Walking on Lava: A Pedestrian Lesson from Hawaii

Lava sunset

Take the helicopter tour, one friend suggested. You can hire a boat that takes you right up to where the lava meets the sea, someone else offered. But when the guy at the hotel info desk mentioned a walking tour to see the Mauna Loa lava flows in Kalapana, on the Big Island of Hawaii, my wife and I decided immediately and in unison that was the way for us.

We signed up for the tour and drove the Saddle Road to the town of Hilo, on the other side of the island (walking this leg of the journey would have taken days — a little long for this trip). We ascended nearly 7,000 feet on the drive, passing over the southern flank of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world provided you measure from its base on the sea floor, and through several different climate zones along the way.

In rainy Hilo, we met our tour guide, a young blond girl from Massachusetts who’d just graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in volcanology. We were the only two on the tour that day. We followed our guide to the lava viewing area just outside of Volcano National Park, parked our cars, and started to walk.

Walking is by definition a human-scale endeavor, measured in footsteps. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking,” Nietzsche said, and maybe there’s something to this. I certainly use walking to clear my head when things get too crowded up there. Thomas Jefferson praised walking as a key to good health for the body and the mind. A slow amble puts us down in the landscape, on intimate terms with the real cost of getting from here to there. On foot, we get to experience the fine textures and details of a journey.

We crossed the expansive lava fields, our shoe soles the only barrier between skin and blasted black landscape. We trod on the cracked and crazed mounds of lava rock, wove in an out of big broken domes called tumuli, crunched over the fragile folds of ropy pahoehoe. The trek offered a sense of what the beginning — or maybe the end — of the world might look like.

Our guide stopped and knelt carefully. The ground was mostly silica, and can cut with a touch. She pinched what looked like a fine, straw-colored hair between thumb and forefinger.

“Have you heard of Pele’s hair?” she asked, handing me the fragile strand. “It’s lava that gets spun out by the wind and cooled into a thread… Who knew Pele was a blond?”

Three miles over this terrain and we felt it in our legs and ankles. Each step landed on a different texture or angle. In the distance, a plume of pure white steam rose from the lava entry at the water’s edge. We walked by homes and vehicles that had become embedded in the lava flows. Studded with little bursts of red flower, an ohia tree 10 feet tall stood as a measuring stick to the decades since the lava had passed that spot.

An hour and a half into the hike, we came to the sea cliffs. Here, molten stone broke through a burnt veneer and globbed into the foamy, chaotic surf, generating steam billows that rose up and black sand particles that filtered down.

“There aren’t many places you can see new land being created like this,” our tour guide said with a geologist’s indefatigable reverence.

Nearby, we found a fresh “toe” of lava that had broken through its crusty containment and bulged up and out, folding over onto itself repeatedly, like glowing red layers of hot fudge. It quickly cooled and sealed over, only to break through again. We poked it with long sticks, which burst into flame on contact. Our shoe rubber grew soft.

On the way out, it started raining, offering a welcome coolness. The sun set behind the shoulder of Mauna Loa and we clicked on our headlamps. Certainly, the different perspectives of a boat or a helicopter would have been interesting, more cinematic maybe, but we already observe so much of our world through screens and windows. Better, we thought, to go face to face with the lava fields — slow, with effort, scorched and soaked and awed by the primordial beauty of it all.

Walking is not the fastest way or the easiest way to do just about anything. Humans have invented countless modes of conveyance to spare ourselves from the drudgery of conducting our many chores and journeys on foot. But in this age of acceleration and expediency, walking remains important. It gives us a chance to think or, if walking with another, to discuss, unhurried by the relentless ticking of The Clock.

We returned to our cars in the drizzling darkness, dreading the drudgery of the slow, winding drive back across the island, but happy that we’d chosen to go by foot. Walking is a great reminder that the journey is, at the very least, as important as the destination… If there even is such a thing as a destination, after all.


Looking and Seeing


In the late 1970s, two of America’s best rock climbers were on a tear in Yosemite Valley, putting up new boulder problems left and right. Visionaries, both, neither Ron Kauk nor John Bachar saw the line on the Columbia Boulder, right in the middle of Camp 4, an area packed with climbers all season long. Instead, a climber Bachar described as “a drug addict, schizophrenic, and a wild guy” spotted the line first. John “Yabo” Yablonski, addled as he may have been, he was the one who saw possibility where no one else did.

As a photographer (aspiring and amateur, admittedly), I have been snapping pictures of the world around me ever since my parents bought me my first SLR in the early 1990s. Since then, my time with a camera in hand has taught me a lot about seeing — the first step in the art of photography. Strangely, this is easier said than done. Anyone can look (“A beautiful bridge! How exciting! I’ll take a picture of it!”) But to make that picture even hint at the power of the bridge you experience in your marrow, at least with any consistency at all, you have to condition yourself to see what is there. What is really there.

I know this must sound basic, or hopelessly oblique — of course you have to see! But looking is not seeing. You have to look to see, but it is quite easy to look and not see — In fact, I think it is our default mode. The photographer, the climber, the scientist, the writer — basically anyone trying to make or do anything worth a damn — must strive to see what is really before her. Only then can she decide how to proceed.

There is the bridge: sprawling span of steel and stone, rooted in earth and water. The sun hits it from this angle, throwing shadows in such a direction, stretching shapes from light and dark, illuminating some textures and obscuring others. Now frame it in your camera’s viewfinder. What does the camera see? Will that red and white tugboat be in the picture? Perhaps you should wait until it moves forward a little. Maybe wait a minute more, until it crosses that ray of light. To find the image you seek you must become, as Minor White writes in his essay “The Camera Mind and Eye,” like a sheet of film: “seemingly inert, yet so sensitive that a fraction of a second’s exposure conceives a life in it.”

To look, you need only your eyes — to see, your mind comes into play. When you see, you’re not just observing what is outside of you, but also what is inside. Both the external and internal fall under the heading What is There. “He can look day after day — and one day, the picture is visible!” writes White. “Nothing has changed except himself.”

When Yabo looked at that wave-shaped hunk of granite in Camp 4, he saw a way for a human form to navigate its spartan surface. In a similar way Charles Darwin, on observing an orchid with an eleven-inch nectary, saw that there must be a moth with a proboscis long enough to reach the nectar in its bottom. Only four decades later would the actual moth be discovered. Any scientist could look at the oddly shaped nectary, but not anyone could see its implications.

Luckily, like any skill, one can practice seeing (although, as far as I know, there’s no rulebook for it). A simple exercise: next time you’re looking at something, whether the face of a rock, a subject to be photographed, or some problem in your work or professional life, take the time to look for what is truly there. Don’t let other’s opinions or your own expectations overly influence you. Ask yourself again and again, “What is there? What is there?” When you do that and do it well, answers start to present themselves.

What to do with those answers? That’s another story…



This weekend, I stopped by an old New York City jazz spot I used to love when I was in college. Appropriately named, the tiny basement venue known as Smalls is located on 10th Street near 7th Avenue, in Greenwich Village. Back then, Smalls was a BYOB establishment. You paid your $10 cover and could hang out and watch musicians play till all hours, sipping your wine or whiskey or what have you among meandering clouds of pot smoke. Sometimes the jam sessions were world-class and sometimes not so much, but the experience was always special. The place was full of diehard jazz lovers and musicians. It felt spontaneous and alive…

At least, that’s how I remember it.

