Thursday, December 5, 2013

Setting Out

The thinly-veiled sun hangs white out the driver's side window, the steadiest of companions. Lake Erie stretches blue-gray to the right, vast and indifferent. Winter has arrived early in the northern states. Dark bare trees striped with snow, narrow strips of forest outlasting the billboards. I travel west as so many before me, seeking answers I will never find.

I am going to a place where people grow their beards out, relish the smell of woodsmoke, and own large, healthy dogs. Where people exercise not to look good but to feel good, where fresh air and physical challenge are daily requirements.

I am going to be amongst the still-raw remnants of the Precambrian and the Cretaceous, to harness for a moment the wild and mighty children of a shallow subduction. Despite the years of erosion, I am still young like they are. I will bask in their untouchable power and fill my tank with life-lust.

I am going to spend a winter with the ski industry, filled with the promise of a new approach to stewardship, a new pathway into the ever-changing mystery.

I am as yet a person of many homes. I am setting out for one where the ratio of human to nonhuman remains a bit healthier, where wildness still captures the imaginations of many.

“What are you doing with your life, Will?” asks Art in Ed Abbey's Black Sun. “Staring at the sun,” responds the fire lookout. “Stand on this tower and stare at the sun until the sun goes … black.”

Perspective is everything. The world can always be viewed from varying heights, from towers and trenches. I sip my coffee, check the road ahead, consider the expanse of the lake and the ambivalent woods.

The white sun hovers bluntly. I afford myself a brief stare.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Baseball and Ultimate: Two Sports Passing in the Night

I can't tell you the year in which The Switch became a torturous catchphrase, but I remember the moment as if it happened yesterday.

I had just pulled my scrawny high school legs through the usual gray practice pants, knee socks exposed from the calf down, as always. Belt cinched, maroon cap pulled low, I strode out of the Amherst Regional High School (ARHS) locker room, headed toward the baseball diamond, hoping – as always – that today I might just hit the ball well enough to crack the starting nine for our next game.

But ritual was interrupted before I left the building. Crossing my path was a friend who starred for the school's nationally-renowned ultimate frisbee team. We caught up briefly, as athletes often do, on the progress of our respective squads. Then came the question.

“So when are you gonna finally make the switch to ultimate, man? It's your sport!”

Ahh, The Switch.

I've been lucky enough to have baseball and ultimate competing for my affections since seventh grade. I left frisbee-crazed ARHS for frisbee-crazed Carleton College, a thriving pipeline for ultimate players which my older brother had followed three years earlier. The difference? I still hadn't made The Switch. I had played and loved ultimate at the intramural level through middle and high school (yes, you heard me, Amherst has organized intramural ultimate frisbee – at its middle school), but come spring, frisbee had always taken a back seat to baseball.

It took two years of riding the bench as a light-hitting Division III infielder for Carleton, but I did finally make The Switch, playing club ultimate as a junior and senior with the Gods of Plastic (GOP), the second of Carleton's two competitive men's teams. The aforementioned friend from high school was even there to witness it, having followed the pipeline himself before helping lead that other men's squad – the creatively-named Carleton Ultimate Team (CUT) – to Division I national titles as a sophomore and senior (GOP, by comparison, took home D-III crowns in 2010 and 2012. I told you Carleton was crazy about frisbee).

But don't think for a minute that my love of baseball ended with The Switch. Which brings me to today's real topic. Recently, my two favorite sports have been making headlines for opposite reasons. In this past Sunday's New York Times, Jonathan Mahler writes the dark epitaph of baseball as a mainstream fixture in American pop culture. Meanwhile, ultimate and its new professional leagues have earned a story – albeit an overly snarky and simplistic one – in the latest Time magazine, with the words “Pro Frisbee” dotting newsstands worldwide in the top right-hand corner of the issue's cover.

As the national pastime I have adored since boyhood watches its popularity succumb to the age of instant entertainment, ultimate is vaulting its way onto SportsCenter and into the national consciousness thanks to its two fledgling professional leagues and a broadcast deal with ESPN.

But the truth is, both sports are fighting through identity crises. And both risking losing some of their greatest attributes in the process.

America no longer has the attention span for baseball, and it breaks my heart. Like our lives, we need sports to wow our senses every minute. We need the constant gladiatorial brutality of the NFL or the NBA's hip-hop swagger and superlative feats of athleticism. Baseball is a game of intricacy and no one wants to take the time to learn those intricacies.

As I wrote in an op-ed during my senior year at Carleton, baseball, like life, is a progression of everyday occurrences – outside sliders and grounders to short – punctuated by moments of crucial importance: the diving play by the second baseman to save a run, the full-count pitch that just misses for a walk to prolong the inning, the decisive homer hit by the next batter who never would have gotten the chance had the umpire seen things differently. And like life, you often don’t realize you’ve reached a turning point until after it’s past you. Who knows what would have happened in Monday night's American League tiebreaker if a yet-to-find-his-groove David Price hadn't picked off Elvis Andrus on a debatable call in the first inning?

