What if I told you
you had to touch it
to make it real?
Trace a finger across
or lower a bare foot into an eddy
nudging a leaf with your toe.
If I told you it was there
could you believe me?
Have you ever felt a cool bed of polished granite?
Can you know what you’ve missed?
I don’t believe myself sometimes,
second-guessing hazy memories
of alpenglow in the peaks
and sheet after sheet of waves
whipped by gusts across a lake.
Compelled to return, time and time again
to inspect the flow of creeks
and the decay of boulders
-to confirm that it is all as I have left it
that it is all still real.
When recalling the cold indifference
of midnight air
stinging the lungs
-I can see it, feel it so clearly in my mind
and yet I’m shocked upon return.
Recollection is untrustworthy.
I have come to trust rain,
the loneliness of stars.
Abandon the idolatry of memory.
Press your feet into the soil and trust their weight.
Trust the mule deer
slowly edging a hillside
-stopping, nostrils flared and ears erect
winding me, locking eyes
a nonhuman witness confirming the present:
I have arrived.
(Images and prose from a 4 night/5 day solo hike in the Upper Kern Basin just before the summer fires of 2020).
The cranks turn, over and over, and my mind wanders as I pick a line through ruts and rocks and drifts.
Picking a line.
Perhaps this is the crux of the issue, of why I am never quite certain that cycling or bikepacking is as therapeutic as walking. The background energy needed to operate a machine at speed seems to dictate a different sort of thought, a different mental pace.
Not better, not worse. Different.
On the climbs I am certainly drawn into a smaller sphere; attention is required to watch the line, getting lost in breath, watching sweat drip on the top tube. But it doesn’t seem to allow for watching the birds or scanning a treeline or wondering about cloud formations. Walking is slow enough that attention to foot placement requires less conscious attention. Walking thoughts are expansive, with space for the external world should you allow it to enter. The bike tends to draw me into an inward space, an experiential sphere existing in a small radius extending from my front wheel, all else a relative blur.
And then there is the descent, often with little time for thought at all; maintaining the line reigns supreme. To think is to hesitate, to hesitate is to find oneself laid out in the rocks. A flow takes hold, very akin to the experience of surfing a wave, an everflowing present uncoiling beneath the wheels. While there is something to be said for 8 miles of downhill and being home for coffee by 9AM, a side of me always feels that the speed has robbed me of playing witness to the gray fox hidden in the chaparral or the tanager perched in the crook of an oak’s arm.
That we evolved on foot no doubt plays a role in the syncing of pace and thought, the bike a technological and comparatively obnoxious intrusion.
This weekend I’ll be walking overnight. But don’t get me wrong; there is something to be said, time and time again, for being home for coffee beside my wife by 9AM. Sometimes we simply have to cheat to fit it all in.
I lay there floating on my back, arms and legs outstretched, watching a half moon and Orion’s stars roll with the swell from behind the waterspotted lenses of my diving mask. Like a passenger looking out of the windows of my own eyes.
Darkness above, darkness below.
The growing seasickness spreading through my gut and limbs stunted any interest in chasing lobster. A cold sweat was seeping beneath the seals of my wetsuit hood, snorkel feeling tight and restrictive on my breathing.
I could hear the waves breaking rhythmically in the rocks, sound echoing off the cliffs. Getting back in sounded ominous, especially as I was certain I’d be fighting vomit and convulsions by then.
Rolling back over and spitting the snorkel, picking out Rigel and Sirius from my bed of kelp.
Bed of kelp.
I understand now.
Resting in a thick mat of it, its air bladders buoying my arms and legs. Like a bed of slowly writhing leaves and tentacles, if one could somehow be at peace with that.
I turned my light off and I was home, unconcerned with my two partners, bobbing quietly and alone in a blackened sea.
Thirty minutes later I would crawl out on my own, leaving them to continue the hunt. Slithering and dragging onto shore, strands of kelp and eel grass clinging to mask and snorkel and shoulders, hands shaking. The sight of a strange and wounded beast.
Splayed out in the rocks on my back, moonlight reflecting their wet surfaces in a silver, ice-like sheen, I let the tide lap at my fins. Burping and dry-heaving slowly subsiding, relaxing into breath.
Smiling like a fool in love with the world.
The Preposterous Deep.
If God wills it. My father-in-law used to say this with a shrug and a gesture of his hands, palms to the sky. He’d say this about the most difficult things while we chatted about life over a cup of Turkish coffee.
