The missus and I headed down for some bouldering in Moe’s Valley this Thanksgiving weekend. The mornings were cold and the middays and afternoons just right, bordering on too warm. For much of the day, the naked sun created a sharp contrast in the scrubby desert landscape that lent itself nicely to black-and-white imagery. Here, a little gallery following Kristin (and our dog Pebble) through a day at the boulders. Did you get out this Thanksgiving weekend?
The outdoorsy lifestyle existed before synthetic base layers, REI, or even Fred Beckey. In fact, prehistoric humans spent pretty much all their time in nature, if you can believe that. Case in point: Ötzi, a 45-year-old dude whose preserved body was found in a jerky-like state high in the Alps more than five-thousand years after his death. The bearded, five-foot-two inch tall nature-boy made a habit of running up and down the mountains in what is today the border between Italy and Austria.
No ultimate roadtrip-mobile, Whole Foods, or Mountain Athlete Training for Ötzi. But just like the climbers, hunters, and thru-hikers of today, outdoorspeople of old loved their gear. Ötzi was found surrounded by all kinds of sweet kit for his time in the outdoors: a knife and an axe, a backpack, all-terrain footwear, even a bearskin cap. And since everyone else on the Internet has already compiled holiday buyer’s guides for the contemporary outdoor lifestyle, I thought I’d put one together for Ötzi and his kin.
1. Animal sinew – Shredded tendon fiber is super tough and, bonus, shrinks as it dries. It’s just the thing for binding a flint blade into an ash wood dagger handle. When paired with a bone awl, it’s the ideal way to mend broken seams in a pair of well-worn goat hide leggings.
2. Flint from the Lessini Mountains – For crafting into fresh knife blades or arrowheads, or for getting that fire going on a cold night under the stars, Lessini flint is the finest anywhere.
3. Grass and hay – Long strands of supple grass are good for binding stuff together—the wooden supports of a backpack frame or the ankle of your deerskin boots, for example. Meanwhile, grasses cut and dried into hay make an excellent insulating layer in boots. It’s a good idea to keep several handfuls of dry hay on hand at all times, to re-stuff your boots after a stream crossing or long hike through the high-mountain snows.
4. Copper polish – Sure, that copper axe can fell a yew tree in thirty minutes flat, but it’s also a status symbol worth keeping nice and shiny. For a good polish formula, trade with some low-landers for a grass pouch of citrus fruit, as the acidic juice makes quick work of oxidization. Bonus gift: a tab of beeswax. Applied after cleaning, it helps maintain the polish longer.
5. Animal fat – Like Michael Jackson in the 1980s, practically every piece of Ötzi’s wardrobe was made of animal hide, from hat to his loin cloth, from leggings to shoes. To keep everything supple, animal fat can be used to condition leather and hide.
6. Field horsetail – Any seasoned outdoorsperson wants gear that’s lightweight, easy to use, and versatile. Enter field horsetail: it’s abrasive enough to smooth and polish a yew tree bow, yet it can also be boiled in water to help ward off an assortment of maladies.
7. Shoots of viburnum sapwood – Two words: arrow shafts. Boom!
8. Dolomite marble disk – Any copper-age dude hiking around in the mountains with a bow and arrow is going to need a way to carry all the wildfowl he pots. A tassel of leather nooses is perfect for this purpose, but how to affix them to your person? A fine Dolomite marble disk, carved be the small-fingered youth of the region, is a great accessory. Simply thread a leather strap through the central hole of the disk and secure with a stopper knot. Then pass the disk beneath your leather utility belt and you’re all set. Attractive shape and color add an element of class to any ensemble.
9. Bracket fungi – You can never have too much of this Neolithic panacea. The fruiting body of the birch polypore fungus has long been known for its antibiotic and styptic effects, and the toxic oils it contains can ward off pesky intestinal parasites.
10. iPhone – If you were to give our friend Ötzi a bath and a shave, he’d fit right into twenty-first century society, and nothing says 2013 like an iPhone. GPS for way finding, high-res camera for capturing alpine sunsets, iMessaging to check in with the missus or village elders, and the Google app, to make sure those berries weren’t poisonous.
More on Ötzi
A bunch of my friends are heading south for Creeksgiving. If you haven’t heard of Creeksgiving, it’s a Thanksgiving spent in the desert-crack-climbing capital of the world, Indian Creek. My friends didn’t make up the term—climbers have apparently been celebrating Creeksgiving for years. From across the country they come. Some dig a pit in the ground and slow-cook their food all day while they’re out dangling from fist jams. Others drive into town and pick up rotisserie chickens and the like. My friend Rick recounts using an Orion Cooker to convection-roast a turkey one year.
Dec. 30, 2012 – My wife Kristin tells me how much fun she’s having. We’re out bouldering in the lunar basin of Moe’s Valley in St. George, Utah, and she’s not even climbing — just hanging out and offering moral support, which I think is damned decent of her.
