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.