him giving up his steaks and bacon or that other most eco-friendly habit of his, chucking empty beer cans out the window as he roared down the highway (“It's not the beer cans that are ugly, it's the highway that is ugly”).

But you have to imagine he'd be as freaked out about it all as we are. In the same essay he wonders if “the only appropriate question now is whether or not technology will succeed in totally enslaving mankind before it succeeds in its corollary aim of destroying life.”

With our relationship to the planet direr than ever, we must ask ourselves if we are racing toward the former (enslavement) in order to slow down the latter (death, in this case, of our species).

Abbey believed that science was beautiful but useless without love (technology, on the other hand, coming from greed). So as we keep fighting the good fight, let's not forget why we're ultimately doing it. That even if it means we compromise those same ethics we push, every now and then we need to drive off to a trailhead or a campground or across the country so that we can reaffirm that love of life and land which sustains us.

Put another way, those impossibly bright and wild stars will always be worth the gas we burn getting out of the city to see them. And they'll remind us, once again, that after all of our love and hate for it, this planet is just a tiny blue-green speck revolving around one of those fiery pinpricks in the night. And we? We are but wisps of smoke on the hot summer breeze.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Et tu, Canada?: A Tipping Point

Yesterday, my friend Todd and I drove from New York to Chicago. We're on our way back to Carleton College for our first alumni weekend with our ultimate frisbee team in which we are the alums. Preparing myself to attempt the role of sage graduate rather than the familiar party animal reversion that some of my ex-teammates will surely perform, it still came as a bit of a surprise when amidst my excitement for reunion, yesterday turned out to be a sobering day.

As we neared Chicago in the late afternoon, traffic predictably thickened until we found ourselves mired in the nastiest sludge of interstate snarl come 6:30. We were listening to Chicago band Wilco's beautiful, at-times apocalyptic album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. After finally making it to Todd's parents' house in Oak Park, I flipped open my laptop before bed and, performing the ritual Facebook check, found a link to James Hansen's New York Times op-ed entitled “Game Over for the Climate.” Cue the apocalyptic music.

In the piece, Hansen mourns the recent news that Canada plans to exploit its huge tar sands reserves for oil. Dirty, dirty oil, the extraction of which will release irrevocable masses of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The raised level of heat-trapping gases, Hansen writes, “would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”

Boom. Apocalypse. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And why isn't this front page news? Oh right, sorry, that's the long-term outlook. Who cares about the long-term these days? But wait, Hansen, continues (and here's where things really get dour), “over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.”

What? You mean this global warming crap might actually affect me in my lifetime?

Yeah, people, it will, and it already has. Last year's historic, devastating drought in Texas was probably no coincidence. As Hansen, a director at NASA, notes, Earth is at the point of its extended orbit cycle where temperatures should be cooling. They're not. It barely snowed back home in Massachusetts this winter, and the only real storm was an out-of-the-blue Halloween behemoth that wrought millions in damage to the region. Random, extreme weather punctuating abnormal warmth. That's what's already starting, folks.

After reading Hansen's warning, the truth of it all became clearer than ever: climate change is not a right vs. left problem, it is a right vs. wrong problem. And right now, nearly all of us are still making far too many wrong choices about it.

I, for one, love to drive my car. I have recently chosen to drive from Texas to Massachusetts to Minnesota to New Mexico to start my summer (getting 36-40 miles per gallon in my car and staying with friends, it's actually cheaper than flying). But is the true, not-just-monetary cost of this decision really less? Nearly every car ad these days (at least in blue states) touts fuel efficiency. That's neat, but what do 35 mpgs vs. 25 really matter when we're talking about heavy flooding and incalculable economic loss?

No, we need to cut back on cars altogether. Concentrating our fossil fuel consumption to public transit is part of it. Walking or riding a bike whenever possible is another. But more than that, we need to change our locational habits in order to cut back our car love. Pay the extra money for a house or apartment within walking distance of work. Get the fuck out of the suburbs and the ridiculous sprawl cities like Houston where everyone drives everywhere. It's not a matter of preference anymore, it's a matter of survival.

Of course, our reliance on the internal combustion engine is just one of this hydra's many heads. The way we heat our homes, the way we dispose of waste, the very food we eat – it all needs to change. We can't pick and choose when to be green like a shopper going back and forth between the organic and candy aisles.

Hansen's piece turns its focus to policy as a necessary change. It's true, our lawmakers and executives need to make those hard, unpopular choices that will ultimately improve the lives of their constituents. That's what government is for. But if we are to save our species from the tidal waves of disturbance that are coming faster than ever, we can't wait for the law to force us, because let's face it, with our broken political system, we may still be waiting when Brooklyn sits under five feet of water.

