Friday, April 11, 2014

The PCT Class of 2021

The class of 2014 has begun hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). With the success of Cheryl Strayed's book on hiking the PCT, "Wild", there are more and more people attempting to "Thru Hike" it. Next year there will be even more hikers as a Hollywood film version of Strayed's book will be out later this year. In case you don't know, a "Thru Hike" is when you hike the entire 2,650 miles of the PCT in one hiking season. The hiking season generally starts in April and lasts until late September/early October.

It is very popular to document your "Thru Hike" on Facebook, Twitter and in blogs. Over the last several weeks, I've been reading quite a few from last year. And this year I've been following six or seven people as they attempt the trail.

You have to put a whole lot of miles in everyday to Thru Hike the PCT in one season. I think the average day is something like 18 miles. Hikers become obsessed with miles. They talk of "Zero" days and "Nero" days. Zero days are days that you rest and hike zero miles. Nero days are days when you just do a few miles, generally to a town to take a zero day.

Most of the people who I've read that attempt these hikes are young people. But there are a few exceptions. I've seen people in their late 50's and even early 60's who are out on the trail this year. And they aren't in as good of shape as you would expect a person to be in order to attempt such a hike. Of course, many people drop out when reality hits the fan. There is no shame in that. I've had to bail on a hike before when conditions were too extreme and dry. And also because I wasn't in the proper condition to attempt such a hike. Still, any effort is admirable.

There also is a page on Facebook devoted to this year's class. It is a very active page, as most people on the trail travel with Smart phones. In fact, it is amazing how much technology a hiker brings with them on their back-to-nature hikes. Most carry a Smart phone, in addition they usually carry a GPS locator (the most popular being "Spot"). Others carry GPS guidance devices that tell you exactly where you are at all times. These devices also beam to Facebook and other programs exactly where  you are on the trail so that loved ones (and total strangers) can monitor your progress.

The art of trail writing is alive and well on these blogs that document the attempts. Some are better than others. Some have great photography. Very few actually write about "nature". A common denominator in all of these blogs is that the hikers love to get to town to eat burgers and drink beer.

Of course it is admirable for all these people (probably over a thousand this year) to attempt such an endeavor. It makes me green with envy to imagine attempting such a hike. To actually take that much time out of your life to do this. Dreams die slow deaths as we age. We come to accept that maybe we won't ride a bike across the United States and we probably will never hike the PCT or the Appalachian Trail. I haven't totally let go of an attempt of the PCT; I'd like to be a member of the class of 2021.

But back to today's bloggers. Hiking the PCT has become an endurance event. An adrenaline event. Reading the blogs, I started noticing a pattern where hikers race through 25 and 30 mile days in order to get to the next town. They travel light, so that they can race quickly. They carry ultralight tents and sleeping bags. Backpacks are commonly under 25 pounds including food and water; some weigh as little as 18 pounds. You tank up in town and your trail time is mostly spent walking fast. The pattern seems to be that very few will spend more than 5 or 6 days (max) on the trail at a time. The norm seems to be 3 or 4. Essentially, these hikes are just races to the next motel room where you will find WiFi and beer.

The trail record was broken by a young woman last year who completed all 2,650 miles in 59 days. This is quite a feat to have accomplished, but something about this type of Thru Hiking just irritates me. I'm attached to the idea that a person should actually spend a majority of the time on the trail. Camping. Enjoying the solitude. But that's another thing: there is very little solitude for the Thru Hiker. They all start together and there is a constant stream of them starting for two months. One blog I read said that she didn't have her first night at a camp site solo until she was 1,400 miles into the trail!

Nobody who Thru Hikes would consider packing two weeks worth of food in their packs. Four days is about the max they will carry. Most won't even cook (except coffee for breakfast). Trail food is snickers bars and nuts and jerky. That's what towns are for: indulging in an orgy of food. And beer.

"Hike your own hike" is a common Hiker expression. It means you set your own rules and nobody else makes those rules for you. But from reading all of these blogs, very few are actually hiking their own hike. But I'm in danger of becoming a little too cynical towards these courageous beings who are out there attempting to hike the whole PCT in one season.

What can you possibly see when you are hiking 30 miles a day? Should I ever attempt to do the PCT, I'd hike my own hike by: 1. cooking both breakfast and dinner (this should be a camping experience and cooking is a big part of that); 2. No more than 20 miles in a day except for long, hot, dry sections; 3. At least half of my "zero" days would be spent on the trial--in a beautiful location; not in a bar or a hotel room; 4. Seems to me 8 nights in a hotel room would be more than enough plushiness for one Thru Hike experience.

