Friday, November 20, 2009


While the packing of my clothes before heading to Boulder was a process so hasty that it bordered on negligent, the decision of which of my two beloved bikes to bring was not an easy one. While a mountain bike makes more sense for winter in Boulder, my current athletic pursuits more frequently involve the skinny tires of my road bike. Back and forth I went, until I decided that leaving either bike back home would be a grave injustice both to the neglected bike and also my mother, who has been trying to get my stuff out of the garage/basement/living room for the better part of a decade. So it was that both bikes found their way to the roof of the car for the cross-country journey.

I had been out on the roadie a couple of times, but only in the past week did I head out onto a few modest dirt trails outside of town and rediscover my love for mountain biking. Last Friday I decided I had graduated from the trails skirting town itself, and took a drive into the mountains proper with my bike riding shotgun, looking for a little more excitement.

The ride at Betasso Preserve is a 3 mile (5 kilometer) loop carved into the mountains of the Front Range about a ten minute drive from town. It was near-freezing at an elevation of around 6200 feet (1,890 meters) when I parked the car, tightened my helmet's chin-strap and wondered whether wearing shorts had been the best idea. It was a bleak-yet-beautiful November afternoon. I was mostly alone on the trail and had stunning views of surrounding peaks, rocky and snow-capped set against the cold grey sky. I could see the city of Boulder six miles (ten kilometers) in the distance, neatly tucked onto the valley floor just beyond Boulder Canyon. Off I went.

I am riding my mountain bike on the side of a mountain in Colorado. Awesome.

I planned to do the loop two or three times and felt especially vigorous early on my first lap. I screamed through the downhills and thought "Hey, this isn't so hard," until it occurred to me that since this was a loop and I was enjoying so much help from gravity on the first half, I would be in for some serious climbing on the second half. The lungs burned shortly after passing the midway point and starting the climb, not used to either the elevation or having to grind my heavy mountain bike up hills. Round about the start of the second loop, a few errant flake fell from the clouds that were starting to sock me in. Not really a bona fide snowfall, but enough that I could say that it was, in fact, snowing.

I am riding my mountain bike on the side of a mountain in Colorado. And it is snowing. Awesome.

I entered the second loop and took it a little bit quicker, having scoped things out the first time around and feeling a little more comfortable in the saddle, even with some sudden drop-offs beside the single-track trail. I let myself bank a little higher in the turns and unlocked my bike's rear-suspension so that I could more comfortably bounce over rocks. As I did this, I noticed that my views of surrounding peaks were disappearing quickly as the snow fell heavier.

And heavier.

And heavier.

Wait a second, this has gone from novelty to gnarly pretty quickly. What had been a few errant flakes ten minutes before had turned into a real-deal, holy-shit-grab-your-skis-type of snow fall. It was coming down hard and I was right in the middle of it, with the dried browns of the elevated landscape turning to bright whites before I started climbing my way out of the second loop.

I am riding my mountain bike on the side of a mountain in Colorado. And it is snowing. Hard. Awesome.

With my smile growing as the snow accumulated the ride became a little trickier. Rocks became slick. The trail was tough to find in wide-open spaces where the snow was piling up the most. And in every turn my tires would spray a stinging batter of gravel, snow and mud, like someone had taken the egg beaters out of the mixing bowl. Snow was so thick on my watch that I couldn't see what time it was as I was riding, and the white stuff was piling up on my glasses as well. Thinking it to be somewhat unsafe to not be able to see, I paused for a second to clean off the ol' specs. The problem was, gear-head that I am I was wearing only non-absorbent technical fabrics at the time. So rather than sop up the snow and clean my glasses off the way a cotton t-shirt would, my wicking top simply served to spread the wealth, so to speak, smearing the snow and mud all over the lenses ensure only the soupiest of visibility.

I am riding my mountain bike on the side of a mountain in Colorado. And it is snowing. Hard. And my glasses look like the before picture in a windshield-wiper commercial. Awesome.

I spent the rest of the ride alternating between trying to see through my cataract-simulation lenses (dangerous because I couldn't see much of anything) and peering over the top of them, wincing like I had just taken a shot to the groin as my eyeballs were pelted with the icy snowflakes (dangerous because I couldn't see much of anything). The snow continued and I finished the final climb of the ride, my heart pumping and quads furious with me as I arrived back to the car, hoping that the snow caked to my bike would stay there so that I would look hard core as I drove down the mountain, through the canyon and back into town.

I often seek elements of the spiritual or sublime in my outdoor endeavours. Indeed, that search is what frequently calls me to the woods in the first place. And while there were flashes of the sacred in that high country bike ride, the best part of it was that it was, well, fun. I got dirty. I yelled "woo hoo". I went too fast and I loved the fact that it seemed like a bad idea to be out riding as the snow fell against my bare legs. If I can come away from every bike ride, run or hike with no greater insight than an appreciation of how much joy is to be found when traveling a dirt trail on a cool afternoon, then my debt to the mountains shall be endless.



Friday, November 13, 2009

Run Like the Water

You should run like the wind, they've told me, fierce and untamed.

Our east-facing bedroom window framed a piercing Colorado sunrise as I slipped out of bed at quarter after six. A few years ago there would have been no question that seeing the sunrise on a Saturday morning would have meant I was coming off a hell of a night and looking forward to a hell of a headache. While all-nighters still happen from time-to-time, it is my inner athlete - rather than outer drinker - who now more frequently sees a day's first light.

Having been in Boulder for a few weeks, and despite a couple of modest hikes, a one-off cross-country ski and a lung-burning climb of a bike ride, I had yet to feel that I was taking full advantage of the outdoor life that we had come here seeking. So last Friday afternoon I went online and looked for any upcoming races I could do in order to kick start my active life here as I train for some physical challenges I have lined up for next summer. Sure enough, there was a 3.5 mile cross-country race in a nearby community the very next morning. Despite never having entered a cross-country race and not being entirely sure what I was in for, I promptly biked to the local running shop and plunked down my fifteen bucks for registration in the Twin Peaks Rotary XC Challenge.

You should run like an antelope, they've told me, out of control.

Though the sun had now fully emerged for its daily pilgrimage to the west , our new neighbours remained largely dormant as we pointed the car north toward Longmont, Colorado under a cloudless sky (not the rarity in Boulder that it is in Victoria this time of year).

The starts of the men's and women's races were staggered, but I huddled close to the start line of the women's wave shortly after arriving and registering, listening for any race-specific instructions. Despite my lack of cross-country experience, I figured I was in for a simple trail run, which would have been nothing new to me. Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard the race director squawk over the megaphone, "Alright, make sure you jump over the hay bales and go into the ditch. That's over the hay bales and down through the ditch. This is a cross country race, people."

Excuse me? Sorry, I'm here for the race, not the journey to Grandmother's house.

Apparently obstacles are commonplace in cross-country races, with this one being no exception. This was all somewhat foreign to me, but given that I am built more for comfort than speed and enjoy the equalizing properties of a course that doesn't have straightaways where skinny bastards can sprint (and there were skinny bastards a plenty on the course that morning), I was prepared to hop, skip and jump as necessary.

You should run like a caveman, they've told me, chasing something like your life depends on it.

There was a forty-five minute gap between the starts for the women and the men, so Sarah and I took some time to walk around the course - a three-lap beauty on grass and trails, running alongside a stream then flanking a dam, weaving in and out of some light woods. As Sarah wandered around and took pictures, I headed over toward the stream and thought about the race ahead.

I crouched beside the water, appreciative of its soothing gurgle and mesmerized by its flow, something we've all experienced at one time or another. I watched bubbles gather in a slow-moving spot on the surface, only to dissipate when they tumbled over a short ledge and into faster water below. I chuckled as the scene reminded me of runners at a start line, collecting as one until critical mass is reached, then the gun goes off and we all disperse at our own pace. The longer I experienced the stream the more metaphorical it became, its flow striking me as possessing the very same qualities that I strive for every time I set out on a run.

I have never been one to run fierce and dominant like the wind, nor out of control like the antelope, nor possessed like the prehistoric hunter. Indeed, not being terribly blessed with either a runner's physique (like I said, comfort not speed) or an attitude that is conducive to being fired up and intense for sustained periods of endurance, I have often struggled when looking for an appropriate muse. But as I crouched beside that stream and watched its flow in the minutes before the race, the inspiration that has eluded me became as clear as the high country sky.

I will run like the water, I told myself. Smooth, yet unflinching. Placid, yet interminable. Effortless, yet powerful.

And so I ran like the water, and the race became a joy. I set my own pace early on, scarcely slowing from start to finish as I made my way over the roots, stumps and hills that made up the course. There were a few moments where I thought about walking, but told myself that if I couldn't keep a steady pace for 3.5 miles cross-country on this morning - even with my recent change in altitude and current lapse in training - then I had no business looking forward to a busy season of triathlons next summer. A few recitations of my new mantra - run like the water, run like the water - helped me regain focus during moments of doubt as I flowed over the dried leaves and burnt grass. With the Flatirons in full view, I fist-pumped across the finish line in thirty-six minutes, including fifteen hay-bale hurdles and three trips in-and-out of the ditch.

