Friday, July 17, 2009

Top 10 heard (or overheard)

A list homage to the best tidbits heard (or overheard) on my trip.

1. "We're bombing North Korea!" (See East Glacier, MT...two posts back)

2. "I'm sorry, we can't serve you beer, you're not driving a car" (this is an actual quote from a liquor store clerk in Cuba, NM. He told this to a hiker friend of mine when he attempted to buy a six-pack on his rest day. Apparently in this strip mall of a town they only sell liquor to people who drive. As the explanation goes, Native Americans walk from a nearby reservation, buy a bottle of liquor, and pass out on the steps.

But wait, at least they aren't piloting a moving weapon!

3. "Hey kid, get a shopping cart variant" (insult hurled in my general direction in lovely Salida, CO, I wrote about this a few posts ago)

4. "Congratulations, you have been accepted to Northwestern University School of Law" (I had to put this in there)

5. "It's cool man, ill just take you all the way up there" (I've heard a variant of this from a number of drivers who most generously responded to the imploring of my desperate, dirty thumb as I'm trying to get to town. Oftentimes, I'd be taken to a locale completely out of the way of my rescuer.)

6. "You're walking where?" (Hear this a lot)

7. "You see, if you would just let us smoke pot on the bus, we'd all be asleep and I wouldn't be arguing with you." (A boisterous woman on the overnight Greyhound from Billings to Missoula. She was depositing used sunflower seeds all over the bus floor in an apparent act of protest that we weren't allowed to smoke anything on the drive. When asked by the annoyed, sagging bus driver why she was making the mess, this was her loud response. All of this took place at 2:30am. In the seat behind my own. Standing up for what she believes in. Quite the Rosa Parks that one.

8. Are you the one with the tequila? (An inquiry backed with surprising emotion by the mousey manager of the luxurious Melbourne hostel in Denver, CO. Asked to a very hungover yours truly.)

9. "Perhaps you should find a different hostel for tonight" (This quickly followed #8. I snuck back in and slept there anyway)

10. "It's time to play Cowboys and Muslims" (see picture. small town America has been incredibly generous to me. It's also a very very scary place)

......I will update this list as appropriate.

Top Ramen Ten

The ten greatest things about the meal I've enjoyed the most frequently on my little excursion.

1. I can put it in my empty peanut butter jar to pre-soak and when I cook the shrimp flavor it tastes like thai peanut noodles.

2. It soaks up all the past meals I've had in the pot. Potatoes, tuna, powdered eggs, chocolate pudding, ramen reawakes their zombie goodness. It is a journey down memory lane every time ramen is on the menu.

3. I can add the ramen spice to my beans and rice for an artifically-flavored international zest to my dull, bland all-american patriotism meal.

4. When I stumble back to my hostel in town after getting drunk on two beers! My emergency supply of Ramen sponges the alcohol in my stomach.

5. You only cost 17 cents per bag at colorado wal-marts.

6. Try crunching dry ramen. Its not very good. But it works when you're short of both water and cooking fuel.

7. If I have an open wound, I can rip open a ramen spice packet and the artificial flavoring also acts as a disinfectant. (Probably, haven't tried this yet).

8. When I am sitting at a campsite, reading my copy of Goethe's Faust, my blackberry sitting next to me while shoveling ramen into my mouth, people have no idea what to think.

9. When attempting to get a hitch, hold an empty Ramen noodles package upside down.

10. Help! I don't have one. It's lightweight? It's cliche for backpackers to carry Ramen? I'll think of another one.

Top ten things I miss while backpacking

Uh, so, my blackberry ran out of batteries mid-way through this little trip. So rather than seriously take notes each night, I occupied my mind by compiling various top-ten lists for your reading enjoyment.

In no particular order, a list of things I miss while backpacking......

1. Coffee, even mediocre swill like Starbucks. 10,000 leagues better than the cowboy coffee or cold green tea I have available to me.

2. Wearing different articles of clothing other than the pair of shorts, same t-shirt, rain gear, jacket that I've been wearing for months. Specifically, I miss the smart looking sweater with tie combinations I used to wear to work. Inevitably, I'd choose a really hot day on which to wear this particular ensemble and after frantically biking to work (see item 7) I'd arrive damp with my hair dripping like a palm tree just after a monsoon. Great stuff.

3. Television. Yes, scorn me if you will, but I miss tv. And I'm not talking about biggest loser or rock of love, I'm talking about daytime tom clancy or star trek movies on amc. Resist, if you dare, but I cannot. Or, for the exceptionally geeky reference, it is futile.