It comes down to ethics. Aldo Leopold, more than sixty years ago, described “The Land Ethic,” stating, “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Few people have listened to Leopold, whose early, pre-global warming concerns were land management, not fossil fuels. Now we have no choice. We must adopt a shared environmental ethic, one that pervades every decision we make. Cold turkey. No going back to the candy aisle. I may have to sacrifice the liberating joy of those long roadtrips.

One of my favorite motivational quotes for outdoor adventures is an anonymous one that goes, “there's no growth in the comfort zone and no comfort in the growth zone.”

When it comes to the climate, we've reached the point where we can substitute “survival” for “growth.”

It's a sobering prospect, yes. But it doesn't mean life will stop being life. We can laugh, cry, and fall in love without consuming fossil fuels. I'll still have fun at alumni weekend. And I might just choke down a few veggie burgers while I'm at it.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Renewing Reunion

Monday, March 12, Day Two at Taos, arrives crisp and clear, exactly the kind of morning that prompted some heart-happy mountain person to turn “bluebird” into an adjective. Yesterday was a behemoth of sunburned exhaustion and my body initially rebels at any thought of rolling off the air mattress and doing it again. But the mind, filled with dizzying ski dreams for the last eight hours, easily wins this battle. Coffee, ibuprofen, and eggs with red chile soon have me something close to refreshed, and as we wind up the cold canyon road to the Ski Valley, I'm irrepressibly giddy with anticipation.

Once we get off the lift, however, reality is more painful than peachy. Right off the bat, Sam – my partner in crime for the week – and his uncle Bill drag my sore and sunburned ass up into Taos' renowned hike-only terrain. The lift stops three-quarters of the way up, and if you want the mountain's steepest, most unique skiing, you must work for it. You must take your skis off, throw them over your shoulder, and trudge.

I've been skiing for about as long as I can remember, but this is something entirely new. From a tyke harnessed to my uncle on the hills of upstate New York to a middle school daredevil in Vermont to a mediocre high school racer, skiing had always been about the downhill. The speed, the rush, the risk.

During my college years, I spent summers as a backpacking guide in this same New Mexico high country, learning, as John Muir advised, to “climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” Contact with nature became a central, necessary part of my life, but skiing – done much less frequently now – was an entirely separate endeavor, a vestige of my younger self. I was becoming more Thoreauvian than thrill-seeking. My giant slalom Dynastars sat rusty-edged in the garage at home.

So even when Sam and I realized we shared the same Spring Break and agreed to spend it skiing, I could not have predicted this. I'm slogging up through bristlecone pine, yesterday's pain searing through my legs with each small ski-booted step, a world away from those have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too days of chairlift rides and bombing down the groomers at Okemo. Feeling like a shaggy, lumbering moose, I still manage to smile through gritted teeth as Sam gingerly waltzes ahead, deer-like in his lightweight backcountry boots.

The first climb is of course the worst, and we've soon surfaced onto the Kachina ridgeline. Yesterday morning was cloudy post-snow, but today we're greeted with the true Rocky Mountain wake-up call: brightest blue sky, snow-dappled peaks, deep evergreen groves stretched out in a visual smorgasbord that is really quite impossible to appreciate all at once. I look north and there are the Spanish Peaks of Southern Colorado, huge and timeless, present in a high-definition clarity of blue, gray, and white. Rising in the east is Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's tallest, towering over the Ski Valley like the steadiest of guardians. I stood on its 13,161-foot summit on the morning of my 21st birthday, but there's no room for nostalgia in my brain right now – the present is, quite literally, too breathtaking.

Yet past experience and emotions are inevitably a part of my time with this landscape, and when Philmont's own Baldy Mountain emerges through the Wheeler saddle, an irrepressible sense of homecoming arrives with it. Unlike yesterday, the entire ridge leading up to Kachina Peak is open for skiers and as we hike on, I hardly notice the lancing pain in my shins or the claymore-like skis digging into my shoulder. Sam has told me that for him skiing out here is as much about the ascent as the descent. It's a new concept for me, but it's suddenly ringing true. As we climb on, my buddy is still way ahead of me; now it's not just the altitude's physical effects, but its spiritual ones too that are causing me to tarry.

It's hard, maybe impossible, to put accurate words to the feelings I experience above treeline, but the ones that keep coming to mind are perspective and awe. Whatever creative force led to these mighty mountains pushing their way skyward and to my insignificant speck of a self being here, with intricate retinas and pupils capable of witnessing them; whatever master catalyst sparked the long, winding chain of events that led to such a moment – I have never felt more connected to that power than when I'm in a high place like this one. Daily concerns wash away in the presence of grand, overwhelming peace, and I feel miniscule yet mighty, fleeting yet full with praise.

Cosmic romances pouring through my mind, I hardly remember that I'm actually here to ski. But as we stop partway up the ridge at the precipice to one of the treacherous “K-chutes,” a whole new kind of flood enters my brain: it's time for my first real big mountain skiing. Below me is a ten-foot, nearly vertical drop preceding several hundred feet of descent that seem nearly as steep, then the frosting as the chute mellows into a beautiful powder field that extends down to the resort's topmost groomers.