Athletically speaking it was an achievement of rather modest proportions (indeed, not really an achievement at all), yet I left with a strong sense of satisfaction and renewed focus and motivation as I move ahead. I could not have asked for a better introduction to this new chapter in my inner athlete's life, and am looking forward to embracing all of the challenges and exhilaration of of running like the water from here on out.



Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Harty Needs Your Votes

Hello there. I am interrupting your regularly scheduled blogging to ask a small favour.

The Globe and Mail is having a contest to add one writer and one photographer to its editorial team for the Vancouver/Whistler Olympics (here's a link to the contest's website). For an underemployed law school graduate with dreams of using writing to pay the bills (hey, that's me) this would be the opportunity of a lifetime.

This is where you come in.

My writing entry has been submitted, and is now open for public voting. I need to be in the top-50 vote-getters in order to proceed to the next round, where the decisions will be made by an editorial board. Your votes would mean a lot to me. So would your mother's vote, and your sister's, your dog's, etc. Here's where you can read my story and vote for it, should you so choose: LINK (regular readers will recognize this as an abridged version of a previous post).

Voting can be done daily, so please consider voting more than once (or, you know, daily). Make it part of your evening e-mail ritual, sandwiching it somewhere between writing your old landlord to threaten legal action if you don't get your damage deposit back and looking at pictures of your grade seven girlfriend on Facebook. Voting is open until November 22nd, which gives us plenty of time, although other entries were submitted weeks ago. There are certainly more noble things you can do with thirty seconds and a click of your mouse, but this really would mean the world to me. Part of why I have taken this year "off" is to work on my writing and try and do something with it, so this is an opportunity that I don't want to watch slip away.

Once again, here's the LINK (, and note that you are eligable to win some sweet prizes (a fancy camera and a tricked-out laptop) just for voting.

Thanks, as always, for reading, and thanks in advance for voting. Also, as an added bonus, every time you vote an angel gets its wings and global warming will be reversed by one year. So really, let's all do our part.




P.S. The site did not allow me to include paragraph breaks in my submission. Here's the story as it looks with proper formatting:

Hockey becomes infused with a unique sense of community and geography when taken up by free-spirited Northerners. This I learned one afternoon last February, shortly after moving to Yellowknife.

The Great Slave Invitational is a perennial tournament serious in name only. The setting is a natural rink, complete with boards and lights, in front of cozy houseboats on Yellowknife Bay. The year I was in town, six teams competed for the highly coveted, duct tape and toilet-paper roll “Houseboat Cup” (equal parts Lord Stanley and Red Green). I manned the blue line for Team Trailer Trash, proudly representing the trailer park where I was living. Our jerseys? Sleveless undershirts sporting numbers written in mustard. I took the trailer park theme one step further, sporting borrowed skates held together with packing tape.

Scores were kept and a schedule followed. Knowing when you played next allowed maximum resting time inside the tournament host’s houseboat, with skates warming by the fire and The Hip on the stereo. With a sub-minus forty windchill outside, time inside was cherished.

After an undefeated round-robin schedule, Trailer Trash lost a heartbreaking semi-final. The overtime winner was scored by a high-flying Frenchman from Fort Smith with waist-long dreadlocks and an anomalous competitive streak. It was a tough loss, but after three games and a potato-chips-and-water subsistence all day, I was content to head home. With the final game starting and the evening winds picking up, I trudged across the bay toward my trailer and contemplated the game in a national context.

But what is that national context? I’ve recently grown weary of the hockey myths perpetuated by our macro breweries, telling us that hockey is our great national unifier. More Canadian children play soccer than hockey, and yet we are supposed to be 33 million obsessed with men dressed in garters and stockings looking to score. And while I count myself among the masses riveted by my home team's annual playoff march and the ups and downs of our national program, I am often left feeling that our frozen loyalties contain elements of the contrived and predictable, that we’re all just buying into exactly what we’re told to buy into.

And yet, an organic sense of territorial pride had grown inside me during the afternoon. The scene of the natural rink set among houseboats on a mammoth lake is not one easily duplicated elsewhere in the world, nor was it scripted by a potato chip commercial. While following the NHL's fake cold war can feel routine and formulaic, that afternoon felt spontaneous, authentic and lacking a forced sense of Canadian-ness. Indeed, the climatic and social circumstances that underscored the tournament were legitimate, inescapable byproducts of life in the far North strong and free.

Author Winona LaDuke writes of patriotism to a land but not a flag. I walked away that day feeling patriotic toward a land and a game, rather than a flag and a beer commercial.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

And We're Back

Word. It's been a while since I've posted 'round here. Cyberspace custom is to apologize for such a lapse, however I think that perhaps the only online activity more self-indulgent than keeping a blog like this is to apologize when it falls by the wayside, as if narcissistically keeping the masses updated somehow constitutes doing them a favour.

Anyway, it would be a little too daunting a task to give each of my adventures since Vegas the proper Harty Meal treatment, but here's a shotgun account of the past few months. For further details on any of this, please enquire within.

From Las Vegas, it was on to Zion and Bryce Canyons. Zion had us coincidentally camping next to the college friends I ran into in Vegas as we hiked for a few days, and Bryce's topography is like that of another planet and highly recommended.

From Zion we moved to another hole in the ground known as Grand Canyon. To best explore this monster we embarked on a four-day, three-night backpacking trip down to the bottom and back up. Hiking had to start before dawn each morning so as to avoid the deadly midday sun, and I don't know that I've ever been so uncomfortable due to the temperature in my life as I was on the afternoon of our third day, when it was still over a hundred degrees in the shade at five in the afternoon. Check out the picture below, taken on the canyon floor.

From Grand Canyon we headed to Colorado. First stop was visiting an aunt of Sarah's in the ski town of Aspen. Aspen may be a ski town, and elements of it were quite charming, but it's hard for a community to maintain its high country charm when the streets are lined with the same boutiques one sees on Rodéo Drive. What's more, a shop called "Two Old Hippies" featured a rack of jeans, the cheapest pair of which cost $850 (not a typo - cheapest jeans in "Two Old Hippies" were over eight hundred bucks, with most costing over a thousand). We enjoyed afternoon beers in town's only dive bar as we watched the colours on the mountain, but given that they say "the billionaires are pushing the millionaires out of Aspen," I don't know that we'll be putting down roots there anytime soon.

From Aspen it was on to Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park, Colorado. The mountain-top drive through the park at sunset on the day we arrived is not something I think I'll ever forget. Mountain goat were grazing by the herd in meadows that we passed, and we saw literally hundreds of elk, some just a few feet away from us (check out our picture, below). All of this was set against the iconic, jagged, snow-capped peaks of the Rockies while the sunset was of an intensity that a man is lucky to see once every few years. We spent the next three days in the park and fell in love with Colorado. Hard. The mountains, animals and people all continually showed us why so many folks find it so hard to leave this state, and we left headed east, knowing that we would be back.

From Rocky Mountain National Park it was on to the Rothbury Music Festival in Rothbury, Michigan. Four days of camping, music (heavy on the bluegrass and jammy stuff) and an enchanted forest. (Andrew Teehan, given your hate/hate relationship with hippies, you can probably skip this one).

From Rothbury, Michigan it was on to Moncton New Brunswick (getting harder and harder to call this a "Western" road trip), with a brief stop in Ottawa. Moncton was where one of my closest friends was getting married, and featured a similar cast of characters to a wedding the previous summer on PEI. Predictably, things got a little bit nuts in the best kind of way, and I say without hyperbole that it was among the five best parties I've ever been to, with quite the overabundance of "I love you, man" and Fireball. (The picture below was heavy on both of those things, and not staged. That's the groom, second from right).

From Moncton it was back to the Ottawa/Lake Placid/Malone (NY) area for the next couple of months. It was great to catch up with family and friends from home, most of whom I hadn't spent much time around since departing for Victoria three years prior. There were weekend road trips, a couple of concerts and the odd shift at family businesses thrown in before we packed up the car again in early October and headed back west.

From Ottawa/Lake Placid/Malone, it was back to Colorado, and specifically Boulder, where I sit on this bright Sunday morning blogging from the edge of downtown. Boulder is renowned as a hotbed of bluegrass music, free spirits and outdoor recreation, so it seemed like the perfect fit for us over the next little while. It's only been a few weeks, but Boulder feels like a pretty good fit so far, and I'm pumped to see what the next few months will bring my way.

So here we are. Blogging will be regular once again, and as always it is a pleasure to have you along.



Sunday, June 21, 2009

Vegas Baby! (Part 2)

We awoke Thursday and agreed that before we left we should poke our heads in a casino one more time. Neither one of us had placed a bet, and I didn't want to leave Vegas without spending even a couple of minutes at a blackjack table. We packed up the car, checked out of the hotel and made our way to New York New York where I quickly found a ten dollar minimum bet table (there were no five dollar tables just then). It was just the dealer and me, and as soon as I sat down the magic started happening. I was bulletproof, and eating the dealer's hands for breakfast. 19...20...21, it seemed I couldn't lose. The pit boss walked over and stared for a few hands and a small group of people stood over my shoulder and watched. (This is might be a little cooler in my head than it actually was, but please don't burst my bubble). I was at the table for less than ten minutes before I knew it was time to leave, but when I did I had turned my $10 bet into over sixty bucks. Sixty bucks which I felt I had a civic duty to reinvest in the local economy, what with the current financial climate and all.