That's the beauty of baseball. Every game can be dissected to seemingly infinite levels of detail (no one does it better than the good folks at FanGraphs). If details aren't your thing, there are always plenty of intriguing human-interest storylines, too, like Price beating back his Texas demons or whether the Rangers should have even allowed Biogenesis truant Nelson Cruz to play in the contest. There's a topic for everyone in a ballgame, and the stately pace of the sport allows time for conversation and dissection in between the drama.

Now, I get it if dissection isn't why you watch sports. After a day of work, a lot of us just want to be entertained. But what's sadder is that even the art of conversation seems to be fading. Rather than acknowledge and engage with our fellow human beings, we prefer to stare zombie-like at our screens and tune out our surroundings. Football and basketball broadcasts provide this hypnosis far easier than baseball, where a slightly more active level of mental participation is required to avoid drowsiness.

Great, now we have pink hats AND fake beards at Fenway
But don't worry, zombies, the owners and the networks are trying their darnedest to win you over outside of moving the fences in and changing it to two strikes and you're out. Every game seems to carry with it a new promotional gimmick designed to lure people to the ballpark for reasons other than baseball, none more embarrassing than the recent Dollar (Fake) Beard Night at Fenway. Broadcasts, too, are littered with more Twitter polls, fan cams, and silly interviews than ever. None of these distractions are truly offensive, per se, but wouldn't it be nice if we could just trust the action between the lines to sell itself? Believe it or not, it's actually a pretty amazing game when you slow down and watch closely.

Of course, no ploys will bring the masses back to baseball. For that to happen, there must be a renewed interest in the games themselves. Who knows exactly what combination of forces it would take to achieve this (outside of another steroid-infused home run race), but making the ballpark experience a little more affordable would be a good place to start. More hard-working parents need to be able to bring their kids to professional games. It should be the constitutional right of every child to have his or her eyes widened and speech stopped by the bright lights and green grass of a summer night at the Yard, the way mine were on that fateful sixth birthday at Fenway. Similarly, it should be the constitutional right of every child to grow from the lessons of patience, repetition, and frequent failure that playing baseball provides.

Another intriguing target for the sport is the country's ever-growing Spanish-speaking population. With more and more Latin American ballplayers in the spotlight every day (both of last night's NL Wild Card starters were Dominican, for example), baseball – more than any other sport – could represent the forefront of our transition toward a bilingual culture. The groundwork is already there.

For now, though, I'll quietly mourn the growing irrelevance of baseball in our national conversation. I'll mourn the fact that on Monday night, every bar I passed had multiple televisions showing an NFL blowout and none showing a winner-take-all tiebreaker which represented the culmination of six months' daily grind for two organizations. I'll mourn the fact that in a college-sports-crazy town like Madison, there isn't even a college baseball team to cheer for. But mostly, as I look past the corporate gimmicks and consume the unmatchable drama of the postseason like a hermit hoarding artifacts, I'll mourn for all of the kids present and future who will grow up without the beauty of baseball and won't know what they're missing.

But hold steady, sports fans, all is not lost! There's a new game in town, one that might just approach baseball on the awesomeness scale. Ultimate is pushing its way into the mainstream picture as we speak and it's pretty darn exciting. Two weeks from tomorrow, the USA Ultimate (USAU) Club Championships will begin in Frisco, Texas and anyone with a computer and an internet connection will be able to watch the best male and female athletes in the sport compete on its biggest stage, thanks to the biggest name in sports entertainment, ESPN.

What they'll see, in between a lot of diving catches, pinpoint throws, and ferocious defense, is a sport in transition. There will be plenty of the chest-bumping and fist-pumping familiar to the mainstream jock crowd, but then there will also be the moment when two players go up for a disc in the air, one comes down with it, the other says “foul,” and everything stops.

Self-officiation represents the heart of ultimate's identity crisis. Returning to the above example, the likely course events is such: the players, after stating their cases to one another, will disagree on whether a foul occurred, and one of several orange-clad observers – now a fixture at all of USAU's most competitive club and college events – will be called upon to make a ruling. In the best-case scenario, the observer will have been watching closely, will immediately make a call, and play will resume. But far too often, the observer will ask the players to restate their arguments or even call in a colleague for deliberation. In the meantime, the broadcast has been stalled long beyond one instant replay's worth of filler material (remember, these are the same viewers who lack the attention span for an ordinary inning of baseball).

Ultimate is a sport for the future. It is cheap to play (at the informal level, at least), comes in equally-treated male, female, and coed varieties, and carries all of the regular visual excitement necessary for success on TV. Excellence requires tremendously hard work in conditioning, repetition of skills, and strategy. Most importantly, thanks in large part to self-officiating, it values humility, fairness, and respect above all else.

