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My dad lives in southern mainland Mexico. He’s way down low where the continent starts to curve like a backward “J.” He cleared some land, not to far from a small pueblo, out on the edge of a coconut field. He built a little house out of cement. Painted it sunshine yellow, periwinkle blue, lime green. Put solar panels on the roof, pumps water twice a week from the river with a Honda generator. Showers outside.  He has a 1985 Toyota grey 4WD pickup. The bed’s completely rusted out and has been replaced with planks of palm wood. I have that truck’s brother here. It’s not in much better shape.

Dad’s not that old. He’ll turn 60 next week. He’s been living down there for ten plus years now. He can stand on the deck that is the roof of his kitchen and check the swell. Right in front of the house the waves break consistently in a hollow right point break. A couple hundred yards north, a river mouth causes the waves to break both left and right. There can be a nasty rip. We’ve all had some long walks back to the house. It can definitely hand out a thumping, but that river mouth can be something like paradise. It’s remote enough, and deep enough into what many people consider the stronghold of the cartels, that the crowds don’t come.

When I first started surfing there it felt like I was regularly being put through the washing machine. Dad would stand on the deck that is also the kitchen roof and watch with binoculars. One day after a particularly nasty moment of first going over the falls, then being held down for more than a few minutes in the spin cycle, he walked down to the beach and waved me in.

“That’s about as bad as it’s ever going to get,” he said. Then he paddled past me into the line-up. In my family you’ve got to be tough.

People ask me what he does down there. For a long time he was too young to be considered retired. I tell them that he’s the pueblo’s local mechanic, that he works on the land, that he wires in electrical systems and retools water lines. He cleans the beach and takes thousands upon thousands of pounds of plastic to the recycling center 50 miles away. Those things are all true. But mostly down there, he surfs. Almost everyday, often twice a day. He’s not the best guy in the water. He misses waves on occasion, but he loves it. In the afternoons, he sits on the deck that is also the kitchen roof and just watches the ocean. I don’t know why I feel like I have to validate that to people. I love that he surfs. I love that he’s followed his passions and built a life in which he can indulge them. I love that when I emailed to tell  him I was quitting my regular job to “pursue happy,” he replied simply, “Good.”

Now, I find that I’m back in the mountains. In the evenings I watch the horizon line looking for clouds, promises of weather. I find that I’m giving up on validating Dad’s habits at the same time that I’m giving up on validating mine. I hope that when I’m 60, I’m still following happy.

Hayward died last summer. Cancer. He was the best one. Had a bit of an obsession for tennis balls and at ten-years-old still slept with a baby, but he was solid. A sucker for laying on the floor with his head in your lap, or stretching out long with his face smashed up against the heating vents, he’d bounce up in a second at the word, “Go.” As in, “Do you want to go…” for a run, to the park, skiing, outside, on a bike ride, to bed, in the car. You name it, if it was with us, he was all in.

In deep snow, he’d try to catch a ride on the back of our skis, both on the up and on the down. Sleeping in a tent, inevitably I’d wake up to 80lbs of golden retriever trying to spoon, or just laying outright across my knees and chest. Trying to move him, he’d go limp and start to grumble before giving in with deep sigh and a head shake, as if I should know he was only trying to keep me warm. Every time we’d roll into Bend he’d start whining at the smell of juniper and sage.

He was prone to ear infections and allergies, and his tail was almost always matted. I gave him haircuts with sewing scissors, and made him wear socks when he’d rip his pads chasing after tennis balls, or after a few too many miles on the trails. One season he chewed up every pair of goggles I owned, then started in on my wooden clogs. As a puppy, he ate the turn signal indicator off my Subaru in the five minutes it took me to run into the grocery store.

In the spring he’d nibble raspberries off the bush with his front teeth. He was so gentle that the core would remain on the plant.  He thought the only thing that could beat diving into the canal was laying the mud. In the fall, his head would turn yellow with pollen from the tomato bushes he’d raid for the fruit. For his money carrots were fantastic, and we regularly shared apples. He never minded that I got the good part and he got the core. He wouldn’t leave the porch without us, content instead to sit by the door and wait until we were ready to face the world together. He was the best one.

My friend lost his Jack Dog over the holiday weekend. Jack shared our office in grad school. In our space the size of broom closet the three of us each had a tiny stretch of lab table and a straight back chair. Jack had a couch. At night he’d wander the halls of the second floor his tags jingling. He was a magnet for the ladies. He loved going for mountain bike rides. He could outrun even the fastest of us. I cried into his coat when my first advisor said I didn’t belong in the program, and danced with him after I defended on top. He saw me strip and change clothes on several occasions and never looked anything but slightly amused, “There she goes again.” As long as he was with my friend, he was stoked.

Here’s to all of our best ones.