"Hey Sarah, what do you think rooms cost here?"

Once I factored in my new riches, we could stay at New York New York for about ten bucks, plus get a free room upgrade courtesy of my two-years expired CAA card (shhhh). Things were turning around for us in Sin City, as in the period of a couple of hours we had gone from unimpressed passersby with our car pointed out of town, to energized revelers sipping Coronas poolside. We were living large on our sixty bucks, and looking forward to a night on the town. We got sucked in, and were loving every second of it.

We briefly looked for show tickets in the afternoon, but we were a little naive in our expectations, price-wise. Unless we wanted to see a never-was magician on the downside of his career, we'd be looking at spending well into triple figures between the two of us to see a decent show. We figured that walking the strip, having dinner and maybe gambling a little bit would be a much more sensible way to spend money we don't have.

Putting on our cleanest dirty clothes from the back of the car, we emerged from our room at 9:30 and the strip was in full effect, with the daytime tourists making their final rounds and the nocturnal carousers starting to emerge from the woodwork. We saw the water show in front of the Bellagio (because water is so abundant in the desert that they can just throw it around), a fire show somewhere else and talked to Elvis impersonators as we walked. Dinner was a late one, and it was nearing midnight when we were ready to have some drinks and do some gambling with full bellies. We were getting a little sleepy, though, and in perilous danger of fading away before making guaranteed financial gains at blackjack. Luckily, a quick swing by the convenience store in New York New York for a couple of tall boy cans of Miller Genuine Draft fixed that up, and feeling brave I went back to the tables.

I found another ten dollar table, pulled twenty bucks out of my pocket and went to work. My luck from the afternoon seemed to be continuing (except for the hand where I split aces, drew another ace, split again, and ended up with a push and two losses when the dealer drew 21) and I was feeling good. I was up as much as sixty bucks on the night (the magic number) but ended up losing twenty of that, so I was up forty bucks when I stepped away. We had an awesome night altogether, cruising the casino floor, making generous new friends, playing a hand or two at a time and, well, being in Vegas. I went to bed at four o'clock, but only because I felt that I had to. I had lost all sense of time (what happens in Vegas is carefully orchestrated by the people who run the casinos) and really didn't feel like slowing down. It was time to cash in, though, and by the time we factored in Sarah's winnings the next morning (when she played her first ever hands of blackjack), and my $1.50 windfall on a Price Is Right-themed slot machine, we were up about $140 at the casinos when all was said and done (although admittedly most of that never left town, and of course I would not be so proudly crunching my gambling numbers had we not enjoyed so much dumb luck).

I have a lot of issues with Las Vegas. It really is a ridiculous city - a paradoxical beacon of overindulgence in the middle of the desert. Even for those who don't gamble, drink or overeat (and why else would you go to Vegas, really?), simply turning on the tap is an exercise in the unsustainable, and Vegas as a whole is a metaphor for North American short-sightedness if their ever was one.

But my biggest issue with Las Vegas is how much I enjoyed it. Sure, I'll hike into the backcountry, sit in the woods and read for hours or even days on end and feel a deep inner calm, self-awareness and interconnectedness with the world around me, but damned if I don't feel alive when you put a tall boy can in my left hand and a stack of chips in my right. I remain annoyed with the toll that Vegas takes on the Southwest's water supply, and the unrealistic culture of consequence-free consumption that it seeks to promote and proliferate, but my personal turmoil lies in the fact that I'm already trying to rationalize my next trip.

Pleasure is Vegas's business, and they are good at it. They know exactly what buttons to push and how much of Pandora's Box to show you in order to rope you in, and it is all at your fingertips 24 hours a day. If we hadn't been able to gamble early in the day before we had planned to leave town, or buy cheap alcohol late at night from a convenience store in our hotel, we would not have spent as much money there as we did (which really wasn't a lot, even if it was more than we had planned), and wouldn't be talking about a return trip. Like six year-olds drawn to the cereal box with the coolest picture on it, we both fell for the inauthentic and fleeting satisfaction provided by a blindingly bright and placeless landscape.

Moderation is not something that you think of when Las Vegas is mentioned, but if I tell myself that future visits can be as budget-friendly and freakin' awesome as my first one was, perhaps I can justify poking my head in again at some point down the road. If anyone cares to come along, I'll buy the first round of tall boys.



Vegas Baby? (Part 1)

The morning after our late-night brush with megafauna we were at a slight crossroad. We could either head back into California - possibly as far as the coast - and look for jobs, or continue the trip by heading to points east. Heading east would mean going at least as far as Grand Canyon in northern Arizona, and after a bit of head scratching we figured that we would be foolish not to take advantage of the chance to extend things a little bit. Plus, we would have to drive right through Vegas on the way, meaning we could cruise down the strip once just to say we did it.

On our way to Vegas and Grand Canyon we spent two restful nights at the Grover Hot Springs State Park. Located at elevation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the park has naturally fed mineral hot pools in the midst of a mountain meadow, which make for a soothing cap off to any day. We had a great site - on a bluff overlooking the park, with dense forests behind us - and deer would wander through our living area at dusk. It was almost over-the-top idyllic. After two days there where we didn't do much other than relax, we were headed to Grand Canyon, via Sin City.

The drive through the interior of Nevada is, well, depressing. If Vegas is the city that made it big gambling, then the small towns you have to pass through to get there are the ones who got addicted and lost everything. Boarded up businesses seem to outnumber those that are still clinging to operation, there are rows of slot machines crammed into every dingy convenience store, and I half expected to see tumbleweed instead of locals whenever we stopped for gas or food. All of this isolation and hardship is all the more pronounced when contrasted with a destination that is renowned for the way that people and money flow through its revolving doors at a mind boggling rate.

We pulled onto Las Vegas Boulevard ("the strip") just after dark on a Wednesday (June 10th), much to the shock of our wilderness-oriented systems (our time in L.A. and San Francisco notwithstanding). The lights were flashing, the music was blaring and the sidewalks seemed to be one continuous line of people, three abreast, on either side of the street. We weren't sure that time in Vegas would be to the enjoyment of either one of us, but it was getting late and we managed to find a modestly priced Travelodge in the heart of the strip, so we pulled in for the night. (While we paid a nightly rate at the Travelodge, there were enterprising young women in short skirts spending time in the parking lot and going in and out of rooms with a frequency which would indicate the inn might have had some sort of hourly special that night, but I digress).

After showers we cruised the strip, a daunting task in and of itself. Single resort/casinos take up entire blocks, so passing by only a few of them can take a while when you factor in the slow-moving pedestrian traffic. Added to that is the fact that they are all mazes on the inside (deliberately, of course) so "Let's go into the MGM to grab something to drink" can quickly turn into a forty minute side trip into a labyrinth of indulgence. New York New York looked inviting enough, so we wandered in just to spend a little time on the floor of a casino.

We were wearily making our way across the floor, both acknowledging that we probably weren't in the right frame of mind for a Vegas trip, when I heard "Hart? Hart Shouldice? Is that you?" Turning around and drawing a brief blank I saw an acquaintance from my days at school in New Brunswick. It was as surprising as it was comforting to see someone who had been a friend years ago so far from the last place we had been in contact. He was there with his girlfriend and another couple, also from our alma mater (Mount Allison University), and we had a pleasant though brief catchup. They were on their way to Utah for some hiking the next day, so we wished them well and continued our dazed meander, as I extolled to Sarah for the billionth time the virtues of going to a small school with a well-defined sense of community and a warm social network that an alumnus never seems to be far from.

The strip was too much to take, plain and simple, so we headed back to the Travelodge, looking forward to Grand Canyon the next day.

Monday, June 15, 2009

San Francisco, Tahoe and a Late Night Visitor

Eviction notice in hand, we turned North out of Malibu and headed back up the Pacific Coast Highway. We spent a night deep in the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest, waking up above the clouds after a night so still that we barely heard a single leaf rustle as we slept under a blanket of stars with the roof of our tent open. From there we spent one night at a motel on the beach in Cayucos (where we could see gray whales from our room), and then back to Big Sur for a night which affirmed my burgeoning affection for that most inspiring stretch of coastline. From Big Sur, it was on to San Francisco.

I had been a little bit nervous at the trip's outset about spending time in large cities with so much of our material lives packed into the car. I have come to realize, however, that there is not a car alarm on the planet that can hold a candle to the AMC system that I had installed in my '99 Subaru before Sarah and I left Victoria. AMC, of course, stands for "All My Crap." Our car is so loaded down at the moment that I can't imagine any nighttime prowler wanting to take the time to sort through our mass of blankets, bikes and bagels to possibly find a stray dollar bill under the floor mats. It's like sifting through the twisted metal on a redneck's front yard in the hopes of finding a stray gold nugget. You'd be better off stealing lottery tickets. With that piece of mind, we drove into the Bay Area on Tuesday night, June 2nd.