That'd be my plan if I joined the Class of 2021.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Napa Valley Wealth, the CIA and Peter Matthiessen

I had an unstructured day in the Napa Valley today. I had a class yesterday and I'd have to come back here for work on Sunday, so I just decided to stay in the Napa Valley for the weekend. Of course, the place is crawling with tourists. The wealthy variety. If they aren't members of the ONE PERCENT, then they are at least in the top FIVE PERCENT.

Wealth intrigues me. It's a bit like a car accident: I try not to stare at the privileged, but I can't help it. Sitting in an espresso joint in St. Helena, I sat at a big table with my lap top. One older gentleman was actually reading a book; the majority of the very busy cafĂ© patrons had their noses in lap tops and smart phones. A well kempt man next to me was attempting to teach some assignment to his daughter. The daughter didn't resemble any child that has lived in my household: She was demure, also well kempt, wearing a dress, hair combed in a way that only a trip to a hair dresser could fashion it. She was polite with her father; she carried herself well as she worked on the homework assignment. You could tell she was being prepped for some Ivy League school: a future Yalie. Or Wellesley.

And the people around me carried themselves with a snootiness and a self confidence that only comes with having a future where you need not worry about anything. And you've had the best of everything given to you: clothes, education, organic chow, healthcare, wellness coaches, yoga, therapists. Their health radiates in trim vital bodies shaped well from gym visits and spa treatments.

Poverty leads to ugliness. Weathered skin. Poor teeth. Worry lines around eyes and forehead. Those who wish to raise the retirement age to 67 or 70, certainly don't know how debilitating it is to your health to be poor. Worry kills. So does financial insecurity. Poverty is the number one cause of mental illness. Raising the retirement age is just a bad joke played on the poor. The poor will certainly not make it much beyond the retirement age, which I think is the design.

Money buys happiness. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

I walked to the Sunshine Market in St. Helena. This is the local grocery store where you can buy Kraft Macaroni and Cheese in one aisle and a $650 bottle of Cabernet in the next. And the Cab isn't even behind a lock and key. It just sits there on the shelf amongst other bottles of $100 plus bottles of wine.

And when you go to the checkout stand, what do you see? A refrigerated display of caviars of the world. Most checkout stands have gossip magazines and chocolate bars. St. Helena has caviar displays instead.


Enough of wealth, I head back to my dorm room to do some laundry and read. It was there that I read a New York Times article on Peter Matthiessen. Later in the day, I learned that Peter died (a coincidence had the NY Times article published on the day of his demise; the article was amended on-line to mention Peter's death). Peter was a son of privilege, much like the people I'd been watching in St. Helena. He was uncomfortable with it, but he never gave up his fortune to the poor as Jesus instructed rich people to do. No, he lived with that discomfort and used the money to live a wonderful life. He traveled and wrote books about his travels. Bad things do happen to rich people, and The Snow Leopard was written about a grief stricken trip to Nepal to photograph the elusive Snow leopard. Rich people get to grieve in more interesting ways. And write books about the experience.

I've never been able to make it through The Snow Leopard. I find environmental Buddhists boring (Gary Snyder take note). I did enjoy Matthiessen's classic Wildlife in America--a book that doesn't appear in the biographies of Peter--but really, it is a great book. If anything, just read the first chapter about the Great auk.

Matthiessen was part of a generation that still revered the novel. Much like Ed Abbey, who considered himself more of a novelist than an essay writer, Peter Matthiessen also felt that the novel was his highest achievement. And Peter is the only writer who has won the National Book Award for both fiction and non-fiction. Quite an achievement.

And so I will give The Snow Leopard another try. And I will give Shadow Country a read. And also At Play in the Fields of the Lord (a book that Abbey cited as a tome he wished he had written).

Matthiessen lived in the same house for sixty years. He didn't live in opulence. Although he did spend time as a spy for the CIA back in the 50's. Some say he started The Paris Review with CIA money. He ran in literary circles generated by rubbing elbows with the Oligarchs at Yale and the East Coast Literary Establishment. But that doesn't mean he didn't have talent. He did. But talent is easy to find; opportunity isn't. The only difference between writers like Matthiessen and wannabee writers in some English Department in a PoDunk University is connections and opportunity.

Good writing is easy to find. All you have to do is have something to say and say it well. Many do.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Scott Russell Sanders

 I got an e-mail the other day from the best writer in northern California, Jaime O'Neill, stating that he thought that I should read a nature writer by the name of Scott Russell Sanders. Well, when O'Neill suggests an author to me, I tend to listen to him; Jaime's knowledge and breadth of writers is first rate. Of course, I couldn't remember which book by Scott Sanders O'Neill recommended, so I went on Amazon and simply bought his latest work with the best overall reviews.