When I returned to the club a decade after my last visit, the same cat was working the door, but he seemed more downtrodden and was now equipped with a credit card machine. The cover charge had doubled and they’d added a full-service bar, with a woman running drinks in and out of the tightly packed patrons. People were chatting, the bar back kept making ice runs across the middle of the room, and the couple next to me was actually making out. During one trumpet solo, a guy wearing a bluetooth earpiece fired up the Shazam app and started waving his phone in the air, trying unsuccessfully to ID the song the quintet was playing. 

Walking around Chelsea on Saturday night, I noticed shiny new night clubs had begun to take over the area. Women in hot pants or micro-skirts and high heels careened through intersections screaming and laughing boozy laughs as taxi cabs blared past. Rents here, as everywhere, had gone from high to unreasonable to stratospheric, and the whole the city felt like it was becoming one big playground for well-heeled tourists, the super wealthy, and the kids of the super-wealthy who were now attending NYU, Columbia, or just hanging around Williamsburg and living a vaguely Bohemian urban lifestyle involving mustaches and arm-sleeve tattoos. My parents used to rent a loft on Bowery for $45 a month  — “Big enough to ride a bike in,” as my dad described it. Today, that rent could easily be 100 times more. Even Cooper Union, the famous art school with free tuition since its inception in 1859, is now starting to charge.

A sense of disillusion started to creep in. Was the city losing its edge? How long before the soaring costs and gentrification would force out entirely the very creative energies that made it desirable in the first place? I started to feel like one of those cynical old farts who thinks everything was better “back in the day.”

The day after my trip to Smalls, I was standing on a subway platform in Brooklyn when a busker started playing his saxophone. The sound was immediately arresting. He blew in rhythmic Philip Glass-like pulses. You could see his cheeks inflating as he drew air through his nose, breathing cyclically to keep the tones rolling in an unbroken chain. The repetitive nature of the music was mesmerizing, and people stood and stared in a way jaded New Yorkers seldom do. As a train rolled in, he started to taper his playing, ending with a flourish of notes just as the doors opened. As he pulled the reed from his pursed lips, he seemed startled by the round of applause that followed. He had been so deep into his own world that he hadn’t noticed the small crowd building around him or the dollar bills that had been raining into his battered horn case. 

I dropped in a bill and hopped the train, reassured that just because things change doesn’t mean the life has gone out of them. You’ll see it if you open your eyes and look — the fun part is, it will rarely be who, where, or how you’d expect.


Lessons of the Peppered Moth

The Peppered Moth changing

It’s not just “survival of the fittest” anymore. It’s the adaptable, those most willing and able to learn, who persevere.

The world is full of people whose inability or unwillingness to adapt to changing landscapes left them out in the cold. Factory workers who knew only how to work in factories. When it became cheaper for businesses to send production overseas, the factories closed and the workers languished. They felt they had nowhere to go.

Likewise the young climber who prizes his fitness and skill above all else. In the height of his strength, he might imagine he will always be as he is now. He doesn’t consider what his life will be like when he is injured or his body no longer performs as it once did. He doesn’t consider the many ways to be happy and useful and fulfilled when things are different.

The case of the Peppered Moth is perhaps the most popular demonstration of Darwinian natural selection today. Prior to Britain’s Industrial Revolution, the mostly white Peppered Moth was thriving. The black variant of the moth was rare, its coloration poor camouflage against the pale trees on which it rested.

But the Industrial Revolution, with its machines and factories, brought change: soot particles that eventually darkened the trees on which the Peppered Moths rested. Now the darker moths were the better hidden, while white moths became easy pickings for keen-eyed birds. Lo and behold, the black moths became the more common variant for more than a century, until pollution regulations of the 1970s began to stem the sooty tide.

The difference between people and moths is that change for the moths comes only at the population level, through death and reproduction. When more black moths survive to bear offspring, the population grows dark. When more white moths survive to bear offspring, the population grows pale.

We humans, however, have a unique memory and intelligence that lets us adapt much more quickly. We can record our experiences and our lessons learned. We can share our knowledge. We can predict the future from the past and, in theory, act accordingly. This is one reason our kind inhabits so much of the planet — we are able to adapt within a single generation rather than over the course of many.

Still, many of us seem to live like the Peppered Moth, sitting and hoping desperately that the rules of the game won’t change so we won’t have to, either.

But the game is always changing. The sand of time drains ever down, drawing with it our bodies and minds. Technology destroys old opportunities and creates new ones. The changes in our climate are already set in motion. No matter how we fight or what we’d rather, the world we inhabit in 20 or 50 years will be very different from the world today.

When things change around us, we can be like the white Peppered Moth who sits on a black tree branch and waits for the birds to come. Or we can see the new landscape and make an effort to adapt, to lighten and darken our wings, or even shed our wings and grow gills. This is no mean task, granted, but the first step is to change our minds and attitudes, which is something the Peppered Moth can never do.



Do You Have the Adventure Drive?


The other day, I found myself too busy to take my dog for his morning walk. Bodhi’s a hyperactive blue heeler mix with big bat ears, a salt-and-pepper coat, and a little dark spot under his nose that looks, from a certain angle, not unlike Inspector Clouseau’s moustache. According to dogbreedinfo.com, heelers, or Australian cattle dogs are “a courageous, tireless, robust, compact working” breed and “not the kind of dog to lie around the living room all day” — a fair description of Bodhi, minus the “courageous” part.

I ignored the poor pup as he lingered around the legs of my desk proffering a sock for me to toss. Eventually he wandered off. A little while later, I heard the clack of Bodhi’s nails on the wood floor as he hopped down from the off-limits bed and sauntered back into the living room with a piece of tissue stuck to his lip. I walked into the bedroom to find used Kleenex from the trashcan ascatter on the floor.

“Bad dog,” I said without conviction, knowing I had only myself to blame, and made a note to play fetch with him on my lunch hour.

In the scheme of things, Bodhi’s pretty good. I’ve heard stories of dogs with excess energy taking shoes and furniture apart and even clawing through walls. On the ASPCA website, there’s a list of “Problems that Result from Lack of Exercise and Play,” which includes: “Destructive chewing, digging or scratching,” “Knocking over furniture and jumping up on people,” “Excessive predatory and social play,” barking, biting, whining, and more.

“Dogs are born to work for a living,” the ASPCA site goes on. “They’ve worked alongside us for thousands of years.” I would add that, prior to those “thousands of years,” dogs were wild for millions, made to survive in a harsh environment, hunt, compete for mates and resources, and so on. It seems the modern “couch potato” lifestyle doesn’t suit dogs any more than it does humans.

Yes, we too have been shaped by our environment over the course of millions of years — an environment without climate controlled suburban housing, cars, or even the Internet (!). Deep inside us there remain, at least in part, faculties that allowed our ancestors to weather brutal winters, fend off predators, hunt down large, powerful prey, and on and on. Our bodies and minds have been wired to respond in ways that make us more likely to survive. As a result, we are on some level built to deal with what most people today would call “risky” situations.

