The Gratitude Posts: Introduction

A year ago today, I embarked on a month-long road trip that took me through Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Alaska (that last one by plane). A few days before the trip, I posted a request on Facebook, asking people for recommendations of their favorite road-trip albums. Boy did they deliver, something like sixty albums in total. Except for the few recommendations that weren't available on Rhapsody, everything went into a single grand playlist that I loaded onto a portable music player. I put the player on shuffle much of the time I was driving, giving me a very eclectic personalized radio station.

I had no trouble remembering who recommended what, and I found that as each artist came up, it would bring to mind the friend who'd given the recommendation. I went on that trip in part to get some perspective on some heavy stuff in my life, and having friends come to mind through the music they'd recommended made me feel supported and loved. For that love and support, I felt--and feel--deeply grateful.

During the trip, I had the idea to write a piece about all the music I'd heard, how it affected me, and to thank each person in turn. Unfortunately, I didn't end up following through on it.

Now it's a year later. Sometimes ideas lose their impulse if you let them sit, but this one hasn't. Maybe it's because I still have all that music on my player--I listen to it all the time--that the idea has never stopped seeming like an important one. It's time to do it. It's gonna take me a while to write a bit about every album on that list, but I want each and every person who gave to me in that way to know how much it meant to me. Over the next few weeks, I'll be writing briefly about each album in turn. Watch this space.

In Late Summer, A Story from Late Spring

Today is summer-transitioning-into-fall. Let's go back a season to a story from spring-transitioning-into-summer.

June 15, 2015

Marie and I decided that for our day's adventure, we'd head up I-80 along the Columbia River toward Hood River. We discussed several hikes we might take, and Marie suggested we go to Punch Bowl Falls. She warned me there'd be a lot of people there, but that its popularity was warranted: the hike is quite lovely, not especially challenging, and has a beautiful destination. Given that part of our plan for the day was to have enough time to find our way to a brewery for a few beers, a modest hike seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

It really was a lovely hike. As Marie promised/warned, we saw many people. It was the first Monday of summer vacation for Portland schools, and it was pretty clear that it was a well-known hike among local high school and college kids, given its modest difficulty, its easy access from Portland, and that it's a fun place spend an afternoon.

Here's a picture of Punch Bowl Falls:
Punch Bowl Falls

Here's a picture of the back cover of Styx's 1973 album Styx II:
Styx II

The water of Eagle Creek was very cold as Marie and I waded out carefully among the slick stones. We sat on a boulder and chatted. Around us, people in swimsuits dipped in the cold water.

Nearby, a group of six or seven girls--late high school, maybe early college--stripped out of their hiking clothes into their bikinis beneath. Marie and I watched their tentative movements, their obvious awareness of the implications of those bikinis, the girls self-consciously not quite comfortable with the bodies they found themselves in, still rather new to them at their age. It was kind of sweet, really.

Marie decided to head back to shore. "I'm going to stay here and sit for a bit," I told her. "I'd like to experience the energy here." The little canyon had a lovely energy, not overwhelmed by the presence of all the people nearby. The falls poured down maybe 50 yards upriver, and the creek had undercut the cliff face near where I sat, creating a concave space in the rock that held and contained the energy there. After Marie moved away I got into as comfortable and centered a position as I could and breathed consciously and let the feeling of the place wash over me.

Around me, people did what they were doing. I didn't attach to their conversations or motions, just letting myself be in that place without too much judgment or narrative around it. After a while I felt I was done. I walked out of the stream, we put our shoes on, and we hiked back to the car.

Marie remembered a brewery not much further up I-80, on the bank of the Columbia River. We went there, got a couple of beers, and sat at a table outside, enjoying the sunny day and the river flowing mightily by.

"By the way," Marie said. "I took a picture that was supposed to just be you sitting on the rock in the river."

We call this picture, "Ben Attains a Certain Enlightenment."

Ben attains a certain enlightenment.
Ben attains a certain enlightenment.

(I found pictures of Punch Bowl Falls here.)

(Want to read more about Punch Bowl Falls, including that "it's quite possibly the most photographed waterfall in the entire Pacific Northwest?" Click here.)


Roadtrip Vignettes, Part 13: Ketchum, ID

I was driving north through Ketchum on my way out of town. I happened to glance left at a stoplight and caught a glimpse between the buildings of many, many people a few blocks over in what had to be a town park. "Gotta be a summer concert, right?" I said to myself. "I better investigate."

I got there just as the M.C. was introducing the headlining band. "From Boston, Massachusetts," he said, "Lovewhip!" (I thought, "Boston? What are you doing all the way out here?)