But that last sentence is in danger of becoming an anachronism. With two new fully-refereed professional leagues achieving moderate success in the last two years (enough that their players don't pay for travel or equipment), the mainstream assimilation movement in the sport is gaining more and more voices daily. I'd like to believe that refereed ultimate could take over the college and club levels, bringing with it a host of converted athletes and fans, and that the sport could retain its premium on accountability in the process. But I've spent enough time around the mainstream jock crowd to know that this is about as likely to happen as Metta World Peace actually becoming a peaceable human being.

Observers: a lynchpin for the future of ultimate
The truth, however, is that compromise is entirely possible. Self-officiation should hardly doom ultimate to hippie/white upper-middle class irrelevance in the public eye. ESPN likes it, even the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is interested. The key is this: raise the quality of observing to a point where it doesn't detract from the spectator experience. Observers must watch the game as if they are referees, prepared to make an immediate ruling on any disputed call. Player disputes, in turn, must be held to a relatively low time limit before being turned over to an observer, just enough time, say, for an instant replay and a few seconds of broadcaster analysis. Right now, there's still a vicious cycle in effect: the more competitive the game, the more frequent the calls and stoppages, the more frustrating the spectator experience (just ask anyone who's ever watched a CUT-Wisconsin rivalry affair). Tighten up the discussion/observer process and the sport's most alluring contests will no longer risk being some of its most disjointed.

Public tastes are changing as my generation takes over for the baby boomers as major consumers. Look at the overwhelming support given by the professional athlete community to NBA player Jason Collins after he came out of the closet. What was once counter-culture can now be accepted and celebrated.

So here's hoping that in its rush toward legitimacy, ultimate does not forget the counter-cultural roots that make it exceptional. And here's hoping baseball does not forget its elegant conversationalist roots in its rush to win over the iPhone generation. Here's hoping that maybe, just maybe, my two favorite sports will find parallel spotlights in a more humble and engaged future, one in which many kids fight through the growth-inspiring dilemma of The Switch.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Exploring the Future, Together (Another Climate Rant)

The rain finally came last Tuesday night. I'd been in Wisconsin for nearly a month and we'd gotten a grand total of one solid downpour. Needless to say, I had high hopes for this one, and not just because the shower in our bathroom was mid-replacement and I was still a bit ripe with sweat from frisbee practice.

But the spurt barely lasted long enough for me to get my hair soaked on the balcony. Another quick tease of sprinkles came early Wednesday morning and that was all. Then back to the usual: grass getting browner, daylight getting scarcer, and nary a day with over a 40 percent chance of rain in the extended forecast.

Now, granted, there's a good chance I'm over-dramatizing. I'm no expert on historical rainfall patterns in Wisconsin and at least the temperature has started dropping, bringing the glorious early fall combination of cool air and warm sun. After I wrote the above paragraphs, a real lasting rain did finally come over the weekend. Still, it's been awfully dry since I got here and I now live much nearer to that part of the country destined toward desertification if the planet continues to warm at anything close to its current rate. So if that's enough to get me writing about climate change again, I'll go with it.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Mich.
First, the quick life update: I moved in with some college friends in Madison last month, bought a bike, joined a frisbee team, and have been trying – and largely failing – to write on a regular basis. I'm interviewing for a job as a technical writer with Epic Systems, a big healthcare software company where some of my friends work, and if I get an offer I'll probably take it. The prospect of living here among great friends with a steady position that at least includes the word “writer” in its title is an appealing one. Two weekends ago, two buddies and I drove north to Michigan's Upper Peninsula for a few days of backpacking along the Lake Superior shoreline (more on that later). Last weekend, it was up to Minnesota for an ultimate tournament. It's adventures like these that make me pretty happy about where I am.

But it's time to break out of my own bubble. The days surrounding September 11, if any, are days for bigger thoughts. I'm 24 years old and it has been 12 years since the terrorist attacks of 2001. That means just under half of my life has been spent post-9/11. Many of the views I have come to hold in regards to that day are summed up by Wendell Berry in his uncompromising essay “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear.” That his words are just as poignant today, with another mass shooting plastering the news and our leaders weighing the costs of military action in Syria, speaks volumes to how far we still stand from a “peaceable economy.”

What has changed since 9/11, as my generation and I have gone from wide-eyed dependents to inheritors of the burden, is the immediacy of our need for change. So I return to our shifting climate, the challenge that will inevitably define my adulthood. From Katrina to Sandy to last week's historic flooding in Colorado, we've seen our weather systems grow increasingly unpredictable and extreme. If you believe in science, this is only the tip of the (melting) iceberg.

Upon considering the weight of it all, it's easy to fall into defeatism. We're so far from where we need to be with so little time to make huge changes. Inevitably, we'll wait until the beast has already broken down the front door and started shattering the family heirlooms before we get serious about saving our home. In short, we're fucked, right? Might as well enjoy a semblance of comfort and normalcy while it lasts.