Our time in San Francisco was great. We did the touristy thing but catered to our own tastes, meaning that while we went to the Japanese Tea Gardens, we also made sure to pay our respects at Jerry Garcia's old house in Haight Ashbury (indeed, 710 Ashbury Street was where all of the Grateful Dead lived for a couple of years in the mid-60s). The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Chinatown - we really made the rounds (almost entirely on foot) and made sure to breathe in the colourful houses, hilly streets and salty air as we went. There are three enduring observations/recommendations I took from my time in San Francisco that I feel compelled to pass on:

1. If you are ever on a road trip, of limited financial means, and need a brake job in San Francisco, make sure to go see Garry at Emerald Auto and Brake, 645 Judah Street. He will take pity on you and stop charging labour as he finds more and more that needs fixing with your car before he can let you take it on the highway again in good conscience.

2. Alcatraz was cold and lonesome, but the most sadistic aspect of punishment on the Rock would have been to spend your days locked up being able to see and hear people frolicking in their sailboats on San Francisco Bay. I think I would rather do my time at the center of the earth.

3. If you meet a kind older man named Danny with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Grateful Dead and mountain biking and he sells you concert tickets, the concert will have been made up and you will have likely just donated twelve dollars to the local meth trade.

With a fixed car we pulled out of the Bay Area on Saturday morning and opted to go inland again to Lake Tahoe, located along the California/Nevada border. After camping in the middle of nowhere on Saturday night, we arrived at the lake on Sunday and first spent time in Lake Tahoe City, a rather modest town on the lake's Northwest edge with all of the charm and slow-going of a natural (read: non-Intrawest) mountain resort. It was great. We decided not to stay in Tahoe City, though, and instead drove further down the lake to South Lake Tahoe.

The drive to South Tahoe was beautiful, up and down ridges overlooking crystalline waters of the lake's outer bays to our left, with towering pines to our right. South Lake Tahoe itself is considerably bigger than Tahoe City, and boasts more than its share of retail and nightlife...uuhhh...culture(?). The town also straddles the California/Nevada state line, and lest anyone get confused as to where that line is, two massive hotel and casino complexes can be found on either side of the street about six inches on the Nevada side of the border. High roller that I am, I stopped off at a blackjack table and won ten dollars while wearing my bathing suit. I still don't know why they didn't comp us a room.

We camped just outside of South Lake Tahoe in a campground that had locking metal chests - also known as bear-proof food storage - at each site. We didn't think much of it, as we have camped at several such sites on the trip, so we safely stowed our food for the night and climbed into the tent to read a little bit before falling asleep.

It was around eleven o'clock and we had been in the tent for about twenty minutes when we had a visitor. He wasn't around long - just running through our campsite for a few seconds - but his proximity to our tent made for one of the most intense experiences we've had thus far. Despite the brevity of the visit, there was no question that it was a black bear that had just run through our site. Not just through our site, but within five feet of our tent, as we confirmed in the morning when we figured out where he would have had to run in order to get between the tent and the trees. He was so close that we could hear his every snorting breath and feel the pounding of his feet - like a thoroughbred wearing work boots - in the pits of our stomachs. Indeed, we saw this bear. Perhaps not with our eyes, but with other senses that remained on edge for the rest of the night.

Which isn't to say that I was scared. I know that the bear would want no part of us, and that he would smell us in the tent and not come knocking. But I was definitely on instinctual alert for the next little while, and every sound I heard come across the still night air was another one of Yogi's cousins. A distant airplane was a flying bear. A rustle of leaves was a bear climbing trees. South-of-the-border rumbling in my sleeping bag was a bear who should have stopped at one serving of chili before bed. I felt like the prairie dog on his hind legs who just smelled a predator in the distance, and while there was never imminent danger to us (possibly even because there was no real danger), I relished the fleeting sentiment of vulnerability in the presence of a creature so awesome.

Feeling hard core after our brush with the big fella (whom Sarah heard again an hour later as we were dozing off), we packed up from Tahoe and decided to take a random left turn and head toward Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. We spent a month in Vegas last Thursday night and have been in Zion Canyon, Utah, for three days on our way to the Grand Canyon, but all of that will have to wait for another posting.

Until then, please stow your food safely.



Saturday, June 6, 2009

Beverly. The Hills, that is.

It was tough leaving Big Sur behind, but I know it's not going anywhere anytime soon. We left our campsite on the Friday of the Memorial Day long weekend, which in retrospect wasn't the best move. Apparently there was some sort of mass urban evacuation in place, as every city dweller in central California decided to camp for the weekend. We tried unsuccessfully at every campground we could find, but no amount of bearded charm could land us a campsite, so we had to stay in hotels for the Friday and Saturday. Mercifully we found a county park just north of Los Angeles with plenty of open sites and great mountain views for the Sunday night.

We awoke Sunday morning and knew that we were so close to L.A. - a place that we had both sworn we had no interest in and weren't going to bother with - that we would be remiss if we didn't check it out. A peek at the atlas showed some available camping in Malibu, so not knowing what to expect but figuring we'd only be there for a night or two, we cruised down the Pacific Coast Highway and followed the smell of Botox. What follows is a blow-by-blow account.

Monday - Arrive in Malibu. Without a doubt, one of the fifteen or twenty nicest beach towns I've seen in the past month. Seriously, is there really this much hype over a thirty mile stretch of gas stations, fish and chips restaurants and out-of-business surf shops? Granted, the houses in the hills immediately to the east of the highway are impressive, and yeah, the ocean is right there, but Malibu might be the most underwhelmingest place I've ever seen, relative to its hype. We're talking Ottawa-Senators-in-the-postseason letdown. Ouch. At least we have a campsite at the less-than-escapist Leo Carillo State Beach and Campground.

Tuesday - I lock the bikes to a tree at our site (better to not have anything on our roof if we want to fit in underground garages) and we head into L.A. It takes around an hour for us to pull into Beverly Hills, and our dusty station wagon loaded to the gills with our stuff feels right at home amidst the parade of 7-series BMWs and other paycheques on wheels. We park off Rodeo Drive (this must be where the cowboys hang out) and launch on a self-guided walking tour. We see Beverly Hills, Sunset and Hollywood Blvds., the Walk of Fame, Grauman's Chinese Theatre, etc. etc. etc. Highlights of the day include seeing Slash's hand prints in the cement and talking with a friendly local in a neighbouring car at three consecutive traffic lights as we were driving out of town, with her giving us tips on what we should see. The Venice Boardwalk should be high on our list, she says. We head back to the illustrious Leo Carillo State Beach and Campground, thinking that Hollywood isn't nearly as shiny as we had thought.

Wednesday - We take our new friend's advice and head to the boardwalk at Venice Beach. We quickly realize that it is just like the county fair, if everyone at the county fair was either selling t-shirts, slightly strung out, or selling t-shirts while slightly strung out. It's quite the urban bazaar, and unless you are in dire need of a handmade hemp necklace or pink shorts that have B-I-T-C-H bedazzled across the ass, you can probably skip it on your next trip to Southern California. A man pulling a little red wagon gives us "free tickets" to the next day's taping of Real Time with Bill Maher in L.A. We're suspicious, but take them since they're free.

We roll back into Malibu in the early evening and decide to hit a coffee shop for some e-mailing. I park the car without paying much attention to our surroundings, only to return a couple hours later to find it in a lineup of cars that went: Bentley, Bentley, Subaru with shoddy brakes and a Phish sticker, Bentley. Also, their are paparazzi swarming around. Apparently I have inadvertently parked in front of one of Malibu's poshest restaurants. My bad. Kenny G is emerging as we return to the car (we should have shared curl-enhancing techniques) and the paparazzi tell me that Lisa Rinna is inside. They then tell me who Lisa Rinna is. We see her blow past in her blue Bentley as we start to make our way back to the friendly confines of Leo Carillo State Beach and Campground.

Thursday - We head to the "taping" of Bill Maher's show. Unfortunately, even though the tickets were free, this is just a rehearsal for Friday's show, with the host running through his monologue, some jokes, and his closing commentary. It's entertaining, but feels a little like a bait and switch. The consolation is that it is filmed in the studio where they do The Price is Right, so I have successfully completed a pilgrimage I promised my ten-year-old self I would make. We also put our names down for Friday night when they tape the actual show.

After Bill Maher we make our way to Sunset Blvd., where a band we both enjoy - moe. - was playing that night at the Roxy. Seeing a band we dig at a legendary Hollywood venue is not something we want to pass up, and the show is rockin' despite a tragic dearth of overindulgent celebrities passed out in bathroom stalls. Apparently Sunset isn't all it's cracked up to be.

