Sock Wars

… no morning pleasures until the socks are on.

April 20, 2018    I start each day outnumbered by a passive, relentless foe. These rascals just want to fuck with me. Truthfully, the right is an only an irritant. The left is oppositional, an implacable hurdle to the daily start-up. There is no coffee, no NY Times, no fire-building, no morning pleasures until the socks are on.

The Long Journey

The journey is purely a journey, endless and uncharted…

November 14, 2017   Allison, who misses nothing, spied the baby turtle. A tiny creature, it could have surfed on a dollar bill. She (my gender wish) was struggling to scale six inches of asphalt curbing. Beyond this barrier was a patch of damp grass, twenty yards of sand, and the rolling sea. This creature, informed only by instincts, had a homing plan. But the curb was a problem. Flippers are made for swimming, not climbing.

It squirmed when first picked up but adopted a resolved calm, as if informed by an ancient script. In thirty seconds the turtle was in wet sand, then tumbled by a small wave. No mystery now. Minutes out of a sandy nest, the ancient codes lit all the neurons. Our little pal caught the next breaker and swam to the surface. Head high, she scanned the horizon and liked the possibilities. She took a dive and applied 100,000,000 years of grace to reach the bottom.  A journey that could last eighty years and span hundreds of thousand miles was underway. If a female, she will return, with eggs, to this same beach.

The sea is full of hazard for a tiny creature living on nascent instinct. We don’t calculate odds but opt for an assumption of survival. Life is uncertain but the antidote is faith. From time to time we are all entitled to affirm our own truth. And we are certain that someday a seven-hundred-pound Green Turtle will crawl from the sea and lay a few dozen eggs in the damp sand of Grotto Beach on the Isle of St. Croix. It will be a time well beyond mine.

Thinking of journeys, I compare my well supported sorties into some wild places with that of a turtle hatchling. I am sixty-plus, well experienced and lavishly equipped. Armed with maps, GPS, and compass my path is well defined. The turtle is minutes out of an egg, perhaps hungry, and certainly hunted. No selfies, no coffee breaks, no advice. The journey is purely a journey, endless and uncharted but adhering to timeless rules of renewal.  Suddenly, my little journeys feel a bit trivial and self-indulgent. But still no regret. My inspiration is renewed.

Walking and Chewing Gum

… to once again probe the front lines of those things that remain possible.

Oct 12, 2017   I was walking the streets of Palo Alto in an evening washed with California softness. This neighborhood, College Terrace, was built out in the twentieth century. I am guessing “pre-war”, that wonderful era when homes were built to the scale of a family living modestly but still desirous of a distinctive and well-crafted home. Perhaps it was a hodge-podge of style in its day. Arts and Crafts bungalows bumped up against Spanish influenced cottages, interspersed with other mid – century forms. Landscapes planted with high hopes developed into mature trees overspreading the streets and avenues. Due to the arid climate, fenceworks and sheds carry a wonderful patina. It is quiet as traffic calming strategies reduce cars. There are far more bicyclists and walkers.

I was lost in my thoughts, carrying some groceries, leaning on my cane for stability. Crossing a street, I looked left then right and took a few steps. And suddenly found myself aground, like a ship hitting an uncharted shoal. The suddenness of the fall precluded any defensive maneuver. It was a face plant, a nose landing. Hands were not even scratched. Nose, mouth, and jaw absorbed the initial impact. A broken piece of bridgework lay on the road. Yogurt cups and fruit smoothies were scattered around a torn grocery bag. I was perplexed, not pained, but curious. What the hell just happened?

Kind strangers rushed over, helped me up, gathered my belongings, and offered a ride to urgent care. Blood was dripping, not flowing. My nose was pained but not broken. Like Rocky, heading back to his corner after three minutes of sharp jabs, I was ready to carry on. A nice man refused to surrender my groceries. He insisted on walking me back to my hotel. (Kindness is found everywhere. These simple and profound acts serve to remind us to seize the opportunity when it comes our way.) I slept that night with a wash cloth clenched between ruined teeth. I didn’t want blood to get on the bedding.

