Companionship in extremis

(Warning: contains confession of possible craziness.)

In a short essay on the Adventure Journal website, Erin Windauer describes the occasional but not rare sense of athletes, adventurers, and others that they are in the presence of someone or something which is benevolent or reassuring but which isn’t actually *there*.

Ernest Shackleton’s epic tale of survival after the sinking of his ship the Endurance in Antarctic waters is well known, but less known is what he and two of his companions experienced after they made their way by open boat, above, to South Georgia Island and trekked across to a whaling station to find salvation. Each of the three felt the presence of someone with them: “During that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia,” wrote Shackleton in his memoir, “it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”

Though I don’t quite see the link between this sensation and the lab experiments summarized in Windauer’s piece, I can’t stop thinking about the phenomenon, which is one I’ve experienced in some of my winter races.

I didn’t even know that my feeling of being… joined? guided? accompanied? was a thing; I just chalked it up to being hungry, cold, and exhausted. And yes, all those stressors might have contributed to my sense that *something* was with me while I rode and walked off Two Top on January 8, thirty-six hours into the Fat Pursuit.  

But still: to have that experience in common with Shackleton is strangely satisfying.

Wicked River Read

For my birthday, Shannon gave me Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, by the late Chicago writer Lee Sandlin. The book is best described as a history of the Lower Mississippi, focusing on the chaos and violence of the first century of white efforts to settle the river. As a Minnesotan, I was a little disappointed that the book didn’t include anything substantial on the river north of St. Louis – our own saint-named river town has a crazy history that’s worth knowing, as does its bigger, more serious sibling. (Sandlin does mention that the river, like its source state, gets its name from its native denizens – in this case, an Ojibwe term – Mizu-ziipi – for “very big river.”)

But man, does Sandlin make the most of his focus on the lower Mississippi, telling no end of amazing stories about the river as a highway, as a border, as a battlefield, and as a natural wonder. In a set piece early in the book (pp. 12-16), he sails with the reader from the evergreen forests around Lake Itasca down the infamously winding river to the trackless swamps near the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a wonderful passage, as evocative and mournful of the best John McPhee. What a journey that would have been in 1800 or 1700. To have seen the bison herds right up along the river!

In describing the river’s many faces and uses, Sandlin focuses – as the title suggests – on the untamed nature and people that, he says, characterized the Mississippi before the Civil War. Among others, he discusses pirates, traders, gamblers, soldiers, settlers, missionaries, sinners, and both the slaveowners and the enslaved – most of whom encountered or caused trouble, if not disaster, on the river. A long section on lower-river slaveowners’ terror about slave rebellions rings some familiarly contemporary notes of violence and paranoia.

The chapter on the 1863 siege of Vicksburg could have served as the emblem of human experience on the river – a horrific battle that ended in a Union victory, splitting the Confederacy and contributing to the Union’s victory two years later – but instead Sandlin provides an even more awful climax. Just a day after Lincoln’s assassination, a horrifically overloaded river steamboat, the Sultana, suffered a boiler explosion near Memphis and sank. Thrown into the river, 1,700 passengers died, including hundreds of Union troops traveling north from prison camps in the Confederacy.

The Mississippi did not need to sink steamboats to do damage to the people living on and around it, though. In some of my favorite parts of the book, though, Sandlin describes some of the jawdropping natural disasters on and around the river, like a massive tornado that struck Natchez, Mississippi, 1840. He has a great chapter on the amazing New Madrid earthquakes, which were probably the largest earthquakes in U.S. history – so big that they created temporary waterfalls on the river.

The Mississippi’s quintessential natural disaster, though, was flooding – a calamity that recurs throughout the book. The federal government’s post-Civil War efforts to control the floods led, Sandlin says, to the end of the river’s “wild” age. The Sultana‘s death toll in 1865 was so high, in fact, because the river was running high and cold with spring meltwater. Even more cinematically, Sandlin describes a bizarre episode in February 1856, when a brief thaw interrupted an unusually cold winter. At St. Louis, the melt freed a giant ice floe, which then smashed along the city’s famous levee, crushing forty steamboats and countless smaller vessels:

“The day was bitterly cold, and the pieces soon froze into place. By evening the levee had been covered over by ice; by morning there was a mountain range of ice twenty feet high. People peering into it could see the wreckage of the steamboats–the railings and chandeliers, the gambling tables and the wine goblets–preserved within the gleaming shadows of the ice mountains, where it would remain until the spring thaw came.”

Unbelievable, and yet completely in keeping with the character of wild river that Sandlin describes.


Postscript: I noted that Sandlin wrote several other books focused on the Midwest, and thought immediately that they’d be good to read. Then I saw online that he died unexpectedly in 2014. Why does this make me so sad?