It's a late night and we return to camp at around 2:00 in the A.M. and find to our very brief amusement that they lock the gates of the campground at 10:00 P.M. Apparently the California State Parks system thinks it is our mother and has decided to impose a curfew. We try unsuccessfully to rig something up with rocks and a hockey stick (don't leave home without it) to drive over the spikes in place to prevent you from driving in through the out door. Unable to do so, and unwilling to leave our car packed with most of our worldlies out at the highway, we resolve ourselves to an uncomfortable few hours sleeping in the car (can't recline the seats in a car full of stuff) while we wait for the 7:00 A.M. opening of the gates. The novelty of saying "Yeah man, after that show at the Roxy I passed out in my car in Malibu," wears off quickly, although we remain mindful of the fact that there are many in the world who would think it a privilege to have a warm, dry and safe car to sleep in. We don't sleep much, but the time passes rather quickly and we didn't pay for that nights accommodation, so all in all it wasn't a horrible experience. At 7:01 Friday morning we are nestled snugly in our tent at the paternalistic Leo Carillo State Beach and Campground.

Friday - Back into town to catch the actual taping of Real Time with Bill Maher. Aside from the novelty of being in a studio audience, the show is engaging and thought-provoking, with discussion ranging from corporatization of food to the newest appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want to go for a drink afterwards, but if we're not home by 10:00 we get in soooooo much trouble. We agree that as soon as we graduate we are so moving out of the tyrannical Leo Carillo State Beach and Campground.

Saturday - We are awoken by an apparent combination of Smokey the Bear and Rod Farva telling us that there seems to be some confusion about what nights we have paid for, and that all sites are reserved on weekends so we have overstayed our welcome. We are to proceed to the front kiosk at once to get things sorted out. We pack up and leave without stopping to pay for the night we had to sleep outside the gate. I think we may have made the prestigious lifetime ban list at the world renown Leo Carillo State Beach and Campground.

And that was L.A. for us.

If there is one enduring sentiment we left with, it's that L.A. itself might be the world's biggest movie star. It's image of beauty, perfection and glamour pervades popular consciousness and is carefully crafted and maintained. Even a cursory glance at the city without the magic of television, however, reveals a decidedly grittier reality - even in Beverly Hills and Malibu, and especially in Hollywood. We were both glad to see L.A., but in a way it was like waking up next to the prom queen and seeing her without her makeup on. Warts and all it was a fun few days, but neither one of us was sad to pull out of Malibu and make a run for the mountains.

And we both sincerely hope that there will be but one "sleeping in the car" story upon the trip's conclusion.



Saturday, May 23, 2009

Surtainly Magnificent

Yosemite had been an up-and-down experience. I hope as I look back on it I recall the majesty of the peaks and even the burning of my quads before the throngs of people and wildlife suppression techniques. Then again, I'm grateful for having seen the ugly side of things, and wouldn't have wanted a sugar-coated experience. Either way, it was only upon leaving the park on Saturday evening (May 16th) that we felt like we were getting a break from civilization. Weird.

Saturday night we stayed at an inn above a saloon in Coulterville, CA. Coulterville boasts the sort of old West, one-horse town aesthetic that tourist traps seek to replicate, but the boarded up businesses and sleepy feel to the town speak to its authenticity. It was a great place to recharge after Yosemite.

From there it was on to Santa Cruz, a town that is one part beach, one part forest and two parts awesome. It has beachfront for surfing (or learning how to surf...or simply carrying a board around town and winking at the ladies), mountains for hiking, and independent businesses for supporting. It's also known as one of the biking capitals of North America and has the best falafel I've ever tasted outside of Ottawa. Yeah, I think Santa Cruz and I will get along just fine. We were only there for a couple of days, but bookmarked the local Craigslist page before leaving, as of all the places we've visited thus far, it seems to be the front runner in the "Where are we going to live when we get home" sweepstakes.

South of Santa Cruz, past the über-ritzy tourist destinations of Carmel and Pebble Beach lies Big Sur. More a region than a specific location, and perhaps more a state of mind than a region, Big Sur (a bastardized derivative of the Spanish "Big South") is 90 miles of rugged coastline where the Santa Lucia Mountains jump abruptly from the seething Pacific Ocean, with Coastal Highway One serving as a winding and arbitrary boundary between the two. Many great writers have called Big Sur home (or at least called it muse) and standing in between the mountains and the sea, it was not difficult to understand why.

Of all the artistic greats who spent time in Big Sur, novelist and painter Henry Miller is the one whose legacy is the most enduring. On Wednesday afternoon, May 20th, we wandered into the Henry Miller library set across the street from the ocean in a thicket of lush Pacific vegetation. The aesthetic of the building is more wooden cottage than library, and over and above any other purpose it is a modest bookstore, selling Big Sur-inspired works and other books that make you think. In addition to a bookstore, however, it is also used as a performance space, and we happened to stumble upon it on the day of an open mic. We spent a short time at the library in the afternoon, with plans to return that evening for the open mic.

After some time back at our campsite - a beauty walk-in site at Andrew Molera State Park - we bundled up for the long night ahead and drove back to the library for the open mic. Seeking to get off the tourist track and spend time engaging in bona fide local activities is something I always endeavour to do while traveling, and to that end the open mic didn't disappoint. We arrived to find a smattering of locals sitting on the sprawling deck to the right of the main library building, shielded from the wind by trees yet fully exposed to the stars, liberally sharing mugs of coffee, cans of beer, pipes of combustibles and anything else that could be passed to your neighbour.

It was a pleasure to spend a few hours listening to locals sing and strum while we sat beside them, with songs about Jesus and love mixed in with the occasional poem or Sublime cover. When the music they played over the speakers in between performers included Leonard Cohen telling Marianne "I used to think I was some kind of gypsy boy/Before I let you take me home," I couldn't help but wonder if those are words I'll be singing to Big Sur before my time out West is done. We departed the open mic when it concluded at 11:00, but the night was far from over.

There is still much geologic activity on the west coast (geologic time includes now, after all) and along with the not-so-pleasant earthquakes come some of the more enjoyable byproducts of seismic activity, such as the hot springs at the Esalen Institute.

The Esalen Institute is a retreat and educational center on the ocean side of the highway a few kilometers south of the library. It has hot-springs-fed mineral baths that overlook the Pacific, and they open the baths to the public from one to three A.M. every night. Yes, that's 1:00 to 3:00 in the morning, and it's done by reservation only. When you make your reservation, they tell you that you have to be waiting in your car at the top of their driveway in a dusty pull-off alongside the highway at quarter to one in the morning. Someone will come meet you. Do not drive on to the property until he comes to get you. Just to recap: you have to sit and wait in a dark car in the middle of the night on the side of a highway for someone to come knock on your window, and you cannot proceed until he collects you. From the way they set it up, I wondered if there had been a miscommunication along the line. "No, you misunderstood me," I wanted to say. "I'm looking to soak in the mineral baths, not buy drugs." I bit my tongue, though, and several hours later Sarah and I drove from the open mic to sit in the pullout for a couple of hours, waiting for the knock on our window.

There was another car waiting when we pulled in, and a couple of others drove up to wait in the hour and-a-half before the staff member emerged from the darkness down the hill in a golf cart at a little before one o'clock. Shadowy figures emerged from the cars one at a time. "Walk down the hill," he told us all. "There is someone in the guard booth. He will sign you in. Wait there."

No, seriously. Am I trying to soak my bare ass in 2009, or buy moonshine in 1933?

We made our way down to the guard hut, signed our names and a standard waiver, and the man who had collected us in the highway pullout then escorted us through the compound down to where the baths are. After a brief rundown ("Here are the baths, here's how you make them hotter, someone will come tell you when it's almost three and your time is up") we were left to soak. There were eight of us altogether - Sarah and I, another young couple, and four single men. This makes for an odd dynamic when you are at a "clothing optional" bath with communal change rooms, but everyone managed to stifle their point-and-giggle impulses as we disrobed, showered (also communal) and individually wandered out to the baths themselves. The dim lighting helped.

There were four baths, each about the size and depth of a hot tub, with two of them outside sandwiched between stars and sea and two more under partial or total cover, but still in the open air. The baths were etched into a cliff, several stories above the crashing waves. The water was a little warmer than a well-heated swimming pool, but with the turn of a valve you could pour additional natural hot spring water into the tub to up the temperature.

There were also empty claw foot bathtubs, which you could fill with cold water from a garden hose if you wanted to jump between hot and cold water. Thinking this to be an exciting option, I turned on a hose to fill up one of the bathtubs, only to have it flail around on the deck when I let it go, spewing cold water at quite an impressive radius. I'm not certain, but I don't think having a furry naked Canadian shouting "What the hell?!" and chasing a garden hose raining ice water in all directions was what our fellow bathers had bargained for when they paid their twenty bucks, so I had to quickly shape up and rig up some sort of system where I could leave the hose unattended while I enjoyed my soak. After a few failed attempts I managed to tie the hose in a knot around itself that was sufficient to weigh it down until the tub filled. Moving back and forth between hot and cold was exhilarating, to be sure, and worth the brief interruption in the serenity.

Amusing misfortunes aside, the middle-of-the-night soak was a full-sensory endeavour in regeneration. Nurturing for mind, body and soul, and offering a strong connection to the elements. For our eyes: the silhouetted black clouds jockeying for position in front of a never-in-the-city star scape. For our ears: the pulse of the ocean a hundred feet below us, churning and thundering, apparently unaware that night is for resting. Even the strong aroma of sulfur emanating from the thermal pools was gentle and welcome, reminding us that it was Mother Earth on her own who was keeping the baths warm. All the while the mineral water washed over us, providing an embryonic immersion of the most soothing proportions. Much like a night at the bar - but for entirely different reasons - three o'clock came much too soon. After a drive back to the state park, the walk back to our campsite in the pitch black forest as the clock struck four was a fitting punctuation to a night of the sublime.