I watch as Sam and Bill expertly drop in and link their first carving, poetic turns. There's a second of hesitation as I realize that in my decade and a half of skiing I've never done anything as bad-ass as this. I flash through memories of middle school wipe-outs, of a hellbent ninth-grader waiting for the start of my JV run down the icy, rutted course, then smile slightly as the old “fuck it” mentality takes over. I push my poles hard into the ground, plunge my body forward and drop into the vicious slope.


There will be many more hours of skiing on this trip. I'll immerse myself in beautiful, challenging glades, stopping to lean against an aspen in breathless satisfaction every now and then. We'll hike above treeline a few more times for shorter, still-exhilarating drops off the ridge. Later in the week, we'll spend two days exploring crusty, snow-starved Crested Butte Mountain with a couple of my Philmont buddies. The peaks of Colorado will tower before us, even more jagged and indomitable than New Mexico's, but none of the many highs will quite match that second morning at Taos. Simply put, it was one of the most vital shots of time I can remember, a barrage of physical, mental, and spiritual stimuli to which I can find no previous comparison. Because as sublime as that slow climb up the ridge was, the experience was only partial until the blurred rush of the descent: the joy of carving a hard turn in the soft snow then plummeting down into the next one, feeling the body find its synergistic balance in the struggle to control itself against the force of the mountain. On the top of the ridge, I stood speechless in the midst of vast and ancient beauty. At the bottom, my heart pounded with the thrill of having, for a few minutes, tapped into that indifferent yet generous power.

Just that morning, not to mention the rest of the trip, was enough to reignite my love for skiing with the kind of flames it had once possessed, back when my buddies and I would watch ski movies all night then sweat all day building a little jump in one of our backyards. But now there was an added layer to my boyhood hobby. This was a new, more mature skiing, a pleaser of both my contemplative and adrenaline-seeking sides. A wholly unexplored world had suddenly opened its doors, a world as broad, imposing, and irresistible as the Rockies themselves. All of a sudden I wanted Alta, Jackson Hole, Whistler. Alaska, for God's sake, and not just the resorts, but the backcountry too. I wanted miles and miles of snowy ridgelines to traverse and endless chutes and faces and powder lines. I wanted the sweaty trudge as much as the heart-stopping drop-in, for it was all part of this bold, uplifting adventure. I had thrown my old Dynastars in the car expecting a reunion with that familiar friend named Skiing, only to find him changed tenfold for the greater, beckoning me with fat new powder skis to demo and arms opened wider than ever.

It must have been a similar welcome that John Muir heard at the top of that Douglas Spruce as he swayed like a dandelion in the heart of a Yosemite squall. He put it simply and best: “the mountains are calling and I must go.”

So what was I to do, having heard that call louder than ever? When Muir discovered the Sierras, he stayed for good. I'd be lying if I said I didn't think once or twice about doing the same after this trip. But the world is changed. It's not 1868 and I'm not John Muir. Student loans, car payments, and a strange budding loyalty to this little place in Texas have sent me eastward after a week that contained a month's worth of adventure. And you know what? As sad as it was to leave the mountains in the rearview, I was okay with it. Okay with pausing my ski dreams after just an appetizer, okay with those snow-dusted peaks returning to their role as distant attraction. Because the truth is the best times are the fleeting ones, the ones you can't have whenever you want. We so often forget the beauty of something when it becomes everyday. Perhaps it's best to restrain oneself from some pleasures in order to preserve their purity. The mountains will still be there this summer. And next winter. And whenever I find a full-time job closer to them that's as fulfilling as this one. Until then, I'll smile at the thought of that perfect bluebird morning.

The Silver Bullet in its natural habitat. Crested Butte, CO.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Update from the Work Zone

It's a busy time around here. Spring has sprung and it's barely March: the trees are popping forth all manners of yellows, greens, and purples, and today we watched four alligators sun on the banks of Caney Creek. And oh yeah, our property looks less and less like a nature center and more and more like a construction site daily.

We've been removing dead trees from our woods ever since the historic drought last summer, a move that is rankling enough on its own, being hardly the healthy choice for the forest but a necessary one for the safety of our students. Now, however, the summer camp with whom we share our facility has upped the ante, deciding it necessary to raze a patch of Loblolly Pine and Yaupon so it can build four new cabins in one of our most trafficked areas. I now read my students The Lorax while bulldozers whine in the background. I teach them the importance of conservation to the tune of backhoes.

