Egan’s book is a little frustrating, though. As his (or his publisher’s) subtitle suggests, the book can’t decide if it’s the story of how Theodore Roosevelt and his forester Gifford Pinchot started the American system of forest reserves (and its guardian agency, the U.S. Forest Service) or the story of the Big Burn in and around the Bitterroot Mountains along the Idaho-Montana state line.
The former story (split across the book’s long and somewhat meandering first section and a shorter, quicker ending section) is interesting, and resonates now, at a moment when misguided public servants in Washington and throughout the West think it’s high time to sell off public lands to private interests – and not to the homesteaders who tried to colonize the Bitterroot forests at the turn of the last century. Roosevelt, typically, comes off as a heroic figure, right up to the point that he loses the three-way 1912 election. Pinchot is more complex – a visionary, a conservationist, a millionaire, a jerk – and more interesting for that complexity.
Neither Teddy nor G.P. figures in the story of the Big Burn, though, and it’s the fire itself – a natural disaster of Biblical proportions – that stars in the book, especially in the middle section, when Egan grippingly describes the origins and spread of the conflagration. Thanks to an unusually dry summer, some bad weather, and the inadvertent creation of an infinite amount of tinder by the Forest Service’s policy of fighting all fires, the Big Burn ironically defied the Forest Service’s efforts to fight it. Over the two days it raged, the fire laid waste to millions of acres of backcountry forest, destroyed several towns (not all of which were rebuilt), and killed 80-some people – not as many as might have been expected given the fire’s scale and scope.
All that is to say that the fire restored a massive swath of the American West. Its elemental power could not be resisted, only accepted or escaped. Some who accepted the fire did so against their will and tragically, dying in a variety of horrifying ways that Egan outlines in some of the book’s more compelling and terrifying passages. And some who accepted the fire survived, though often after suffering permanent injuries. Egan movingly describes several survivors’ unsuccessful attempts to obtain aid from the federal government. He does not, though, describe the forest’s own rejuvenation, which left me hanging. I wanted to read more about how the Bitterroot forests grew back, what they looked like ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred years after the fire – a period when the USFS managed or mis-managed them for the benefit, offer, or big lumber companies whose effects on the land were apparently as bad or worse than the fire.
That the Western forests (and those in the South and East as well as in Alaska) were preserved or at least managed for the good of the country is what, I guess, the subtitle means, and so I guess that Egan does achieve that goal: showing how the calamity of the Big Burn focused conservationists’ energies on arguing, more or less successfully, that at least some of America’s lands needed to be held in common for the nation’s good. That’s a battle that we’re still fighting.
Heading out from the Chick Creek checkpoint, I felt good. I was eager for the next leg of the course, which I had ridden in the other direction during my two attempts at the 200k course. I remembered loving the innumerable long views up and especially down the forested mountainsides and finding the trail not too hard. I encountered a few 200k racers as they worked their way to the checkpoint, and was passed after a few miles by Perry and Josh, two good guys from Spearfish, S.D., who had been at the checkpoint with me. They were having a good time, and pulled away from me pretty easily.
I was trying not to push too hard, fighting the urge to go all out – an urge that has led at more than one race to a huge slowdown after the rest and refreshment of the checkpoint wears off. This more steady approach helped me cover the first seven miles of this section, and keep moving well as I started to climb toward the more challenging trail that would go to West Yellowstone. And the views did not disappoint: I stopped more than once to goggle at the spectacular vistas of the mountainsides patched with stands of lodgepole pines and open fields of white snow. Above, a cloudless blue sky. Twenty degrees Fahrenheit. Perfect winter.
10, 12, 14 miles from the checkpoint, I had little to do but ride and think about how I was riding. Mentally, I was fine: thinking clearly, remembering to eat and drink, reading the trail well. Psychologically, the same: enjoying myself, thinking positive thoughts, looking forward to discovering whatever was around the bend – and to facing the bigger challenges later. Physically, too, good: feeling no aches or pains even in places that had hurt last night (back muscles, knees), and especially feeling no real fatigue. I had the sense that I was moving slower than I had overnight, but my average speed was still well ahead of the where I needed to be to finish the race by the cutoff. In short, I felt good for having been riding 20 hours and 90 miles.
Despite all that good feeling, somewhere in the stretch, the fatigue of having been riding for 90 miles and 20 hours (not to mention having been awake for thirty) caught up to me. Very unlike the familiar feeling of nodding off, which wells up from inside, this came on as an irresistible external pressure to sleep. Mindful of the rule that racers cannot sleep on the trail (where snowmachiners could run them over), I looked for and found a little spot off to the side of the trail: a gentle slope between two lodgepole pines, corrugated not long before by some sledder. Without really thinking, I propped the Buffalo in the deep snow alongside the trail, pulled my sleeping pad off the front of the bike, and threw the pad down in the snowy spot. I shrugged off my hydration pack and draped it over the bike’s handlebars, then lay down on the pad. A second later, I woke up, chilled but refreshed. Twenty minutes had passed. As I pulled myself back together, a snowmachine approached. I raised a hand to the driver – Salsa’s Kid Riemer! He hopped off the sled, already shooting pictures and asking how the race was going. I told him that I had just had a little nap, and that I felt good. He commented on my upper lip, which I’d been ignoring since the checkpoint, and repeated what I’d heard at the checkpoint about the attrition up front. He guessed that only ten riders were still riding, and none of the pre-race favorites.