4. Pizza. Even though philadelphia has pretty uneven pizza, its still better than zero pizza.

5. The new york times. For all its shortcomings, and there are plenty, I miss the daily paper. It is a peculiar fact of Americana that one is unable to procure a national newspaper in one of its otherwise remarkably charming small towns. The best I can often do is the hungry horse news. It's strange bit of parochialism. At least miss the electronic version that I scan on my computer. There is a blackberry version, but, let's be honest, reading anything on a BB sucks. Its like reading a novel on a series of business cards.

6. Crossword puzzles. Related to the previous item. I've begun to rip them out of local papers, however in another peculiar idiosyncracy of small towns, I've found all the crossword puzzles in community newspapers are all extraordinarily easy. Like, 15 minutes easy. And I'm nothiund special at xwords. You'd figure, if anything, itd be the other way around. More free time in small towns, more time to work on the daily puzzle? I don't know, either way, they aren't a lengthy diversion.

7.Riding my bike. Drives ride. Long, leisurely rides, riding with my ipod in the city, dodging cars as I frantically pedal, late for work. I miss cycling. However, I don't miss the constant fear of getting doored. Even while camping, not having touched a bike for months, I have violent, bloody red nightmares about doors opening in my face. End to dooring!

8. Yoga. I do. I need organized stretching. My hips are tight.

9. The belgian cafe or Rembrandts or the good dog or sugar moms, or mcglincheys, Philadelphia bars

10. Elevated beds. The hardest step of each day is the one that gets me up off the floor of my tent. If I could carry a cot that weighed less than 20 lbs, I would. Think about it. Its the difference between waking up and having to get up even further, or getting up and easing down. And if you are like me and my first 6 months in philly, sleeping with a mattress on the floor, two words will change your life: box spring. For now, I feel your pain.

09.07.10 CCR. "Travelin Band"

havent been inspired or awake enough to write much as of late. Here is my quick and dirty summary, emphasis on facts over style. I took the greyhound bus from denver to kalispell, mt with an overnight stop spent in glamorously cosmopolitan Billings, MT, where you're never far from a strip joint or a gas station, but always need a car to reach a grocery store. More on that ride in a later entry.

I went with the intention of meeting a fellow traveler as a safety-in-numbers bear deterrent for my hike down to Yellowstone. I would hike a few days in the park and meet him in East Glacier, MT the northernmost montana amtrak stop and where indians drive drunk on the 4th of july and make a game of targeting white pedestrians. Its an adorable place.

On the fourth of july there is no organized fireworks display, the community simply ignites private stashes from the center of the one road through town. There are some fairly professional pyrometrics. When they explode 20 feet above my head I only see half the explosion, I forgo the second bit any shrapnel in my eye. The kids in the town run around gleefully shouting at the exploding lights, they parrot their parents words, "the north koreans are shooting at us! Return fire!" " Blow those iranians back to allah!" "Give those sudanese hell!" And so forth. Sudan? I think they believe darfur has nuclear weapons. See, adorable.

But its not all shock and awe and cringe at small town life. The hostels are good places with honest people. I met paul, the vietnam vet who has ptsd and won't sit anywhere except in a corner so he can take a good view of the room. Paul hates the government. Paul is classified as 90 percent disabled and is compensated at that level from the VA for his injuries. He also recieves - and paul is very proud of this - a free national parks entry card. Paul showed this to me 3 times. The VA gives handicapped people with no money free national park passes as a goodie bag. Isn't that like giving chemo patients free shampoo? I don't recall seeing any wheelchair ramps in tulomne meadows. Sorry we sent you to war and you got hurt and you can't work. Here's a free pass to something you probably can't use. But paul was finding a way. Paul wants me to know again that he hates the government, but he'll take their money.

I'm now sitting in my tent typing this entry 7 days after leaving East Glacier. Its a long trip to the next town of Lincoln, MT: 170 miles. This will be my 5th night camping alone. I last saw duane, or merlin his trailname, at the top of a switchback-less 500 foot climb, adjacent to a rock formation on the continental divide known as, the wall. Merlin was catching his breath, his white asymmetrically trimmed beard heaving with his exhalations. Merlin is probably about 50 but in excellent shape. I can feel confident in saying this because merlin favors hiking in all black spandex asics running tights. They leave little to the imagination.