Sanders is an English professor at a university in Indiana. When I think of nature writers and where they live, I hardly think of a small city in Indiana. I think of  Abbey's Utah. I think of Mathiessen's Nepal; I think of Barry Lopez and the arctic (and wolves). Nature writers tend to live in places that evoke the images that they seek to describe, hence Doug Peacock and Montana (and the GRIZ) or Joseph Wood Krutch and the Sonoran desert. Even Bill McKibben and that quaint little college town in Vermont seems like a good place for a nature writer to hole up and write books. Indiana certainly would not be on my horizon as a place that would create a nature writer.

Sanders writes about a sense of place. In a way, the sense of place of Indiana, has worked its way into Sanders. How so? He writes with a humble, accessible--yet professorial style. His essays are better on the second read---there is so much depth and sheer talent with the English language within them.

Most writers when they put a book of essays together that have been published in magazines or snobby literature reviews, you can pretty much bet that the first essay will be the best. Writers like to grab hold of you, sort of like a gripping lede, which entices you to read more. This isn't the case with A Conservationist Manifesto. Sanders' essays get better the deeper into the book you read.

Honestly, there isn't much about Indiana that I like. The place is totally domesticated; not much left that is wild there. Sanders' acknowledges that, and he writes two mournful, but hopeful essays about a few efforts to rewild Indiana.

The best essay is about Henry David Thoreau: Simplicity and Sanity. If you've been teaching about Thoreau for forty years, and you've been thinking about Walden for that long, I would want to hear how living and teaching Thoreau has impacted you. Sanders does that within the context of this, at times, preachy essay. Yet Sanders can pull off being preachy because of his overt humility and honesty which gushes from every essay. You get to know Sanders by reading this book: it is intensely personal. Manifestos should be preachy--they almost have to be by definition.

Yet when I hear the word Manifesto, it is hard not to be reminded of that great, small book written by Mr. Whiskers himself. "There's a spectre hanging over Europe".  Sanders essay which gives the title of the book doesn't have quite the immediacy of Karl Marx---but that doesn't mean it is no less important--or revolutionary. Within this essay, Sanders gives 40 thesis in support of his point. It is a Wittenberg Door expression of the hopes of one kind and sane man's desire for all of us, human and non-human, who share this planet.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lyme Disease and Outdoor Adventures..

Last Saturday, I finally was feeling well enough to take a walk in the woods. When I took my pants off to go to bed that night, I found a small tick lodged into my leg. Attached real good. A quarter sized rash had developed around the bite. I showed it to Joni, and she pulled the tick off of me. The head stayed lodged in my leg.

The next day I went to an Urgent Care place. "Good thing you came in", the Nurse Practitioner said as he wrote me the script for Amoxicillin. "Too many people ignore stuff like that and end up with Lyme's Disease." And so that night I started my fourth anti-biotic in seven days.

Joni had a bite like this a few years ago. We ignored it, her MD ignored it "too late", he said, and now we wonder if her cardiac conduction problem, and the pacemaker that corrects it, might not be a complication of that tick bite.

Supposedly, it takes the tick 36 hours of being attached to you before the spirochete that causes Lyme's Disease screws itself into your body. The tick on me had not been on me that long--however, I still had the characteristic rash. Most of California is now habitat for the tick that causes Lyme's Disease. I'm surprised I didn't get it sooner.

You have about 48 hours to start an Anti-biotic to prevent getting Lyme's Disease, hence the NP's proclamation that it was a good thing that I went to the Urgent Care. Seems to me that all people out in the woods taking a backpacking trip should carry Amoxicillin with them just in case they get bit by a tick. I've heard stories of backpackers on the Pacific Crest Trail that were incapacitated by Lyme's from a tick bite.

Of course, the scare tactics around getting a tick bite seems counterproductive to people actually getting outside and enjoying the woods. Yes, the ticks are there, but I've been crawling around the woods most days for much of my life. I never reacted until now. With some good self care and observation, the cure is easily done. Just because there are ticks in the woods that carry Lyme's doesn't mean we shouldn't enjoy the woods. It just means we should be ever watchful for things crawling on us.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Manly Biopsy

I turned 53 years of age the other day. I was glad to make it there. And I'm more than happy to say "adios" to 52.

Last year was a very difficult year for me physically. I sustained a terrible injury at work that has dragged on for ten months now. During that process, the MD's have found various things wrong with me, or things that warranted investigation. And so I've had a number of tests and procedures done: CT's, Stress EKG's, lab work.

The worst one happened a couple weeks ago. I'll write about it because I don't think men talk about things like this enough. Over the last year, I've had a steadily increasing PSA. The number had become worrisome for my primary doctor, even though I'm on a medication that does increase the PSA, so I went to see a Urologist that I've informally known for years.

When he saw my number (5.6) and the rate it had increased (from 4.4 in nine months), he told me it is very rare for a man my age to have such a critically high number. And it is. He was especially concerned about the size and rate of the increase.  He gave me a couple of choices but he felt it was concerning enough to recommend an "immediate biopsy".