This heartened and surprised me, just as it had at the checkpoint. Had the night been that hard? Recombobulated, I climbed back on the Buffalo, said my goodbye to Kid, and headed up the trail. The little bit of extra mental and physical energy provided by the nap put me in a reflective frame of mind, and I concluded that though I wouldn’t pass up the chance to ride any section of the Fat Pursuit course again under less strenuous circumstances, I would probably choose this one if I could – any easy daylong out-and-back jaunt from Island Park. Someday!
The undulating trail was wide and white but far from uniform. Snowmachine tracks – the skis and the treads – covered almost all of it, but dozens of big and small snow boulders had rolled down off the slope to the left. Small softball-sized ones only rolled a few feet onto the trail. Bigger ones – soccer balls, beach balls – made it halfway across, into my path down the middle of the track. I enjoyed riding over some of them, feeling the Buffalo’s tires break them in half. A small amusement.
Around one bend, I saw a cluster of riders ahead. I assumed that Josh and Perry were among them, but when I approached, several sledders broke away and rode their machines down into a big bowl, leaving two bikers. I caught them and we aid out hellos. I didn’t recognize either of them, but Graham had started the 200 mile race with me, and Kellie had started the 200 kilometer race that morning. We rode together until we reached the big turn to the north, toward West Yellowstone. They stopped there, Graham lying down in the snow for a nap while Kellie had a snack.
I pushed on, remembering how hard this trail had been during my first attempt at the Fat Pursuit in 2014: a soft, ungroomed mess that I had not been able to ride for more than a few yards at a time. Today, the trail was firm and smooth, easy to ride even as it tipped upwards. As my computer’s elevation reading went up, though, the sun went down, though. The trail turned light blue, then gray, then black except where my headlamp and headlight shined. 5:00 p.m. came and went. I’d been riding for 24 hours.
Not being able to see much of the trail now, I just rode toward the yellow spots of light in front of me. Eat, drink, stretch, occasionally hop off to walk a tougher section. I crossed from Idaho into Montana. Somewhere on the climb, I caught or was caught by another rider, Greg, who said he was a friend of JayP’s. The surprise of seeing another rider – and especially of having more light on the trail – was a nice diversion from the trail and the trees. As we rode, I filed away details about him: his Canadian accent, his beautiful blue Kona Wo fatbike, his use of a silver beer growler for water. “That’s a good idea,” I told him. “Yeah, it holds a lot of water, but it all tastes like beer!”
Our trail emerged from the woods onto a high ridge – the South Plateau – and exposed us to a sharp wind, blowing from the west across our path. Finger drifts reached across the track, and here and there, the wind created weird patterns that looked like runes. Getting tired again, I knew that they weren’t letters, but I tried anyhow to decipher them. Though the drifting had obscured any snowmobile or bike tracks, some small animal was traveling just ahead of us, leaving a line of crisp paw prints the size of half dollars. We were leaving footprints, too, walking about as much as we were riding. I promised Greg that we would soon hit the faster sections that descended to West Yellowstone, but these downhills kept not arriving. After Greg pulled away from me at one point, I caught him as he prepared to bivvy, saying that he needed some sleep. I assured him that we were not far from West, and the second checkpoint, where I’d already decided to get some good sleep – or maybe I begged him to keep going with me.
However that conversation went, he did get back on his bike, and sure enough, we finally reached the downhill run to West. Doing 4, 5, 7 mph was marvelous. Greg pulled away from me again, a red human form, then a gray shape, then just a blinking rear light, then nothing but a fresh track in the snow. From my computer’s mileage reading, I could tell we were within a few miles of West Yellowstone now. A few signs appeared, some presenting miles-to-go numbers that seemed absurdly high. Gates barring entry to this or that road. The red light on a radio tower south of town. A dim yellow skyglow from the town itself. The descent ended with a straight trail toward the hotels and cabins at the south edge of West Yellowstone. Another rider suddenly passed us. Greg sped up to ride with him. Lagging and feeling really tired, I took a bad route to the checkpoint. What should have been a quick zip-zip ride over the streets turned into a tour of the eastern half of the town.
Finally, at 2:30 a.m., I pulled into the open garage where a few other bikes were resting. I leaned the Buffalo against an open spot on the wall, grabbed a few items off the bike, and headed up the steps into the checkpoint.
The volunteers gave me a hearty welcome. A number of other racers were there too, including Greg and the guy who had passed us as we reached town – my friend Jon, who said that he was going to stop there, that reaching West had been his goal. The living room was full of sleeping riders, some of whom, the volunteers said, had also decided to stop. They asked me what I was planning to do. I told them that I was going to take a nap and then continue. A photo by Jon’s girlfriend, who had been waiting for him at the checkpoint, suggests why they seemed surprised to hear this:
Taking off my vest and shell and hats, I used hot water to melt off my icebeard and sat down to eat a bowl of soup and two grilled-cheese sandwiches. I finished the soup, but halfway through the first sandwich, I realized I needed that nap. The volunteers pointed me downstairs. I decided to take a 90-minute nap to get through one full sleep cycle. I set my phone’s alarm (thank god you can just tell Siri what to do!) and crashed into sleep. After at least one major coughing fit, the alarm sounded. Feeling awful, I decided to grab 20 more minutes of sleep. When that alarm buzzed, I vaulted out of bed, feeling great. It was a little after 5:00 – 36 hours into the race, and one hour before the cutoff time to leave the checkpoint.