I'll spare you all the choicer phrases that often come to mind, but suffice it to say, I've been itching for changes of scenery. And the adventures haven't been lacking. Two weekends ago, I joined various Carleton friends in Baton Rouge for the annual Mardi Gras ultimate frisbee tournament. Torrential rain on Saturday made for a one-day tournament and a wetter weekend (in numerous ways). No frisbee today? Shucks, I guess we'll have to settle for the jolly Spanish Town parade in Baton Rouge, eating crawfish on the porches of locals, and stumbling into a diner for late-night seafood omelets. Don't worry, though, our team – The Sour Patch Adults – got in three good, muddy games on Sunday. Nothing kills a hangover like chasing down the plastic.

Not satisfied with one weekend full of wonderful friends and vivacious surroundings, however, I split for Austin last Friday with a trio of co-workers. It was my first trip to Texas' liberal oasis and it won't be my last. We landed on the grungy, hipster haven of East Sixth Street and each received two free beers within an hour (as if the place's economy cars and food truck forums weren't welcoming enough already). Saturday was spent climbing limestone at Reimer's Ranch Park, as I watched my more-experienced friends scale some of Texas' best routes and tried in vain to swindle someone into lending me a pair of Size 12 climbing shoes. Newbie status and all, the day was a total blast. I even made it up a few of the easier climbs in my Chacos before topping it off with Fat Tire and a cheery fire at the nearby public campground. In the dry air of the gorgeous Texas Hill Country, the backhoes seemed far more than 200 miles away that night.

After two truly excellent weekends, you might think it would be time to settle down for a nice stretch of lazy times in good ol' Trinity. False! As long as they keep tearing up my woods during the week, I will seek greener pastures at week's end! Today's paddling/gator-watching escape was a smaller one, but still exciting. A week from now, however, 2012's biggest adventure yet commences. It's Spring Break, baby! While some might equate that last exclamation with words like bikinis, margaritas, and preseason baseball (at least the last one is true for me), this year my winter-starved self will be symbolically turning back the seasonal clock and heading for the high country: northern New Mexico, Colorado, and my dust-covered pair of skis. Friends from numerous chapters of my life await in the Rockies and I couldn't be more excited to hop in the Silver Bullet a week from now and take it into the Mountain Time Zone for the first time. I even have a special stop planned for a certain Ranch in Cimarron, where I intend to sign and submit my contract for a fifth summer of paradisaical servitude to the Boy Scouts of America.

That's right folks, I'll be heading back to Philmont once again this summer, and with that just one of the happy prospects ahead, it seems appropriate to shift focus to the question I'm sure you've all had burning away since you started reading this post: what's up with the new blog title? Well, it does indeed extend back to that special place in the Land of Enchantment, the place where I first grew enchanted with the writings of one Edward Paul Abbey. For more, I direct you to the archives of my C-drive and the following essay which I wrote for Dennis Cass' creative nonfiction class last spring. Warning: a story of youth baseball, Age of Empires, and lots of middle school angst awaits. Read on at your own risk.

Ed and Me: The Multi-worldy Life

It's late November of 2010 and I'm sitting on a railing at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut waiting for a suitcase that will not arrive. After a spring spent in London, a summer in New Mexico and a fall in Minnesota, I'm finally coming home to New England for the holidays. I will find out soon that Delta lost my bag somewhere between Minneapolis, Washington, and Hartford and I'll have to live out of my backpack for a few days until they can ship it to me (oh the horrors!). Right now, however, as I hammer away at my journal, my waylaid sweaters are far from what's on my mind.

On my flight from DC to Bradley, diligently reading for my senior thesis, I finished a chapter of Edward Abbey's The Journey Home in time to catch New York City out the window, a stunning patchwork of lights in the black night. We were high enough to see the overhead view of Earth usually relegated to maps. An amazing perspective. Amazing that something so beautiful could be so unnatural. But only from above. On ground level, Manhattan's a maze of aluminum, concrete, pollution. Yet there's a different kind of beauty at play there – the same found in the thick accents and creased leather faces of the O'Briens in Boston, in the warm smiles of the Olsons in Minnesota who you don't even know. Ah, life, you always find a way to leave me hopeful.

Thinking about Abbey – the iconoclastic nature-writer and environmental figurehead whom I've chosen to study for the next four months – I miss the mountains of my beloved northern New Mexico. Brightest New Mexico, as Ed calls it. Cool evening breeze with ground still warm and smell of ponderosa pine filling my nostrils. Cholla and aspen and Indian paintbrush dazzling the eyes. But I miss London, too. The organized chaos of Bloomsbury Square during a sunny lunch hour. The pigeon lady in Russell Square Gardens undaunted by joggers and tourists. The walk to Sainsbury's to pick up bananas and yogurt after class. It's just like Abbey said before leaving his home in the desert for another one in the grime of Hoboken: “Balance, that's the secret. Moderate extremism. The best of both worlds.” I feel you, Ed. I wish you were still alive – we could have a beer together and talk about fire ecology and women and what a beautiful gift life is every day.