The Stanford trip had a purpose – leading a two-day workshop for emerging leaders. There was no thought of not getting on the stage. How can you facilitate a leadership program without the willingness and agility to overcome a few obstacles? My life is about adaptation.

My erratic, dragging left leg caused this tumble. I had already adapted by using a cane and avoiding rough surfaces. Now I will adapt by strolling in daylight. As the circle gets smaller, other avenues will be sought to provide the stretch and challenge that is central to life. There can’t be a surrender, just small tactical retreats in order to regroup, to once again probe the front lines of those things that remain possible.

Leadership Lessons on the Lake

“It is time for your solo, my friend”

Sept. 1, 2017   Allison, Ethan, and I visited Brian and Maria at their summer compound on Sebago Lake, up in Maine. Brian welcomed us in his summer uniform, shorts and T-shirt. He is a small man, densely muscled with pale blue eyes that miss nothing. I think of him as a hawk, circling over the landscape, sharp-eyed, vigilant, and comprehending. This particular hawk is also my friend, mentor, and employer. He sees things in me that others, including myself, have missed. Brian’s gift is his ability to then coax those things to the surface where they are put to good use. “Stretch and Challenge” is his simple mantra.

As a leader, Brian creates exacting standards and a clear vision. He is not going to overburden an individual with detailed instructions. We learn by doing. Brian is happy to provide the feedback that enhances the performance. The feedback is direct and incisive. It is not polished with kindly platitudes. This process is built on trust. Brian trusts that you bring a level of skill, care, and a drive to learn. You trust that Brian’s high standards matter. It is a simple formula that works.

Many lakes in Maine are long and narrow. Not Sebago. It is broad and can be indecipherable to a newcomer. Brian has been coming to this lake since childhood. He knows it well and is a wonderful guide. He took real delight in touring us around in his beautiful motorboat. At some point, he invited Ethan to steer. He also pointed out the throttle, suggested a course and stood aside. Stretch and challenge. Ethan was at the helm. He is sixteen but carries a bit of caution that is unusual for that age. It was not hard for him to run the mental calculus underlying this responsibility. But he is also a boy in control of three hundred horses. Jabbing the throttle forward, he stood the boat on its stern. Without the slightest alarm, Brian pointed out the nuances of trim. Learn by doing.

Over the next few days we led the lake-life. Ethan ran the Jet-Ski, Allison paddle-boarded, Maria chased after elusive sunshine, and Brian skirmished with a crew of ducks trying to establish residency. We also spent time on the boat with Ethan receiving more time at the helm. We all delighted in his delight.

Time was also allocated to planning my upcoming work year. Our work takes place on college campuses. A great deal of travel is involved. A day spent facilitating a leadership workshop is a long, tiring day. Off-days are not an option. Exacting standards are upheld. I lead a number of these programs and I consider this to be a sacred trust. I also know that I am physically declining and have no interest in being anything less than my very best. Accordingly, there is the calculus of rate of decline Vs. span of time. It is both unscientific and crucial. With all these considerations, a work plan is set. Brian made no inquiries regarding my capacity to deliver. He relied upon me for these calculations and trusted my self-assessment.

All trips to the lake regrettably end. As we fussed with our departure checklist, Brian gave Ethan the keys to his beautiful boat. “It is time for your solo, my friend”. We all watched as the boat became very small on the vast expanse of Sebago. I’ll admit to a bit of apprehension about Ethan finding his way back. Misplaced fear. Soon the boat grew larger as it headed back on its straight course. On the dock, hugs all around. This was an extraordinary experience for a sixteen-year-old who was turning around a tough year. Clearly a game-changing experience.

On the drive home I was considering Brian’s generosity. As usual, I am slow on the uptake. This was as much about me as Ethan. Without questioning my decline, Brian let me set the boundaries of my commitments. He also allowed for my usual willingness to over-extend. I have been part of this world long enough to know that I function best when stretched and challenged. Brian knows this as well. Like the hawk, he sees it all.