I started down the other side of the hill. When I hit the valley I waited for an hour and a half and he never showed. I cooked a meal and patiently waited in the chilly 4:30pm wind with my mosquito headnet wrapped tightly around my face. When I realized merlin would remain up at the top of the rise, wordlessly, I turned and kept going. Now, if this had been the first time he dissappeared, my callousnesses to his absence would be questionable. But that is not the case. Merlin is good at making himself dissappear. Over the first two days of hiking my companion would constantly stop and take breaks. Stop and take breaks without telling me. On a number of occaisions, I would have to backtrack 30 or more minutes to find out where he decided to rest. I, for one, am unopposed to taking breaks. I love sitting down. I would have happily said yes if he requested a break. I made a point of requesting permission each time I felt like pausing and having some water. When asked if he would reciprocate this communication, merlin would smile and hmmm quizzically with a blank expression on his face. This was about as much verbosity as could be expected from merlin. Hiking with him was all the disadvantages of being alone: crushing silence and the accompanying tedium, with none of the perks of solitude: freedom, self-reliance, man alone and against nature, all that stuff.

I haven't seen him (or anyone save for the folks at a backwoods cabin that I sent a resupply package to) since. Maybe ill regret this decision when the search party recovers my Blackberry and these are some of my last written words; so it goes.

No grizzlies spotted yet. Although I did see two Black Bears on the same day within 3 hours of one another. I only was only a quick enough draw for one of them. They spook easily.

Lots of elk.

Herds even, if you define a herd as 6 or more elk. As an aside: what is 5 elk? An elk cocktail party? An elk board meeting?

I also know how a defenseless mouse feels. Gossacks aggressively defend their nests from would be predators. A piece of advice, if you happen to find yourself in the woods and hear a sound like a woman screeching in short, staccato bursts and this noise draws closer, duck. You are about to be divebombed by a taloned gosshawk parent with a wingspan longer than your own. His or her nest I nearby. And I thought my mom was overprotective.

I try to speak in generalizations, to give a sense of what it is to walk in the woods. I can't. Its too overwhelming. The accumulation of memories is too much, the moments of frustration and then elation and back to frustration, too much. I can only try and pour this collection across the table, pour through the wreckage, and salvage what description I can. Ill allow it to trickle out and when it does, ill catch as much as I can. The postmortem will be blogged. But when? Until then.....I'm off to Helena

Song Honorable Mention: Garfunkel, Simon. "The Only Living Boy in New York"

Thursday, June 25, 2009

06/23/09. A Tribe Called Quest. "Award Tour"

An actual email sent to the admissions director at Northwestern Law

Dear Johann,

you asked for a story of how I discovered my acceptance letter, you got it.

As for some background, this summer I've been backpacking on the Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Canada. I have my blackberry with me, but the trail follows mainly wilderness areas where cell reception is rare. I usually stop in towns every 4-5 days to resupply and have a shower. I hitch into towns.

Yesterday at around 3pm, I found myself at Tennessee PassHighway 82 in Colorado. It is known as the "Top of the Rockies" Scenic Highway. There was a big storm approaching. I was about 15 miles from the town of Leadville, so I stuck out my thumb. The first car stopped for me. He was a rancher from just outside Leadville. He drove a big black Chevy pickup. In the back rode his pet pig. The pig's name was Blackie. I thought about emphasizing - per our current President - we are presently living in a post-racial America (Editor's note: credit to Megan Welsh) and that perhaps this was not an appropriate name for a pet no matter what its hue. I refrained because the rain started the fall. I tossed my backpack over the side and hopped in the back with Blackie.

As we approached the town my blackberry jumped to life in my hand, the red LCD siren warning me to duck and cover. Just as the dark thunderclouds, the emails were closing fast. And then I found your admit letter sitting innocently on the screen. For a second, because of the jostling of the bouncy pickup, I couldn't tell if I was being released from the list or being accepted.

When I finally figured out what it was I almost kissed Blackie.

Thank You very much. I'll see you in the fall.

Song Honorable Mention
-Stevens, Sufjan "Come Feel the Illinoise" (I had to, I'll be in Chicago)

06/22/09. Donovan. "Coulors"

And as an operational aside:
I lost my titanium, space shuttle spoon. It was excellent and probably not built by NASA otherwise it probably would have burst into flames at some point. I yanked a plastic spoon from the counter of the general store in Twin Lakes. I didn't pay for it (though I'm not sure she would have charged me). The old lady stared at me quizzically and I paid for my ice cream sandwich and left, victorious in my necessary theft. But, the boy scout I am, my hands shook whenever I touched that feeble disposable utensil. The next morning, as I was making my breakfast of peanut butter, m & m's, protein powder, and coconut flakes on a whole wheat tortilla, the spoon broke in the pb jar. I taped it together but, couldn't get it exactly straight. When I ate my oatmeal later that day, the spoon get scraping my right inner cheek as if it needed a DNA sample.