The Big Burn

Last week I finally finished Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, a history of a massive 1910 wildfire in the northern Rockies. As I read the book, I realized that it fits into a wider set of recently-read books on the west and wildfires, including Philip Connors’ Fire Season (about time spent as a fire lookout in New Mexico), Norman Maclean’s short story/memoir “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky,” Rick Bass’s Winter (about his first winter in northern Montana), or a lot of the John McPhee I’ve been devouring.

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. 

Fat Pursuit Bike, Gear, and Kit

A lot of people – cyclists and not – have asked me about the clothing, bike, and gear I used in the Fat Pursuit.

On the start line

Given how much I’ve learned from talking with fellow racers about their systems, I thought I’d share mine.

With a couple exceptions, I’ve used the items here in several other long races, and the new items had been tested on long rides this fall and winter.

I’m not trying to name-drop with the brand info; I just want to be clear about what works for me.

And yes a lot of this stuff is expensive. I don’t think I bought a single item here at retail, though – I watch for sales, use shop/club discounts, buy on clearance, etc. Even the Buffalo, my beloved adventure partner, was bought used (albeit from a bike guy who took very good care of it).

CLOTHING
Worn Continuously (* Craft brand items)

  • wind briefs*
  • wicking undershirt*
  • cycling shorts
  • compression socks (Alchemist)
  • heavyweight wool socks (Da Feet Woolie Bullie)
  • upper thermal base layer*
  • lower thermal base layer*
  • heavyweight cycling pants (Endura MT500 – new to me this year and fantastic)
  • synthetic soft shell jacket (a discontinued model from Eddie Bauer)
  • wind vest (Pactimo, Salsa branded)
  • wool neck gaiter
  • heavyweight gloves (Outdoor Research PL 400)
  • thick wool cap (45NRTH Stove Pipe)
  • cycling boots (45NRTH Wölvhammer, 2014 model)
  • clear-lens glasses (cheapies I bought at a gas station!)

Worn as Needed (when it was so goddamn cold)

Spare Clothing (stashed in a dry bag in my seat pack and never used)

  • wind briefs*
  • wicking undershirt*
  • compression socks
  • heavyweight wool socks
  • upper thermal base layer*

FATBIKE AND GEAR


Bike: the Buffalo, a 2011 Salsa Mukluk ti, size large, and far from stock.

  • 1 x 11 drivetrain with a 28T chainring (the main change since my last winter ultra)
  • Carver O’Beast carbon fork
  • Easton carbon handlebars (metal bars are too cold!)
  • 45NRTH Dillinger 5 tires (no, not tubeless)
  • Surly Rolling Darryl rims
  • Crank Bros. Mallet 2 pedals
  • Brooks C17 saddle (given to me free by a Tour Divide racer who hated it!)

Bags and Gear

EQUIPMENT (* required items)

headlight setup (back)
headlight setup (back)


Coyote Nation

When I was growing up in the U.P. in the ’70s and ’80s, coyotes were considered the menace to farm animals. Back then, wolves were (temporarily, as nature assured) absent from the Yoop, so coyotes – kai-ohts – assumed the apex predator spot that Canis lupus should have held, and in fact resumed sometime in the ’90s.

I have no idea if any Yooper farmers lost any livestock bigger than a chicken to Canis latrans, but my male relatives were unanimous in their hatred of coyotes, and were eager to kill them all. I never understood why this was, but then I ever understood why it was fun to sit in a tree for hours in the hopes of shooting a deer either. 

I did understand that the coyotes’ howls were thrillingly wild. When we stayed at our family’s hunting camp – a one-room shack in the northwestern corner of the Ottawa National Forest (almost a million acres of woods that covers almost all of the Wisconsin end of the U.P.) – we often heard coyotes singing at night. I lay there in my keeping bag in the bunk bed and imagined the coyotes sniffing around the building, drawn by scraps of food and our weird smells.

I don’t recall ever seeing any coyotes, but I must have, for as Dan Flores shows in his superlative Coyote America, coyotes are now America’s most ubiquitous big predator, despite continuing to be killed in the thousands every year. Some of the only actual coyotes I’ve ever seen – on a years’-ago bike ride – were three dead ones, dumped in a ditch not a mile outside of town. More recently I saw two skinny specimens patrolling a river near Island Park in eastern Idaho. They watched me and a friend bike along the opposite bank, then effortlessly scaled a sheer snowbank to get up off the river and onto the flat plain. 


Notwithstanding this pair in the underpopulated West, Americans now live among more of these scrawny, intelligent, shy beasts than ever before – a story that Flores tells with care, detail, a bit on anger, and a lot of humor in his book and with indignation in this New York Times op-ed. After a century of incessant, brutal biocide against the coyote, we should admit defeat and admire the victor. 