Tiny Hammers

August 29, 2017   I was awakened by a “tap-tap-tap” in my neck. It is a tremor, bringing a bit of force. At night, these fasciculations pound away when a particular muscle becomes irked by poor service from the nerve. This problem originates in the brain stem. The upper motor neurons have gotten out of whack and their messaging to the muscles, via the lower motor neurons, is scrambled. The tremors happen all over my left side: hands, hip, butt, back, shoulder, chest, leg. I see it as a small hello, not the notion that shifty aliens are living in my body.

No regrets, especially in the summer. The widows are wide open encouraging a flood of  night sounds. A jet flows over at low altitude. My guess? The 1:10 from Chicago. Sure enough, the clock reads 12:50. An owl opens up. Ten seconds later, a reply from deep in the forest.

There are connections being sought in the night, an owl looking for a pal, a jet looking for a runway, and a synapse looking for a muscle.

Why “why the hell not?” is not sustainable

“The ship is taking on water and I’m low on coal.”

September 20, 2017   It is time to declare a tactical surrender. My journeys were built upon a premise of strength, balance, stability, and endurance. My forever companion, baseless optimism, backstopped these ideals. Now this companion has kindly exited. Every adventure had a pause-point where I was genuinely concerned for safety or plausibility.  I doubt that I can swim more than a hundred yards yet I am paddling a mile from shore in the rain and wind. I know that I can’t maneuver my bike down a technical single-track yet I have to survive this path to finish my route. I have an overloaded bike at the bottom of a 12% grade. I feel my heartbeat on my forehead yet a mile long climb lies ahead.

There has always been a reserve of skill, strength, resolve, and luck. With skill and strength in decline, luck is revealed as a myth. Resolve, by itself, won’t cross the stormy waters or thread its way down a rocky trail.  I’m pushing sixty-five and the reports from the engine room are alarming. The ship is taking on water and I’m low on coal. Barnacles grow thick on the hull. But there always is an anchorage. In safe harbor, I will chart a new course with lighter load, safer waypoints and a plausible destination. Might even invite a few more people on board.

Tripping With Tim

“Oh hell, I’ve become the rider that I used to sneer at.”

Sept 1, 2017   If he were a dog, my friend Tim would be a Labrador Retriever. He is burly, amiable, and always up for an outing. And he will eat whatever is placed in placed in front of him, whether on a table, rock, or boat deck. We met at work, Tim the bright up-and-coming engineer and I the training guy. Together we were going to change the world with our progressive ideas about workflow and the reimagining of human performance. That didn’t work out so we shifted our attention to fun in the outdoors. Tim is a savvy outdoor guy and a willing accomplice on foot, boat, or bike. He also brings a careful, scientific method to outdoor travel. This is in sharp contrast to my approach that includes cotton T-shirts, tattered maps, missing water bottles, and unused PFD’s.

With bikes, we follow the script. Tim takes the engineer’s approach. After months of research he will purchase his bike. It is stock and will stay that way. (But with enough electronics to thread a super-tanker through the Suez Canal.) I will impulsively grab a frame off EBay or Craig’s List and spend weeks wading through the maze of formats and standards to complete a build. At the trailhead in Bondville VT, there is a pristine, showroom-like bike. And there is… Allison’s bike. My bike wasn’t trip-ready. Shocker.

And we launch, with Tim racing off and I figuring out the dynamic of a loaded bike rolling downhill to the Winhall River. On the valley floor, miles unspool.  Dense green pastures and small orchards curl alongside the gravel road. Old tractors are at rest beneath ancient trees. Both a sturdy testimonial to their respective makers. The sky is mottled and the air thick. Even on the flats the work has some strain.

And then we entered the forest. We pass around the stanchions of an iron gate. The road now untrammeled, instantly changes. Grass replaces the hardpack and the climb begins. Dropping into lowest gear, I have a thought: Oh hell, I’ve become the rider that I used to sneer at. Hills were my wheel house. Granny gear was a surrender, an act of desperation, of weakness, of lack of character, of crumpled resolve, of unfocused training, of bad dietary choices, of unfathomable DNA. And now I am in the lowest gear and the climb is barely perceptible.