I didn't realize it until recently, but I've been doing my best to live Ed Abbey's philosophy of balance for as long as I can remember. I have a hard time confining myself to one world, whether it's the world of the dedicated athlete, the A student, or the lonely artist. Places, roles, sometimes relationships I'm afraid – I've always struggled against tying myself down to one thing in particular. I guess you could say I'm committed to multidimensionality.

I return for a minute to eighth grade. It's the typical lunchtime mayhem of a middle school cafeteria: jocks spoon-catapulting carrots at nerds, skaters conferencing in hushed tones about their latest sexual escapades, mashed potatoes stuck to the ceiling against their will. I'm waiting in line for my chicken nuggets – five-foot-three, mouth full of braces, struggling with the early phases of puberty that have finally started to arrive. Towering ahead of me is Dan Morris, who hit his growth spurt in sixth grade, now stands six feet tall and plays baseball like the man I wish was.

Dan and I were best friends through most of elementary school. We lived a ten-minute walk through the woods from one another, played baseball with and against each other every spring and summer, and shared a love for everything from sharks to Space Jam to, of course, the Boston Red Sox. For our sixth-grade talent show, we performed “Who's On First” and were the talk of Crocker Farm Elementary School for a few glorious days.

That was before the maelstrom of middle school. Before they put Dan and the rest of my sports-loving pals from Crocker on one “team” (think Hogwarts houses) and me on another one with all of the students who were in band and took Latin like I did. Dan became a six-foot tall alpha male; I stayed at the back of the pack with the awkward, mangy scrap-seekers.

Back in the lunch line, Dan and Ahmed, another former friend, are talking about yesterday's Babe Ruth League baseball game. My team had played theirs, Dan had probably tattooed a ball into the kiddie pool over the left field fence, and I had made a soul-crushing error at a key moment. At some point in their conversation, Dan makes a quip and Ahmed responds in an intentionally-raised voice, “More like under the second baseman's glove!” I flush maroon, look at my sneakers, and don't challenge their ringing laughter.

What's funny about the whole thing is that I could probably have been on the other side of the situation if I'd wanted to. If I'd taken Spanish instead of Latin, if I'd started going to parties on Friday nights instead of watching movies with my parents, if I'd gone against my humble upbringing and become an over-confident, status-obsessed asshole I could have been the one bloating my ego by attacking what remained of another's.

Instead, I tried to do it all because, well, I loved it all. I had a blast playing the bass clarinet and going to Latin Club, but I kept playing baseball too, letting the Dan Morrises of the team bask in their adolescent glory while I took my knocks on the bench. The logical choice would have been quitting, going the route of cross country and ultimate frisbee like most of my new friends, but nobody told me the rules so I kept playing the game I loved even though it did its best not to love me back.


Edward Abbey grew up in a different place and time than I, but we were both living in multiple worlds from a young age. Young Ned Abbey – he dropped the “N” from his nickname later – was a fish out of water in his rural 1930s Pennsylvania school, thinking and writing on a different plane from his peers. His escape from the isolation this intelligence created: his brothers, backyard games of baseball, and the woods of their Allegheny Mountain home. Sounds familiar.

I too sought refuge on the homefront, leaving the wolf pack behind for the refuge of my house and yard at the base of Western Massachusetts' more modest Holyoke Range. I forgot lunchroom drama in the hours of shenanigans spent with my two older brothers – although we enjoyed some diversions the Abbeys couldn't have, wasting away in front of the computer screen conquering the world in Age of Empires (Abbey, meanwhile, famously posed for a photo later in life after shooting his television with a Winchester). Yet for both of us family was an early constant, an alternate world to the confusion of the public schools. So too was nature. With my family and my scout troop, I roamed Appalachian hillsides, crunching over the same brown leaves, weaving through the same birches and pines Ned had 60 years before. Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.” I'm pretty sure Ed and I would fall in the same camp of grown-up woods-kids.

Of course, it wasn't until after my Holyoke Range days that I discovered my affinity with Abbey, but I've now realized that his mantra has been the repeated soundtrack to my life. Since the days of T-Ball and Youth Choir, I've been trying to make the best of multiple worlds without losing my mind or too much sleep. Often I've suffered the consequences of a divided self just as Abbey did when dreading the transition from desert solitude to urban squalor. There are stories of high school chorus concerts which I raced to from the end of a JV game, not stopping to shower between jersey and dress shirt and tie. Or the summer when I skipped Boy Scout camp to ride the bench for the 12-year old All-Star team because I was so excited just to have made the cut. My parents stood behind me, driving me from practice to rehearsal to troop meeting, our Honda Odyssey racking up miles as I racked up merit badges and minutes spent in the dugout.