“I like to get away from home … from our day-to-day life,” she explains. “I feel like I can actually see you now, without all the anxiety about work and schedules and things we have to do.”
I feel the same way. We see each other differently out here, surrounded by nothing but dirt and rocks and sky. It reminds me of those early days of our relationship, when there was still so much we didn’t know or assume about each other. We were experiencing “beginner’s mind” — that state of being where everything is new, even if you’ve seen it a million times, as Kristin and I have seen each other.
In one popular Zen story, a teacher pours tea into a student’s cup until it overflows and spills out across the ground. The student jumps back, surprised, and asks the teacher what he’s doing.
“Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations,” the teacher answers. “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
Travel can help empty one’s cup, as it did in Moe’s Valley for Kristin and me. I also think it’s a grand goal to be always working to empty your cup.
Most folks take the turning of the year as a time to reflect on milestones and accomplishments, to set goals and make resolutions. Indeed, the month of January is named for Janus, an ancient Roman god with two faces, one looking towards the past and the other to the future. Personally, rather than looking behind or ahead, I like to think of the new year’s transition as a great time to start living precisely in the center, in the eternal Now.
The day after our trip to Moe’s Valley, Kristin and I headed to Zion National Park, about 40 miles northeast of St. George. We wanted to hike to Angel’s Landing, even though we’d heard it could be sketchy this time of year. In the visitor’s center, a woman told a group of tourists, “Oh yes, Angel’s Landing: people fall to their deaths on that hike all the time!” Which seemed a little alarmist to me. We decided to go anyway.
The hike was mellower than we had expected, not too steep and well-paved most of the way. Towards the end, we donned Microspikes — little chain-and-spike slip-ons that give your hiking boots great traction on ice and snow. We clambered up some steep sections of snow-frosted stone secured with chain handrails. The going got a little hinky, so Kristin hung back on a flat platform under a dead tree where a California condor the size of a small child hunched silently in the sun. I went ahead a ways to see what the terrain was like.
I headed out across a narrow bridge of stone, maybe two feet across. The ground dropped away hundreds, maybe a thousand, feet on either side. Striated red walls reared up again in the distance, forming towers and walls and arêtes. A meager river meandered through the valley to my left. I felt the wide-open void pulling at me. I let the moment radiate out from me and back into me. My thoughts tumbled into space, melting into air as they fell. My cup was empty.
In his essay “Zen and the Problem of Control,” philosopher Alan Watts writes “When the will is struggling with itself and in conflict with itself it is paralyzed, like a person trying to walk in two different directions at once.” It is tempting to look ahead and back, not just at year’s end, but all the time. We see the world in terms of past and potential actions. We’re constantly writing and rewriting the narrative of who we are and what we might be, all the while judging ourselves against this fictional character. I do it. We all do it.
We can reach specific goals through this process, but we can also lose track of the more important things that underlie those goals. We think, If I can just lose weight, or climb a certain route, or make more money, then I will have succeeded! Those are all fine things, but really what we’re after is to feel more like what Watts describes as a person “all of a piece with himself and with the natural world.” We assume we know the path that will make that happen, but for many reasons — because we’re trying to walk in two directions at once, perhaps — it’s easy to misdirect our energies.
Our resolutions may or may not move us towards a sense of deeper satisfaction, but I’d like to take this symbolic entering of a new year as a reminder, like the ringing of a bell in a Zen ceremony, to start this moment with an empty cup. As for the next moment, I’ll deal with that when I come to it.
December 15, 2012 – My aunt Carol sits next to my grandpa Frank at the long, burnished wood dining table in the private dining room of the assisted living center in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Carafes of water and iced tea are arranged up and down the table. Out the picture window on the far wall, the town’s eponymous geyser-like fountain erupts to mark the hour, a 560-foot-tall, wind-blown feather pluming in the arid winter air.
“Those are nice pants, dad,” Carol says. “I haven’t seen those before.” My grandpa, 92, turns his head a few degrees, an indication that his attention has shifted from inner space to his youngest daughter, now grown with three kids of her own. He looks ready to say something. The room — containing my grandparents, my mother, my aunt and two of her children, and my wife and I — pauses to listen.
My grandpa, a decorated WWII fighter pilot, for as long as I can remember has been a quiet man, pleasantly reserved, slim, straight-backed, clean-shaven, early to rise — his military training even now remains tightly woven into the nooks of his personality. He often wears a paper boy cap, harkening maybe to his Scottish roots, and a wool cardigan over a collared shirt. Were he 70 years younger, his wardrobe would let him blend easily with a certain type of hipster crowd.
When I was growing up, almost every time I called my grandparents, my grandpa and I played out the same, brief conversation:
“Hi Justin! How’s Justin?” he’d say. I’d tell him a little bit about my life, and because I lived in Manhattan through most of my twenties, he’d remind me that he once worked there. He used to get up early and take the train in from New Jersey, riding an elevator up to some high floor with a view of the city. I could tell that feeling really stuck with him, of being up above the dozing metropolis at first light, like having a whole world to himself. After about two minutes, there’d be a pause, then he’d say, “Well that’s fine! You’re fine and we’re fine; we’re all fine!” Short and sweet.