Short hikes and beach time were the order of the remainder of our time in Big Sur. That Wednesday night, though, was not only the sort of night that makes me want to travel in the first place, but the sort of night that makes me wonder in retrospect why I chose to keep moving. For now I am enjoying my time as a gypsy boy (a gypsy boy with a gypsy girl accomplice, that is), but if Big Sur calls me home, I will be only too happy to answer.



Monday, May 18, 2009

Yosemite Part 3: A Sad Encounter

Fifteen hard miles in ten hours in the hot sun will leave anyone feeling a little wilted. There was a palpable air of relief around us as we shuffled our way back to the car, which was parked in a dusty lot and pulled in facing a wooded area. The setting sun was still beating on the granite cliffs to the South, but the parking lot was in total shade.

I was on the driver’s side and had just let out a relieved grunt as I slid off my stiff and heavy backpacking boots. Standing up to stretch after slipping my feet into some sandals, my jaw dropped as I saw two hundred pounds, four legs and light brown fur lumbering away from a neighbouring car with a brown paper bag in it’s mouth.

“Sarah! A bear!”

She wasn’t fifteen feet away from us and only wandered about twenty feet into the woods to dig into her new find. Seeing a bear with a tag on its ear and a grocery bag in its mouth doesn't quite recall the majesty of John Muir's Yosemite, but there was still a quiet awe in both of us as we stood transfixed and silent.

Sarah and I had each snapped a picture and I was going to reach for a phone to call and report the late afternoon snacker when I turned and saw the rangers approaching us. Dressed in their green pants, matching ball caps and crisp khaki shirts, the gang of four were probably a couple years younger than me. Two men and two women, with two of them carrying high-tech listening equipment and a paintball gun.

I was approached by the younger of the two men, wearing big glasses and a stubby dirty blond pony tail pulled through the back of his hat. Knowing what he was looking for I whispered “Right there, straight ahead,” and pointed. He took a look and then went back to his teammates. There was a deceptive and fleeting moment of calm as the four of them took about three steps toward the bear.

The contrast could not have been more stark: the silent reverence when we sat watching the bear eat, and the top-of-their-lungs shouting as the rangers gave chase. "HEY BEAR! GET OUT OF HERE!" They exploded like a pack of wolves on Red Bull, a college football team emerging from the tunnel trying their best to psych out their opponent as they ran straight at the animal. She was undeterred for a moment, but once the rangers were within about ten feet she dropped her find and retreated to the woods. As quickly and silently as we had seen her, she disappeared in a jarring mess of shouts and pressurized paint pellets.

They weren't done, though. The older of the two male rangers, sporting close-cropped black hair and a neatly groomed beard (pffff) went back to the truck and emerged with what looked like a Soviet assault rifle. The younger woman stayed close by him with radio equipment they could use to track the animal into the woods.

"So, what do you guys do now?" I asked.

"We have to go and find her. This bear has been a real problem," came the cavalier, almost boastful response from the ranger brandishing the firearm. "We've been chasing her almost exclusively for about a week and-a-half, and she's getting bolder and bolder. We're going to shoot her with rubber bullets to try and keep her away, but we've relocated her five times."

"Did she break into a car just now?" Yosemite bears are famous for tearing into locked cars in search of food.

"No. Somebody put their food down and walked a hundred yards away. She came and grabbed it as soon as he walked away."

"So I guess he didn't pay attention to the signs that seem to be every five feet telling you to store your food properly, huh?"

"Yeah, well, signs are only so effective. " And then, as a casual afterthought he added "We'll have to put her down if she gets worse."

So, just to recap: Person comes into bear's habitat. Person told not to leave food out. Person leaves food out. Bear gets shot. It was a strange and troubling end to four days in Yosemite that were overwhelming for any number of reasons - both magical and devastating.

Yosemite National Park is stunning. The granite cliffs, soaring waterfalls and mountain meadows are enough to bring a grown man to tears. They have captured the imaginations of writers, artists and musicians for generations, and are why three and a half million people visit the park every year (that's an average of ten thousand a day, for those of you keeping score at home). But of those 3.5 million, one has to wonder how many of them see the park as simply a forested extension of the cities from which they come. It would not be a stretch for anybody to view Yosemite as yet another consumerist enclave, only one that happens to be surrounded by natural, rather than artificial skyscrapers.

I am not an elitist. I think the woods are for everybody, and just because I can walk a little ways into the mountains, that does not mean that I am any more entitled to see Yosemite than someone who, for whatever reason, cannot venture more than a half mile from the car. But to nurture the sort of roadside tourism which Yosemite oozes - a pizza joint, souvenir "clearance outlet" and sprawling, cancerous golf course can all be found on the valley floor - does not show the same sort of reverence for the natural environment that the park pretends to espouse. How are tourists supposed to take seriously the warnings about locking up their food when they are parked a stone's throw from an all-you-can-eat buffet? The park is dotted with signs asking us to keep the animals wild, but they aren't exactly setting the best precedent with what they've done to the landscape.

If ten thousand people a day want to respect and learn about the land - even from the comfort and safety of their cars - then that should be encouraged. Awareness and education are the cornerstones of conservation. But I am at a loss as to what good is served by the hordes coming through Yosemite to eat pizza and buy t-shirts, only to have the wildlife that is emblazoned on those very t-shirts be euthanized as a result of the negligence of park visitors. (Funny, too, how John Muir - a man whose image and name are shamelessly plastered all over the park - defined his life by the time he spent in these mountains without every buying a single t-shirt).

Let anyone who so desires come to Yosemite. Let them stay awhile, take pictures and tell all their friends about it. I, myself was a temporary guest, and am very grateful to have been allowed to come for a visit. But let the people come on the terms of the mountains, dictated by compassion, not consumerism. I'm happy to pay to enter the park, but I want to pay to enter a park in the mountains, not a shopping mall in the woods. If you want a pizza buffet, stay at home. If you want a buffet for the soul, bring your sleeping bag and plan to stay a while.

Just remember to lock up your food.



Yosemite Part 2: Half Dome (Choose Your Own Adventure)

(Please choose a number between 1 and 4. You'll need it later on in this post)

Friday had been a great day of recharging, and after some back-and-forth between us about avoiding crowds and what we wanted out of our time in Yosemite, we decided that climbing the fabled Half Dome on Saturday would be a fun and challenging way to cap off our time in the park. Half Dome is more rock than mountain, a granite formation rising up 4800 feet (1, 144 metres) from the valley floor to an elevation of 8,836 feet (2,693 metres). The summit of the rock is accessible without technical climbing gear, with fixed cables shepherding hikers up the last 400 feet (120 metres) of the steep climb. It's a grueling 15-mile round-trip, but something we were very much looking forward to as we packed up camp on Saturday morning and took the short drive to the trailhead.

There are other lookout points and waterfalls on the way up to the summit, so we were very much part of a thundering herd as we started the walk. I felt like a pilgrim heading to Mecca, only with more of a crowd. While the crowds would ebb and flow throughout the day, we never quite had the feeling that we were "getting away from it all," as we estimated at day's end that we spent less than ten percent of the day without other people in view or earshot. I shudder to think of the masses that flock to Half Dome at summer's peak.

The highlight of the early part of the hike is the misnomered "Mist Trail," a steep granite stair climb that has you walking along side a pumping waterfall (pumping in springtime, at least), while the mist from the falls gives you a thorough soaking. It wasn't a bad way to start the day, as the scenery was great and we knew that we were in for a hot day of hiking.

The walk levels off somewhat after the mist trail culminates with the thundering Nevada Falls four miles (about seven kilometers) in. After a flat, sandy section the trail climbs gradually toward the summit, with the final two miles being gnarly to say the least. There are dozens of steps seemingly carved right into the side of the rock, then some free scrambling up bare rock (nothing but the valley floor to stop a fall) which takes you to a false summit. From the false summit, you look straight up to the final 400 feet (120 meters) of climb: a seventy degree rock face where the only (sane) way up or down is to haul yourself up using the steel cables that are in place from May to October. It took me a long, hard look at the cables to figure whether or not I wanted to make the final push, but in the end...(kindly recall the number you chose at the beginning of the blog to complete this sentence. Let's all meet up again after number four.)

1. But in the end, I chose not to pull myself up the cables and climb the final 400 feet. The Maori people of New Zealand have asked climbers not to stand directly on the summit Aoraki/Mount Cook - that country's highest peak - out of respect for the mountain's sacred history. I thought the honourable thing to do would be to show the same respect to Half Dome.

2. But in the end, I chose not to pull myself up the cables and climb the final 200 feet. My mother is an avid knitter, and my untimely demise resulting from a potential misstep would have put her way behind on her Christmas socks for this year. I couldn't do that to her.