By rights, in fact, we Americans should do as generations of a Native Americans – from the Aztecs to the Apache – did, and worship the coyote as a nature god. Like God, Coyote is everywhere. As my friend Charlotte pointed out the other day, they’ve surely watched me on a bike ride. They’ve probably watched my girls playing in our backyard. A family of them might be right now in the field to the south, perhaps looking warily between the light spilling from my picture window and the harvester that’s growling along the rows of soybeans. Maybe they made a meal of one of the hundreds of Canada geese that gleaned in the field all afternoon. Regardless I’m pleased to know that they’re out there, outlasting and outsmarting us. 

Lazy Sunday

Today was a near perfect autumn day. Though I’d have liked to have done a hard ride on some local trails, instead I headed out with Julia on a big loop that included a little dirt in the Arboretum

before stopping at the Carleton library (where she checked out two Shakespeare plays – wha?) and then heading downtown to browse the art shop (cardstock for her new greeting-card project slash business) and bookstore ([this book on the famous Lewis chessmen](http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23848067-ivory-vikings) looks great) and get a snack at the coffee shop. Small business Sunday! While doing all that, we chatted about everything: school, work, college, stores, food, biking, being a kid…

On our way home we rode through a street-construction project, which is always good for a little frisson of riding, harmlessly, where you supposedly shouldn’t. Six miles of east, fun, relaxing outdoors time.

Octopus Life

A while ago I asked for recommendations of natural-history and science books to read.
The Soul of an Octopus
Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus was heartily recommended by several people, and very much worth my time. The book is so beautifully and transparently written that it can be read quickly, which for me heightened its effect. Like an octopus using all eight arms to take in everything it can all at once, I wanted to gorge on everything the book has to offer: wonderful science writing on these utterly bizarre creatures; learned considerations of how humans can connect to wild creatures and, especially, what forms animal consciousness might take; and wonderful stories about her own relationships with several octopuses in a Boston aquarium.

The book contains too much of all that and more to summarize, so let me just say that anyone interested in animals or a nature beyond humans should read it. The closing passages were as moving as anything I’ve read this year, but every other page contained astounding stuff like this litany of octopus mythology:
Octopus Religion

The Pitchy Blackness

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.

The Pitchy Blackness
The Pitchy Blackness

Scareading

For several months now, the girls have been encouraging me to read some Neil Gaiman books. Okay, maybe *luring* me into etc. etc.
Creepy Tomes

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:
I Put Her Back

*Shudder*.

Book review: Philip Connors, All the Wrong Places

Thanks to my friend Julia, who has the enviable (if Sisphyean) job of being a free-lance professional book reviewer, I recently had the opportunity to read an amazing new memoir, All the Wrong Places, the second book by Philip Connors.

Last year, Julia had recommended that I read Connors’ first book, Fire Season, a long essay on his work at a lookout in a fire tower in a huge wilderness area in New Mexico. Both a reflection on a solitary endeavor and a historical and philosophical examination of the nature of wildness, Fire Season is exceptionally good, and well worth the time of anyone who enjoys memoir or nature writing.

All the Wrong Places is a kind of prequel to Fire Season, a partial explanation of why Connors abandoned a good life and career in New York City for the isolation and inwardness of the fire tower. In brief, the second book is the story of Connors’ efforts to understand how his older brother, Dan, came to commit suicide, more or less out of the blue. Connors tells this story in masterful style. As much as I loved his prose in Fire Season – which is studded with glowing passages on wildness, on the history of wilderness preservation in the U.S., on the difficulties and pleasures of living utterly alone for weeks at a time – I thought that Connors made huge steps forward as a stylist in Places.

He uses that gorgeous writing to advance a story whose climax we seemingly know almost from the start of the book, when he relates, with exquisite care and equal measures of pain and anger, the details of Dan’s suicide. In the rest of the book, Connors examines this act – selfish, pained, mysterious – from every angle he can, seeking to understand why Dan blew his head off. In making this investigation, Connors exhibits a good sense of his own selfishness, of his narcissistic desire to relieve his guilt at having somehow maybe contributed to Dan’s decision to kill himself. Connors weaves together many moving and often hilarious stories about the classic methods he uses to try to lift his sense of responsibility – talking incessantly with his parents and sister about Dan, drinking a lot, fucking whenever and whomever he can, working too hard. (His insider view of his journalizing at the Wall Street Journal is especially hilarious.)

In his effort to understand, Connors takes his forensic efforts further than most of us would; he interviews the coroner and others who examined Dan’s body and even obtains pictures of Dan’s corpse. But toward the end of the book, these increasingly morbid inquiries are overshadowed by a family secret that immediately seems both necessary and sufficient as an explanation of Dan’s decision to kill himself. A reviewer can’t of course reveal that secret or what Connors does with his discovery, but he can say that getting to that point is well worth a reader’s time, and that the real climax of this self-murder mystery is as gripping a moment as anything he’s read.