Back upstairs, I found different volunteers on duty and more racers at the table. Everyone was quitting or had quit except Graham and Kellie, whom I’d last seen in the afternoon as we turned north toward West. A volunteer asked me if I was planning to continue. “Yes! I feel good!” His eyes widened. “Really? Okay! Good. I’ll tell the race director.” I tried to hustle through everything I needed to do. Two more bowls of soup. A handful of gels to stash on my bike. Hot water in my pack, along with 2 or maybe 10 hydration tablets. New batteries in my headlamp and headlight. Last, a check of the forecast – “1 to 2 inches of snow during the day,” a volunteer told me – and directions back to the course – “Just turn right on the street here and keep going. The street turns into the trail.” 5:58! Time to go. I climbed into the Buffalo and pedaled out of the garage, turned right, almost instantly left town.
For a few miles, the course headed due north, between the West Yellowstone airport and the highway that runs up to Bozeman. I could hear an occasional car through the trees, but steadily I moved away from the road and reentered the black, silent woods. The riding was easy, and pedaling again – after three hours at the checkpoint- was comfortable and familiar. The sleep had been effective, providing physical rest as well as mental rejuvenation. I wasn’t sure exactly when the sun would come up, but I knew that I’d get a boost from the sunshine, and that the boost would help me in turn get up and over Mount Two Top, the 7,880-foot mountain that loomed as the next big challenge on the course. And the last big one, for after Two Top was a long downhill and flat run to the third checkpoint.
As I turned east off onto the trail that ran along the southern shore of the Madison Arm of Hebgen Lake, I checked my average speed. I was still ahead of the pace needed to reach the third checkpoint by the cutoff time of 6 p.m. – about twelve hours into the future – and thus also ahead of the pace needed to finish the race by midnight or a little later. That would mean a total race time of 55 hours or so. Longer than I expected, but feasible if my legs held up. Certainly, I had enough food and water to go that long.
Winding over these flat tracks, I was aware suddenly the sun had come up behind me, lending pale blue and gray tones to everything. At first, I could hardly see the trail in the flat light, but gradually the light sharpened enough that I could see the trail and, across the Madison Arm, the curving banks of Horse Butte – notable to me as one of the few places outside of Yellowstone National Park into which the park’s bison can safely migrate. I hoped to see some buffalo over there, but didn’t. On my side of the lake, a few trees, some shrubs and brush, acres of open country. I wasn’t moving fast but I was moving steadily, now mostly west, not needing to dismount for the few inclines or the occasional snowdrifts. I found another racer’s tracks and tried to follow them. The trail bent south, past mile markers, through an idle campground, and back into thicker trees. Above the trees, Two Top, maybe 10 miles away in gray sunlight.
The mile markers ticked by. I crossed Highway 20 (the finish was 22 miles away by car from that spot) and rode a short spur trail toward Two Top Loop, which would go up, over, and down the mountain. Coming off this spur to turn toward Two Top – now looming dead ahead, green-black with trees but bare on the summits – I saw ahead of me a pack of dogs. Wolves? No, too small. Just as I saw that they were sled dogs, harnessed up and raring to go, their driver shouted to me from off-trail: “Hey, can you do me a big favor?” I stopped. “What is it? I’m in a bike race.” He explained he’d dropped something on the trail and needed me to hold the dogs in place while he retrieved it.
So I dutifully stood there, one foot on the sled’s brake and both hands wrapped around a rope tied to the sled’s chassis, while he sprinted away and then returned with a lost shovel. “Thanks, man. You’re a lifesaver. Have a good ride!” He took the rope from me, tossed it on the sled, pulled up the brake, and shouted to the lead dogs. They ripped off down the trail, throwing up plumes of snow behind the sled. I stepped back onto the Buffalo and pointed myself at Two Top.
I had an unsophisticated strategy for getting over Two Top – and into the last 35 miles of the race: to climb the mountain as steadily as possible, going slowly but continuously, and then to attack the descent, making up time so that I reached the flats by mid-afternoon. I reached the foot of the mountain at about 11 a.m., riding as far up the climb as I could before dismounting for what I knew would be a long hike-a-bike session from about 6,600 feet to about 8,000 feet.
1,400 feet of climbing, more or less. I tackled the climb by going 100 feet at a time, more or less, fourteen times, more or less. On some steep pitches, my computer showed me gaining a foot with every step. 100 steps earned 100 feet. More often, I needed to take two or four or even ten steps to climb a foot. And of course, the Buffalo didn’t roll itself up the hill; I had to push it. Sometimes I had my hands on the bars and walked pretty naturally. Other times, I had to lean in, chest almost on the bars. Here and there, I had to put one hand on the stem and one on the seat and push from behind.
Foot by foot, though, we made our way up, encountering a few groups of snowmachiners. One group, heading up, stopped just up the trail from me and, in unison, reached up to activate the GoPros on their helmets. Another group, coming down, slowed and stopped when they saw me. The leader looked at me and shook his head before roaring away again. I only talked to one group of sledders, two guys in U.S. Forest Service jackets who asked jovially how the race was going. I slurped water from my backpack while we chatted, then waved as they headed uphill. The fact that the riders were on different brands of snowmachines bothered me. Shouldn’t the government have a uniform fleet of snowmobiles?
Suddenly, the trail flattened and I saw the sign marking the Continental Divide, the boundary between Montana and Idaho. This spot isn’t the top of Two Top, but I wanted to commemorate the moment. Two tourists were taking pictures of each other at the sign, and I asked them to take one of me, which they obligingly did – without commenting on how much I looked like death warmed up.