What an easy backslide to make, like when I sleep until nine or ten on an unplanned morning instead of getting up early to run or write.

Thanks in no small part to my privileged and protected upbringing, I've always considered myself an optimist, a person with deep faith in fellow humans and the long-term benevolence of God, the Mystery, Life, call it what you will. When I let the magnitude of the climate crisis sink in, it tests my optimism more than any of the other daily injustices happening in our ever-imperfect society.

The same science that is spelling our doom, however, also tells us this: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If this is universal law, can we not apply it to the arc of human history? For all of our destructive potential, is there not an equal and opposite capacity for stewardship and compassion? For all of the damage our techno-industrial society has wrought, does it not have an equal ability to save?

Consider the massive changes technology has brought to human life in the last 50 years. Then consider the exponential rate at which major advances are occurring. For better, or for worse, the future is wide open, wider than ever before. What a frightening and inspiring hand we have been dealt.

Another piece from the consistently excellent Orion magazine that has held my attention recently is Kathleen Dean Moore and Scott Slovic's resonant (if a bit lofty) “7 Ways to Write the Future.” What if everyone, not just writers, bought in – even marginally – to the view that “some kinds of writing are morally impossible in a state of emergency.” Imagine the progress if all sectors of society actually treated this as just that: a state of emergency. How many more biblical floods will it take for us to adopt policies with the urgency of wartime rationing, the kind that encouraged “Meatless Mondays” during the first World War and a national speed limit of 35 mph during the second?

I'll go ahead and say chances are high that the fight against climate change will never come close to resembling a military war. It's just too intangible for too many to elicit widespread anxiety and ensuing action. As the admirable (and not just for his beard) David Roberts of Grist concludes in a recent discussion of carbon targets and taxes, “it’s going to be a long slog, through our lives and our children’s lives, pushing and pulling and scrabbling together a patchwork of policies.”

All aboard, then. Some of us will be tireless door-knockers and phone-callers, champions of the front line. Some will be their voices, writers who will hopefully seek not only to renew the spirits of their fellow activists but also to reach across the aisle with reason and respect. Some will be the teachers, fighting to lift up a new generation of humbler stewards in the age of instant information and entertainment. Some will simply be parents who raise their children to live simply and responsibly.

The important thing is not how we contribute. It's simply that we contribute, more and more of us every day. Climate change isn't going away. It's time to find each of our proper strides and settle into the long, hard climb.

Meanwhile, for all of the trudging, we can't forget to admire the scenery. Edward Abbey said it best in “Joy, Shipmates, Joy," his 1976 speech to environmentalists: “It's not enough to fight for the land; it's even more important to enjoy it while you can.” We must not only find more ways to use technology responsibly, but we must find more time to spend outdoors, breathing fresh air and leaving technology behind. For it is there that we gather the fuel to climb on while also living the example which we must set of a more grounded, peaceable life.

On that note, I'll close with some words from my recent trip up to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.


From Au Sable East Campsite
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Mich.
September 9, 2013

The seasons are starting to change in the North Country. This morning, our third and final one of the trip, has arrived gray and breezy, with the nip of autumn on the air. I can see the remnants of sunrise color on the horizon as I look out from the remains of last night's campfire, past birch, maple, white pine and hemlock to the lake. And what a lake it is – Superior. Gichigami, or the Big Water, to the Ojibwa. We've been hiking northeast through the park with the lake steadfast on our left the past two days. On Saturday we left the auto-tourists behind, hiking through ethereal fog much of the afternoon, the hardwood forest closed around us on three sides in a dozen electric shades of green, the lake a mystical wall of white mist, like a blank canvas for our imaginations.

Cambrian sandstone over Lake Superior
It finally revealed itself that evening as we hiked through the final hours of daylight, along with its magnificent shoreline that has merited national protection. The forest reigns straight and thick to the edge of sandstone cliffs, birches hanging precipitously over a 30-, 40-, 60-foot drop to the turquoise water below. And in between trees and lake is the art of geology, the craftwork of the millennia that give this park its name – streaks and swirls of mineral color, weathered-out arches, spires, and overhangs. Incredible, glorious variety.


It's amazing, really, for all the doomsday talk we spew, how many enchanting wild places still remain right in our home regions. I'm giddy to explore some new ones up here in the Northwoods. It may not always be as dramatic as the West, but it's just as refreshing.

Yet when I send my thoughts back to a trip, a place, hindsight often tinges them with melancholy. Inevitably, at some point, I wonder how it will have changed if I ever return. If I bring my kids in 20 years, will there remain the same wondrous diversity of trees, ferns, spiders? Will the morning breeze still carry the chill of fall in early September? What about for my grandkids in 60 years?