A bit of remorse distracts me from the climb. Judging others through the lens of superiority is an act of petty unfairness. And I recall other judgements. Medivac choppers passed over our house on the way to a nearby hospital. “Poor sons of bitches” was my unsympathetic thinking. Until I was the patient, high on morphine strapped to the gurney and watching the up-turned faces of nurses and orderlies. Worse examples followed. Playing “palsy man” with quivering fingers and stuttering voice, while chasing two-year-old Ethan around the yard. (I know, I know…). How I wish the hand could shake and quiver now. And the worst example of all? Questioning the need for all those ADA compliant ramps and hand-rails. I imagine a scorecard having a point threshold that brings down a hail of retribution. And these are the distracting thoughts that fuel a five-mile climb. My last thought before the downpour? This road was flat on the map.

Soaked and bug-flecked we reach the campground at Grout Pond. This beautiful place is both oddly quiet and oddly full. Apparently, it is squatter-central. People grub-stake sites with grimy tents and empty coolers and then conduct their business elsewhere, returning when convenient. A rusted-out Ford Ranger pulled in with some old church pews. Within 15 minutes they were broken up and in flames. At another site garbage smoldered in a home built trash burner. Not a camper in site. A guy out of an Elmore Leonard crime story wandered around with a Toucan on his shoulder. It looked like a scene from a Balkan Uprising. But considering the abuses of our National Forests by the timber, mineral, and grazing interests, these citizens with their small grift are just working a system that is otherwise horribly skewed. No camp site? No regrets.

Tim and I remain upbeat. We walked the perimeter of a wonderful WPA-era building with a solid central chimney. It was sheaved in live-edge pine that was deeply furrowed and black with age. The back porch was an inviting sleep spot. As we laid out damp gear the sun burst through and clearing began. Signs were aligning for a quiet night’s rest. As the sun warmed the old warped siding, snakes writhed into sunny cracks. Many snakes. We bedded down beneath an over-story of massive Spruce trees, a fair distance from the cabin. Snakes deserve their own space. August 7, 2017

The Campenero

July 22, 2017    I’m visiting Idaho and hanging with my grandson, Wyatt, who is pushing thirteen. We went for a mountain bike ride up Smith Creek Rd. in the Selkirks. He dialed up his youthful energy and shot up the road. We know how this plays out. After a mile or two, the cagey veteran reels in the youngster. Wyatt went off script and continued to spin like he was on the rinse cycle. I looked at my gears thinking there must be one more. He was nice enough to wait at a shady bend beside a massive cedar tree. I busied myself with a photo-op of this great tree. And catching some air.

From this experience, I thought about Wyatt in the Montana Mountains. Like his dad, he is calm, observational, and competent. He is also the definition of low-maintenance. And he is strong on a bike. I offered the Idea to his mother who was rightfully circumspect. Sending a first-born into the wild with a semi-disabled pop-pop, lacking a plan, requires some thought. Eventually, Lyndsay came around. Since Wyatt and I are both planners and gatherers, camping gear and maps overran the living space of the snug cabin. Eventually the truck got loaded and we were off. The trip along RT 2 was a delight all the way to the weedy approach to Kalispell. I define Montana by its drainages and the Kootenai River is my favorite. It is the grandest river that no one has ever heard of.

Montana camping

Considering our love of maps, Wyatt and I failed a bit with the Flathead Forest map. When unfolded, it covered the Nissan’s hood. Our destination, Upper Whitefish Lake was on a fold so we settled on a combination of dead-reckoning, intuition, and luck. The first road seemed to peter out. It was only on the roundabout second route that we realized that route #1 was the one. Extra driving meant more time to fret about the campsites being taken. Arriving at the lake we grabbed the first open site. While exploring the neighborhood, we found a better site by the water. Move # 1.

After raising the tent and unloading gear we saddled up for the ride to Red Meadow Lake. It was a climb, with 8-12% grades hiding behind every curve. Our resolve would have been tested had the road been straight. Water bars, engineered to deflect run-off were placed every so often. These small flats were ideal for an occasional rest and relaunch.