“Risk is an integral part of life and learning,” writes Laurence Gonzales in his book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. “A baby who doesn’t walk, for example, will never risk falling. But in exchange for taking that risk, he gains the much greater survival advantage of being bipedal and having his hands free.” Physical action and risk taking are a part of our survival programming. (Research has even suggested that exercise played an evolutionary role in the development of our brains.)

At the same time, there’s another powerful, and in many ways conflicting, motivator we all share — the drive to make the world more consistent and predictable.

Over the past century or two, we denizens of the so-called first world have moved ever farther in the direction of safety and predictability. We’ve extended our life expectancy through the elimination of predators, construction of complex shelters and food production systems, and the creation of ever-more effective medical procedures. We wear helmets when we bike, ski, climb, kayak and so forth (a trend I strongly encourage, by the way). Our lives, like our cars, have become insulated from the consequences of an indifferent world. Many of us now live in what folk singer Malvina Reynolds called “little boxes made of ticky tacky,” well removed from the past that formed our instincts. “We live like fish in an aquarium,” writes Gonzales. “food comes mysteriously down, oxygen bubbles up. We are the domestic pets of a human zoo we call civilization.”

And yet, the survival urge lives on inside of us. In many of us, it rubs up against the bars of the human zoo, creating discomfort that cries out for action. It probably has something to do with why modern “adventure” sports like climbing, BMXing, snowboarding, big-wave surfing and the like have been gaining in popularity, especially among classes of people with access to ample food and shelter and leisure time. Isolated from the need to ward off threats lurking behind every tree, this instinct has in many of us taken the form of an “adventure drive,” in which we must face challenges that are at once physical, mental, and, to varying degrees, risky. This combination adresses a missing element in many of our lives. Disaster-style alpinist and margarita aficionado Kelly Cordes, waxed philosophical on such a drive in a video called “Somethin Bout Nothin”:

We do create situations where uncertainty plays big for us. But if you knew the result of everything in life, you almost get to a philosophical question: well, what the hell’s the point? … And I think that’s one of the cool things about alpinism: you end up being responsible for your own decisions, which doesn’t happen in today’s world hardly at all anymore.

With little chance to face primal challenges in our day-to-day life, certain types of people (disproportionately men, it seems… but that’s a topic for another day) seek out situations that exercise those faculties in their brains. There is a simplicity in it, and even at times a transcendental euphoria. When rockfall, originating in a couloir high above, zings by your head, societal worry falls away like a useless old husk. Assuming you have the appropriate skills and training, the raw challenge can be freeing, if only for a time, and ultimately an experience we can take back with us into the everyday world. If we’re smart and/or lucky, we can use the intensity of such experiences to see through to the marrow of our daily lives.

For some, the survival instinct remains just that. I’m looking at a magazine called Survivalist right now. It’s a thin, glossy publication with ads for food that will keep nigh-indefinitely in your bomb shelter, electricity-free water purifiers, and guns … lots of guns. The cover lines include such heart warmers as “How to Survive the Impending Martial Law & Economic Collapse” and “Breaking the Matrix of the New World Order.” If there’s one thing the editors of this magazine are sure of, it’s that shit is going to hit the fan soon. If there’s another thing, it’s that they and their ilk will be sitting pretty when that shit/fan thing happens. The third thing they know? All those yuppies who voted for Obama, drink lattes, and whose pantries are stocked with a measly week of provisions, are up a creek, sans paddle.

Clearly, I’m not a Survivalist subscriber, but that doesn’t mean I don’t empathize with the anxiety its readers feel. I think it springs directly from the new world we inhabit, in which many of our most powerful urges can be confusing, even harmful. Some of these remain useful, such as empathy and social bonding. Others seem to cause more harm than good now that circumstances have changed — our very understandable inclination to find and eat food, for example. In a country filled to brimming with cheap, nutritionally hollow, edible food-like substances, our survival programming has led to a health crisis of morbidly obese proportions. Instinctual fear of the unknown cuts both ways, keeping us cautious when confronting new things that might well be dangerous, but also creating deep anxiety in response to things that statistics and our rational minds tell us are incredibly rare, like shark attacks, commercial airline crashes, mass shootings, and the zombie apocalypse.

It would seem that, confronted with a significantly less risky world than the one our ancestors lived in for thousands of generations, we first-worlders are struggling to find a new balance. Could this explain why we choose to climb mountains and hurl ourselves off cliffs, or even horde ammo and stockpile duct tape and plastic wrap? Are our brains, geared for something more challenging than cul-de-sacs and cubicles, still searching for a way to express a deep survival instinct?

As opposed to the generalized anxiety that grows in a world where threats are removed from our immediate sphere, climbing “is a fear that one can understand because you have a reason to be anxious or frightened at that point: you don’t want to fall,” said the writer Matt Samet in an article called “Risks and rocks: the mentality behind the mountain.” “It makes sense in a way that’s not chaotic. So in a way that’s the cure for the angst I feel in modern society.” Samet battled for many years with depression, anxiety, and a confounding addiction to prescription medications, all of which he documents in his book Death Grip. The immediacy and primal simplicity of climbing helped him to cut through the fog of his psychological afflictions.

I’m the first to admit that without significant research and study, this is just another theory, half-baked and three-quarters cocked. But if it’s true that many of us require stimulation beyond video games, golf, or the latest episode of Dancing With the Stars to feel right inside, I’d posit that a day on the rock, on the slopes, or in the waves is healthy, despite the risk. Yes, there is danger there, but a meaningful danger, as opposed to the more insidious kind we face from our modern lifestyle, where cancers slowly grow, arteries gradually clog, and — despite or maybe because of our declawed environment — people inexplicably commit suicide by the tens of thousands every year. These are the dangers of carefully constructed cages, creeping, persistent, terrifying in their banality.

In truth, the ideal is to have a life that is relatively in control and safe, in which we needn’t fear attackers or worry about getting enough food to survive. Then, moving from such a stable base, we have the freedom to choose which risks — whether on a mountain, in our careers, or intellectually — we take, and how to take them. This is an impossible reality; humanity will never succeed in eliminating all risk from the environment. And it’s worth remembering that, even if we could, death will still await us all. Nevertheless, it is worth striving for.

Thus, I wish you all the satisfaction of coming home safely from an epic adventure to a warm house, a good meal, and to your family and friends. There’s not much that can beat that.

[Video] Why Plaid? A closer look at the unofficial uniform of Outdoor Retailer

Last August I wrote a post called 50 Shades of Plaid, featuring a photo gallery of the many plaid shirts that attendees of the Outdoor Retailer Show wore. The post garnered an inordinate amount of attention and, as Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2013 approached, several people asked what I was planning for a follow-up. This video, shot entirely on an iPhone 5, is the answer — a closer look into plaid, the unofficial uniform of the Outdoor Retailer Show and the outdoor industry.

The Language of Stars

Boulders and stars, Triassic, UT.

If the stars should appear but one night every thousand years how man would marvel and stare.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

This Friday I turned 34. Other than that fact that the first and second digits are consecutive, it was not a particularly significant birthday. Rather than throw a party in honor of the occasion, Kristin and I packed our trusty Honda Element and headed south and east of Salt Lake City, to a bouldering spot called Triassic, which feels every bit as prehistoric as the name would imply.