3. But in the end, I chose not to pull myself up the cables and climb the final 400 feet. Sarah told me I was more of a man for not doing it than all of those who did it just for the sake of doing it. And besides, I haven't felt the need to prove anything to anyone since my second successful defence of the Camp Sheldrake 60-second burp record in 2003(120 burps in one minute, and it still stands to this day).

4. But in the end, I chose not to pull myself up the cables and climb the final 400 feet. The thought scared the living piss out of me.

So I didn't stand atop the absolute summit of Half Dome. But to let that detract from what was a near-idyllic day on the trails (save for the crowds) would be to miss the point of a day in the woods altogether. The lizards scampering below me, wild flowers in bloom beside me and snow-covered peaks in front of me were the stuff of a Planet Earth highlight reel, and to spend a day letting my senses feast in such a theater was a wonderful privilege. Summit or no summit, to be so blessed as to be wincing my way down the mountain in the relentless sun after walking on the shoulder of a giant was soul food of the highest nutritional content. I am grateful to Half Dome for letting me spend a blink of her eye alongside her, and have never had a shower so glorious as the waterfall mist on the descent.



Yosemite Part 1: Any Room at the Inn?

We enjoyed our stay in Arcata, but a guy can only see so many dreadlocks and yoga pants before looking for a change of scenery. We headed just a little ways down the 101 to Ferndale, CA, a one-horse town renowned for its Victorian architecture and quaint Main Street.

My Lonely Planet guidebook told us that we could camp for a modest fee - hot showers included - at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds in Ferndale, so we followed the signs when we arrived in town. The fairgrounds are located a couple of kilometers outside of town in some pretty serious agricultural country. We weren't sure the camping rumours would be true, but sure enough we found a field adjacent to the county racetrack that had a few ramshackle motor homes amidst the overgrowth and a hand-painted red-and-white sign that said "Camping Check-In". The sign pointed to a trailer that could not have had half as much furniture inside as it did outside.

Ten dollars later we were setting up our tent at the edge of an unkempt field across the street from a fine bovine herd on one side, the county fair grandstand on another and a scrap tire yard on yet another. It would seem that they don't get too many one-night visitors at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds (except during the fair, we were later told), as eyes peered out from behind tattered screens and rickety front doors of each of the ten or so trailers and motor homes that lined the field, watching our every move as we set up the tent and settled in for the night. A couple of young road trippers from Canada were the front page story for the fifteen hours we were camped at the fairgrounds, as every time we went to the bathrooms or walked off the property, locals made sure to find a reason to be standing in front of their trailers or in their windows to get a good look. I'm not sure if it felt more like a scene from Deliverance (backwoods creepy) or Snatch (bare-knuckle boxing gypsy creepy), but either way I wasn't sad to be leaving on Tuesday morning, the back-in-time charm of Ferndale not withstanding.

The coast had been good to us, but it was time to head inland a ways. After a one-night stopover in Ukiah, CA we headed to Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada Mountains therein. It being midweek and early May at this point, we were looking forward to some time in the woods away from civilization. Everyone knows that National Parks are mobbed from June to September, so we were psyched to think we were ahead of the rush.

We were surprised, then, when we arrived late Tuesday night and found an "All Campgrounds Full" sign taped to the unoccupied entry booth in the Southwest corner of the park. Slightly confused and a little but unnerved, we turned around and set up camp in a dark and primitive campground (no picnics or brushing of teeth allowed, because of bears) about forty kilometers outside of the park.

We rolled in to the park again, for the first time, on Wednesday morning. We were told that all of the reservable campsites in the park were taken, but that the walk-in and non-reservable Camp 4 might still have a few spots left. Camp 4 is located on the floor of the Yosemite Valley, a good half-hour's drive from the entry to the park, so we booted it there as fast as we could, knowing that if we got shut out from Camp 4 our Yosemite experience might be in serious jeopardy. Again, this being the supposed off-season, we were taken aback at the amount of traffic we saw driving in, but we plowed on undeterred and were relieved to get one of the last sites available in Yosemite National Park.

How to describe Camp 4? It's a walk-in only campground, where everyone parks in a dusty lot and walks in to their site (we were about two hundred metres from the car to our tent). People are camped on top of each other, six to a site with, one meagre set of washrooms (no showers) serving all two hundred and some campers. Set in the shadow of Yosemite Falls and the iconic El Capitan, Camp 4 is renowned among rock climbers, who seemed to comprise at least 90% of the residents of this strange little village that was one part campground, one part music festival, and one part parents' basement. Twenty- and thirty-somethings who could probably be doing something more productive with their lives are the norm (present company proudly included), but the duct-taped gear and mac-and-cheese diets belie the diversity of the campers. Once the headlamps get turned on around the picnic tables at night you are just as likely to hear conversations about how "Siiiiick, dude" the nose route of El Cap is as you are to get recommendations on where to get sushi in Berlin or whether The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer's best work.

Tents and bear-proof food storage cabinets at Camp 4. You really have to hope your neighbour doesn't snore.

The full campsites and traffic heading from the park entrance to the valley (where most of Yosemite's commercial and slumbering activity takes place) had given us some cause for concern, but I don't know that either of us were quite prepared for the total gong show that would await us after we set up in Camp 4 and made our way to the beehive that is Yosemite Village.

The village is the hub of Yosemite National Park. Three and a half million people visit the park each year, and it seemed to us on Wednesday afternoon that 2009's entire allotment had checked in that afternoon. There were gift shops (and one "souvenir clearance outlet") swarming with tourists browsing the floor-to-ceiling t-shirts. Others clambered over each other in line at the full service grocery store, and still more were found in line at the plethora many eateries in the village, or on their way to the 18-hole championship golf course. It was like a dusty Disneyland, with all of the jostling, noise and aggravation of a major tourist trap and none of the anticipated tranquility or even mutual respect one anticipates when entering a national park. We had paid twenty bucks (the entry fee to the park, per car) for the privilege of fighting crowds for parking spots and roadside views, and were both feeling pretty demoralized.

Thursday was better, however. After the confusion and frustration of Wednesday, we checked out of Camp 4 into the more serene and natural North Pines Campground, and had a wonderful day of hiking 10 miles (round trip) to the top of Yosemite Falls - North America's highest waterfall, plunging over 2,000 feet to the valley floor. Watching the water unfurl as it leaped over the falls and billowed its way into the streams below and hearing its jet-engine roar that could only have been soothing in this particular setting was just the therapy we needed and left us feeling like we'd had a real day in the woods. We looked forward to a rest day on Friday and then a climb of the mighty Half Dome on Saturday.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Honey, I Blew Up the Trees

Lincoln City, Oregon was a stopover serving little more purpose than a bed and a shower, but when we awoke Tuesday to sunny skies, we took a morning run on the beach before skipping town. It can be easy when road-tripping to let your physical well being slide, so we've tried to make a point of starting off at least a few days a week with a run. When you have hundreds of miles of coastline with which to do this, it definitely makes things easier (although we only use three or four of those miles at a time).

Continuing our journey south we spent the night at Humbug Mountain State Park - a lush, rainforested campground tucked in a nook with rich green hills rising sharply to the south, and the ocean churning and crashing a half mile to the west. Lying in my sleeping bag Tuesday night it was a soothing pleasure to hear the low rumble of the ocean harmonizing with the sway of the coastal wind through the trees, while the rain played percussion, sizzling like bacon on the roof of the tent.

Humbug Mountain (highly recommended) lies near the Oregon-California border, so we knew that Wednesday would bring a crossing into the promised land of Northern California and the coastal redwoods. We stopped in Crescent City, CA (not recommended) only long enough to get information at the Redwood National and State Parks visitors' center and were on our way, pointed slightly inland toward Jedediah Smith State Park, smack in the middle of the Northern sprawl of coastal redwoods.

Right. The coastal redwoods. Sweet fancy Moses, these trees are big. With some of them topping off at close to four hundred feet (that's about 394 feet taller than me, give or take), these are the tallest trees in the world, and it's not as though they're skinny either. To be honest, the size of these trees is absurd to me, as even when I crane my neck to see one from top-to-bottom it simply does not seem possible for a tree to be that big. Wednesday night we camped snug amidst a grove of giants, which by their size alone constantly and silently reminded us of our own insignificance.

Thursday afternoon we set off on a fairly gentle six-mile (10K) hike through the forest to a modest waterfall. Snaking our way through the trees, each seemingly bigger than the last, it occurred to me that I was living out a long-dormant childhood dream. That is not to say that I have long wished to visit the giant redwoods. Rather, I remember thinking as an 8 year-old boy how cool it would be to run around on the set of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids - to spend some time in a spatially askew world of giants where I was reduced to the role of insect. This is very much the sensation that I had hiking through the trees - that I did not belong. That they existed on a scale so beyond my comprehension and significance that the best I could ask for would be to walk beside them for a few hours and hope they didn't catch on to the fact that a foreigner was scurrying around their roots.