Not to be dramatic or anything, but the answer rests in all of our hands. Get out there, shipmates.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Lessons from the Colorado Trail

The warmth and smoothness of the whiskey was almost sensual as it slid down our throats. Leaning back against the big boulder in the middle of our campsite, its surface still holding a pleasant heat from the July sun, we watched as the western sky darkened to black and the stars emerged, piercing indifferently like a million possible futures.

“So, twenty-four years old, huh Matty?” Rhys said. “Sounds like a pretty good age.”

It was certainly off to a pretty good start. July 16, 2013, my 24th birthday, found me nestled in the heart of the Sawatch Range with a couple of friends, camping creekside between the Holy Cross and Mount Massive Wildernesses. Rhys was hiking the whole 500 miles of the Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango, a farewell to his home state before he left on a yearlong fellowship to teach English and Computer Science in China. Pete and I were along for a few segments of the ride. We'd all played ultimate frisbee together at Carleton College, that frisbee-crazed quirk of a school plopped down in the Southern Minnesota prairie. Now I, two years removed from the place, the youngest of three brothers, was rather relishing the chance to play sage elder for my just-graduated buddies.

As the flask of Jack passed back and forth, the conversation ranged on into the night, from romance to politics to life after Carleton. It was good, genuine talk, the kind that reminds you why your college friends often remain your best friends. And on one thing we all agreed: we were preposterously lucky to be where we were, doing what we were doing.

Wild beauty and human camaraderie: a recipe for happiness.
It's a feeling that wouldn't go away during my two weeks on the trail. The next evening we camped beneath Mt. Elbert then rose early enough to beat the bulk of the peakbaggers to the rooftop of Colorado, the lower 48's second-highest summit at 14,433 feet. We shared the climb with Laine, a CU student and fellow thru-hiker we'd met two days before. Later that afternoon we descended in a cooling drizzle through vast colonies of quaking aspen, the view to either side of the trail a wall of staggered cream-white trunks and dark brown eye-knots. Reaching a trailhead with fortuitous timing, we crammed into a Jeep with three soggy middle-aged Texans and hitched the couple miles into tiny Twin Lakes, Colorado, a one-road mountain town perched beneath massive peaks beside a pair of picturesque glacial lakes. We pitched our tent that night in the backyard behind the Twin Lakes General Store, falling asleep exhausted after a day which began with mountaintop grandeur and ended sharing beers and laughs with a couple other thru-hikers-turned-friends. (Trail time has a way of accelerating friendships: ask any casual observer which three out of our five had gone to college together and they wouldn't have had a clue).

It was this combination – equal parts wild beauty and human camaraderie – that made those two weeks so memorable. From rolling stretches of ridgeline tundra, where every quarter mile seems to yield an even more spectacular postcard vista, to cold coursing streams and meadows stuffed with the popping colors of asters, paintbrushes, columbines, lupines, etc., there was a heaping smorgasbord of natural splendor made all the lusher by a large dose of now-melted spring snowfall. But it was the unexpected human culture of the thing which set the Colorado Trail apart from my other experiences in the western backcountry. Between Laine (one semester away from graduation at CU), Cody (34-year old ex-rugby star who'd just thrown in the towel on a lucrative Wall Street career), and Doug and Denise (retired desert rats from Utah – she a park ranger, he an EMT), every thru-hiker we met seemed ready and willing with a fascinating story, a bad joke, a sage piece of advice. And whether we shared five days or five minutes together didn't really matter. Nobody cared too much about anything but the present.

The trail is waiting: get out there and find it.
Following his “experiment” at Walden Pond, Thoreau delivered perhaps his wisest conclusion of all with one repeated imperative: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” After two weeks during which I turned on my cell phone two times, during which all the materials I needed to thrive weighed under thirty pounds and fit comfortably on my back, during which happiness had very little to do with technology and a whole lot to do with wilderness and unfiltered human connections, I can think of no better method for following the Concord hermit's advice in today's world than an extended backpacking trip.

I had no intention of hiking the Colorado Trail this summer until I saw Rhys at an ultimate tournament in May and we got to scheming. Three months later, I've returned to a still-uncertain future in society carrying barely a shred of anxiety after a couple of the most rejuvenating weeks of my life. The woods and the lakes and the hills are still out there, friends. If you're lucky enough to have the time and the resources, make it happen. Who knows, maybe you'll spend your next birthday sipping whiskey at 10,000 feet too.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

New Chapter, New Routine

One of these times, she's going to hurt herself with these antics. In her unbridled excitement, she's going to forget to look ahead in between joyful barks and bounces in my direction. An oversize root, a misplaced rock, a snake – something – is not going to get out of her way.

I'm referring, of course, to Dorri, my parents' three-year old golden retriever, who served as my regular trail running companion during the nine months which I spent living back home in Amherst, Mass. It was a triply beneficial partnership: we both got the exercise and woods time we craved while my mom and dad were relieved of the stir-crazy, attention-hogging young golden she had too often resembled, instead coming home to find a dog mellowed by the exertion of charging through the hills of the Holyoke Range. Of course, our adventures would hardly have seemed routine based on the boundless delight she exuded at the start of each.