It was a slow grind and little concentration was required. it was easy to enjoy wild flower patches swarming with bees and brooks overflowing with snowmelt. Hares and squirrels were darting everywhere. Near the top, dense patches of Bear Grass waved in the flattening light. Not another soul is in sight. We take it all in with bear spray at ready, just in case. Wyatt, resolute as a missionary on the long climb got to be a crazy-ass twelve year old on the rocky descent. I acted 65 and heated up my brakes.

Back at the lake we set sail with tent and gear for a site with a better fire grate. Move #2. I divvy up the labor with Wyatt owning the fire-starting. A huge pile of sticks fill the grate. I think of a gentle way to provide feedback regarding this exuberant approach. A cracking, roaring blaze lights the area before I can form the words. The lad knows fire.

The new site was adjacent to a lush small meadow, thick with grass and flowers. It was dense with flies, bees, and a host of biting gnats. We were down a notch or two on the Montana food chain. Still, we had a roaring fire and a lakeside site. Behind us the setting sun crawled a shadow up a massive rock ridge.

There was one more show before dusk. A squadron of tree swallows arrived to sort out the bug problem. The enemy was engaged and the battle was one-sided. Order was restored and we poked at Wyatt’s fire until twilight marched to darkness. It is early summer on the western edge of mountain time, so the fade to black took hours. I had time to watch my grandson at ease in his element: the fire-builder, navigator, finder-of-things, and sidekick.

The Compound

July 15, 2017  You drive due north for a long time on US 95. The mileage markers pass 500. Idaho is a long, tall state. At some point, road signs don’t announce a next town. They say “Canada”. You are in Boundary County. This might be America’s best place name. A dozen miles south of the border you veer left onto Idaho 1. The road rides a bench on the eastern flank of a wide valley. The Purcell mountains are on the east and the Selkirks rise on the west. The mountains are clad with forest, edging up and over the peaks. This creates a deceptive sense of softness. Where fire has burned away the greenscape a rugged character is revealed.

It is an agricultural valley and there are glimpses of a magnificent bottom-land clad in wheat and canola. In early summer the canola blooms a dense cheery yellow. Miles of yellow. The wheat land is said to produce 100 bushels an acre– an almost mythic harvest. There are rolling slopes of wheat and alfalfa on the land rising from the bottoms. Cattle, horses, elk, and deer dot the land. Agricultural traffic can clog these roads. Locals have a forbearance for this slow traffic. In more eastern parts of the US, this delay would have drivers cursing and swerving. Not here.

A few miles up Route 1 you enter a road cut along an alfalfa field. As the road sinks into the land you can see the green roof of a snug cabin backed by a steep ridge studded with Spruce and Lodgepole. It can be easy to miss. You turn right where multiple mailboxes stand like rural sentries. It’s Idaho, so each has its own style and rust bloom. Multiple gravel drives head into the underbrush. The right fork takes you to the green-roofed cabin. As you pull into the dooryard, a massive black dog lopes your way. His tail wags so hard that his trunk folds like a concertina. This is Jasper and you are at the Hart place. The grand kids stream out, Jasper leans in and knocks you down. The long trip is over.

From the Hart’s, a grassy pathway winds through low brush. It passes piles of next year’s firewood, a few fruit trees, and sheds containing evidence of a rural life: tractors, scraps of wood, tools, bicycles and the other items that might someday be useful. The path leads to the Zales, Nate’s mom and step-dad. Roger and Naomi are the kindest people you might ever know. It makes sense that this path absorbs a lot of traffic. People, animals, services, food, and gear move seamlessly between the homes. Functionally, it is more of a hallway uniting a single home.

In addition to various sheds and coops there is one other building in the compound. It is a skull and skeleton museum and no doubt it is one of the world’s best. Nate has been collecting, trading, assembling, and curating skulls and skeletons for most of his life. (NO Pets or Humans!) Specimens often arrive in oozing, stinking boxes. They are rarely intact. Nate, with some magic chemistry and a well-developed beetle colony prep the bones for assessment and assembly. It is a painstaking process. (Some might find it a bit ghoulish.) For Nate, this prep is just part of the process. And the results are breathtaking. Where else might you find a skeletal cobra battling a skeletal mongoose, with skeletal grizzlies, wolves, and impalas looking on? Few people on this planet could lay claim to such a magnificent life work.