What is: karma.

As another operational aside, I haven't hung my food in a bear bag in weeks because frankly, I dont think a black bear is all that daring. I sleep with it, or place it leaning against my tent. I don't think he'll come within 5 feet of my tent just for freeze dried bananas and cream of wheat. If he didn't approach when I was carrying summer sausages, he aint coming tonight.

And now, for the rest of the entry......

The mosquitoes are hatching and it is officially summer. This makes me strangely glad, in a giddy, unreasonable way. I am surrounded by offspring and nature and sex (albeit the biting, welt producing kind) and it is oddly comforting.

It seems an important thing to witness. With this hatching it is if I've been told: 'still here, one more year, going strong.'

And in my solitude, the millions of bugs keep me company, in their own histamine producing way. And perhaps maybe they know something I do not. Maybe the rain and snow and reddening icy mornings will fade into memory.

The mosquitoes are prehistoric things, some the size of my thumbnail. They sneak inside the rain flap of my tent and incessantly drone, their high pitches bouncing unsuccessfully off the netting. I'm sleeping in the middle of an all night go-kart track.

I continue to turn to the the question of why I came out here. What secret did I expect to find. Did I expect the weighty massive of my choices and consequences and indecisions to fade away? Well, what if I said yes? Man, that'd be great. And, as a side dish to my entree of inner harmony and mellowing anxiety I'd like a short stack of pancakes.

I expected the burden to be lifted, to be granted a glimpse at a small secret that only a few know and to be allowed to carry this secret with me. It might sometimes be a burden, but it would always be my good company. But as of yet, I have found no secrets. None in the mountains, none on the winding the trails, none echoing in my own head, waiting to be discovered.

Editor's Note: this is a moment of pure solipsism on this blog. You continue to read at your own peril.

And yes, I realize this note of warning should probably be pasted across every single entry. The board will consider the topic at the next meeting.

I assumed by peeling away the din, the television, the demands, the inner-yelling, the routine, there would be something else to listen to. I would avoid getting on my bike for work, my tie flapping in the summer wind - late as usual. I would avoid running to the gym on a Sunday afternoon before it closes. I avoid the soot from SEPTA and the city rain and the drinking with friends and the dirty bars (that I not so secretly enjoy). The sighing beds and the sighing women. The brass bannisters of my office building and the brass horns in my iPod as I race down 16th St. on my bike, late for yoga.

No doubt, these are comforts that I was taking for granted. I had a job and a home and people that love(d) me. I miss these things, for sure, but how do I miss them? This is crucial. I knew I would long for the comfort of companionship and income and routine, but I didn't know how I would desire them once they were gone.

And what would replace those overstuffed cushions, bloating my head. Relative austerity had to bring something. But it hasn't really brought anything.

Would I go nuts? Would I totally crack? Perhaps I already have. Enough talking to oneself will do that.

By thinking about madness, Horselover Fat slipped by degrees into
madness. I wish I could have helped him.

For only 4 months I wanted to not look forward to the weekend. I didn't want to look forward to anything.

I wanted to avoid the feeling that I was not doing enough. In this vacuum, perhaps something else would appear.

Maybe they would be lasers and I would be infected with these lasers. They'd shoot into my eyeballs and be refracted in my brain.

And yet all I have, as I sit in my olivedrab single occupancy tent - in which I can barely fit myself much less a 40 lb. backpack - all I have are the birds warbling in the rustling trees and the nearly the same voices ringing harmlessly my skull. Or maybe they're different voices and just doing impressions of the old voices until I'm prepared to hear these new ones. If that's the case, I wish they would unmask themselves and get it over with.

The wind still scares me.

But maybe I'm not dissapointed or surprised that this is all I hear. Perhaps this trip is a confirmation that there is, in fact, nothing. Nothing except the frantic humming of newborn bloodsucking insects.

Song Honorable Mention

-Cure, The. "Sinking". (So I trick myself, like everybody else)

06/22/09. Smashing Pumpkins. "The Beginning is the End is the Beginning"

Theme #3 of this blog: When the end is near, everyone begins to go a little nuts.

A general comment regarding humanity. Think about it. Why is clutch performing so highly valued in professional sports? The end is near. Choking.

Listen. Out of the four of us, one other and myself want to hitch to a nearby town. Twin Lakes, CO.

I love camping, hiking, dirt, mosquitoes, and brutality as much as anyone, but I also love beds, showers, and dinner plates.