A week ago, however, Dorri and I took our last run up Rattlesnake Knob for a while, at least until I return home from Colorado for a few frantic days in August and prepare for my autumnal relocation to Madison, Wis. I almost offered to bring her along on my current adventure, but the truth is that I'm going to need some time alone during this journey, time without a 60-pound bundle of straw-colored vitality bouncing toward my face.

On top of Grays Peak with some old Ranger-types.
The trip is off to a fast start, to say the least. After stops in Ann Arbor, Mich. and Kansas City, the Silver Bullet and I pulled into Denver on Monday evening, just in time to help lay the cement down for the lower floor of my brother and sister-in-law's new house. Two hours later, I was zigzagging the little hatchback up the ruts and rocks of a Summit County backroad, headed for a late-night rendezvous with some old friends from my Ranger days at Philmont Scout Ranch. Yesterday, three days after waking up at sea level in Boston, I was fending off altitude sickness as we climbed Grays and Torreys Peaks, topping out at 14,270 feet of elevation. Not a bad way to start a vacation.

Yet as I enjoy my recovery day, I'm thinking not of friends or 14ers, but of trail runs with Dorri and the importance of routines. My life will be intentionally unfettered for the next month – and perhaps much longer, depending on the progress of the Great Madison Job Hunt. One of my primary goals for this chapter is to bring writing to the forefront, to make space for it on my list of crucial routines.

In the fall of 2011, I found myself starved for exercise as I began my first job out of college at an Outdoor Education Center in Texas. For the first extended period of my life, I was not playing an organized sport, and while I did plenty of walking in my new job and occasionally talked co-workers into a game of ultimate frisbee, the routine of strenuous aerobic activity was gone without a team's structure. I had battled for years with running on my own, never reaching the point where the question turned from if I was going to run that week to when. But as I felt my love handles growing flabbier in the East Texas heat, I finally got past the initial disruption which accompanies any change in personal habits. I started running a few miles around the adjacent neighborhood two, three, sometimes four times a week. Come April, I had completed my first half marathon. The routine was established and its strength gave me the same confidence as my legs'.

When I returned to Amherst last fall for my new job in sports information, I kept running, but gone was the regular exposure to nature my work in Texas had afforded. Between publishing game programs, writing press releases, and staffing 27 teams' worth of events, there was no time for hiking or rock climbing. I was lucky if I got out for a 20-minute walk to admire the beaver pond and the oak woods behind my parents' house. Through trail running with Dorri, however, I started killing two birds with one stone. While one's appreciation for a wild area's minutiae is inversely proportional to the speed at which one moves through it, running along the ridges and creek beds of my ancient hometown hills was a much-needed break from the high-strung personalities and landscaped fields of collegiate athletics. I had added a new layer to the routine of running, and it had become all the more rewarding.

So now it's time to bring to my writing that same discipline that got me off my butt and onto the trail. As I wind my way through the undetermined months ahead, with professional possibilities ranging everywhere from another full-time job in communications to substitute teaching and freelancing, I intend to pursue my personal written work with new vigilance. The results of those efforts may often appear here, and I am grateful already for all of your continued reading and support.

At this point, you'd be right to wonder just what I'll be writing about. I wish I knew too. There will probably be a few rants about sports and climate change as the baseball and wildfire seasons move on and I fend off the hypocrite's guilt of someone who hates fossil fuels but loves roadtrips and the bright lights of a summer night ballpark. There may be a crappy poem or two. There will certainly be stories and snapshots from the many adventures, outdoor and otherwise, which await.

And on that note, I'll take you back to Saturday, when this current western jaunt of mine began. After a proper Friday night sendoff with friends in Boston, the next evening found the Bullet and me crossing southern Ontario at 120 km/hr, windows halfway down as rushing air accompanied a Neil Young serenade (one of my favorite roadtrip traditions is listening to music from or about an area as I drive through it). Once we escaped the sprawl of the Niagara-to-Toronto corridor, rural beauty enveloped us as farms, rivers, and forest stretched to the north and south, a long and golden sunset dead ahead. As Neil sung of his Ontario roots in “Helpless,” I felt the pull of those rivers, the longing to follow them north until the oaks and maples hugging their banks gave way to a wall of conifers and the towns grew smaller and fewer.

This was my first trip across the province in several years. Barring long waits at the borders, it's a quicker route between home in Amherst and my brother in Ann Arbor than following I-90 around the bulge of Lake Erie. After one particularly brutal backup on the Blue Water Bridge into Michigan, however, I had opted for the American side during recent trips. Recalling the scenic calm of those provincial highway stretches, however, not to mention an unexpectedly good sandwich at Tim Horton's, I'd say the crossing is almost worth going out of one's way for.