He didn’t talk so much, and I, on the other hand, talked too much. Still, as I grow older, I start to look at myself and at my grandpa and think about the role his genes play in me. I also love the city in the early morning. I also love to be up above the world, looking down.
I remember a story my grandpa told me once about landing his P-47 Thunderbolt speckled with bullet holes. I don’t even know what country he was over at the time, but the cool required to fly straight into a dogfight two miles above the earth is something I can hardly imagine. Then again, maybe it’s similar to the way people see the climber — a human speck on the face of a huge cliff, suspended by gossamer thread. Maybe it’s a similar arrangement of neurons and blend of bio-chemicals that lets a person find strange peace and fulfillment at great heights, while skirting the margins between life and death.
* * *
“Those are nice pants, dad,” Carol says. “I haven’t seen those before.” And my grandpa’s gaze shifts, as if he had been looking down on us all from great a height. He’s here again, on the ground with us, or almost. He processes my aunt’s comment and makes a simple statement so Zen that the three generations of family in the room can’t help but laugh.
“Well,” he replies with a light smile, “things change.” Then he returns to his grilled cheese and tater tots.
That’s all he’ll say for the remainder of the meal. After lunch, I help wheel my grandmother back to their apartment down the hall. My grandfather follows behind with his walker. The family stands around and chats in the apartment for a while, my grandmother lively despite having weathered several strokes that make it difficult for her to express herself through language.
Grandpa looks a little tired, so my mom goes over and says, “It’s OK, dad, you can take a nap.” He shifts his attention towards her and says, “Oh, OK. Thank you,” and then leans to one side on the sofa and quickly drifts to sleep, a smile on his face. It could be a symptom of his particular brand of dementia, but I’d swear he’s made some sort of peace with the changes that are slowly but surely whelming over him and his wife and everything he’s known in his long life on this tiny blue speck.
I was raised without any particular religious belief. Around the winter holiday season when I was young, we read Bible stories and Zen stories alike. We had a Christmas tree and also a menorah. More than anything, my parents and I used the time as an excuse to just be together, to take a break from the chronic business that afflicts most working people in the modern world and remember the more profound pillars of a human life — love, honesty, sharing, togetherness, thankfulness … the simple, if not a little sappy, stuff at the heart of most Christmas movies. My wife and I are partaking in this fine holiday tradition as I write this.
Our visit to see my grandparents, though not on Christmas proper, was in keeping with this theme. Just a sharing of time and place, a simple show of love and appreciation that’s all too easy to put off when schedules are full and family scattered across time zones. Regardless of how many words are exchanged, this is the most valuable thing any of us can give each other. All the more because things change.
The night before last, I was standing in an empty field just as the full moon rose through the branches of a tree. I took this picture. A grand, pale orange form as it mounted the horizon, the moon appeared to shrink smaller and smaller as it rose, until it hung like a bare bulb in the sky above us. The sight conjured a Zen story from Zen Flesh Zen Bones, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. The lesson, as always, is one of perspective:
The Moon Cannot Be Stolen
Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.
Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you shoud not return emptyhanded. Please take my clothes as a gift.”
The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.
Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow, ” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”
– The Blockhead Lord
It is impossible to deny that Leap Day is the greatest of all holidays. For one thing, it happens only once every four years, making it much rarer and more valuable than other yearly holidays, like the so-called “President’s Day,” Labor Day, or even Halloween. Also, due to its quadrennial nature, Leap Day throws a wrench in the idea of age. Indeed, those born on Leap Days age at one fourth the normal rate! To attain drinking age, a Leap Day baby will have to wait until they’ve passed eighty-four normal human years! Thus, leap day is an excellent example of Einstein’s relativity theory, as time goes relatively slower for Leap Day babies than for the rest of us. (It’s science; it’s a fact.) And, of course, Leap Day is also the day we celebrate the amazing tale of Leap Day Williams (see video above). Case closed.
PS – Don’t forget to wear your blue and yellow!
Just in case you were wondering, today is the celebration of George Washington’s birthday, not a celebration of all America’s illustrious presidents. At least on a Federal level. Oh, and Washington wasn’t born on the twentieth but the twenty-second of February.
This lengthy and somewhat confusing snopes.com article lays out the particulars of the designation of the third Monday in February as a Federal holiday referred to as Washington’s Birthday. Technically, Federal holidays apply only to Federal employees, but most states and private businesses follow the Federal government’s example.
Here at my office, we’re working today. But I think the day off got scooted down to December, so people could take longer trips. Something like that.
In closing, I leave you with a fun fact about George Washington, since it’s his birthday on Wednesday. According to this site, which may or may not contain facts, “At his inauguration, Washington had only one tooth. At various times he wore dentures made of human teeth, animal teeth, ivory or even lead.”