The Weekend That Was

Random thoughts from the weekend that was….

  • Drove up to Polebridge Wednesday afternoon, our home away from home. Unless you’re living on another planet, you likely know that the West is essentially on fire. Leaving Missoula around 4:00 it was pretty smoky and gross, but 35 miles north in the Mission Valley it was even worse. Headed toward Glacier on Highway 93, we couldn’t even see the Mission Mountains through the smoke, and they rise up from the valley floor impressively just a couple miles to the east. By the time we got to Polebridge though, on the western edge of Glacier National Park, it wasn’t too bad. We settled in to the Goat Chalet, and all was right with the world. I want to live there with the weirdos and hippies and dirtbag through-hikers and all the other rabble that pass through there. We even have our lot all picked out for when our ship comes in and we check out.
  • Hanging out in the kitchen of the North Fork Hostel, as we are wont to do whenever we stay there, we had a little conversation with a young couple from Virginia Beach who were in the area hiking around Glacier. I admire them for that. The young woman urged her boyfriend to share an idea he had — he is a self-admitted “idea guy” — for the Appalachian Trail. He would like to restore a bunch of old Airstream trailers and locate them along that trail at specific intervals for hikers to rent to sleep in. I can’t think of a worse idea. Comfort and kitschy ease are the last thing these trails need. I think the AP could use a little more danger, like introducing some man-eating predators, to keep those people out there on their toes.
  • Even full of smoke, Glacier Park is gorgeous. Pictures from a drive up Going to the Sun Highway will be posted as soon as I pull them off my camera. Also, a picture of and the story of our friend Amie, whom we met last year at the hostel and was there again this year.
  • Coming back down out of the mountains (and back onto the grid) Friday night was a shock. It always is. They love Jesus in Kalispell and Columbia Falls. There must be eight or ten signs listing the ten commandments scattered throughout the area, and there is a big “Ten Commandments Park” as well. It freaks me out, man. There was a faction with boots on the ground we drove past too. A valley choked with smoke and enraged Christian freaks waving signs on street corners makes the Flathead even more frighteningly apocalyptic than usual.
  • I might have mentioned that Julia and I are in a contest at our Bikram Yoga studio. We had to go at least 3x/week all summer. At the end of the season, everyone left standing is entered into a drawing to win a free year. This week just completed was the second-to-last week, and we seemed to do everything we could to sabotage ourselves. Basically we cornered ourselves into having to find a class in Kalispell or Whitefish on Friday, since we wouldn’t be home on Saturday until after the two Missoula class options had passed. We found one in Kalispell, and, after a day inhaling smoke and not really eating anything, it destroyed us. “Our room gets kind of dry,” the instructor said, “so we run it a little hot.” I chose a spot in front of two fans, assuming that, like in our studio, they would kick on to blow cool air when things got too hot from all the working bodies. I was wrong. They kicked on to blow hot air. I was right next to the thermostat. It was 115° when we started, and when it dipped down to like 112° the heat would kick on back to 115°. Nightmare. At least we got our note saying we did it and are still in the running to win the damn contest.
View out my office window, 5:00 PM Saturday, no filters. Apocalyptic orange glow courtesy of smoke from several regional conflagrations.

View out my office window, 5:00 PM Saturday, no filters. Apocalyptic orange glow courtesy of smoke from several regional conflagrations.

Proof of near death experience.

Proof of near death experience.



That’s Not Part of the Meditation

I’m about to describe how the excellent writer (and my good friend) Charlie Stella haunts my yoga practice.

Bikram Yoga — which I started last fall, practiced diligently through the winter, totally slacked off most of the spring, and have since gotten vigorously back on board with all summer — is described as a “90 minute moving mediation.” It’s 26 postures, and it takes 90 minutes to get through them all. The second to the last one is called “separate head-to-knee,” or, in sanskrit, “janushirasana.” Yes, I had to look that up. I’m usually in a sorry state by the time we get to it; drenched with sweat, stifled by heat and humidity, and often so bedraggled that I can only get through one of the two sets (and my fat-ass version of the posture is a pale imitation of how it’s supposed to look). It’s supposed to look like this:


Anyway, when the instructor announces the pose, I swear it sounds like its name is “Johnny Shirasana.” It never fails to remind me of Charlie’s second novel, Jimmy Bench-Press, and I start giggling to myself thinking of somehow turning “Johnny Shirasana” into either some kind of yoga-practicing villain or yoga-practicing swashbuckling hero. Which I’m sure is not where my meditating mind is supposed to lumber off to. But it happens. I got called out by a guest instructor during dead body pose the other day for moving when I wasn’t supposed to. That time I was distracted by thoughts of how I was going to acquire chocolate cake for my best girl later, when I was supposed to be “focused on my breathing.” As if.