I can understand the anger. At the core, a lot of people are confused and afraid. Some lash out, some put on the armor of denial. Some sooth themselves by seeking fault in others. Some build a wall of stoicism and logic.
Do what you have to do.
People are terrified of losing control, whether it’s a virus or fear of someone taking their rights away. But maybe we never had it in the first place? Maybe living with 300,000,000 other people requires the humility of surrendering the illusion of that control? Dwelling on this might help with the fear and anger and bravado directed towards others, perhaps giving way to something healthier like forgiveness. Relentlessly seeking who’s to blame is likely a missed opportunity to live your life.
Welcome to being in something together, for better or worse. I know it’s disorienting for those just realizing it. I know we like to think we are in control.
“Inshallah” as my father-in-law would say, squinting into the sun while sitting on the porch. You don’t have to be a believer to understand that beyond your personal actions, what’s going to happen is going to happen.
Grab a drink and gather ’round folks, I’ve got a tale to tell.
There were four of us, out for a late afternoon mid-week dive. Conditions and visibility were good, though there was a little swell in the water to keep us bouncing, and lights were carried in the event of a late exit. Hunting on this day was about a quarter mile offshore (generally marked by the red arrow), exploring some kelp beds and rock structure in ~35 foot deep water. Rumor had it there were some good nests of sheephead in this area and I was intent on shooting a big goat. Everything was going well…
As (too) often happens, we all strayed a bit from one another, hunting in pairs but loosely doing our own thing between check-ins. My partner was about 15 yards from me, taking mid-depth perch on a polespear. I was hugging the bottom, looking for sheephead. Plenty of small females were lurking, but their king proved elusive. The sun was dipping low so I lowered my standards to match, knowing we’d be getting out soon, willing to shoot anything that would make some tacos.
I was exploring a kelp thicket and *!POP!* shot an opaleye near the end of my breath. Rather than going to retrieve the spear and fish, I made for the surface and would bring it up from there.
Except when I turned and pointed for the sky, something was holding me down…
Kicking hard, I couldn’t budge. I jerked my gun, assuming the spearshaft was stuck in the rocks, but no, my gun was free. ~25 feet deep, I was tangled in something and running out of air.
Instinct told me to kick again, kick harder, when I looked down and realized a thick mat of kelp had wrapped itself behind the knife’s sheath on my belt. I went for the knife to either free it or cut out, but the kelp was too thick. I couldn’t get my hand through it to find the knife…And this suddenly became one of those moments where time warps, a tinge of panic about the reality sets in, and things feel like they are taking forever…
I kicked again, even harder this time, and was worried by the strain I felt back; I was seriously stuck, no movement. Time passed while I fought…and then something gave with a snap. Relieved, I felt the thrust of my fins- and soon buoyancy- lifting me to the light above.
Shaking it off, I caught my breath and went to work dealing with my fish; I still had my gun in hand and a fish on the spear. When I went for my knife to kill it and get it on the stringer, I found it was gone. I snapped it off my weight belt, sheath and everything. A thick scrap of broken plastic was left attached where it sheared off.
I called a friend over, borrowed a knife, strung the fish, and got my bearings back. I was still slightly rattled, but kept diving, not really trying to shoot anything, just letting my nerves straighten back out. I have found it’s important to keep going in these moments rather than succumb to the instinct to bail. Leaving the scene with a bad feeling sill lingering tends to allow fear to fester, as opposed to reassuring oneself that everything is still OK, regaining control of mind and breath despite a scare.
Post-dive analysis, a couple things obviously went wrong, but I will admit I’m bothered primarily by my lack of one particular reaction. Initial instincts went in this order: 1. struggle to break free (Bad!: wasting air), 2. calm down and try and cut free (Good!), and 3. back to struggling to break free (More bad!: wasting even more air) when I discovered I couldn’t cut out. I am a little disturbed that the instinct to drop my weight belt entirely didn’t enter the equation faster. Not that it wouldn’t have- I would like to think that if I didn’t break free the second time I would’ve gone to drop my belt, but regardless, the instinct never came because I ended up breaking free. I feel like it should’ve been there sooner.
I’ve been replaying the scenario in my mind, visualizing and rehearsing releasing my belt over and over and over, trying to ingrain the action somewhere in my consciousness. When I relayed this story to my partners at the surface, it was also a stark reminder to all of us to stay a little closer, be more watchful of each other.