Located between the rural town of Elmo (pop. 368) and the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, site of “the densest concentration of Jurassic-aged dinosaur bones ever found,” Triassic is a desert sandstone bouldering area comprised of a few caches of rock in what was once an ancient seabed. The feeling one gets in this desolately beautiful spot is one of timelessness, as if a herd of Allosaurus fragilis might at any moment come lumbering over the crest of a hill.

Triassic: the land that time forgot

Although the environs at first appear lifeless, an attentive eye will pick out the movement of many a creature — little rock-crawling lizards, chipmunks, jack rabbits, and even antelope — all camouflaged in the dusty tones of the landscape. Humans tend to be the least represented creatures in Triassic. Which is half the reason why Kristin and I chose the spot in the first place. We went there to climb, but also to spend the night isolated in a more wild setting, enjoy a celebratory drink in front of a camp fire, and, among my favorite pastimes in nature, stargaze.

That night, the stars were out in their full regalia. By 11pm, the sun was long gone, the moon had not yet crested the horizon, and all the constellations were razor-sharp and twinkling. Through the middle of the sky was a broad swath of diffuse light, the combined glow of billions of stars forming the spiral-armed Milky Way, seen from on edge like a cosmic Frisbee hurtling towards us.

Communing with the campfire

Dinosaur fossils, the pictographs of ancient civilizations, great geologic landscapes like the Grand Canyon or the Himalaya, the open ocean — all of these are magical to behold, but nothing puts a person in his or her tiny, insignificant place quite like a full-blown sky full of stars, viewed on a clear cold desert night.

To each observer, the vast starscape becomes a celestial Rorschach test. What we see in the unfathomable vastness is a testament to what our hearts most want to see. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “How is it they live in such harmony the billions of stars – when most men can barely go a minute without declaring war in their minds about someone they know.” To him, stars were an example from God of how humans can better carry out their lives. Marcus Aurelius saw them as exemplary of a realm above and beyond petty human concerns: “Look round at the courses of the stars, as if thou wert going along with them; and constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another; for such thoughts purge away the filth of the terrene life.” Van Gogh said simply “The sight of the stars makes me dream.”

Basic view of the Milky Way

To me, the stars serve as proof that we’re the center of nothing in particular, and that our actions leave not a scratch on the broad side of the universe. In the Zen tradition, they remind me to take “serious” things more lightly, and “small” things more seriously, and remember that our only legacy is the example we set in this life, and our ultimate return to the elemental star dust of which we’re made.

The next morning when we woke, the stars had once again disappeared behind the blue veil of the sky. We approached the day with no particular goal in mind. Alone, in the desert, with some water and a few crash pads, we set off walking to see what we could see. But the stars had left their faint impression in our minds and, at least for a little while, we would follow their example.

Farewell, Summer Weekend. Adieu.


Scarcity can create value, any economist will tell you, and so it is with weekends. The working stiff must wedge into two days all the daydreams (and, alas, the chores and obligations, too) accumulated in the course of the workweek. Thus, each weekend hour is heavy with possibility, dense and precious as a gold doubloon. And of all the year’s weekends, the summer weekend, with its broad swaths of daylight and its jovial warmth, is perhaps the most precious of all. It beckons us to backyard cookouts, jaunts into the high mountains or wind-combed beaches.

But take note! As you read this, there remains but one last weekend to the year’s warmest season. In the northern hemisphere, the astronomical summer meets its end on Friday, the 21st of September. As the sun sets on this final sunny summer Sunday, who could but pine for more days of freedom? ‘Tis understandable, but as one wise old wanderer once scribbled in his leather-bound journals, “Waste not your precious minutes lamenting the weekend’s brief respite! Instead, cherish what time ye do have.”

With that in mind, I’ve here compiled a much-abridged inventory of those things that make me impatient for the next weekend before this one be yet over. I’d much appreciate it if you’d add to this list with your own favorite summer weekend things in the comments below.

  1. Ignoring your alarm clock, set for the typical and ungodly workday hour, and sinking back into sleep until sunlight fills your room.
  2. Having the time to take your dog for a long walk to an open field and play fetch; the sight of your dog’s tongue lolling out of his mouth, flicking slobber pearls onto the dry earth; satisfaction as he flops onto the cool grass in the shade of a tree.
  3. The long breakfast. Or even brunch.
  4. An unhurried tie-in for the first climb of the morning, complimented by the smell of chalk, pine, sun-warmed lichen on stone.
  5. The midday nap in the shade, preferably in a hammock or in the grass with your head propped on a pack.
  6. A beer chilled in a cold stream after a long day on the rocks, or perhaps a late-night whisky, neat, imbibed out-of-doors and containing, faintly reflected, the 300 billion (give or take) stars of the Milky Way.
  7. Grillin’.
  8. Tomatoes from the garden, sun-warm.
  9. Spending a whole afternoon reading that book that’s been loitering on the bedstand.
  10. Orange mocha Frappuccino™!
  11. Just before leaving for a weekend trip, you check to see that the front door is locked one last time. Then, that moment when you turn towards your car and see your travelin’ companion in the passenger seat, shades on, head nodding rhythmically to this song.
  12. Storm clouds billowing up into their customary anvil shape, as if taking a deep breath to blow slanting rain and lightning bolts down onto the earth. Also, the alien yellow-green light that precedes these storms.
  13. Meandering campfire discussions with friends, punctuated by the wood’s fiery crackle, your faces lit from below.
  14. Flip flops.
  15. Sitting down to work on a piece of writing in the afternoon and not lifting your head until your wife turns on the light in the now-dark room and gently asks, “Will you be ready to eat, soon? It’s getting late…



Nothing Is Unpossible

Kristin after her run

The first time I talked my wife Kristin into going for a run with me, it was around the 1/4-mile high school track by our house in Boulder, Colorado. After the first lap, she had to take a break, partly due to the altitude (she’d just moved out from Philadelphia), and partly because she hadn’t done much in the way of physical activity in her 25 years of life. I don’t think we made it to a mile that day.

Despite at first hating that oh-so-special feeling of heart, lung, and leg exhaustion you get from running, Kristin didn’t give up. She felt it was important to get active and live a healthy life. Plus, we were in Boulder — it just felt natural to do as the Boulderites did.

Over the years, we had an on-again, off-again relationship with running, and Kristin eventually got fit enough to run three or four miles without keeling over. Then, about four months ago, unprompted, she declared she wanted to run 10 miles, whatever it might take. We Googled up a basic training program and started running four days a week, with increasingly longer runs on Sunday. We’d rise at 5:45am to beat the summer heat, pull on our shorts and lace up our shoes, and hit the road. The runs didn’t always feel great while we were doing them, but we always felt refreshed afterward and into the workday. Kristin got hooked on that feeling, the way most people do if they stick with running for long enough.

Just over a month ago, we made it to eight miles, but then Kristin tweaked her foot. She finished her run that day but could barely walk the final block back to our house. She was despondent, afraid she’d never get to her goal. “Maybe my body isn’t made to run 10 miles,” she moped.

We started up running again last week. We ticked off one three-miler and then, on Sunday, halfway into a planned four miles, we decided to just go for it. Nearly two hours later, we finished the elusive Mile 10.