I was happy to be on top of Two Top, but the climb had already eaten up a lot of clock. I had about three hours to reach the third checkpoint – just barely feasible, and only possible if I could ride fast on the descent and then hold a good pace on the trails from the far side of the mountain to the checkpoint.
The bad part of Two Top is that the summit is not a peak but a wide ridge, a patchwork of snowfields and stands of trees, with the trail winding every which way. Up here, the snow and the wind turned the trees into the famous “snow ghosts,” some of the most amazing and bizarre sights I’ve ever seen:
I could ride many parts of this flatter section, but now the light flurries that had started as I reached the divide began to intensify. In the fields, the wind whipped the snow at me; in the woods, the snow drifted down. I could not see any bike tracks, and even the snowmachine tracks were nearly obscured. One more group of sleds went past me as I crossed an especially wide meadow, giving me a wide berth and roaring up a steep bank that I knew I would have to walk.
I didn’t know that those helmeted snowmobilers would be the last people I’d see for eight or nine hours. I did know, as reached the slope they had zoomed over, that my Fat Pursuit was over. My average speed had now dipped under the minimum finishing pace, and I had less than three hours to cover almost twenty miles to the checkpoint. With fresh legs and compliant trails, I could meet this challenge. With exhausted legs and snowed-in trails, I could not. I was not going to reach the next checkpoint by the cutoff.
“Fuck fuck FUCK!” I was pissed. I shouted, I stamped my feet, I even felt a couple tears trickle down my cheeks. “I wanted this so bad,” I said out loud, possibly to the Buffalo. The bike didn’t respond. I hauled it up the ramp, through a grove of trees, and out into a wide meadow.
I climbed onto the Buffalo and pointed our front wheel at the trail markers I could see down the trail. In this open area, though, the flurries became a blizzard, raising walls of snow in front of me and obscuring the markers as I rode toward them. The snow under me was uniformly windblown, hiding the edges of the trail as well as any snowmachine or bike tracks.
This was crazy. As crazy a moment as I’d experienced in any fatbike race – and at least as crazy as biking through the forty-below temperatures on Saturday morning, 36 hours before. I thought for a second about whether I was in any danger. I decided I wasn’t. I was warm and dry. I wasn’t too hungry or thirsty, though I’d have gladly accepted anything to eat or drink that I hadn’t been eating and drinking since Friday evening. My legs were heavy, yes, but not sore, and I didn’t even feel tired so much as weary. As my outburst a few minutes before showed, I could still think, and make clear decisions about riding and resting, not just stopping and going as whims struck or my body allowed.
So no I wasn’t in danger, even if I couldn’t see how I was going to get off the mountain. But I was disappointed – that I hadn’t made better time earlier in the race, that I hadn’t gotten further down the course before the snow started, that now I would not finish.
But whatever. I couldn’t do anything about any of that now, but I could try to ride the Buffalo off the mountain and then as far down the trail as possible by 6 p.m. Maybe I could get to the last main junction before the trail turned north to the third checkpoint. Reaching that goal would be worth something.
I stood there for a minute, looking down the mountain, trying to pick out the paired posts that marked the edges of the trail. I could barely see the nearest ones, which were perhaps 20 feet away. I couldn’t seen the next pair at all. With nothing better to do, I dug out my phone and took a picture so I’d always be able to see just how bad the conditions were. Turns out, the phone’s camera was better at finding the posts in the blizzard than my eyes!
I had been racing for almost exactly 48 hours when I took this picture. I knew I could not finish the race as I’d hoped, but I also knew I had a lot of good work to do to get down to some spot where I could “self rescue” by riding back to Island Park or maybe get picked up by one of my cabinmates. I texted my friend Ben to let him know where I was, though he already knew thanks to the online race tracker. I told him I was going to ride and walk as far as I could and then update him.
Climbing back on the Buffalo, I headed down the mountain. We could ride some of the steeper parts, though the drifts made steering difficult. My computer showed that we were steadily losing elevation and approaching the turnoff from the trail over Two Top onto another trail that ran toward Island Park. Ride the downhills, hike-a-bike the intermittent uphills, pedal, walk, pedal, walk. Back into unbroken woods again.
The sky had turned from gray to black again, my third nightfall of the race. I don’t think I’d been aware of any dawn or dusk as it happened, only after it was over. In the dark, the snow kept falling, filling the flatter tracks and slowing me down even more. I crossed back into Montana, then back into Idaho. Montana, Idaho. Sometimes riding, sometimes walking. 6 p.m.
Around 7 p.m., I made the turn off the Two Top trail and onto a trail – Railroad Grade – that I remembered from my two previous races as being fast and fun, an undulating, curvy section that repaid a certain necessary effort with decent speed and the pleasure of riding fast.
I found though that Railroad was not fast this year. From one edge to the other, the trail was snowed in. An inch or two here, three or four inches there. Snow boulders like those I’d seen on Saturday afternoon – 28, 30 hours ago! – had rolled onto this trail too, but here they were points where snowdrifts could grow. I tried to ride or walk around these obstacles, but my body and mind were finally failing. I’d stumble and fall, or oversteer and crash. Getting up, I sipped a little water or tried to eat something. My water was almost gone, though, and every single item of food tasted the same – like sweetened chalk. 8 p.m. More than once, a tree dumped some of its snow on me as I stood on the trail. I wondered if somehow my headlight was causing those snow dumps. My computer died, so I had to remember how to put in fresh batteries.