As for Stella, the guy should be a household name because he’s a fantastic writer. He’s also a hell of a guy. Here’s the synopsis of Jimmy Bench-Press:

jbpJimmy Mangino figures he’s overdue. Already he’s done two stretches in the joint. But he’s back, and he’s still a good earner for the family. You got a loser you need to lean on, Jimmy lends his strong arm, and he doesn’t flinch at murder, not for the Vignieris. He also bench-presses four hundred pounds. Jimmy wants to be a made man. Alex Pavlik wants to take Jimmy down. Pavlik, the edgy Polish cop who tailed Eddie Senta in Charlie Stella’s enthusiastically reviewed debut, Eddie’s World, has been transferred to Organized Crime from Homicide, where his short temper, keen sense of justice, and too-ready prizefighter’s fists have proved to be a volatile combination. Tough-talking, taut, and craftily plotted, Stella’s second novel takes Pavlik and his new partner, another New York police detective, John DeNafria, into the shifty world of Jimmy Bench-Press when wannabe-mobster Larry Berra hires Mangino to collect on a bad loan to a sixty-three-year-old Italian barber with a Cuban girlfriend. Jimmy’s got his fingers in any number of illegal pies, from extortion to murder, among purveyors of drugs and porn. Enough to get a man made, maybe.

Here’s my quick and dirty Amazon review of it, dated 04/03/2011, before I ever met the guy:

My first foray into Charlie Stella’s writing, and I really enjoyed it. His voice and style are great — I love how this book is so driven by dialogue, and each character, even bit players, are individual and memorable. Jimmy Mangino, aka Jimmy Bench-Press, may be the title character but he is just one in an ensemble of characters that tie this book together. I got a kick out of watching all the machinations and betrayals weaving through the story, and the tribulations in the lives of the characters who actually fill the roles of “good guys” that make them do things we wish they wouldn’t. A fine, quick read. Can’t wait to read more from Charlie Stella!

Hell, it’s only .99 on Kindle (which seems somehow criminal), so you should check it out.


Big Feature Day

holmesToday’s a reasonably big day, as I have three things in the current Independent that just came out. I don’t know that it was necessarily planned to work out that way — different editors for different pieces — it just happened. I’m not complaining.

First up is the one I’m most pleased with, the feature article about my friend and his crew who, essentially, clean up environmental messes. It’s called “The Cleaners.” You can check that out here. I also provided some photos for this one, including the cover photo. While I did a feature before, years ago, this is my first cover photo anywhere. I’m pleased with that.

Next up is an interview with the author of The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, Zach Dundas. You can check that out here. Zach is a Missoula guy who is now Executive Editor at Portland Monthly. It’s his second book.

Finally, a review of the new record from Heartless Bastards, Restless Ones. They remain one of my favorite bands. Dig that one here.

All in all, not a bad day to see the culmination of many, many days of work!

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Memory Can’t Be Trusted

A few days ago I was taking a meal out with my best girl when the unmistakeable odor of smoke wafted from the kitchen. We made some joke about food burning, and it reminded me of a story from my youth. My parents didn’t have a huge record collection when we were kids, just one metal rack with maybe twenty or thirty records in it. There was a song I recall as being on a Percy Sledge record called “Something’s Burning,” that me and my two sisters used to sing while my mom was cooking dinner. The refrain was “Something’s burning, something’s burning, something’s burning . . . and I think it’s love….” only we would close it out as, “And I think it’s the foooooood….”

Here’s where the whims of memory tripped me up. Yes, my folks had a couple Percy Sledge records. There was some Gary Puckett and the Union Gap as well. Glen Campbell. I think they even had that Herb Alpert record with the famous cover. I don’t recall any Kenny Rogers, but when I went digging online for the song, this is what I found:

The more I listen to it, the more convinced I am that this is the very song. And the more I dig, the less convinced I am that my folks even owned any Percy Sledge records. If not, where the hell does that “memory” come from?

This is one of those things that makes me take a lot of memoir writing with a grain of salt. I consider myself to have a pretty good memory, yet here is proof that the brain makes stuff up, or confuses things, or whatever. How much of our adult identities are built on falsehoods that our minds have manipulated, or even conjured entirely, for us? I think it’s fascinating. So when some person puts out some book writing about events that happened ten, twenty, thirty or more years earlier (like, *cough* the bible *cough*), one must take it with a grain of salt. If it starts to smell like smoke, it’s likely that things aren’t all squared away in the kitchen. Hell, it may not even be intentional.

Finally, I don’t know how people even managed to cook in the days before smoke alarms. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the more I learn of history, the more I realize it’s a miracle anyone ever survived anything.