Perhaps I can find a metaphor for writing in the allure of Canada. It starts with the monotony of the familiar, the tendency of schedules and sluggishness to prevent us from venturing into new places both mentally and physically. Yet Canada is there for the exploring, with vast tracts of wilderness to which we have no equal in the lower 48. If the mental barrier of unfamiliarity can be overcome, the potential for greater and more frequent writing is just as attainable.

If I am venturing into the Canada of my writer's path, then, I do so knowing that a few well-chosen routines must still accompany me. I will keep pulling on my running shoes, keep finding time for the wild, and will try to keep the words flowing like rivers in between.

Of course, if this new routine gets too, well, routine – if the threshold of boredom is approaching, it'll be time to adjust and rethink my critical habits. Alaska, anyone?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Untethering

I’ve been known to make impulsive decisions before, especially when my car and the interstate system are involved. But since moving back to my hometown for a real-world job in Sports Information, the chances for adventure have been few and far between. When I’ve had a rare speck of free time, I’ve been more likely to spend it on the couch than the road.

Something about May in the northern states, however, breathes restlessness like the trees rushing almost visibly to leaf out during every warm day.

So I eagerly planned my escape. As soon as the Amherst College baseball team ended its season, I was headed for the Midwest and as many reunions as I could fit into a week or so. But as we all know, sports are wonderfully and miserably unpredictable. And when sports dictate your schedule, sometimes the rest of the world has to be put on hold.

 Baseball postseason was easily the highlight of my year.
And so I rode the wave with our guys through an unexpected conference title, a surprise shipment out of New England to NCAA Regionals in upstate New York, and a pair of Cinderella wins over two of the nation’s top teams. Along the way, I battled with iMovie, covered some magical games, and generally reminded myself why baseball is one of the greatest gifts humanity has ever given itself.

But that’s not the point, really. Despite my affection for our baseball team, I went into the postseason half-grumbling that their success might delay my personal date with Lady Adventure. But somewhere in the middle of it all, she came and found me ahead of schedule. Somewhere between the crumbling woodwork of a minor league press box in New Britain, Conn. and the raucous Friday night crowd at Curley’s Bar and Grill in Auburn, N.Y. I was actually having a hell of a time.

This was the first instance in which my job had brought me the kind of exhilarating new experiences that I had condemned it for denying me. Of course, it was still too little too late. A couple weeks of travel don’t make up for months of late nights and lost weekends, and I’ll be hanging up my SID spikes and heading west come July – more on that in a few paragraphs. Still, the chance to hit the road for work was a reminder that with an open mind, great adventures can surprise us in unexpected forms.

So when the Jeffs finally went down two wins shy of a trip to the College World Series, I was actually disappointed that I wouldn’t be covering them longer. I should have been mad that their deep run at the tournament had sidelined my plans to be in Wisconsin already, but instead, with a peaceful mind, I packed up the car after the last paragraph was written and drove through the night to salvage what I could of the trip. And when the opportunity arose to stay there for another week and cover the track and field team at nationals, I asked for the new assignment without hesitation.

I’ll be 23 for barely a month longer. Most of this year has been spent wishing I had more time to act my age, to make the kind of memories I knew my college friends were making together as active young adults in Boston and Seattle and Madison. So now that the athletic season is over and my work schedule dwindling, I’m starting to make up for lost time. Last weekend it was a concert-and-camping trip to New Hampshire that screamed to me between barefoot bluegrass and midnight barred owl conversations just how much I had missed my old hippie ways. Soon, I’ll be reviving that side in a much bigger way.

Summer on the Colorado Trail. What could be better?
Once my employment at Amherst ends on Friday, June 28, I’ll be b-lining it to the Rockies, reuniting with Denver friends and family for a few days, then leaving everything else behind but my backpack. My friend Rhys is hiking the entire 486 miles of the Colorado Trail this summer before spending a year in China, and I’ll be joining him for some sizable chunks of the journey. It’ll be a time for camaraderie and for silence, for perspective and regrouping, but mostly for fun in the mountains.

After that, question marks still abound. I’ll be moving to Madison in August, living with some great friends in a great city, and taking the rest as it comes. The job hunt is in full swing but seems less important than it probably should. Maybe one of these resume recipients will take the time to find out what a Sports Information Director really does and I’ll be back to a full-time grind. Maybe I’ll work part-time and focus more fully on applying to graduate school, an inevitable turn in my path whose approach I grow more excited for daily. Maybe I’ll say screw it after the fall and head west for the ski bum winter I’ve always craved.

What I do know is this: it’s time to let people and places take priority for a while. It’s been two years and two days since I graduated from Carleton and my whereabouts for the bulk of that time have been determined by jobs. For as long as I’m fortunate enough to have some cash in my pocket, that’s going to change.