As tired as I felt, I also felt relieved that I was, for all intents and purposes, done with the race. I just needed to get off the course. Walking and riding and stumbling and weaving, I made my way down Railroad Grade. To my surprise, I now picked out at least two sets of tracks – bike tires and footprints. I wondered who was ahead of me, and if I could catch them. 9 p.m.
My computer showed that I had just a couple miles to the spot where Railroad Grade ended. There, the racecourse went north toward the third checkpoint, eight miles or so away. Looking at my map, though, I could see that continuing straight west for about that same distance would get me out to the highway. I decided to do that. I texted Ben to let him know, then resumed the trudge. Somewhere in this last stretch, I saw ahead of me, smack in the middle of the trail, an LP gas tank, the sort that might sit outside some rural house. I knew that the tank wasn’t really there in front of me, and yet… As I rode closer, it of course vanished. I kept riding, laughing a little to myself at the oddity of that hallucination.
The turn off Railroad. 10 p.m. A bit more walking and riding brought me to the junction where I planned to keep going west. 10:20. I needed longer than I should have to do the math and figure out that I’d been riding for just over 53 hours – minus the two naps. I was very hungry.
Standing at the junction sign, I tried to figure out which way to go. The trail toward the highway did not start right at the signpost, so I started to wander around a little bit, trying to pick it up. My initial foray put me in the middle of a snowfield, up to my waist in snowmachine-churned powder. As I extricated myself, I saw a snowmachine coming down the trail from the north, the direction of the checkpoint. I waved, hoping the driver would see me, stop, and help me get oriented.
The sled wasn’t driven by just anyone, though: it was JayP, out looking for stragglers like me. Just as he had when he pulled me off the course in 2014, he asked, “How are you doing?” I answered honestly: “I’m tired. I’m going to head out to the highway from here, but I can’t find the trail.” He used his headlamp to find it, a freshly groomed track not ten feet from the signpost. “What happened to your lip?” With the tip of my tongue, I touched my lip. Stinging. “I think I might have gotten some frostbite.” Jay nodded. He said that he was going to go find two racers who were ahead of me but had gone off course, and then go back to the third checkpoint to retrieve the only other 200-mile racer, a guy who’d reached and then left the third checkpoint only to tire and return. I said I was going to ride out to the highway, then ride back to Island Park on the road. Jay said that he’d watch the online race tracker and see if he could meet me at the highway instead.
He roared off up the trail. 10:45. I climbed onto the Buffalo, immensely relieved that I knew how things were going to end. The groomed trail was wondrously smooth and firm, and I enjoyed riding the three or four miles toward the highway. Going oh so slowly, I crossed the Henry’s Fork again, a few miles upstream from where we had seen it on Friday night near Harriman State Park.
I began seeing more street signs, so I knew I was getting close to the highway. Up ahead, red tail lights. A bike, or a set of bikes. No, a car. No, a van – Jay’s van. I rolled over a berm left by a snowplow and onto a paved street. Kid Riemer, Jay, and Gary, a volunteer I’d seen at the first checkpoint on Saturday morning, came toward me, congratulating me on my race. I could barely speak, from both emotion and horrific dehydration. They took the Buffalo from me and packed it in the van, then helped me up and into a seat alongside Graham and Kellie.
We talked quietly about the race as Jay drove us back to Pond’s. I didn’t know what to say or think beyond the fact that the Fat Pursuit had been an extraordinary experience, and so much more than I expected in so many ways – duration, intensity, beauty, difficulty. My computer showed 55 hours of riding time and 176 miles covered.
Hunched there in the van as we hummed along the highway, I knew I needed to do the race again in 2018. I just needed to go faster, so the race wouldn’t take so long. First, though, food and drink and sleep.
Carleton College was founded on October 12, 1866 – exactly 150 years ago today. Actually, that’s not quite accurate: the institution was founded as “Northfield College” on 10/12/1866; five years later, its trustees renamed the college in honor of a key donor.
I’m glad I wore my sesquicentennial button that day!
Quirks like Schiller and birthday videos remind me of other ways that Carleton’s culture has bound me – and, I hope, others who love the institution – to the college. I couldn’t possibly list all the examples that have come up in the eleven years that I’ve worked at 1 North College Street (7.33% of the college’s lifetime!), but for me, the deal was sealed in summer 2006, when the college held a farewell party for a wonderful but falling-down piece of outdoor sculpture called Twigonometry. (Anyone interested in public art should check out the gallery of photos of the piece in its prime.) Twigonometry stood gorgeously and mysteriously at the north end of the Bald Spot, where kids like toddler Julia could wander through its chambers and arches, swirling in an organically alien way:
What kind of place holds a farewell party for a four-year-old sculpture made from branches and twigs? The kind of place that I hope lasts another 150 years.
On our family trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota, I was – but should not have been – surprised by the volume of stuff related to George Armstrong Custer, famous for getting killed with all his men at the Battle of Little Bighorn by a massive Native American army that was, among other goals, fighting the encroachment of white settlers in places like the Black Hills – Ȟe Sápa in Lakota.
As it happens, I’d seen T.J. Stiles’ new biography of Custer at the bookstore back home in Northfield, so I picked it up, eager to learn more about this famous figure, whom I only knew as a Civil War officer and an Indian fighter. Understanding Custer as more than those two roles is Stiles’s task and accomplishment.