While some may be reading this thinking us fools, an honest evaluation says that these situations are going to happen in some form, that we are accepting these risks the moment we get in the water, and we have to remain diligent and honest with ourselves about our abilities, actions, and future considerations. This is how we learn. Yes, this is also how people get killed, but any outdoor adventurer knows that learning experiences and disaster are often dual faces of the same coin.
Remain humble, stay honest, learn to be safer.
Shall we talk about alienation? Or the romantic naivety of professing love for a place while understanding little of its workings? Love is love, no doubt, but perhaps this is an immature love that takes the complexity of its object for granted.
No, this will not do. To learn the names of your hosts and neighbors is a matter of respect, the first step.
There is something disorienting about an “outdoorsperson” being able to cite more outdoor gear manufacturers than birds, in knowing the local drive-thru’s menu better than one’s local edible plants. What does it mean to recognize the fleeting silhouette of a Toyota Forerunner but remain unable to name of the stalks of yellow flowers whose fragrance reminds you of that day you walked that coast with someone you love? To understand the evolution of bicycle braking systems or professional sports rosters better than one knows the history of the western gray squirrel who happens to be yelling at you from a branch?
We seem to love ourselves and our creations above all. Look at the world unfolding, this much is clear.
And we forget what we’ve forgotten. Amnesia. One generation having lost a sense of what has been added to or missing from the landscape stretched before it; something has changed, but it’s blurry around the edges. Is not knowing the names a symptom, manifest in unconscious unawareness, oblivious to one’s obliviousness of the natural world? All the while perfectly in-sync and at home in a manufactured world. Chasing Pokemon in a computer simulation in a dream.
Sunburned, mildly dehydrated, and scratched upon return, my head is swimming with “new” plants and birds and watersheds. I sat still in the dirt of the chaparral at noon and was rewarded with the conference of two spotted towhees, one perched on a burnt-out manzanita close enough to reveal his blazing red eyes. My own eyes burning, I gorged on tart blackberries beside a small creek for lunch. There was purple, berry-laden coyote scat beside me. Not so different.
I’m beginning to understand what I missed for all those years in my pursuit of mileage, but I suppose this is the way: Sketching the large lines, filling in the big gaps, slowly refining, shrinking the scale, adding layer upon layer of detail. I think of a good friend who’s been slowly tracing the Upper Kern for decades, alone, mapping small bends and folds, until arriving at the headwaters and turning back. And doing it all again, discovering what he missed, reassessing what he found.
The cartography of sweat, thorn, and birdsong.
We sit in the shade of a sycamore and I can see it in your eyes. Words are coming out of my mouth but you resent them. A father’s stumbling concern becomes an affront to individuality, to autonomous thought. The words are suddenly painful, unsolicited and sticking like barbs, and rejection is the shield behind which an adult ego grows. Even agreement is fraught with concern, micro-delineations of positions and caveats must be probed. Your head burning with ideas from university, books and voices, heroes, making my ideas seem small. I have exposed myself, the anatomy of a mere human being revealed, banal viscera, the mythical stripped away.
I look at your arrogance and I almost forget my own.
How many did I tear down and cannibalize in the construction of this self?
(Visions of empty robber trenches in ancient archaeological sites. One burgeoning civilization hacking away at the foundations of the monuments that precede it, hauling off someone else’s quarried stone to build anew, a dusty pit where a temple once stood.)
Hammer at the foundations, tear down your father.
I just ask that you be gentle, if and when you can. There may come a day when you are hurt and exhausted and you catch a sideways glimpse of my eyes peering back from your reflection. Looking down you realize that your thick legs resemble mine and that you no longer have to carry it all alone.
I will sit quietly and listen for you.
Years ago I sought out a local gunsmith to look into modifying the fixed full-choke barrel on a Winchester Model 12, my great-grandfather’s hunting gun. This change would make it potentially more useful to me, converting it from a duck hunting gun, something I do not do, to a tool more capable of hunting upland game. I found a small outfit that will remain nameless, located in an obscure industrial park outside of Los Angeles.