An addendum: My friend Cam Scott wrote a column about this time last year, titled, “Thanksgiving for Mountain Dogs.”  If you don’t click through for the whole piece, this paragraph, at least bears a read:

God love a good mountain dog. The fishing, hiking, skiing, biking, passenger-seat-hogging, beaver crap rolling sort of kind. The leave me at home and I’ll knock down the trash, chew apart your avalanche transceiver and sunglasses kind. The tail wagging through sage brush, rose hips, and skunk cabbage kind. The kind who spends all day eating grass hoppers, dead fish, and voles then plants a big sloppy kiss in your open-awed mouth. Yeah, that kind.

My left hip flexor is so tight it hurts to the touch. I have a knot in the arch of my foot and another in my ass. My trapezious muscles on both sides are pissed and doing interesting things to my posture. But at mile four of my favorite six mile loop there’s a section of trail where the rhythm is so good, the slope so perfect, the air so clean that instead of feeling liking a broken watch, or a ticking time-bomb, I feel like I have wings. Like if I held my arms out and pushed the cadence just a little more through the berms and over the whoops I could take flight. It hasn’t happened, yet, but the potential keeps me coming back for more.

 

I have a girlfriend visiting from a few states away. Last night after making dinner and cleaning up we settled in front of the fire. I flipped through a few magazines and cast on the stitches for a knit hat. She crocheted a tiny white and pastel blanket. It was very calm, very domestic. When I looked up from my knitting she had this serious, concerned, deep-in-thought look on her face. In truth she seemed to be scowling at the fire.

“What are you thinking about?”

She looked up. Long pause.

“Babies.”

“Oh yeah? What about babies?”

She proceeded into a long and bouncing soliloquy about starting a family. She covered: the pitfalls and benefits of childbearing; adoption options; appropriate timelines related to first finding a partner, then spending time with that partner, then marrying, then spending time married, then reproducing; financial commitment of a child in both the immediate and over the long term; the dangers of advanced maternal age; the cons of a sperm bank. The list went on. At the beginning she said more than anything she wants the option for children. At the end she said she wants children.

I sat across from her and listened to the worries and concerns pour out of her, and I couldn’t help it; as she was winding down, I smiled a bit.

“What?”

“Do you want to know what I was thinking about?”

“Sure.”

“Ice climbing.”

Then she scowled at me.

It’s not that I don’t ever think about children, partners, or life down the line, I told her. Right now, though, I know that as as much as we might try to plan, or schedule, or force things to happen, when it comes down to it we have to play the cards we’re dealt, and hopefully enjoy it while it’s happening. There’s a lot to be said for knowing what you want out of life and taking appropriate steps to achieve your goals, but sometimes I think we can get ahead of ourselves. We plan the wedding before the first date. Turn on the oven before catching the bird.

I want my friend to have the option to have babies. But I also want her to know that today there’s a great, big, beautiful world out there, and it’s not going to wait for her to get out in it. I want to take the silly quote, “Life is what happens while we’re making other plans,” and sticky note it around the house while she’s here. A gentle reminder that sometimes worrying can get in the way of living.

I easily turn shy. Something about being the focus of attention challenges me, and though I can usually get through it, my first reaction is normally to duck. Over the weekend it happened a few times. Here’s one:

It’s been snowing for the last few days. The local ski hill is scheduled to open this Wednesday for the season. I got heckled on Friday by folks who know my habits for not having hiked, yet. “What have you been doing? Running? Nordic? Nursing injury?”

Yeah. All of the above. But today I woke up and I could tell it was time.

The parking lot is filled with either couples or dudes. No women hiking together. No women hiking alone. I gear up, put in music, and start walking. One foot in front of the other and 45 minutes of bootpack gains a decent pitch, an open glade, and the promise of one huge backside slasher down low on skier’s left.

On the hike back up after my second lap, my goggles fog. At the top I take them off and set them on my base to clear, then wander over to look at line potential. When I get back, a skier has just topped out. He starts to put his skis down, then looks up and decides instead to come stand next to me. He’s nice, asks my name, makes small talk, asks if I’m doing another lap; the skier’s equivalent of, “Do you come here often?” I put my goggles back on and wish him a good run.

I wear a lot of black on the hill. Dress in layers, refuse the tapered waist. I tuck my braid under my hat and run mirrored lenses in my googles. Hiking, or on the lift with unfamiliar faces, I tend to keep my head down and hood up. Eighty percent of the time people assume I’m a young kid – a teenage boy. It’s caused a few problems over the years, like the time an older man tried to start a fight in lift line, only to be told in no uncertain terms by the local pack that pushing a girl was unacceptable. “I didn’t know…”

Most of the time, though, it works for me. It allows me to just be one more person out playing in the snow. To be pretty good. Rather than pretty good for a girl. I like it that way.

Here’s to a season of clear googles.

It seems like the first semi-real storm of winter is crashing into the Cascades today.

I made my second attempt to have my studs mounted this morning. Just before 7 am, I walked into the smells of rubber, sweat, and stale popcorn at Les Schwabs. That place. Wow. They’ve been going non-stop since Nov. 1, and if the four hour wait is any indication it doesn’t seem to be tapering off. Yet, in the bays the guys are all smiling, laughing, taking a minute to say good morning. Awesome. One of these days I’ll actually have the time to wait. Safe travels.