Stiles expertly structures the book around a series of “trials” (including several actual trials: courts martial for various offenses) that Custer precipitated and endured over the course of his full but short life. (Custer was only 36 when he was killed and mutilated at what the Indians called “Greasy Grass.”) Beyond Custer’s undeniable skill as a battlefield commander in both the Civil War and in various theaters of the Indian Wars, the man was, in brief, a bastard: a vicious disciplinarian, a philandering husband, an inveterate gambler, a preening dandy, a failed stock speculator, a Confederate sympathizer, an scheming careerist, an out-and-out racist…
Stiles makes clear that in all these things, Custer was both a product of his times and a producer of them – as everyone is, though not usually to such an extreme and often appalling degree. Custer shaped and was shaped by a rapidly-changing America where what we might call a rugged individual (at least if he was white and male) was being submerged in an increasingly sophisticated, urban, and anonymous society, one more familiar to us, 150 years after Custer’s ignominious death, than the one into which the man had been born.
By the end of the book, I at least was eager to see Custer get what he had coming. And there Stiles dodges, holding Little Bighorn at arm’s length by examining the disaster through an official inquiry into its cause. Fittingly, part of that cause was Custer’s impetuosity and bloodlust: he wanted to exterminate the Indians whom he saw impeding the rightful expansion of the United States. Instead, the Indians forestalled that expansion, at least a little, by exterminating Custer’s force – and in a neat trick of history, assuring that he would never be forgotten.
I think the first time I really liked a song of his was when I started hearing “Raspberry Beret” on the radio while traveling by bus to a Catholic youth camp in Wisconsin in 1985. Prince was big by then, and I knew some of the classics off “Purple Rain” and earlier albums, but “Raspberry Beret” stood out. “If it was warm/she would be wear much more” seemed so *dirty* to twelve-year-old me. And to this day I sing “In through the out door out door” whenever I see a door marked for exit only. Wait, was that line dirty too?
Second story: On New Year’s Eve 1998, Shannon and I went to a party thrown by my grad school friend Michael and his then-girlfriend Julie. It was probably the first time I’d ever had whiskey – knowing Michael, probably Maker’s Mark. It hit me like a ton of bricks.
At midnight, I was still tipsy when Julie put Prince’s “1999” on the stereo, because can there be a more perfect moment than NYE 1998 to sing along to “I’m gonna party like it’s nineteen ninety-nine”? No, there cannot. Listening to the song, my buzzing mind went back to that bus trip in 1985. Two loops of my life tied together with Prince.
Vivi’s fourth-grade social studies project was a “report” on one of the United States of America. Kids could choose among various forms for this report, and she chose to make a “float,” which is in principle and reality a pretty cool alternative to a poster or even a paper. For whatever reason, she selected Idaho as her topic, which was nice since – after two trips out there – I feel like I know a little bit about the Gem State. It’s called the Gem State, for instance.
Predictably, the effort of assembling this float was a bit overwhelming for my smart little perfectionist. Some tears were shed on the way to making the final product resemble the image in her head. I tried to avoid doing much to help her, and wound up mostly just scaling back some of her overly ambitious ideas. But the final product was pretty neat, displaying all the required info (capital, date of joining the Union, nickname, state bird, etc.) as well as some other cool stuff about Idaho and a very realistic paper potato.
I’m finally reading *Danny the Champion of the World* by Roald Dahl, which both family and friends have said is great. It is, not least because the book includes paragraphs like this one, which stopped me as cold as an unrideable hill in the middle of a fatbike race.
For several months now, the girls have been encouraging me to read some Neil Gaiman books. Okay, maybe *luring* me into etc. etc.
Earlier this week I finally picked up *Coraline*, expecting to read a few chapters before bed. Three hours later I finished it, thoroughly creeped out.
After giving myself a few days to recover, I started *The Graveyard Book* on Friday evening. I was able to stop reading at midnight, which gave me the pleasures of some creepy dreams that night and of enjoying a little whiskey while finishing it tonight. If anything, Bod’s ordeals were even scarier than Coraline’s, though nothing can top this exchange between Coraline and her eye-buttoned other mother:
It’s pretty intense, watching the girls spar at tae kwon do practice. It’s way more intense watching them spar with each other. No children were harmed in the making of this video, though two got very sweaty.
I couldn’t resist this meme-y questionnaire that was floating around Facebook, and luckily the girls were into it, too. No real surprises here, which is probably good! (Neither one mentioned beer in any response!)
J = Julia, age 11, sixth grade
G = Genevieve, age 9, fourth grade
1. What is something I always say to you?
J: “How was your day?”
G: “I love you!”
2. What makes me happy?
3. What makes me sad?
J: Not biking
G: When I’m sad.
4. How do I make you laugh?
J: “By doing weird stuff.”
G: “By tickling and being super strange.”
5. What was I like as a child?
J: A fat baby
6. How old am I?
7. How tall am I?
8. What is my favorite thing to do?
G: Bike and snuggle with me.
9. What do I do when you’re not around?
10. What am I really good at?
G: Cheering me up
11. What is something I’m not good at?
J: Punishing Genevieve
G: Getting mad [“You never get angry.”]
12. What do I do for a job?
G: Grant writer at Carleton
13. What is my favorite food?
14. What do you enjoy doing with me?
**JULIA**: What a great morning: Muffins and art and snagging the window chairs at Blue Monday. It made me appreciate how pretty and quiet Northfield is on a Sunday morning. The red Raleigh outside the window had “Townie”written all over it. Northfield is a bike town, even in January. I have to admit, that bike is nice, but the owner would get more admiring glances if she rode a Salsa Beargrease. 🙂
A perfect morning always starts with a sketch, and a beautiful Northfield scene in the background lit a match of ideas. And so my drawing began there. The bike immediately caught my interest. It was my kind of challenging sketch: complex and not too colorful. Of course, I would have put more effort into the art (although I put plenty into this one) if it were a green and black Salsa Beargrease!