We certainly didn’t break any speed records that day, but we finished, and pretty much off the couch, too. I know: people run 100 miles across Death Valley in the summer, so in the scheme of things, our 10 miles was not what you’d call a “big deal,” but what’s important is that Kristin set a goal for herself, a goal that at the time seemed distant, and she worked until she met it. Sunday’s run was, for her, one big step towards learning to ignore the niggling gremlins of self-doubt that plague us all. Genuine confidence (and, dare I say, happiness) is built on a foundation of moments when you did what you set out to do — when you did more than you thought you could.

Sure, I’m happy — I haven’t run 10 miles in many a year — but I am most proud of Kristin. She is now 10 miles closer to understanding that, with hard work, confidence, and a willingness to just fucking try, all things are possible; nothing is unpossible.

The only question now is, which half-marathon should we do?

50 Shades of Plaid: The Unofficial Uniform of Outdoor Retailer

The Outdoor Retailer Summer Market (ORSM) is, according to the website, “the world’s largest outdoor sports industry gathering.” For this much-lauded trade show, thousands of brands, athletes, non-profits, retail store buyers, media outfits, and so forth gather at the sprawling Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City every summer to do business of one sort or another.

Whatever the reason a person attends the OR Show, almost everyone – every male, at least – will at some point don the “OR uniform”: a plaid shirt, probably short-sleeved, with khakis or jeans, and either approach shoes or flip-flops.

After years of administering lighthearted ribbings to my friends and co-workers for their unconscious adherence to the OR dress code, I decided to pick up my camera and document just a few of the tartan-clad attendees walking the red-carpeted walkways of the Salt Palace, which, one busy year, an event goer referred to as looking “like a table cloth.”

If you look carefully, you’ll find 50 different plaid (or near-plaid) shirts pictured in the gallery below. These I photographed with a modest effort – maybe 15 minutes over the course of Sunday, the final and slowest day.

With this, I hope to draw attention to a curious fashion phenomenon for which I can conjure no reasonable explanation. I have also included an image of myself, pre-show, in a plaid shirt — proof that an awareness of the plaid plague offers no immunity.

What Are Friends For?

I recently shared, with my 800-odd Facebook “friends,” a link to a New York Times article called “Friends of a Certain Age,” by Alex Williams. I found the piece to be honest and insightful, and I had recently been considering the phenomenon it identifies, namely that we tend to form fewer close friendships as we enter our 30s and 40s. (For context, I’m 33, married, of the middlish class, with a desk job and no kids.)

As we approach this fateful period in our lives, the article posits, “it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions … considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.” Throughout the piece, Williams offers a collection of quotes from psychologists and sociologists, as well as regular folks ranging in years from 32 to 46, all in support of the idea that the soil for friendship is most fertile during a person’s younger years.

When I posted the link on Facebook, I got some strong responses. My friends didn’t seem to agree. “Dude. This article is seriously bleak. I’m completely unwilling to accept such a dim view of socializing as an adult.” Said one I’ve known since elementary school. “You have to leave the rocking chair on your front porch to make friends,” said another I met after grad school. I think it’s natural to balk at the idea that friend-making tapers off at some pre-determined point — in fact, I have made several great friends from my late 20s through today — but the truth is, friendships do change from one period of life to the next. And as Stuart Smalley used to say, that’s OK.

In our younger years — elementary school through college, say — we tend to have a lot in common with the folks we befriend. They are usually from a similar socio-economic situation, the same geographical context, approximately our age (and thus, dealing with similar periods of physical, psychological, and emotional development), and so on. Most importantly, we’re thrown together with them, via schools, on a daily basis. Our classmates share with us more than half of our waking hours throughout the most formative years of our lives. We often become friends with people who live in our neighborhoods, and after spending hours with them in school, we spend hours more with them after school. Sometimes we spend the wee hours together, too, talking wide-eyed in the dark, sharing our fears, hopes, and half-formed adolescent philosophies during sleepovers.

As we grow, we see our friends come into their own, see them win glory on the playground or the sports field, see them embarrassed before rooms full of peers. Vulnerable, confused, elated, we see them as they meet their first romantic interests. When I was in high school, I dated a girl for little other reason than the fact that my best friend was dating someone from the same group of kids and I felt left out. In my freshman year of college, when the girl for whom I harbored a crush told me that she liked me, too, I called that same friend first to share the news. At that time of life, friendship meant something visceral. My parents were always there for me, but a parent’s response was not what I needed, then. Only a friend, at a similar point in life and who knew my back story from the ground level could offer the understanding and the validation I needed at that moment.

In those early years, a friend was more than just someone to talk to — a friend was the person who made you feel less odd, less alone. I can’t speak for all adolescents, but for me, from the time I was 12 all the way through my college years, my life was in constant flux, unbearably sweet one moment and unbearably sad, frustrating, or boring the next. My friends were my saviors. When I was feeling anxious in junior year of college, I’d go to crash on my friend’s tiny dorm couch as an escape from the torment of my own mind (not to mention my strange roommate, who lived entirely off of frozen cheese steaks, Tasty Cakes, and masturbated frequently and without sufficient discretion). In college, my friends’ very proximity normalized my atmosphere. I did not only appreciate my friends — I needed them.

Maybe my experience was unusual. I am an only child, after all. Maybe, in the absence of siblings, I turned to friends to fill a familial connection that others had. I can’t say for sure, but now, as I think about the friends I made in elementary, middle, and high school, as well as college, I wonder if it would be possible to form the same type of friendships now. I don’t need friendships in the same way any more, which I take as a good thing. I hope that most people in their mid-30s don’t require the validation and constant support of friends as I did a decade or two ago.

Today, my wife ably fills the role of confident and best friend. We go to dinner and watch movies together, go for runs and hikes, and talk through our issues (which seem much less dire than they did during my dramatic younger years). My newer friends, ones made in graduate school and on, number fewer and know me a little less deeply than my old ones. We exist at more of a distance from each other, as we were more fully formed, so to speak, when first we met. That is not to say that these newer friends aren’t of great value (one of my grad-school friends officiated my wedding, for example), or that we won’t come to know each other better over time (I read somewhere that five years are required for people to form that deeper sort of friendship bond), but I think it really is hard to create bonds as intimate as those formed in the tumultuous smithy of adolescence.

There are, no doubt, a million reasons why a person might disagree with the premise laid out above. A person still single in their 30s or 40s, or a recently divorced person, or just a very deeply social person — all might maintain that their friendships are the same in number and in kind as always they were. And who am I to argue? I have only my own experiences and observations. But from what I have seen and felt, the nature of friendship is destined to change as we grow older, as is our understanding of time and our hierarchy of priorities.

Friendships are an important factor in a complete and satisfying life at every stage. But to shake your fist at the changing geometry of friendship is as futile as Ahab’s rage against the white whale, which ultimately was his own fate, ineluctable.

The Rotpunkt Method

Last week I wrote about climbers who are afraid to admit they care. It’s a phenomenon especially common in teenagers, but many adults struggle with this fear, too. To care is to open yourself up to the frightening possibility of failure. It’s safer not to care —  send or fall, you’re meh either way. Of course, most people who pretend not to care do so because they care too much. If you really want something, then you run the risk of being embarrassed, demoralized, or otherwise disappointed if you don’t succeed. Better to keep the world at arm’s length and pretend you’re all good just where you are.