 

 

I ran into a girlfriend I hadn’t seen in a while. We started chatting about jobs, then trips, then winter plans. She’s hoping to move this way. Hoping for a little skiing this winter. Some climbing when it’s warm. I asked if she’d want to jump in on some tours, maybe a bit of mountaineering. She hesitated. She said she doesn’t want to be uncomfortable, and that she doesn’t find suffering fun. She’s a rad girl. Strong, intelligent, aware. She knows what she likes, and is empowered enough to lay claim on what she doesn’t. I like that.

In continuing to talk she asked why I seem drawn to discomfort. I didn’t have a good answer. Or, I had a lot of good answers:

I like walking into the storm, and coming out of the cold.
I like sunrises, and emergency headlamps.
I like the taste of blood in the back of my throat.
I like the shared experience of doing something hard with a close friend, running out of water half way through, and dreaming about what we’ll eat if we ever get down.
I like trying to face up to the fact that in a battle between mind and body, mind is almost always the weaker of the two.
I like falling asleep sitting up, with boots on, and a hat covering my eyes.
I like being dirty, smelling slightly wild, and then the magic of a hot shower.
I like how one good day outside turns the volume down on a week inside.
I like feeling soreness in muscles of which I’d forgotten.

I like all those things, and they all, in one way or another, point to the real truth: I like it when it hurts a little.

Sometimes the pieces I read stick with me. A line echos after I’ve turned the page. Months, sometimes years, later I find myself searching for the piece  guided only by a phrase or two that’s been ping ponging around the dark corners of my mind.

In November 2009, Steve Casimiro, current editor of The Adventure Journal and former editor of Powder, wrote an essay titled, “The Elements of Skiing: Waiting for the Weather.” It was the first line that got me.

I want it to snow and never stop. I want big black storm clouds—not those wimpy gray ones—to cover the land from here to the horizon and beyond. I want flakes the size of dinner plates, blizzards that last for weeks, and powder so deep you need spelunking gear if you lose a ski. I’m only satisfied by “storms of the century”—and I’d be even happier with storms of the millennium. Each time I see a snowflake, I want to ask it, “Are you the one? Are you the first of the storm without end? Or are you gonna puss out like all the others?” It’s a bit of an obsession, I admit, but I’m just happier when snow is falling. Especially when it’s falling on me.

And so it’s November and the snow has fallen in some places and not in others, and most of us are staring at the sky wondering “when?” And “how long?” And because I’m not a selfish sort, at least when it comes to powder, I’m also wondering “where?” Will it come to Telluride and Taos or will it head north, just out of reach, like the fruit dangling over poor King Tantalus? Will the plucky, hardscrabble resorts of Southern California play Russian roulette with bankruptcy again, or will they reap some of nature’s wealth as snow instead of rain?

Or will we have what an old friend called a “grand-slam winter,” where the snow comes to Telluride and Taos and Southern California, and it doesn’t stop there but also falls on Mammoth and Baker and Kicking Horse and Jay Peak and Snowshoe and Steamboat. It’s happened, you know, most recently in 1996–97 and before that in 1982–83—two seasons that have become legendary.

For the full piece, click here: Waiting on the Weather

The December issue of Trail Runner is on news stands now. For the “Faces” feature, I interviewed Colorado ultra runner Brooks Williams. He’s as tough as the come. The beginning of the piece is below. For the rest check out “Embracing Adveristy” in Trail Runner.

Brooks Williams, 28, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, is hoofing his way out of the May Queen aid station on his way to the 11,071-foot summit of Sugarloaf Pass in Colorado’s 2011 Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run. It is the first major climb, less than 20 miles into the race, and Williams has just hacked up a wad of mucus that resembles an olive-green cinnamon gummy bear in both size and consistency.

The phlegm is an indicator of the infection that has permanent residence deep in his lungs. For the next 86 miles he will continue to cough up secretions, first in this gummy stage, than as something that resembles tapioca pudding, and, finally, as common, stringy snot. Despite all sounds and appearnaces, the chest-rattling hacking is good for him: some mucus in his lungs is emptying.

When he was five-and-a-half-months old, Williams was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (CF), a chronic life-threatening respiratory and digestive disease…

I’m doing a bit of outdoor writing for The Source Weekly in Bend. The beginning of this week’s column:

The Tug is the Drug.

This bit of steelheading gospel is plastered on the rear bumper of the Ford Ranger hell-bent on passing every car driving less than 75 mph on Hwy. 97 between Bend and Maupin. Through the canopy’s dust-covered back window, just visible in the grey light, is a rod holder filled with thick-barreled, cork-handled seven and eight weight rods that are half-broken-down to accommodate their length. Mounds of waders and insulating layers peak above the tailgate. In the cab, two grizzled faces—with eyes looking not at the road, but at the rapidly lightening sky—hover over coffee cups. It’s 24 degrees outside, early winter, and a steelhead mission is in the making.

For the rest, click here:
Low and Slow: Foul weather can make for fair steelhead angling this month