My wife rode along with me. For reference, my wife is Armenian and pretty dark-skinned. I am 6’2″, 225 lbs, white, and have a shaved head and tattoos. People used to mistake my wife for “the nanny” when she’d push our children down the block in a stroller…
We pull up to the storefront in an empty parking lot, it’s already dark outside. It’s relatively unmarked, save for two sets of security doors opening into what appears to be a machine shop behind a wall and a service counter. There is the company’s logo on a flag with some crosshairs hung in a small window behind bars, as well as a small Gadsden flag, an NRA badge, and a few gun manufacturer stickers.
Seeing these symbols, my wife knows how this sort of situation works. It’s the same reason I do the talking in gas stations in certain parts of the country.
“I’m going to wait in the car and let you handle this one…”
I ring a bell. An overweight, late middle-aged White man peers from inside and buzzes me through both security doors. My wife is in the car right outside and can hear our conversation through the bars and screen.
We hit it off immediately, talking about the shotgun, and I trust him as he talks me out of a modification, suggesting I keep it vintage to honor great-grandpa, ultimately urging me to just buy a cheap new hunting shotgun from someone else.
During the chit-chat, however, he tips his hand a bit.
“Where are you from?” he inquires.
I state my city.
“Kind of dark up there, isn’t it?”
Mmm. I’m caught off guard. I sort of deflect and change the subject.
I can’t help but notice there’s a tricked-out AR-15 pistol on the wall, a weapon breaking an untold number of CA laws, but I figure he’s an FFL and a gunsmith and who knows what else so maybe none of that applies…
He obviously likes me and we continue chatting about local hunting and the mountains. A few more dog whistles are thrown in, little jabs about how the neighborhoods have changed, about how much better “things” used to be.
We eventually wrap it up.
“If you need anything, let me know.”
“I appreciate that, thank you.”
“Really, anything you need, you come back and see me.”
As humans, most of us are keenly aware of body language, tone, and generally how to read people. It’s not what is said, it’s how it is said. I know exactly what he was telling me and what went down in our exchange.
Getting back in the car, my wife informs me she heard the entire conversation through the security doors.
“Kind of dark up there huh? Oh, he LOVED you with your bald head and tattoos…” she says with a smirk. “Aren’t you glad I know when to stay in the car?”
“Hey, now I know where to get a machine gun…”
And so it goes.
I’ve never been back there.
My wife is interesting to me. She’s got a very blunt realism about her, she easily blows things like this off. It’s not that she thinks it’s right or good or any of that…It’s just that she expects it. It’s like she’s over being shocked and angry and disappointed by people.
We were driving yesterday, stopped at an intersection where BLM protesters were gathered and waiving signs. I honked the car horn, got a few cheers, and immediately felt highly self-conscious that I was sitting in an air-conditioned car while people were yelling in the street.
My wife was quiet.
I noticed that behind her sunglasses she was crying.
As wildflowers and sunshine give way to choked and cluttered canyons, I’m struck by the unique character of this mountain range, how the features almost force a certain mode of thought. Slopes too steep and thick with brush, much of this landscape is not made for seeking vistas and sunsets, instead funneling the wanderer into overgrown, tree-lined waterways.
I imagine this terrain would be claustrophobic for many, too closed-in, teeming and busy, the overlapping texture of plant and rock reaching in from all directions. At times it feels jungle-like. To the uninitiated, possibly messy and oppressive.
Growing up here, the character of these canyons has likely played a part in teaching me to appreciate the tiny gift, to be content in examining the details hidden in small spaces. What lies around the bend is very often no different from where one stands, unless a mindset is cultivated to approach the experience like one approaches a bonsai collection, looking for micro-environments and quietly hidden paradises. Roaring waterfalls are seldom found. Instead I find myself drawing in my knees and sitting close, watching a small stream flow over a rounded boulder into a sandy-bottomed pool.
Observing water striders dancing for position at the edge of an eddy replaces the trout-gazing of High Sierra alpine lakes. Stone-colored toads swim the breaststroke through slow moving pools no deeper than a shin. Wrens and dippers hunting insects flip in and out of undercut banks and rocks, disappearing into dark hollows. The stones here do not scream for attention, they do not tower and inspire awe through scale. It is a land of small, subtle happenings that require attention to understand, full of small creatures living small lives.
Fortunately this seems to have a way of thinning the crowds, warding off those seeking the spectacular. They congregate at the range’s peaks and waterfalls, leaving those of us happy to look for more humble treasures to do so in peace. I’m reminded of a whisper from Cold Mountain: If someone would poke out the eyes of the hawks, us sparrows could dance where we please…
Here’s to the joy of small things.