My friend Charley recently told me about a kid — let’s call him Billy — on his gym’s youth climbing team. Billy was naturally strong, but he never worked routes. Instead, he’d get on a climb, look good up until the crux, fall, and then move on to something else. One day after doing this, Billy’s coach asked him why he gave up. “I don’t need to get back on that route; I know I can do it,” was Billy’s reply. The coach called bullshit and ordered him back on the climb, where, not too surprisingly, he fell lower than on his first attempt. It was exactly as Billy had feared — he wasn’t that close after all. But the part I want to stress is that Billy could do the climb. Maybe it would take him one more try, or maybe 10, but if wanted to prove himself the route’s equal, he’d have to enter the difficult, frustrating, and ultimately rewarding world of the redpoint.

The german climber Kurt Albert coined the term Rotpunkt while climbing in the Frankenjura region in the 1970s. In a 1994 interview with Will Gadd, Albert recalled that climbers in the Frankenjura aided all the routes. “If you saw a piton,” he explained, “you grabbed the carabiner or put [an aid] ladder on it. So there was no free climbing for the sake of free climbing.” But after a trip to the Elbsandstein area, where people had been freeing routes for decades, Albert started climbing the routes of the Frankenjura without the use of gear for aid. When he freed a route, he painted a small red dot at the base, to let other’s know it was possible. Rotpunkt in German means simply “red point.” The name, catchy and with a colorful history, remains a staple of the climbing lexicon. For our purposes, the redpoint’s most important aspect is the process of working out the sections of a challenging climb — memorizing every crux, rest, and clipping stance — and then linking the sections into a whole, as a dancer executes a dance.

In life, there are few big challenges that don’t require a redpoint mentality. Alison Osius, Executive Editor at Rock & Ice, used a redpoint-like strategy when tackling her book, Second Ascent: the Story of Hugh Herr. “I really just focused on it chapter by chapter,” she said. “If someone ever asked me where I was in the process or how much more was left, I would say I couldn’t think that way. Or it would have been overwhelming. If the person would ask if I could say that I was halfway, I wouldn’t even touch that.” It’s how we must approach any project that, on its surface, is too big to swallow. The best way to eat an elephant, as the adage goes, is one bite at a time.

When a climber approaches the limit of his or her ability, the rehearsal period required for a redpoint grows longer. Martin Keller, for example, spent three years and over 100 days on a single boulder problem in Chironico, Switzerland. In a less extreme example, I worked Tuna Town, a long, pumpy route in the Red River Gorge, over the course of two seasons, failing, often miserably and near the end, dozens of times before succeeding. When I finally clipped the anchors for the send, the route felt easy and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why it took so long to happen. It is one of redpointing’s greatest wonders when a climb once so difficult comes to feel almost easy. Small holds feel bigger, big moves feel smaller, long sections climb themselves, scary clips lose their fangs… . In his blog post, Keller describes his feelings after sending his longstanding project as “something you can’t buy anywhere and there is no number to express it.”

There are few things more satisfying than a long-worked-for redpoint. You feel like you’ve done the impossible, almost like you’ve become someone else entirely — the type of person who can do a climb that difficult, or, thinking more broadly,  get into a school that good, or get that job, or what have you. When I climbed my first V10, Squeenos, in the Gunks, my friend Jason swatted me on the shoulder and exclaimed, “You did it, man! Today, you are that strong!” But I only made it there through a long and frustrating process of getting to know the problem — how much pressure to exert on each rough little crimp, which way to turn my hips, where to drag my toe for extra friction… . There were days when I couldn’t do two moves in a row on Squeenos, days when I couldn’t do the crux moves, and days when I couldn’t even get my ass up off the ground. I had to remain open to failure, unsure of success, and willing to keep trying. Working towards such seemingly distant goals can feel, as Keller describes it, like an act of hubris, but I can think of no other way to achieve anything worthwhile. It’s what we do when we care. But first we have to admit we care, and then we have to do the work.

It’s a simple (and as complex) as that.

It’s Not Cool To Care

Oh, El Cap? Yeah, we climbed that. No big deal...

I was at the gym a while back when a climber I know showed up looking shredded, with muscles and veins a-bulging. He warmed up on a few easy problems, did a few cursory shoulder stretches, and then floated all over my project like he was wearing some sort of anti-gravity shorts from the future. After prancing like a My Pretty Pony up the climb I’d been hammering away at for weeks, he gave me a little “What’s up, dude,” nod, like he didn’t just burn me off. In a show of faux humility, he said something about how hard the climb was for him, as he hadn’t had time to train, lately.

“Yeah, me neither,” I replied, absentmindedly pinching my pale muffin top, glazed in effort sweat and powdered with gym chalk. Then the dudebro with the Bruce Lee abs spun a yarn about his injured finger and how busy things were at work. He made it sound like he hadn’t touched a hold in years, but I could tell by the scabs and callouses on his sausagey digits that he was lying like a shag carpet.

Why would someone obviously so fit, who puts so much effort into his sport of choice, want to pretend that he doesn’t train? What’s wrong with training, anyhow? It’s how we get better, after all. But on closer examination, we can see that training equals caring, and, if I learned anything in high school, it’s that caring isn’t cool.

One Strap Vs. Two

I was reminded of this strange aversion to caring while watching the pretty-funny remake of 21 Jump Street last week. Here’s one scene, as two young-looking cops prepare to go undercover in a high school:

Jenko: Are you two strapping?
Schmidt: My backpack? Yeah.
Jenko: I gotta be seen with you. You gotta one-strap it. Seriously, I’d no-strap if that would even be possible.

Why does Jenko insist on one-strapping it? Because it is a lackadaisical gesture, a physical embodiment of not caring. To put the straps over both of his shoulders would indicate that he cares about lame things, like school, proper spinal alignment… or anything, really. Jenko goes on to offer up the “three rules of coolness,” the first two of which are: “Don’t try hard at anything,” and, “Make fun of people who do try.” The movie spends a lot of time dealing with this Catch 22: by creating his “rules of coolness,” Jenko is violating his first own rule. Devising rules about not caring means you care too much.

There’s a history of the too-cool-to-care attitude in climbing. You can see it from the early days, when the Valley bums were viewed as the apotheosis of the sport. They smoked pot, they drank, they loafed and lolled in the grass with their shirts open to the waist like Walt friggin’ Whitman. Then, when the spirit moved them, the ascended the sheer granite faces, buoyed by updrafts of cool. Or so it seemed.

Tony Yaniro was one of the first climbers to hang-dog climbs and rehearse moves. He invented route-specific training devices to help him redpoint — an early version of the campus board, for example. Not surprisingly, he was criticized for his tactics under the guise of ethics. Yaniro would do anything to send, which is probably why he was the first person to climb a 5.13b/c way back in 1979. But to the climbing establishment of Yaniro’s day, it wasn’t cool to care… at least, not that much.