Lyndsay, my daughter, is far better known as Mrs. Hart, the teacher. She is posted at Mt. Hall, the northern-most school in Idaho. There is a forested slope to the rear and farms to the front and not much else. I can’t imagine the work is easy as there are too many kids, too little support and a remorseless bureaucracy that chips away at the ideals it allegedly supports.

Mrs. Hart might suspect that a number of parents want the school to fix their family problems. These kids might be violent or withdrawn. They might lack a hat, sandwich, or self-esteem. This is not in Mrs. Hart’s job description. It is front and center in her class-room every day.

Idaho is pro-gun, pro-life, pro-mining, pro-logging, pro-heterosexual, and pro-white. The state might be more pro-potato than pro-education. Mrs. Hart notices this but thinks local. These kids are her neighbors. At Mt. Hall School, a teacher is a community leader. In the absence of stores, government offices, and churches the classroom is a community outpost. Mrs. Hart is the mayor of this tiny, roiling village. She sets the rules, mediates disputes, allocates resources, curses the budget, dispenses with hugs, and paints the trim. And there are days when she teaches. It all works because Mrs. Hart leans in on the work and leans on a community of caring colleagues that understand this immense challenge.

She takes a big deep breath in June when the buses roll away and her summer begins. It is not long before Mrs. Hart is back, hanging posters, painting walls, repairing desks, and making ready. The river of kids flow without end. They leave and then return, bringing tales of high school, jobs, and new places. Mrs. Hart remains a north-star, a fixed point of navigation on their journey. Her work in the classroom is just a beginning. Mrs. Hart creates an impact that ripples across time and place.

And there is Maddie, my granddaughter. Somewhere in the tangled chain of genetics, Maddie received the water gene. Her season starts with ice out, and ends when the ice edges back in.

To witness Maddie in the water is to witness Brady at the line of scrimmage. Mastery, affinity, and joy come together. Unlike her mom, Maddie won’t be a state swimming champ. Swimming is not about purpose. It is about simplification and joy. No thought is given to water being too cold, sun being too bright, or better things to do. For Maddie, it is the moment, a chance to bring curiosity, energy, and inventiveness to her natural stage.

Watching Maddie promotes a realization. The Compound has guiding principles. It is exploration without fear, curiosity without constraint, and the simple joys of freedom. Kids aren’t closeted and adults don’t hover. Bruises, cuts, and stings are considered an emblem, not a consequence. Wyatt can traverse peaks and Maddie can stretch out with the trout. Eyes are watchful, but guiding words come in questions rather than orders. Up in the northern reaches of Boundary County, the horizons are far-reaching in every sense of the word.

Camping With Sixteen Year Old Boys

August 1, 2017   The three boys were tethered together, heads bent towards a small object. Behind them, a pond was jiggered by a strong breeze. Around them sturdy maples shifted in the same air. Only the phone existed in this moment. It is the reality of our world. Sixteen year old boys aren’t likely to shift their reality simply because they find themselves in a world of forests, ponds, loons. They aren’t enthralled by the family of Mergansers or the nifty tautline hitch holding the tarp tight against the breeze.

As lovers of the wild, we are gospel-spreaders. With ardor in full sail, we expound on what we know and see. What we don’t see are the shifting eyes and disinterested body language of others. We forget the elemental rule of outdoor leisure: let boys be boys. They will ask if they want to know. They will try if they want to learn. Boy-learning evolves from goofing around, overcoming fear, and playful experimentation. It has to be fun and self-chosen. If it is important it is retained. Otherwise, they move on.

Ultimately, it is about the experience, the collection of memories, the stuff talked about, and the sense of being unbound. An over-engineered experience, heavy on structure and lecture sends them to the tent. Turning them loose, scaring the shit out of them with tales, and providing alluring food and drink gets their interest. If you are really lucky they ask about doing it all again.