Countdown to Christmas

astoriaNobody likes to think about Christmas in July (except maybe my mom), but I can’t wait this year. That’s because that is when the movie The Revenant comes out, based on the book of the same name by Michael Punke. When I saw the trailer my head almost exploded. I bet I’ve watched it twenty times. It’s one of those movies that feels like it was made specifically for me. Trailer linked below, if you dare….

The story is a fictionalization of the true life of mountain man Hugh Glass. I first heard of him in my friend Matt Mayo‘s book Cowboys, Mountain Men, and Grizzly Bears: Fifty Of The Grittiest Moments In The History Of The Wild West. Not a lot is known about his life, but that he was attacked by a grizzly bear, severely mauled, left for dead, and essentially crawled back to “civilization” (a remote fort) where he recovered and lived to roam the wilds again is true.

I’ve also been listening to Peter Stark‘s excellent book Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Tale of Ambition and Survival on the Early American Frontier. It is, as is everything of Stark’s I’ve ever read, excellent. I love all this stuff about the exploration of the frontier back in the day.

When I finally get to go see The Revenant, you know I’ll be wearing this hat my mom got me for Christmas last year, as seen in this photograph from January.


Get Outside, Just Not Around Me

mwgangI spent the last couple weeks driving around listening to the audio version of Ed Abbey’s classic The Monkeywrench Gang. I enjoyed it quite a bit, as the guy reading it, Michael Kramer, did a fantastic job. But it didn’t help my growing surliness — likely a symptom of age and a faltering tolerance for bullshit as much as anything else — as it relates to sharing the wilds with other people. And that is stretching the term “wilds” so thin it’s practically invisible. My last rant on this subject turned into something of a false alarm, but it doesn’t change the fact that this time of year more and more people are using my beloved river access site, and making a mess of it. Cigarette butts, random garbage, etc. Hell, even their mere presence can irritate me, even though I’m not so myopic as to not understand they have every bit as much a right to be there as I do. A couple twitter friends and I were discussing something similar last week. I had mentioned I feel it is a failing on my part that I’ve not yet visited the Grand Canyon. My friend Jeff, aka The Southwest Dude, weighed in with some suggestions for areas of the park that were a little less traveled, information I find critical. I pointed out then, as I have been saying for over a year now based on my last visit to Yellowstone National Park, that one of the greatest things about our national parks is that they are so accessible to everyone. At the same time, one of the worst things about our national parks is that they are so accessible to everyone.
selfie-stick-1I recognize that it sounds like I’m some kind of outdoor snob. I suspect I probably am. I thought about this a lot last May, when work took me to the Bay Area, and I ventured into the Muir Woods just north of San Francisco. This is a beautiful cathedral of magnificent trees, regularly overrun with people. There are signs all over requesting visitors be quiet, all of which are ignored, at least they were when I was there. I also saw for the first time in person the much maligned “selfie stick.” This guy was walking around, his camera on the end of this thing, pointed at himself, filming his progress through the park. Not filming what he was seeing, the camera was directed at himself. It was bizarre. I followed him for about 10 minutes or so, somewhat dumbstruck, just to see what he would do. He just kind of buzzed around, making like he was looking at stuff, but mostly just looking into the camera, moving its angle around, etc. Then I realized how monitoring his actions were spoiling my experience, so I just paused and let him go on about his business while I refocused on my own enjoyment of the area.

There is no right way or wrong way to experience the outdoors (unless you’re a litterer, of course), so I know I need to lighten up. Just because I can’t get enough time outside, and get depressed and quite angry with myself when I don’t make more time for it, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be just a casual experience for others. I don’t understand people who don’t like the outdoors, but that’s their prerogative. I should be pleased to see people out and enjoying themselves, because getting out in it is the only way to build a connection that inspires action to protect it.

Sometimes it’s just hard to share.


Treehugging Dirt Worshipper

books_ponderosaThere’s a bumper sticker I have pinned to the wall above the little desk here in my writing/photography/nap-on-the-futon studio that says, “Treehugging Dirt Worshipper,” which, when asked, is how I spiritually define myself to hay-heads with the gall to ask. To prove this, here is my second review for the Indy (here is the first) in the last few weeks of a book about trees. This one is Ponderosa: People, Fire, and the West’s Most Iconic Tree by Carl E. Fiedler and Stephen F. Arno.

An excerpt:

These sections deal in fascinating politics. The authors pinpoint how current arguments about fire and logging, beginning in the early 1900s, continue to cycle through the years. They spend most of the space detailing the history of the “fire-industrial complex”a cool term modern critics use to talk about the whole fire management puzzle, including who benefits from the strict suppression of forest fires. Reading these sections, I’m struck by all the drama and what a deep, engaging story it makes. The history really has it all: strong characters, corruption and betrayal, all played out against the backdrop of the wild, American West.

There’s a reading next Tuesday night at Shakespeare and Co. I’m going to do my best to attend. It should be interesting.