The four of us fall into a silly, quasi-argument about going to town. This is where I went a little nuts. I needed town, I knew it was off the trail a bit and over a few hills, and I knew I should have stayed on the trail, but I choked. The end was near.

Eventually, the one fellow (nickname: Robocop) and myself go to the road. We get a hitch from the second person who sees us. The other two stay behind.

Perhaps it is an effort of purity in the hiking experience which I do not understand. Perhaps it is stubborness. Or perhaps there is some deeply admirable quality that I do not understand. But why not hitch? Plenty of trail will still be there in the morning.

We've already done 22 miles today and I'm done. The bed is waiting.

The grand old lodge pitches distinctly to the north. The floorboards, the bathroom tile, the ceilings, all tilting down and to my left. I slept most of that night perched on my right side so as not to roll off the lumpy beds that were advertised as being full of feathers. Unless very old feathers sometimes imitate the properties of metal springs, I think there's some false advertising here. Maybe there is an extremely magnetic rod in the building as a support structure causing the building to lurch north. The building is simply doing what its being told. Doing what its always done, leaning towards home.

Twin lakes is a beautiful, airy, frozen place. White, snowy mountains ring the south side . The glassy lakes and the reflections of the mountains are puckered every few seconds from the mouth of hungry trout gaping at the surface for an insect meal. The genereal store acts as the post office, the general store, the gas station and the ice cream hop. The people talk very slowly and chew long dry strands of switchgrass, in the evenings the staff takes turns on the piano playing ragtime or adaptations of ella fitzgerald The ambience is so perfect and the roles played so perfectly, I can't tell if these people and this town are real or just some staged summer-long event written, directed, and controlled by some evil director lurking off-camera. Its like not knowing if the animatronic foreign dolls from the 'Its a Small World' ride at Disneyland are fake or real. In my limited interactions, they all seem to be playing to stereotypes. Either hollywood is completely correct about the small towns, isolated of the mountain west, or everyone is perfectly acting what they've seen actors do on TV.

On this trip, at a fascinating intensity and with increased frequency, my dreams return to me each morning a few minutes after I open my eyes. I'll lay face down on my pillow, slightly drooling and slightly suffocating myself in the sparse fluff of the threadbare sheets. The dreams sneak up and pull me underwater like a colorful rip-current. I relax and let the my vision cloud.

Maybe it's because I haven't been watching TV or spending much time in front of a computer?

The last few nights the dreams have been about a soccer match, a match in which I am on the losing side. The bright green grass, the fierce red of the opposing players jerseys, the cloudless beaming sky, primary colors flicker across my face. At halftime the oranges are too sour and the water too cold.

In this match, I argue with the opposing players (they are fouling a lot, grabbing my jersey, tripping me). I even argue with my own coach about why he won't complain to the unseen ref. But he leaves me in to play.

I am playing terribly, never making the correct pass, never the right decision. I am one step too slow, too slow to notice the forward streaking past me. I am playing in the defense, sweeper, the last man before the goalie.

Always, in my dream, a blond, freckled woman in searing white, flowing robes runs across the field, unnoticed by anyone else except me. The robes are incandescent, sparkling and I can see her vanilla face. She is soft and lovely. She runs across the field, straight across the action, and still no one appears to notice, nor does she appear to notice them. She looks at me and floats across the field. White on green.

I attempt to run after her, but the game continues. I am unable to completely drag myself away from this match. It is terribly important to me. This ridiculous match in which the opposing team is cheating, my coach doesn't listen to me, and I am playing terribly.

The girl leaves the field and continues to walk into the vanishing point of grass and blue to my left. I toe the sideline, the alabaster and dirt chalk mixture stains my right cleat, the dust of the adjacent parking lot blows in my face but I cannot go any further. The ball is suddenly kicked my way and I have to dribble it upfield. I momentarily forgot the girl and rush the ball towards the opposing goal. Eventually, the play ends, I do not score, but the ball is advanced quite a bit before it goes out of bounds. I am proud, but no one seems to care.

When I remember the dancing figure that had possessed me, I look around again and she is gone. The dust tornadoes swirl in the baseball diamond beyond my soccer field. They are ghosts across the dirt infield.


The next day, the other two arrive in town abou 1pm. After insisting the night before they will roll right through town without spending any money, my 3 companions stay the night. I do not begrudge them. The end was not only near for them, it had arrived. They were justified in contradictions and in going a little nuts.

That afternoon, I continued onwards. 40 trail miles to Tennessee Pass and hitch to Leadville, CO

Song Honorable Mention:

-Silversun Pickups "All The Inbetweens" (I'll never find safety in numbers, here on the mile)

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