They were a three piece, bass, drums and singer/guitarist (male, male and female, respectively). They wore silly glam wigs and shiny 80's-style clothing and played disco-inflected electro-pop. They were pretty solid and a lot of fun. The singer played a pretty good guitar and shook her hips fetchingly in time to the music.

A varied crowd took to the dancefloor. I saw little kids and their parents, groups of teenagers, a rather weathered and willowy dreadlocked blond woman, a middle-aged woman and what I took to be her elderly father. Ketchum is the beautiful people, but that didn't prevent (or maybe it encouraged) a couple of plastic-surgery disasters. Deep tans were weirdly prevalent. The cutest puppy in the world lay in the grass at the edge of the dancefloor. And diversity? You betcha. I saw over six people of color.

After the band was done, I went up to their merch table and chatted with the singer a little. Her name was Erin. "I enjoyed your music," I told her, "and I like your guitar playing. Pretty into that slapback delay, huh?"

"Like the Edge," she admitted. She enjoyed talking about music and so we did for a while.

I asked how long they had been touring (weeks) and how many weeks left (several) and how the hell they'd gotten booked for Ketchum Alive, of all places. "We have a booking agent," she said. They had just finished playing three shows in Utah, had two more shows in Idaho, and would be in Denver in a week. "Denver?" I said. "Maybe I'll come see you. I'll be home by then."

And I did. The band was thrilled to hear that I'd made an effort to see them twice. Erin still did that thing with her hips. And I got to make a fun connection between my adventures on the road and my life at home.

Here's one of their songs. You can listen to more of their music on Soundcloud. You should. It's fun.

I Can’t Drive 65

Roadtrip Vignettes, Part 12

I hadn't driven in Utah since 2011, and at some point since I'd last visited, they'd changed the speed limit along I-70 to 80 mph. The number looked weird to me when I first saw the signs. 80. I've driven in 75 mph zones for years, but there was something about 80, the literal roundness of the numbers, that seemed like we'd crossed into entirely new territory.

I'm not a speed demon. Partly it's that I got conditioned to really, really dislike seeing those flashing lights in the rearview--a couple of big fines when I really didn't have any money to lose will do that to a guy. But I also was taught moderation at an impressionable age by my father. I remember coming back in our VW camper from a camping trip somewhere when I was little kid, maybe six or seven years old. My dad was driving and I was sitting next to him on a foldout stool between the front seats.1 I remember asking him why he was going 60 when all the signs said, "Speed Limit 55." (That feels like a million years ago now, doesn't it, the federal 55 speed limit.) He told me that 5 mph over the limit was okay. So I've basically taken that attitude ever since. Experience bears it out: 5 mph over is a speed that's not likely to attract the attention of the police. (I'll concede, though, that that attitude might reflect a certain white privilege. I'm unlikely to ever get pulled over for Driving While Black.)

So anyway, 80. 80 felt like a new territory. And I thought about it for a little bit as I crossed into Utah on the first day of my trip, and for the first time in my life outside a heavily patrolled construction zone, I brought my car's speed to exactly the speed limit and set the cruise control there. 80 is fast enough.

In Utah, both I-70 and I-84 now have 80 mph speed limits. So does I-84 in Idaho. It didn't take me long to get comfortable, not with the speed itself (like I said, I drive 80 in a 75), but rather the sense that not even the most ornery state patrolman could find a reason to pull me over for speeding.

And then I got to the Oregon state line. The speed limit dropped to 65 mph and stayed there, and I had to reason that being a radical anomaly in the speedy West meant they keep their Highway Patrol on Income Earning Duty, and so I grumblingly kept myself to a what-felt-like-crawling 70 mph, and cursed the sanctimonious assholes who apparently set the speed limits in Oregon.

(And really, Oregon, for at least the eastern part of your state, there's really no excuse. There's no one out there. Like Utah, southern Idaho, Nevada, and eastern Washington, it's low-population desert with occasional mountain ranges. You guys are jerks.)

1 Yup, you read that right. "Between the seats." Attitudes toward seat belts have changed a lot since the early '80s, haven't they?


Roadtrip Vignettes, Part 11: Along I-82, Southern WA

We grow hops in our yard. We have Cascade in the backyard and Centennial in the front, and both varieties share a certain "ohmygod ohmygod the Sun water let's grow" enthusiasm for life. In June, before they flower, the vines will literally grow 6 inches in a day. (I've measured.) And the cones (the fruit of the plant) are so magnificent it's hard to believe they simply evolved. They're like something a sculptor would create.

Hops are magnificent plants and I love them.

And I feel that way even before we pick the cones and brew beer with them.