Eating, sleeping, walking and driving in the redwoods for three days (with more to come) was something that I won't soon forget and an experience I am having difficulty conveying with the written word. The redwood forests were at once overwhelming and intangible. Sensory and visceral. Soothing and intense. I was never quite sure whether I should be bowing my head or raising the roof, so I did a little of both. Booting our way down the highway on Friday through a sun-drenched grove of giants with the ocean to our right and some tasty Phish coming through the speakers elicited more than one fist-pump from yours truly, and was the perfect way to emerge from the woods and punctuate three days that were simply spectacular ( can feel free to insert your own overused superlative here).

Friday night had us camped at the beach at a decidedly non-forested site, but one that was idyllic on its own terms. Watching the waves dance against the hardwood of the Pacific sunset from Gold Bluffs Beach was a joy, and the breathing ocean once again lulled me to sleep, only to nudge me awake with the same song hours later.

We are now spending the weekend in Arcata, CA, a very crunchy Humboldt County town plucked from the Vermont tree, where beards are the norm and self-righteous bumper stickers abound. Gee, I wonder if I'll fit in.

From here it looks like we'll be headed inland. Yosemite National Park, the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the giant sequoias that caught the imagination of John Muir are calling us. While the coast has been spectacular, we're looking forward to spending some time among mountains and fresh water, and getting more lessons in humility from those damn big trees.



Monday, May 4, 2009

Going Places that I've Never Been

(Warning: there are two bad words in this post.)

The going away festivities from the night before had left me with a broken head and slightly dehydrated heart, so I was feeling fragile when we drove on to the ferry. Having finished school (forever[?]) a few days before and finished moving (not forever) a few minutes before, I pulled onto the Coho ferry with Sarah, headed for Port Angeles, WA with a station wagon full of stuff and a roof full of bikes. Our plan: to cruise the American west coast for a while (weeks? months?), looking for a place to lay our heads for a slightly longer while, and take some time to smell the roses along the way.

Leaving Victoria proved harder than I thought, though, in more ways than one. I tend to boast about the amount that I move, and with my last few have developed a smug sense of self-satisfaction at how smoothly it can go. This time, however, proved to be quite the scramble to vacate the apartment, tie up loose ends and catch the last southbound boat of the day from Victoria. While I wasn't entirely surprised at the rough go I had getting everything to fit in the car, I hadn't figured on having to mask a quivering lip and salty cheeks as we sailed away from the Island I had lamented more than once over the past three years. I'll try and save face by chocking the emotions up to the lingering effects of the previous night. Either way, though, at 4:00 on Thursday afternoon, I was headed for the mainland.

We camped in Olympic National Park the first night and headed south down US 101 the next morning. The Washington section of 101 has its share of Pacific Northwest greenery, but we both felt inclined to drive through the state at a utilitarian pace. We knew that Oregon and California would give us much cause to take our time, and looked forward to exploring those states at a gait so leisurely it might invite the middle finger from RV-ing retirees. Washington could be cruised through at a decent clip.

We arrived in Oregon late in the day on Friday and camped in Fort Stevens State Park at the extreme Northwest tip of the state. A funny thing about Oregon: one is prohibited by law from pumping one's own gas. Ostensibly this is to create jobs in the state, but if nothing else it adds some local colour to an out-of-stater's visit. Case-in-point: a conversation I had with an attendant at a rural gas bar on Saturday morning:

"Hey man, where are you headed?"
"Not sure. South is pretty much all we know. We're going to go at least as far as the giant redwoods in California."
"The redwoods are fucking bad, dude!"
"Yeah man. They blew my mind. There are trees that are as wide as from me to that building over there."
"Sweet. Looking forward to it."
"Yeah. I think they're prehistoric or some shit."

Heading inland from there, we made our way to Portland to check out the city and visit a friend of Sarah's. After getting caught in a hail storm and learning the hard way that there is a dearth of public restrooms in the city, we decided that the time might not be right for us and Portland to become acquainted. We enjoyed a great evening with an old friend and his wife and then headed back toward the coast late Saturday night.

As far as scenery, the Oregon coast has not disappointed. To our right has been crashing surf and the open ocean (I think it's the Pacific), and to our left have been hills blanketed with foliage so lush I've daydreamed about riding my bike atop the canopy, only to be snapped back to reality by the logging truck approaching me in the oncoming lane I have drifted into.

Sunday afternoon we arrived in Cannon Beach, where any well-cultured child of the 80's should know that The Goonies was filmed. We both felt initially drawn to the town, as it's a quaint seaside village where most of the shops have posted hours that include the words "around" or "ish." There are also striking similarities between Cannon Beach and Lake Placid, New York - a village that is near and dear to both of our hearts and has a similar resort vibe.

Upon closer inspection, however, Cannon Beach seems to be like the head cheerleader of coastal Oregon: it's nice to look at for a little while and is pleasant enough for a day or two, but eventually you can't help but realize it is a little too perfect. The meticulous landscaping, ultramodern vacation homes and picturesque storefronts came to give off an aura of the manufactured (despite the absence of chain stores), and the longer I spent in town the more I felt like I was in Disneyland for rich people from Seattle. Indeed, it looked like a village that had everything one could want, except for the sense that any real people actually lived there. There was enough distinct about it that I could maybe see myself enjoying the beach there for a summer, but I won't be surprised if I'm greeted by a Stepford wife the next time I roll into town.

Before departing Cannon Beach we sent some mail home. Now, one of the joys of our trip is not knowing quite where we're going, and not having anywhere to get back to. There is something at once liberating and guilt-inducing about having to shrug our shoulders when asked where we are headed either to or from, and in the past three days I think we have used four different home addresses. It can also add some flavour to even mundane activities such as mailing a letter. Here is the return address I put on a card that went in the mail box this morning:

99 Outback
BC Plates
924 HMR
Highway 101
West Coast

After the post office we contined south this afternoon. In light of the rather gnarly wind and rain that are pounding the coast, we've opted to move inside for the night. We're hunkered down at a Mom and Pop motel in Lincoln City, Oregon, hoping to be up and at 'em early tomorrow and camped somewhere cool tomorrow night. Private ownership is prohibited on the Oregon coastline, so there are heaps of prime camping spots lining the shore (the hippies finally got something right). I'll update when I can, and look forward to sharing more adventures as we move along.

Just don't ask me where I live.



Tuesday, April 7, 2009

United Steelworkers of Montreal

This is a review I wrote for a show here in Victoria last weekend. It didn't get printed where I was hoping it would, so here it is.

Full disclosure: I freaking love this band.


It is a rare thing to see a band called back to the stage for an encore. True, we have all seen bar bands take three unconvincing steps to the left and milk a few seconds of cheering from the crowd before finishing a set. And the perfunctory dimly-lit five-minute lighter-raising break has long been a hallmark of arena rock. Really though, encores in these cases are surprise to no one. On the other hand, seeing a band legitimately punch-out for the night and start packing up their gear only to be called back by an unrelenting crowd they have worked into an irrational frenzy is the stuff of Springsteen legend. Springsteen and, apparently, the United Steelworkers of Montreal.

Midway through an exhaustive coast-to-coast and back again tour in support of their third full-length, Three on the Tree, the Steelworkers brought their gritty harmonies and firey finger-picking to Logan's on Saturday night as part of a double-bill with Edmonton's Hot Panda. Drawing heavily on the new material but also hearkening back to their previous two releases, the sextet offered up heaping doses of back-breaking, love-making and whiskey-drinking all served on a cobbled platter of bluegrass, folk, country, blues, gospel and early rock and roll. The genetics of each of these styles are blatantly apparent in the Steelworkers' musical aesthetic, to be sure. However, the band's real talent lies in its ability to chew it all up and spit it out in distinct four-minute installments that make you want to drink, punch, dance and cry - sometimes all at once.

The sermon-infused Jesus We Sweat and worker's lament Shot Tower, both from the new disc, were foot-stompers of the highest order. On the flip-side, the gentle sway of Son, Your Daddy Was Bad had many in the liquor-soaked crowd in a full-on waltz while frontman Shawn "Gus" Beauchamp paradoxically sang of jealousy, murder and revenge. Beauchamp's voice was smooth throughout and fit like a work-glove in between the ranges of his co-lead singers - the gravely and janitorial Gern F., and the high-harmonizing Felicity Hamer. In addition to assuming vocal duties, Hamer shone instrumentally, adding soothing accordion tones to arrangements that would include banjo and mandolin (Chris Reid), stand-up bass (Eddy Blake) and searing electric guitar (Matt Watson), in addition to the rhythm guitars of Beauchamp and Gern.

Having to share the bill this night, the Steelworkers were just hitting their stride as the clock struck midnight on their hour-long set. Despite their best efforts to convey that their time was up - coiling up cords, packing instruments away and shrugging apologetically - the calls for encore were genuine and unrelenting. The band was noticeably touched by their local reception as they reemerged for the heartfelt Place St. Henri from their 2005 debut Broken Trucks and Bottles.

"If we had two or three Victorias, we'd be West a lot more often," Gern was heard saying after the show. Indeed, it's been a year and-a-half since the band's first Victoria appearance, this being their second trip to the Garden City. That said, if supply-and-demand has taught me anything we should be able to hope for a Steelworkers return much sooner than that this time around.