It ended up being another decision between Boy Scouts and baseball that unquestionably changed my life more than any other choice I've made. It's freshman year of college, I'm buried at the bottom of the depth chart for the Carleton baseball team but I've embraced the life of the college athlete and become as close to one-dimensional as I've ever been. When I was the last one rejected by the a cappella group I really wanted to join, I dove headfirst into the Carleton baseball life, eating with my teammates, partying with my teammates, complaining about the nerdy student body with my teammates. I should have known right away that it wasn't me, but I was too swept up in the trip.

The decision was made in late winter, after I'd been named one of three players not to be taken on the spring break team to Florida. I'd been waffling between playing baseball for the summer back home in an effort to actually earn some playing time for Carleton and working at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, Scouting's National High Adventure Base. I'd wanted to be a Philmont Ranger ever since I went to the Ranch as a participant twice during high school, but my recent conversion to full-time ballplayer had me doubting myself. Fortunately, when I needed it most, my parents were there to parent me in the right direction through their cell phones.

I remember the conversation more than many things from freshman year. Me sitting in the floor lounge, trying to explain my new self over the phone, and my mom and dad not buying it one bit.

“You've given so much to baseball for so long,” my mom said for the umpteenth time. “But what has it given you back?”

“Remember how you felt after you got back from Philmont two years ago?” asked my dad. “You know which decision is the right one.”

Ultimately, with their help, I did. I chose Philmont and have never looked back. Working as a backpacking guide for youth has since shaped me more than any other experience of my life, and it started by waking me up to the undesirable reality of the predictable jock I was becoming. After a sublime first summer at Philmont, I stuck it out for one more year on the baseball team – although the people I was spending my weekends with changed significantly – then junior year I took the next step, quitting the team in favor of club ultimate frisbee, making it into the a cappella group this time around, and even spending a term living in the Outing Club's interest house, adoring the kind of culture at which I was determined to scoff two years before.

Philmont did something else, too – it introduced me to Edward Abbey. A favorite inspirational quote of many Rangers comes from a speech of Ed's in which he tells environmentalists, “it's not enough to fight for the land; it's even more important to enjoy it while you can.” Spurred by this and other nuggets of wilderness wisdom, I returned to Carleton and wound up in a course on American Nature Writing where I read Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, and most importantly, Abbey's Desert Solitaire. I was hooked, and when it came time to find a topic for my senior thesis, the search did not take very long. Fittingly, the decision to work at Philmont and break out of the jock world indirectly led me to the author who has now brought me great insight on such choices.

So for the latter portion of college I've been back to making the best of both worlds like I did in high school. I still run from practice to rehearsal. I split my weekend nights between beer pong tournaments and campfire singalongs. I maintain some of the best friendships from my baseball days, but others have faded. And while I'm saddened knowing there are far more wonderful people out there whose company I desire than I have waking hours for, I sleep easy knowing that I'm living my life the way I love, many worlds at a time. What's more, I know I'm not the only one to go for this crazily multidimensional life. I know that decades before I came around, a bearded Ranger-type was reflecting on the same things I write about today.

Now I must look forward, with graduation looming like a mountain that's long been in view but has finally come into focus. I may not have another opportunity to split myself between a million different clubs, groups, and teams but I know I will remain committed to well-roundedness. Perhaps, like Ed, I'll go from summer in the mountains to winter in the city. If I'm lucky maybe I'll even write a bestselling book or two about it. So while I have no intention of copying Abbey in every facet of life – I'd prefer not to tear through five marriages if possible – his life and his words will continue to guide me along my sure-to-be windy trail. And with his blessing, I plan on stopping to enjoy the view as often as I can.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Love, Hate and the OEC

We had planned the two-day backpacking trip the weekend before, but little did we know how much we'd need “the tonic of wilderness,” as Thoreau called it. I had picked out the quote the morning before, but little did I know the levels on which it would apply. I had watched my friend's speech the previous night, but little did I know how strongly it would resonate.

I hadn't connected the unrelated signs, but after the most challenging and at times hellish week we've experienced this school year at the Outdoor Education Center, they now seem to have been three serious omens.

I suppose this presents as good a time as any to elaborate briefly on the nature of my job for those of you who say “Outdoor Education Center? What exactly does that mean?” Each week, 200-250 fifth-graders from the Houston Independent School District make the two-hour drive north and east from America's fourth-largest city to our remote campus near the remote town of Trinity. From midday on Tuesday through midday on Friday I lead two groups of students. During the mornings and afternoons it's a coed group of 10-14 which I instruct in our five three-hour class blocks (Adventure, Aquatics, Conservation, Farm, and Forest Study); over mealtimes, evenings, and overnights I supervise a boys' cabin of the same size.

Last week, we welcomed students from Oak Forest and Longfellow elementary schools. As our staff's resident English major and de facto librarian, I present some kind of motivational and/or random quote at our morning meeting before student arrival. I usually try to put some effort into choosing said literary nugget, hoping perhaps naively that resonant words might give a few co-workers a lift, but last Monday I had been too distracted with finishing one book (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, finally) and starting another (Chad Harbach's fantastic new baseball novel, The Art of Fielding) to peruse the internet for the next morning's quote. At the last minute, recalling the name of one of the visiting schools and the dire weather forecast, I googled Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and settled on his simple but fitting words: “The best thing one can do when it's raining is to let it rain.”