I was happy on Saturday to race again, this time in the inaugural Snow Crush event at River Bend Nature Center, a gorgeous and well-run educational preserve on about 750 acres of prairie, woods, and river floodplain in Faribault, just south of Northfield. I’ve been to RBNC many times, most often for school field trips but also just to enjoy the landscape, which is pretty great for walks and mountain biking.
The Snow Crush races were RBNC’s first foray into bike racing, so the center’s staff worked with the local MTB club, Cannon River Offroad Cycling and Trails (CROCT). Together they put on a hell of a good event, including presentations on winter cycling, vendor booths, beer from a local taphouse and coffee from a local roaster, demo bikes for adults and kids, and two races on a great five-mile loop – a one-lap race for "beginners" and a three-lap race for "experts." Notably, all the race registration fees went to RBNC and CROCT, which was pretty great.
I went down to the race with my friend Dan, a good athlete who was eager to race his brand-new fatbike. We formed up at 1:00 sharp for the expert race, looking into a westerly breeze that was taking the -1° F air temp down to something like -10°. Though I didn’t know how my legs would feel five days after the big ride at Tuscobia, I couldn’t resist going out pretty hot when the race started. 200 meters later, I knew my buuuuuuuurning legs were not in fact ready for race pace!
I pulled back a little and focused on a sustainable effort as we left the short opening pavement section and hit the snow. The track was in good shape everywhere except a few corners, so I was able to ride pretty smoothly throughout the first lap. A couple guys went by me, but they didn’t get too far ahead, and then one took a spectacular crash when he missed a turn. I avoided laying it down and took note of spots where I bobbled, trying to remember them for the second and third laps. The best bit of the lap was a set of downhill switchbacks that could be descended at a decent speed and didn’t require much braking. My friend Jim Wellbrock was shooting photos at a choice spot in this section, which meant that I got a rare photo of myself riding.
Lap one went by quickly, despite a couple headwind sections, and ended with a fast run down the hill we’d started on and then quick whip through the finish area. I saw the leaders going out on their second lap and gave a wave to a couple friends. Heading out for lap two, I felt much better – like a bike racer. Back on the snow after the pavement stretch again, I could see another rider in front of me – black jacket, dayglo orange and pink bike. Whenever I could, I counted the seconds between the moment Orange passed a certain spot and when I did.
The gap was 30-some seconds when I first noticed him, but crept down into the high 20s when we crossed the bridge over the Straight River (a spot where racers could be traveling in both directions, requiring my friend Todd to do some traffic control). The gap was in the low 20s on the only real climb in the back section, then the teens as we reached a long straightaway at the far end of the loop. I was jazzed. Orange got away a bit on the fun switchbacks, but when we came back toward the front section, he was close enough that I could read the text on his jacket. As we crossed the train tracks that seemed to be about three-quarters of the way through the lap, Orange was five seconds up. I took note of the time on my computer so that I’d have a sense for the last lap of how many minutes were left to race from that same point. I got onto his wheel on the long gentle uphill that came right after the RR tracks, a moment that CROCT maestro Griff Wigley captured.
I sat in for a few minutes as we rolled toward the lap zone, recovering, then went around Orange just as we crossed the lap line – and immediately bobbled in soft snow on the next corner. "Sorry!" I called back to him. I dunno if he had to put a foot down, but he was right behind me as we rode up the pavement section for the last time and onto the snow. Checking my computer, I saw that I’d hit the RR tracks about seven minutes before, so I figured that a hard push from that spot at the end of the lap would mean maybe six minutes of riding to the finish line.
The fact of being on the last lap was motivation enough to press a bit right there. Maybe I could catch the next guy in front of us! I bombed a fun straight downhill that came immediately after the turn onto the snow and tried to hammer the subsequent flat straightaway. Zooming through a very low tunnel under the railroad tracks and then through a gorgeous stand of cottonwoods, I could sense that Orange was close, but not too close – I couldn’t see his shadow. Over the river, up the climb, down a drop to a little bit of prairie, back up a gradual slope to the far-side straightaway, and then through the switchbacks again. My back was getting sweaty, finally, and I could feel the familiar sense of constriction on my cheeks where an icebeard was forming.
Glancing back from the bottom of the switchbacks, I couldn’t see Orange anymore, but I didn’t trust my glance. Maybe he was still there, and I somehow didn’t see him or his insanely bright bike. Going over the bridge across the Straight for the last time, I got up out of the saddle to fight a little harder against the headwind. Some softening track slowed me down a little as I rode along the edge of an open area, but then the trail took me onto some singletrack through woods that I didn’t recognize, even slightly! Bizarre to have ridden it twice in the previous hour but have no memory of it.
That mystery section ended in sight of the railroad crossing. Six minutes! Up out of the saddle again. Up the grade where I’d latched onto Orange. Through some twisty stuff, including a couple soft spots where I managed to find good lines. Looking up, I could see the volunteer at the spot where we jumped onto the trail back to the finish area. I figured I had two minutes of riding left, all of which I could do standing in my biggest gear. It felt great to really be hammering – first up a small incline and then down the hill where we’d started the race. I slowed to take the last turn, a sharp mushy thing, then got up again to sprint myself to the finish line. I crossed in 1:22, good for tenth place – a very satisfying result given how I’d spent the previous weekend.