I will be thankful long past my next chapter, however, for the way that this one is ending. This last month at Amherst – from the relationships I’ve strengthened to the fact that more people watched my NCAA baseball broadcasts than the college’s graduation live stream – it has shown me that no matter how frustrating a job, a place, a relationship might be on a daily basis, flexibility and a desire for new challenges can bring out the best in it.

Wherever you are, Adventure is there for the taking, my friends. You might just have to get creative about finding her.

And that’s a lesson that will last far longer than any team’s season.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

More Than Madness: Why March Matters

Author's Note: since my last post in this blog, I've changed scenery, leaving Texas for a job in Sports Information at Amherst College. It's been a major lifestyle shift, one on which I hope to reflect and write more this summer, once my days are no longer filled with tennis recaps and hockey box scores. For now, I'm valuing the chance to write professionally, even if these entries have become few and far between. If you want to know what I'm really up to, just visit Cheers!

There are many days when I’m more than ready to throw in the towel on sportswriting as a career – when the late nights writing tennis recaps and the weekends spent running from one event to the next seem like a big fat waste of time compared to the work I could be doing in, you know, helping save the planet or something. But then the month of March, specifically the NCAA basketball tournaments, come around and have to remind me of all of the reasons why I still love sports.

Harvard has us remembering that even the Ivies can get caught up in March.
Consider this: after the first round of the men’s Division I tournament (I refuse to call the Round of 64 the “Second Round”), the two biggest Cinderella stories are the nation’s oldest university (Harvard, est. 1636) and one of its youngest (Florida Gulf Coast, est. 1991). There must be some value in that storyline, some lesson about how you can never be too venerated and haughty, nor too inexperienced and headstrong, to get carried away with the emotions caused by a group of kids working hard together to do something nobody thought they could. As somewhat of a New Mexican at heart, my bracket and I howled in agony when the Crimson upset the Lobos, but once I saw this picture of the Harvard band, I couldn’t help but smile along with the rest of Massachusetts.

Speaking of Bay State smart guys, here’s the other great thing that happened in college basketball yesterday: the Amherst College men advanced to the D-III Final Four, and they did so by scoring more points against Cabrini College (last year’s national runner-up) than any D-I team put up in the first round. The Jeffs ran away with a 101-82 win, putting on an offensive clinic that’s hard to imagine coming from a bunch of liberal arts students. I’ve had the privilege of entering the three-pointers, blocks and dunks that these guys have produced all year into a stats computer as they’ve happened, and being around the team regularly has led to a couple of reflections. First, despite what the cookie-cutter commentators might say on the webcast, you can forget the nerdy stereotypes of D-III student-athletes from top schools. These young men are basketball players and cold-blooded winners, even if they don’t have the tattoos. Sports Illustrated legend Jack McCallum puts it far better than I in his column about the NESCAC’s Elite Three, so I’ll let him say the rest.

The second reflection is another one of those why-we-care-about-sports odes. Spike Lee wrote the line for He Got Game, “basketball is like poetry in motion.” You can say the same about a precision touchdown pass, a home run robbery or an ultimate player channeling his inner Usain Bolt, but we’ll stick with basketball since it’s March. There’s a pure aesthetic joy to watching an athlete do extraordinary things with the human body, one that transcends and mitigates the noise of sophomoric celebrations and off-the-deep-end media. Along with the irresistible drama of great games, “poetry in motion” should be enough to turn even the snootiest artiste’s eyes toward the television come tourney time, albeit with the mute button close at hand.

Finally – and this is honestly the biggest one for me – there’s regional pride at stake. Although conference realignment (a.k.a corporate greed) is threatening it at the D-I level, college sports (and even the pros, at their best) are deeply rooted in a sense of place. I won’t get all nature writer-y now, but it’s this connection that has made me realize that sports and environmentalism aren’t necessarily so far apart. This winter, I also had the privilege of periodically covering Amherst’s dynastic women’s basketball team, which reached its fifth straight Final Four last weekend. Even though the general student body hardly seemed to notice their incredible achievements (a rant for another day), the loyal group of family, friends and townies that doggedly supported this team all year made me proud to call myself an Amherst native for the first time in a long time. Inevitably, it brought me back to the Final Four Run of the Calipari/Camby UMass team in 1996, an historic time for our town which captured the hearts of more than just a six-year old me (I still have the shirt which a couple of walk-on benchwarmers signed at our elementary school pep rally, and one of my greater claims to fame is that Coach Cal read children’s books to me at the South Amherst library). Where am I going with this? Here’s where: sports, like few other things, have the power to connect us deeply with both the places from which we hail and the people with whom we cheer. In our partisan, often roots-less age, I see great potential for progress in that unity.

When people talk about how to fix our broken political system, my first answer is often, “make all of the congressmen and women go on a backpacking trip.” Maybe it would be just as powerful if every state with a team still playing made its senators and representatives sit down and watch the tourney together.