Another example? Go back and watch the Big UP video Rampage. You’ll see a young (emphasis on young) Chris Sharma goofing around in the back of a Winnebago, making fun of training and doing sit-ups in a show of mock-caring. Next we see him monkeying around in the branches of a tree, as if that’s the only training he needs to climb some of the hardest routes and problems in the world. The implication is that he’s a natural (which he is), and that naturals don’t have to train to be great (which, on the contrary, they do). Today, an older, wiser, and stronger Sharma has come to grips with caring, to the point of caring too much. And let’s not forget Alex Honnold, who lives out of a van just so he can spend all of his time climbing, often without a rope and right on the edge of annihilation. When the reporters ask him to explain, he always insists, with a wide-eyed gaze and the tinge of a smile, that his exploits are “no big deal.”

The Myth of “The Natural”

The mythology of The Natural is a powerful one, and it’s perpetrated in many a human endeavor. Child savant musicians, baseball players, math prodigies — all of these are supposedly born, not made. But while natural ability undoubtedly plays into the greatness of many of the worlds Greats, there is always a component of hard work — grueling, repetitive practice — that goes into that greatness. Even the 12-year-old pianist who seems to channel Bach has put thousands of hours of practice into her art. It’s just when she’s at the helm of that Steinway, we see none of it; we see only a seemingly magical feat of musical skill. The much-publicized story of the climbing prodigy Ashima Shiraishi plays this out. Despite her relatively few years, she trains like an Olympic athlete. It is the combination of her talent and her focused effort that have made her the subject of several short films and articles in the Times and the Wall Street Journal, among others. The truth is, behind every amazing send there are 100 days at the crag or the gym and 1,000 falls and failures.

The title for this post came from a discussion with my co-worker, Chuck Odette. We noted the strange tendency of some climbers to “closet train” — to secretly work out and then deny it, like the fellow I describe at the beginning of this post. We agreed the that such behavior is silly, juvenile, even. Chuck is 56 years old and he recently FA’ed a 5.14b. He’s got an eye on retirement, for Chrissakes — too old to pretend that climbing comes easy for him. Indeed, Chuck is all about caring.

Chuck will be the first to tell you that he’s made sacrifices to maintain a high level of fitness and skill on the rock. He climbs often and regularly, using his vacation days to stay on schedule. His diet is plotted to the calorie. He eats in The Zone, which means turkey sandwiches on low-carb bread, diet soda or water, and low-fat yogurt sprinkled with protein powder. Even when we’re all packing our spray-holes with greasy pizza, Chuck gets the salad, chicken on top, dressing on the side. He indulges in a beer only after a good send. And at work, he does yoga, opposition workouts, and martial arts “katas” behind the building during his lunch hour. Chuck knows that if he wants something enough, he has to work for it and work hard. It would take too much energy to pretend not to care. Plus, it wouldn’t be honest. Chuck loves to tell people the secret to his success, because he knows there are no shortcuts. First, you have to want it. Then you have to be willing to give up a lot to get it.

Bill Ramsey, another middle-aged crusher with a penchant for suffering, came up with a handy mental model called the Pain Box. The box is divided in two with a movable line in the middle. The space within the box represents the sum amount of pain one will feel in one’s life. On one half is he pain that comes from hard work. On the other half is the pain that comes from sucking. You can have less of one kind of pain, but that just means you’ll have more of the other. Ramsey, like Odette, touts the benefits of self-discipline as the path to achievement. Good things don’t just happen to us — we have to work for them. And if they do just happen to us, how good can they be? After all, we didn’t earn them.

The Rebirth of Cool

Which brings me back to 21 Jump Street. When Jenko and Schmidt arrive at the high-school, where they’re trying to infiltrate a drug ring, they find that everyone is two-strapping it. Much to his dismay, Jenko, a jock during his high school tenure, discovers that the cool kids are now into computers and science and get good grades. Caring, much to his dismay, is now cool. In this brave new world, Schmidt, once bully-fodder, must deal with the corrupting influence of popularity. Likewise in today’s climbing world, openly caring is becoming the norm. With a whole crop of climbers bred in gyms and the growing popularity of competition climbing, especially among the youth demographic, trying hard is fast becoming the thing to do. Not caring either means you’re a) lazy, b) not that into what you’re doing, or c) trying to cover up just how much you really care about being good. Either way, you lose.

Reflections On A Personal Wedding

I’ve been to a few weddings in my day. Long weddings and short weddings. Jewish weddings and Catholic weddings. Simple weddings and opulent ones. Of the two most unique weddings I’ve attended, one was secular, between two lawyers — it was full of cerebral legal metaphors and took place on the beautiful, grassy lawn of the Oakland Museum of California. The other, and I think the most unusual, was a Zen wedding, performed in a back yard in Ohio. The Roshi, or teacher, who officiated the wedding began by explaining that in Zen, there is no formal recognition of marriage. “Still,” said the robed man, “Thomas is such a great student and a great guy, I couldn’t say, ‘No.'” Looking back, there was something so very Zen about the whole scenario.

To mark the beginning of the Zen ceremony, the Roshi rang a bell, meant to rouse the attendees from the illusion of their everyday perception. Then he lead us through a lengthy series of chants. The syllables, which had no literal meaning, filled more than a full page of the little paper programs and were nearly impossible to follow. All around me, the crowd of mostly Caucasian non-Buddhists chanted away in earnest.  The act was at once strange, humorous, touching, and enlightening, which I think is a wonderful blend. I knew then that I wanted my own wedding, if ever I had one, to be likewise unique, to be representative of my passions and philosophies, as well as those of my wife. Years later, I would finally have the chance to carry out this plan.

Kristin reads her vows
Kristin, a little choked up, delivers her vows. The Reverend Tim and I are awestruck. Photo: Nick Greenwell.

On June 15th, 2012, Kristin Marine and I were married atop Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, Colorado. From the time we were engaged, our shared understanding of marriage has been that it is a vow between two people to spend a lifetime together — nothing more, nothing less. With that in mind, we decided that our wedding ceremony should be small and simple, informal, secular, in a natural setting, and that the officiant should be someone we know and who knows us. If I were to pick a word to describe my ideal wedding, it would be “honest.” In fact, our desire for a minimal wedding more than once had us ready to hang it all and head for the courthouse with a witness, the way my parents did nearly 40 years ago. But, after some discussion, we decided we wanted to do a little something after all. It just seemed right.

There were 16 people at our wedding, including Kristin and me. Of those, six were immediate family and eight were close friends. There was, as one might expect, some vague pressure to invite more people, to make the wedding something grander, but we resisted. In the end, we decided to exclude many people we love, not because we didn’t want them there, but because we didn’t want that kind of wedding.

The guests of the Marine - Roth wedding
All the guests of the Marine-Roth wedding. Photo: The Stone Mind.

For a venue, we picked the Sunrise Amphitheater atop Flagstaff Mountain, a little peak just north of the Flatirons that we used to frequent when we lived in Boulder. We made the decision quickly and without much hemming and hawing. As you follow the switchbacking, two-lane road up the minor mountain, you rise rapidly above the city and your view opens out onto the plains of the east. Along the way, you’ll likely pass a few crazed cyclists standing up on their pedals, tilting ambitiously towards the summit (on the way down, they coast as fast as the cars). There, too, hikers gambol along the winding trails, climbers dance up the towering sandstone boulders, and deer graze amongst the brittle grasses. Sunrise Amphitheater, at around 7,000 feet elevation, is a popular wedding venue. It features a classical amphitheater layout, with curving, stone bench seats in a three-quarters circle, all looking down on a central stage. Though the amphitheater is large enough to seat 150 people, we had everyone gather at the edge of the stage, to better hear Tim Erickson, the officiant, over the perpetual hiss of the high wind in the fragrant pines.

