This week’s New Yorker cover by Chris Ware nails the autumn’s neighborhood mood, right down to the tangled flag:
This week’s New Yorker cover by Chris Ware nails the autumn’s neighborhood mood, right down to the tangled flag:
I’d never read anything by Jim Harrison until he died a few years ago and my Yooper news alert drew my attention to this amazing essay in the New York Times on his love of the U.P. Till I read that piece – which describes some of Harrison’s favorite places in da Yoop, including my beloved Copper Country – I don’t think I’d ever read much serious, non-historical writing (however brief) about the Upper Peninsula, and I remember being impressed and touched that a real writer like Jim Harrison – who wrote the novella Legends of the Fall and then the screenplay for the movie starring Brad Pitt! – had loved the place.
That Times essay was occasioned by the release of a compilation of five novellas by Harrison about an Everyman named Brown Dog, who’s a sort of woodsman with few needs, fewer goals, and a habit, if not quite a penchant, for adventure. He’s a very U.P. character. Though I didn’t know any one person exactly like B.D., I knew a lot of people who were a lot like him: satisfied being underemployed but happy to cut pulp and fix cars, lovers of fishing and hunting and the outdoors, given to a little more drinking than might be healthy, not too interested in leaving the region…
Even more than Brown Dog himself, I loved Harrison’s evocation of the U.P. as a place. Early in the collection, Brown Dog says that 49º is the perfect temperature (and that 49 mph is the perfect speed). I agree! 49º means spring or fall, means wearing the same clothes indoors and out with no need to put on or take off a jacket, means new life arriving or old life leaving, means proximity to snow if not quite snow itself.
B.D. also loves the second-growth forests and the little creeks that run inevitably to the big lakes, and especially the swamps. The U.P. – like northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, two places I love, and apparently like Finland, a place I love even though I’ve never visited – is a land of swamps.
If anything, too little of the Brown Dog novellas are set in the snowy winters that sets da Yoop apart from even the northern end of the Lower Peninsula, or the western tip of Lake Superior. The seasons deeply affect Brown Dog’s life (he can’t wait for the trout opener), for sure, but he never really lives through a
bad good winter. Maybe that’s because Harrison and Brown Dog knew the eastern and south-central parts of the U.P. better than the northwestern parts. But Harrison and Brown Dog did appreciate, with a good healthy sense of U.P. humor, what snow means up dere:
I happened to finish the novellas – which ramble picaresquely over a decade of Brown Dog’s life – just as the Copper Country suffered massive flooding that laid waste to roads, hillsides, businesses, houses. The disaster was probably the biggest in the Copper Country’s history, with $100 million in damage (but thankfully just one death). I like to imagine Brown Dog would have driven his shitty car over from Escanaba to Houghton to help out with the cleanup, maybe asking for no more payment than a couple six packs.
On engrossingly strange work
I set it aside
After just a few pages
So that it will last longer
The simplest pleasure
Of procrastinating is
Putting off pleasures:
Finishing this book, drinking
That beer, going for a ride
Into the Wild
Chris McCandless went
West and north to find himself
Died, starved, alone in the woods.
What to make of the effort?
(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.
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?
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.
A lot of people – cyclists and not – have asked me about the clothing, bike, and gear I used in the Fat Pursuit.
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).
Worn Continuously (* Craft brand items)
Worn as Needed (when it was so goddamn cold)
Spare Clothing (stashed in a dry bag in my seat pack and never used)
FATBIKE AND GEAR
Bike: the Buffalo, a 2011 Salsa Mukluk ti, size large, and far from stock.
Bags and Gear
EQUIPMENT (* required items)
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.
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.
A while ago I asked for recommendations of natural-history and science books to read.
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:
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.