I introduced the quote to my co-workers as appropriate both literally (severe thunderstorms were projected for the next 48 hours) and metaphorically (with two staff members departing for new jobs this month, a small deluge of change is currently engulfing our little OEC bubble). There would be a third kind of downpour this week, however, one that I could not have predicted when choosing Longfellow's words. Or perhaps an outpour would be the more appropriate term, for it was a week full of fifth-grade emotions and behaviors I could not have fathomed before they arrived on seven yellow school buses. Outright racism from students, the worst bullying I'd seen all year, and a fistfight in front of the entire camp were probably the most torrential bursts of the week, but it seemed like nearly every teacher had more than his or her fair share of trying moments. Add in a tornado warning that lasted most of Wednesday morning, confining everyone to the oh-so-spacious floors of our concrete bathhouses and there's your recipe for a memorable tempest of a week at the Outdoor Education Center.

My particular cabin group was not exempt, which brings me to the second of the three omens. My brilliant friend Tim graduated from Harvard last spring and gave a commencement address called “Love, Hate and Harvard.” I finally found it on YouTube on Monday night, and his words set the tone for a week in which those two most intense emotions dominated my cabin. When my eleven rowdy students weren't chasing each other all over camp or nearly coming to blows over whose t-shirt was whose, they had their arms around each other and smiles on their faces like a pack of bros teetering home from a frat party.

One particular bungling, Caliban-like student, suffering from severe but non-medicated ADHD, began the week as the laughingstock of the cabin. Despite my numerous remonstrations on the importance of respect, the bullying commenced whenever my back was turned, and knowing nothing different, the target soaked in the attention and played along with the mockeries. Yet something changed ever-so-slightly by the end of the week. Perhaps because he never fought back physically and kept on smiling, the bullies began to accept their idiosyncratic cabinmate. They stopped laughing at him and starting laughing with him, finding a space for him as the good-natured goofball of the pack who just happened to speak and act a little differently from the rest of them. The turning point came during the performance of the cabin skit, when our awkward friend starred in front of the whole camp in his self-volunteered role as “The Ugliest Man in the World.” Afterward, back at the cabin, one of the ringleaders, clad in his fresh Nikes and flat-brimmed ballcap, told his former victim, “I'm gonna miss you the most when we leave tomorrow.” Hate had turned to a quirky kind of love and all of a sudden, the doubled effort that the week had required seemed deeply worthwhile.

Even so, it was with great relief that two co-workers and I headed to the woods for the weekend. Hiking the first 23 of East Texas' hundred-mile Lone Star Trail, we let our ears heal from a week full of shouting 11-year olds with the quiet of the wild. And while it wasn't much of a wilderness trip – we saw a grand total of zero non-domestic quadrupeds as most of our time was spent trekking through previously clear-cut forests now inhabited only by the fast-growing loblolly pine – the simplicity of trail life served as a perfect Thoreauvian tonic after a manic week.


That week and its omens are long gone now, another having come and passed since I wrote most of the above words. This one featured a much calmer cabin and no tornado warnings, yet there were still plenty of wonderful plot-lines running through the four days. A rambunctious girl in my class, for example, began the week flipping off boys and doing anything to look older than eleven; by Friday, she was belting out camp songs and telling her cabin teacher how cool the nerdy girl in their group really was, declaring honestly that she had changed this week.

Of course, the tragedy of it all is that my co-workers and I will probably never know if her claim holds true. We see our students for four days and carry the lofty goal of sparking lifetimes of stewardship and tolerance (at least the idealists like I do). We don't know if they will actually stop bullying each other and start turning off the lights when they leave a room. Optimism, I suppose, is a prerequisite.

As one of our coordinators put it, “every Tuesday is the first day of school.” When that means a frenzied week is over and a new one has arrived, you love it. When it means you'll never see that amazing kid again who begged to hide in your backpack so he didn't have to leave, you hate it.

Still, it's hard to complain when I realize I'm being paid to spend time outdoors with kids. And the handful of students for whom I might really make a difference: that's like the dazzling vista after a hike that was already rewarding on its own. Even if a tempest or two passed through along the way.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

In Memory of Tim Tebow's 2011 Denver Broncos

I wish I could resist chiming in on this Tebowmania business, but I can't. Not after seeing him garner the lead story on not only ESPN's, but also the New York Times' website this week. All in anticipation of a season-ending drubbing that everyone who knows football easily predicted. As I watch in my Tom Brady jersey a thousand and a half miles from New England, I can't help but take a great deal of pleasure in my hometown boys beating up on America's Most Popular Athlete (according to an ESPN poll) for the second time this season.