So when I was driving on I-82 through southern Washington west of Richland and I glanced off to the right and saw field after field of trellises, stretching as far as I could see, I had no doubt about what I was looking at. So that's what commercial hop farms look like, I said. They had that same essential "Hellooooo, World!" enthusiasm about growing, though here their rambunctiousness seemed tempered, perhaps by their relationship to commerce. "Sorry, no time for unruly fun and games," these plants said. "We're going to be dried, pelletized, tested for alpha and beta acids and put in precise quantities into beer." For our plants, beer is a hobby; for these plants it's a job.

But still, I couldn't not stop and get a picture. And I dedicate this piece to the hops of the world, who do such diligent work to make beer delicious.

Hops sexy hops
Hops sexy hops

Roadtrip Vignettes, Part 10: Arches National Park, UT

I dedicate this one to Dawn, who worried that my lack of planning might get me into trouble.

By the position of the stars I estimated that I began my hike back from Delicate Arch somewhere between 11pm and midnight. I kept a comfortable but measured pace as I strode down the trail, finding my way under the modest light of my headlamp. Moonrise was still a while off, and the night was dark under a billion stars. First Venus and then Jupiter set in the west.

I hadn't been hiking for very long when I heard the photography group behind me, chatting merrily away. They were a large group with bright headlamps, and so their pace was quicker than mine. I moved 30 or 40 yard perpendicular to the trail, hunkered down behind a boulder and shut off my lamp to let them pass. I waited until their voices faded away and I could no longer see the lights. The magic of the desert night is a fragile thing, easily broken, and I sought it in the solitude and the quiet. Alone again, I resumed my walk.

I passed a trail-marking cairn and dropped down into a wash I thought I remembered from the way up, but as I continued downhill the brush got thicker and thicker and my sense of time and distance told me it had been too long since I'd see a trail marker. I looked left and right, trying to find my way back to the trail, but the light from the headlamp seemed dimmer, as though perhaps the batteries were failing, and I couldn't find what I was looking for.

I thought of the group I'd recently let pass. The word hubris rose up in my mind.

The desert does not invite our presence, and there among the sand and the slickrock and the quiet desert plants fear and panic began to creep out into the night's shadows.

Okay, hold on, I said to myself. Calm down. First of all, I remembered I'd seen another group heading up to the arch. They'd be coming down again at some point, and I could just stay put and wait for them. There was no way I could be very far from the trail. If necessary, I would almost surely be able to meet them.

And if somehow that didn't work, and I really was lost until daylight, well, I had a half-full Camelbak and the night was pleasantly cool. It wouldn't be my favorite way to spend a night--I wouldn't be able to go to sleep, lest something poisonous decide to curl up against my body heat--but if I had to do it, I would, and I'd be fine until morning.

I'd talked myself through the worst-case scenario. The creeping fear and panic abated. Okay, I said, I'm pretty sure I can find my way back to that last cairn. I turned and started back up the wash.

I'd taken only a small handful of steps back uphill when I heard at my feet the unmistakable buzz of a rattlesnake's rattle.

I froze.

I kept my feet carefully planted as I panned around with my headlamp. "Where are you?" I asked aloud. I couldn't find the snake.

I stayed there for several long minutes as I continued to sweep the ground with my light. No sign of the snake, no hint of motion, just the slickrock and the low desert vegetation.

Finally, I took a tentative step forward. Nothing. Another step. Still nothing. I had to chance that it had moved away, as rattlesnakes will when they think they safely can, and I made my way slowly up the wash. I had known there were rattlesnakes out there, of course, but now in this moment their presence had ceased to be an abstract notion.

I found the last cairn, reoriented, and proceeded slowly down the path away from it, scanning with my headlamp, hunting for the marker I'd missed. It had to be around here somewhere, I told myself. I found it soon enough, and then the next, and then the one after. I continued down the trail like that.

The run-in with the snake had left me understandably a bit spooked, and with the prospect of blundering into poisonous fangs now a concrete reality, I slowed my progress considerably on the return walk down. When I finally made it back to the car, I checked the time. 1:30am. What should have taken 45 minutes had taken over two hours. But I was safe and no worse for the adventure.

Now all that remained before I could rest for the night was to find a place to sleep.

It was the first night of my trip. As beginnings go: auspicious or not?

Roadtrip Vignettes, Part 9: Sun Valley, ID, and Grand Targhee, WY

It takes a lot to get me off my bike voluntarily during a ride (voluntarily--I suffered more pinch flats during the trip than anyone should ever have to deal with), but the wildflowers in Sun Valley and Grand Targhee were too extraordinary to not pause and savor.

Sun Valley
Pretty, huh?