Cooling off, I hung out for a bit in the River Bend interpretive center, watching other racers finish and running out to cheer my friend Dan when he came through – happy, tired, and well icebearded. The overall atmosphere was great, with smiling racers, warm volunteers and sponsors, free-flowing beer and coffee, and some spectacular bikes. It was easy to feel like I’d spent the afternoon doing just the right thing.
Wednesday, I watched Jumbo Wild, an accomplished and moving documentary about the ongoing fight to keep a developer from building a massive ski resort in a pristine valley in the Canadian Rockies. The place took its wonderfully odd and fitting name from a failed late-1800s mine.
The film is gorgeous, full of jaw-dropping vistas of the mountains in all four seasons. And while from the first the filmmakers are arguing against this particular project – which would, let’s be honest, ruin any wildness in the Jumbo Valley – they are also pretty good at respecting the perspective of the developer. (They are markedly less respectful of Canadian provincial and national government officials who seem weirdly eager to advance the project almost no matter what.)
Against that perspective, the film advances at least* three separate but interconnected points of opposition. White Canadian locals don’t want to see big money come in and permanently alter the valley where they live. Scientists – represented principally by a grizzly-bear researcher – think that the project would irreparably damage the region’s ecology, fragmenting one of the last big chunks of wilderness in the Canadian West. And members of First Nations oppose the project for the way it would literally profane a sacred space where they’ve lived for generations.
All of these views are woven artfully and engagingly together in a film that concludes just where you thought it would: in a vigorous call to defend wild places. Jumbo Wild a wonderful film that anyone interested in wild areas will love.
* I say “at least” because a) the film is sponsored by an outdoor-clothing company with a vested interest in wildlands recreation in places like Jumbo and b) the landscape is present in the film in such a way that the mountains, snow, and trees offers powerful opposition of their own.
Tonight we watched Julianne Moore’s Oscar vehicle, Still Alice. The film is very much worth your time. Playing an Alzheimer’s patient in cruelly early decline, Moore was outrageously good, of course; she won the Academy Award for her performance. The movie is a complete tearjerker, and tears were jerked on our sofa. But I was surprised that end of the movie was much less depressing than I expected, given both the movie’s plot and much of the material to that point.
Though very much a family drama (albeit one in which the central character gradually dissipates), the film handled technology in an interestingly compelling way. Apple laptops and phones are everywhere. Alice uses her laptop to talk via video with her daughter and to deliver lectures in her day job as a professor at Columbia. (Though: the idea that she would be teaching a lecture course? ha! And that her lecture slides would project automatically? ha ha!)
Even more than her MacBook Air, Alice loves her iPhone. She plays Words with Friends on it against another daughter, she gets in trouble with her husband when she doesn’t answer it, she tries to make it part of a suicide scheme, and she finally misplaces it and then never really picks it up again – her electronic brain gone like her actual mind. The parallel was quite affecting and humanizing, and testament to the power of the story.
Bernd Heinrich’s Homing Instinct was a great book to read in the early fall, when Northfield’s skies are full of geese and ducks wending their way south – after long, leisurely stops in our ponds and creeks. The book’s subtitle – “meaning and mystery in animal migration” – suggests that Heinrich will explore animals’ instinctual seasonal movements, and indeed much of the book does deal with that topic. In the first section – “Homing” – Heinrich tells staggering stories about how various birds, insects, and mammals find their way over distances that are extraordinary on both their own scales (bees that thoroughly master acres and acres of forest and field) and on global ones (eels that breed in the Sargasso Sea but live most of their lives in coastal waters in North America and Europe).
The science that underlies human understanding of these animals’ movements is amazing, but the animals’ own comprehension of the world is far more so. Loggerhead turtles apparently navigate incredibly long distances by reading tiny changes in the earth’s magnetism. I was impressed by the Heinrich’s stories, by scientists’ efforts to comprehend animal migration, and by the animals’ own skills, but I was also depressed by the realization that by wrecking the planet, we humans are directly and indirectly destroying animals (and of course plants and other kinds of life) that are so much more complex and mysterious that we do or perhaps ever will know. (Here my wonderings ran to bison, which in their herds before the Great Slaughter may or may not have migrated seasonally or on another schedule across hundreds or thousands of miles of North America.)
The book’s subtitle is misleading though in that much of the second half of the book concerns animals’ homes, not their movements. Here, Heinrich deals with all kinds of birds’ and insects’ nesting behavior and structures as well as a few mammals (pointing out that very few “higher” mammals actually build homes!). The center of this second section – “Home-making and Maintaining” – is a long, engrossing description of Heinrich’s own efforts to understand the spiders that lived in his Maine cabin. Their web homes are both shelters and tools, which – as Heinrich shows – the spiders used in sophisticated and, frankly, terrifying ways. This chapter – like the “Sun, Stars, and Magnetic Compass” chapter in the first section – are standout natural-history essays.
In the book’s third and last section, Heinrich changes register dramatically, writing at length about his own “homing instincts” for what sounds like a gorgeous patch of Maine woods. I was at first put off by this change from animal to human life, but gradually, Heinrich shows how his drive to live there, and not somewhere else, is continuous with the instincts and drives of the animals he’d discussed earlier in the book. This section is a lovely way to bring the book home.