We're all getting a little carried away with the Tebow mystique. His David Ortiz-like knack for late-game heroics is undeniably compelling, and I honestly appreciate that such a wholesome, selfless guy has drawn some of the spotlight away from the poor role models that litter professional sports. But this “Mile-High Messiah” talk is what drives me nuts. It's one thing for religion to mix with sports on an individual level. Ballplayers are constantly pointing skyward after a home run trot, and in Tebow's case, his faith-based composure surely helps him overcome those fourth-quarter deficits. It's another to talk of divine intervention in football games or a 24-year old who happens to be very pious and pretty good at his job converting the masses. Tebow's spirituality, like the rest of ours, should be a personal matter, not a magnet for cameramen and nosy reporters (was there anything more sickening than the footage of Tebow performing his now-iconic knee-drop after last week's winning touchdown only to have an overweight cameraman scurry up and shove a huge lens within inches of his face?).

The problem is that Tebow, humble as he is, doesn't seem to want any privacy. It's hard to imagine that his version of God demands instant midfield groveling after a score or Bible verses on one's eye-black. And the John 3:16 ad which Tebow-supported Evangelical group Focus on Family unveiled to the national viewing audience tonight was more than a little sanctimonious. If he's such a good guy, shouldn't he respect our right to make our own spiritual choices rather than using his celebrity as a preaching platform? I admire the charity he performs, devoting great portions of his time to visiting the downtrodden, but let's not forget that there are countless others, both Christian and non, performing extraordinary good deeds every day. Being a playoff quarterback doesn't qualify you for sainthood last time I checked.

But now, thanks to the brutal efficiency of Belichick, Brady, & Co., our beloved Timothy won't take the field again until autumn, and his throngs of worshipers will have some time to cool off. Now, hopefully, we can get back to watching sports for the reasons we always have: for the poetry of great games (this post should really be about the instant classic between the Saints and Niners that preceded The Brady Show), and for the connections that it fosters to the people with whom we cheer and the places from which we hail.

Those are the bonds you'd find me praising in a postgame interview.

Keeping Texas Wild

Texas certainly has its redeeming moments. For every gurgling F-150 on a five-lane freeway, there seems to be an occasion like last night's, which found me sitting at the point just after sunset.

Savoring my first moments of solitude after the week's busy return to teaching, I am the lone human spectator at Lake Livingston's daily festival of dusktime beauty. A great blue heron flaps casually by. How long did it take, I wonder, to find that perfect height for flight, with wingtips stopping just millimeters above the glassy surface, giving the eyes the best possible look at what's beneath? A low, ringing croak, a rush of water on spindly feet, and it is now a rigid stalk in the shallows. Prey will not be hard for it to find. Despite the current cold spell (it might dip into the twenties tonight – gasp!), the fish are jumping like midsummer, questing with a splash for their own meals. Meanwhile, above my head comes a surprising hiss of air as a squadron of coots b-lines towards destination unknown. Marvelous sounds. There are dogs barking and trucks' muffled roars from across the lake, but for now, the choruses human and non-human strike a peaceful balance.

It's hard to imagine anything but peace prevailing in this moment, with the eyes treated to comparable wonders as the ears. The Western horizon soft and orange as a ripe peach, its light painted across the mirror of water before fading to violet and blue-black in the East. Jupiter and Venus are already standing proudly in the cooling sky, portending the kind of clear, winter night that makes Minnesotans smile and Texans gawk.

The planetary reflections bring Thoreau to mind, and Professor Mike Kowalewski, whose favorite moment of Walden came on a night like this one. Fishing under a blanket of stars, the transcendentalist loses the boundary between sky and water, starlight and reflection, descending into the depths of his own mind, “haunted by waters,” as Norman Maclean would later write in A River Runs Through It.

Myself, I'm just content soaking in the beauty around me. Of course, it's a one-sided view I'm taking tonight. I'm allowing myself a few minutes in that “sunset raving” trap that nature writers shun like a poison these days. But why not? There's a pyre-like brushfire blazing a few hundred yards away, burning the piney corpses of the summer's historic drought. There's that roar of trucks across the lake reminding me this is no wilderness. Why not celebrate the waning beauty that's still in front of me?

Water often seems to inspire optimism, especially now that the drought has passed and Lake Livingston is filling back up. After all, it's a lot harder to clearcut a lake for a stripmall than a forest. And while there is no real, protected wilderness at hand, its scrappy cousin, wildness, is filling my nostrils with vigor.

It's official: if I get Texas plates on my car, I'll pay the extra $30 to Parks & Wildlife for the ones that bear a Horned Lizard and the words “Keep Texas Wild.” I can't think of a more important phrase to take with me through this rugged and resilient place.
I'd be honored for the Silver Bullet to wear this plate.