Sun Valley
In my regular life I almost never carry my smartphone on rides--part of the pleasure I get from mountain biking comes from disconnecting for a few hours from our ever-connected world--but I made exceptions on this trip. A smartphone doubles as a thin and lightweight camera that easily fits into a Camelbak (even one otherwise full of bike gear), and I envisioned wanting to share experiences via photographs with the folks back home.

Sun Valley
I bet you aren't saying, "Man, that scree must have sucked to ride in."

That choice brings up some interesting questions, though, that I want to acknowledge without really trying to answer today. Does carrying the smartphone (or even just a lightweight camera) distract from the immediacy and hence the value of the experience? That is, does the mere knowledge of carrying a camera mean that the focus moves away from the experience itself into either some kind of grasping ("Memory isn't enough"), or to some temporal-spatial Other Place because my concern about sharing the experience overwhelms actually experiencing it?
Grand Targhee
For today, I'll say simply that those questions are something I've struggled with and continue to struggle with. However, there's this too: it's several weeks since the trip ended and it's obvious that a piece in which I just say, "The wildflowers were extraordinary," isn't going to be of much interest to anyone. I lack the vocabulary and knowledge to say much more about wildflowers than that they're pretty. Hence I'm glad I have the photos.
Sun Valley
One last thought: I have no training as a photographer, so I have no idea how to capture the majesty of a hillside awash in color through a camera lens, much less the rather limited capabilities of the camera on my smartphone. I did the best I could. The photos remind me of the beauty I saw, but I don't know if they are able to evoke that beauty in someone else's eye. Which is another interesting point about stopping to take pictures, isn't it?
Grand Targhee
I'm pretty sure this one works.

Roadtrip Vignettes, Part 8: Murdock Campground, Sawtooth National Forest, ID

Doc worked as the campground host at Murdock Campground and the other ones nearby. He told me he had owned a bike shop in Tucson, AZ, sold it a few years back and hit the road. He took temporary and seasonal jobs to make ends meet. "Sometimes I don't even take temporary jobs," he said, and hesitated.

"Because you don't have to?" I offered.

"Yeah," he agreed.

He had a Santa Cruz Tallboy on the rack on the back of his truck, a beautiful bike built up with premium parts. I commented on the bike and he said he didn't really feel like he had it dialed yet. "I had a Niner that I loved, but it got stolen off the rack," he said. When I asked how it happened, he said, "I didn't figure it out until afterwards. I was in Dallas. When I left the trailhead after I was done riding, some guys in a van left too. When I turned left, they turned left. When I turned right, they turned right..."

Unsurprisingly, he had strong opinions about bikes. We talked about frames and forks and tubed versus tubeless and mountain gruppos and and how he'd gotten several sets of full XTR at Interbike a couple of years back for like $900 or something, which is a crazy deal and doesn't even seem fair. He was a friendly, loquacious fellow. Maybe that had something to do with it.

After he sold the shop, he'd first gone to North Carolina.

"Supposed to be good mountain biking out there," I said.

"It's okay," he said. "But there are no views, not ever. People out there don't even know what they're missing."

"That's good," I told him. "It keeps them away from here."

Roadtrip Vignettes, Part 7: Ketchum, ID: The Kid Is Alright

In the coffeeshop that morning I finished my writing and walked to the bathroom to have the kind of quality time that only a flush toilet can provide, the pit toilet at the campground having been let's say uninviting.

I had no sooner closed the door when I heard a knock from the other side. I felt a pretty obvious rise of indignation, and I prepared myself to declaim righteously to the apparently weirdly entitled person on the other side of the door that I had literally just gotten in there, and I really needed to go.

I opened the door and had to scan down to meet my adversary. I saw a little kid standing there.

"Can I make a potty?" he asked.

I hesitated for a second as I reconfigured my mental-emotional state around this new information. He was cute and earnest, and I figured if he was knocking he must really need to go. After a moment's pause I said, "Sure."

It wasn't a great hardship in my life. Even a kid who really needs to go doesn't take very long. When he came out, he glanced over toward where I was standing, made eye contact, and smiled.

Polite, gracious, and not shy: I predict good things for this one.

Roadtrip Vignettes, Part 6: Hailey, ID

It was my birthday. I wanted to drink a few beers and have a nice dinner and not have to hunt around for a place to sleep. I didn't know how far up the road beyond Ketchum I'd have to go to find a campground, and I didn't really want to be doing it in the dark. So I called the RV campground down in Bellevue, the town a few miles to the south. I asked the nice woman who answered the phone if it would be a problem if I came in late, around 10pm or so.

"Hmm," she said. "How big is your rig?"

Rig, I thought to myself.

See, this is why we travel: to get exposed to cultures foreign to our own. To those of us outside RV culture, it's just an RV. Inside: it's a rig.