Like the venue, our choice of officiant required little deliberation. Tim is my sole friend from graduate school and a hell of a poet. He’s also a heart-on-sleeve romantic, the keeper of a bountiful sense of humor, and an English teacher unafraid to speak before an audience. When we asked him to lead our little ceremony, he agreed without hesitation and  went about getting his official credentials from the Universal Life Church. He crafted an entirely custom, secular ceremony, including a beautiful “cento,” which is a poem composed of lines from other poems. His artful words, informed by many years of marriage, were wise and honest and touching, and he delivered them with a grace that belied the fact that ours was the first wedding he’d officiated.

Stenciled wedding cup
Wedding cup of Kristin’s design. Stenciling these literally took days of effort. Spraying onto the curved, tapering surface was a logistical challenge, to say the least. Photo: The Stone Mind.

We approached our wedding the same way we approach life in general — we took what we liked from the old ways, left what we didn’t, and made up the rest. One of the traditions that we decided to stick with was the “best man” / “best woman” speeches, though we didn’t identify them as such. We simply each asked one of our friends to say something, if they wanted. Kristin’s friend Rachel donned a guitar and sang Willie Nelson’s “Everywhere I Go”, which left not a dry eye in the house. My friend of more than 20 years, Michael, pulled astutely from our many shared experiences to illustrate why Kristin would be a sure cure for my numerous, if not understandable, flaws.

Of all the things we did at our wedding, I think writing our own vows was among the most important. As I labored over mine, fearful of falling short in my role as a “wordsmith,” I came to realize that the old “in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, for better or for worse” line is, in fact, a very good one. It is hard not to come back to that type of promise. Still, I wanted my vows to be a little more personal. At first glance, the task seemed so simple — “Just say what you mean!” I implored myself while hunched over the keyboard. But, of course, there’s more to it than that. It is only when we try to make what we mean concrete, put it down in words, that we realize how unclear our meaning really is. It was hard work, mentally and emotionally, to convert love, a promise of a lifetime, into a few short paragraphs. It was a worthwhile exercise though, and one that added something of immeasurable value to the ceremony, at least for me.

Poppin' the Chandon
Poppin’ the Chandon. Photo: Nick Greenwell.

From what I have observed, a lot of people get married with the assumption that some great event is required. I read recently that the average cost of a wedding in the United States is now $25,000. I can only imagine that romantic movies, the burden of tradition, and the flourishing commercial wedding industry’s marketing engine have conspired to convince us that cost = value. (Which is, of course, not necessarily the case.) In the end, our wedding was, for us, as close to perfect as a wedding could be — a moment set aside for a dame and a fella to say some important things to each other before a small collection of loved ones. I cannot think of anything more there should be to a wedding.

The cake, courtesy of Boulder’s own Tee & Cakes, with a design inspired by Kristin’s paintings. Photo: The Stone Mind.

I am grateful and a little surprised that it all worked out as well as it did. I like to think it was a testament to our decision to do things our own way, and not be swayed too much by tradition or the expectations of others. But realistically I think it was good old-fashioned preparation, some help from our friends and family, and also luck. (For example, had the wedding been a week later, our venue would have likely been smoked out by raging wildfires.)

If, after reading this, even one couple is emboldened to create the wedding they want — rather than the wedding they think they should want or the wedding their family would prefer — I will consider this post a success. If the wedding you want is no wedding at all, more power to you. Same goes for those who genuinely want a big, sassy, opulent wedding. You cannot lose for following your heart. After all, what responsibility do we have in life but to make a world of the sort we want to live in. In every decision and every moment, we have a new chance to do just that.

It was a good day
It was a good day. Photo: Richard Roth.

Special thanks to Kristin Marine Roth, Herb and Kathy Marine, Aaron and Brock Marine, Richard and Susan Roth, Tim and Camille Erickson, Ted Chubb and Rachel Ryll, Nick Greenwell and Robin Maslowski, Michael Driskill and Rebecca Resnick Driskill, and to all the friends and family who weren’t present in body but who were there in our heart. We love you all!

The Doodanglies of Spring

I’m walking my blue heeler, Bodhi, through the serene grass and pavement matrix of our Salt Lake City suburb, when some creature issues a short, high cry from up above. It’s a mysterious call that could well have come from some denizen of a distant, cacophonous rainforest, but here it is a lone, wild voice against the ticking and hissing of sprinklers and the lawnmower’s drone.

I’ve heard this vocalization before and know what it means. I scan my surroundings and within seconds I spot them: a family of California quail, teardrop shaped puffs of grey strutting around in someone’s front yard, pecking the ground in search of seeds and shoots. My fiancée has given these beautiful birds, with their scale-patterned feathers, rust-brown caps, and white-limned black faces, the name “doodangly” birds, after their flapper-era black head plumes that wiggle with every step. It’s now the only way I refer them in conversation, leading to much confusion.

The family — a mother and six chicks — putters onto the sidewalk just as their high lookout, perched on a roof peak a few houses down, detects my presence and issues his warning. They hasten into a single-file formation and hightail it away from me, legs swinging in a blur, road-runner style. Doodanglies almost never fly unless startled at close distance. They opt instead for more pedestrian means of locomotion and can move surprisingly fast over open terrain.

The family ducks into a driveway and behind a little rise of grass. I stand and watch, waiting to see if they’ll reemerge, and they do. I’ve noticed that these strange little terrestrial birds are seldom dissuaded from their course. They scramble whenever a human, cat, or car comes too close, but soon, with caution, pluck back towards their original course. Like pigeons and doves, they are well adapted to the grid-paved wilderness of the burbs.

Every spring, the doodanglies begin to show themselves in the Salt Lake valley. They are my favorite local nature sprites, embodiments of some ancient energy that humans have been endeavoring to bury in layers of concrete, glass, and metal for the past hundred-odd years. The doodanglies appear first in pairs, but soon in families. Their chicks are precocial, meaning they’re ready to roll straight out of the shell. Still, the parentals shepherd them closely when they’re on the move. It is common quail practice to have one scout posted up on a fencepost or tree branch, watching for threats like Bodhi and me. Of course, we’re not really a threat (or at least, I’m not), but they don’t give us the benefit of the doubt, and I don’t blame them.

If I’m lucky, I’ll make doodangly sightings every day, when I’m out walking my dog or running. Their simple, wild presence in the spaces between our houses and our cars, like that of the baroque, green-armored grasshopper or the flashing, iridescent hummingbird, reminds me of the way the world once was, and still is in our ever-shrinking preserves of  natural places. It reminds me that no matter how far “above” nature we try to arrange ourselves, we are and always will be a part of it. As Emerson says in his essay “Nature,” “The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable.” He could just as well have said  “man and the birds.” It reminds me that we humans, the rich and the poor among us, must make a life for ourselves one day, one year at a time, just like the doodanglies, plucking towards the future powered by an innate stubbornness that I can only see as nature’s beautiful, irrational argument against the chaos of the universe.