I had always told myself I wouldn't have this procedure done, mainly because it tends to be overly treated in the past. And it is true that if I was 75 years of age and had a PSA like that, the MD wouldn't have done anything. But men in their 50's die of this disease. Often. It is the male equivalent to breast cancer. Prostate cancer is the number two killer cancer of men--lung cancer holds the number one spot---and men in their 50's are often the ones who get it. Plus my sister passed away much too young from breast cancer, which is another hormonally based cancer, so I probably have a higher risk for prostate cancer. Of course, talking with the Urologist scared the bejesus out of me.

Two days later, I was in the procedure room of the hospital getting a prostate biopsy. A word to the wise, Do Not Minimize this procedure.

If you are squeamish, please skip to the last paragraph. The description below is a bit graphic.

What the MD does is insert an ultrasound probe into your rectum which enables the doc to be able to view the prostate. This is uncomfortable enough because it feels like someone put a broomstick up your ass. Then a nail gun device is used to shoot needles into the prostate that take "cores" of tissue out of it. This is similar to the ice cores they get to sample ice in the Antarctic to test for CO2. This is quite painful to have the machine shoot the needles into you. I couldn't watch the screen anymore, because it hurt so much. Joni came along to hold my hand, which was helpful. I don't know why she wanted to attend this procedure though. It ain't pretty.

Usually the doctor takes 12 cores: my MD took 14. He wanted to especially get an area that he thought was suspicious. My prostate was enlarged, which might be genetic, which could account for the high PSA scores right there. Plus I'm on a drug that increases PSA's.

Post procedure, my bottom continued to feel like it had a broomstick stuck up it. And my urine was bloody. I got the results of the test a few days later which were all negative. Every core was benign. I happily drove down to work after getting the news.

However, while in the Napa Valley, I started running a temperature. I couldn't stop sweating. I was in a morning meeting at work where we discuss the patients when I started feeling weird and I was sweating profusely. In the bathroom afterwards, my pee was blood red for the entire stream and I passed clots that were huge. They hurt like they were kidney stones. And my pee was like peeing Cabernet wine. The bleeding scared me it was so much. My thinking even got a bit disturbed, which I've seen with older people, but never thought it would happen to me. I was alone in my room at the dorm of the hospital--and spent a couple of long nights sweating it out while I took antibiotics. I even had a shot of an antibiotic injected into my rump. That helped. A lot.

For other men, I'd say--do not minimize having a prostate biopsy. Do take it easy afterwards for awhile. Don't assume you can resume normal activities when it involves driving for hours and being pretty active. About 4% of men who have this procedure can expect to get infections. About 1% will require hospitalization for treatment of this post procedure infection.

Now that it has been two weeks, I'm still rather reeling from having had this thing done. I don't care what my PSA goes up to: I will never have this procedure done again. I'll take my chances with cancer.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mom's Birthday

Mom on the farm..

February 25, 1927. Spring Grove, Minnesota--in a largish room, my mother, Henrietta Veum was born. That large room was in a largish house that functioned as the local  hospital in 1927; it later was broken up into SRO's.  Single Room Occupancy's. Mom's Father, Levi Veum rented one of those rooms, heart broken after his wife passed away. The room he rented was the delivery room, where Mom was born 50 years before. Levi Veum died in Mom's delivery room in 1979; he was found sitting in a rocking chair, a cigarette burned out in his right hand, the other hand holding a cane.

And so I think of Mom on this unusually sunny day in 2014, some 15 years after her much too early death at the age of 72.

I was a rotten son. Lazy. A slob. I never helped out with chores with the exception that I cooked dinner every Friday night for the family. It was an actual home-made pizza I'd make, with homemade crust. She appreciated that so very much as she spent her days working in a factory--back when we used to have factories in this country.

Those years from 1927 to 1999 when she died were years of change. She lived through the depression. Her father lost his farm at that time and never really recovered, or had a regular paycheck until he retired at age 65 and Social Security provided enough cash so that Grandpa and Grandma Veum could buy their first house in the country. Since Grandpa farmed with horses, he could get a horse on that little property. A fine horse named after President Johnson's wife: Ladybird. My Grandpa knew what party was on the side of the working class. Word has it that he was a member of the Farmer/Labor Party---a radical party in the 30's composed mostly of Communists. That party later merged with the Democrats, with Hubert Horatio Humphrey doing the negotiating, to form the DFL. To this day, the Democrats in Minnesota are called the DFL.

Mom certainly experienced loss. A loss of a farm. The loss of her older sister at the tender young age of 18, on the night of her sister's graduation from high school. An automobile accident, when the young man who was with her struck a cow in the road. These were the days prior to seat belts.

Mom graduated from High School in Mabel, Minnesota. She moved to Winona, Minnesota where she met my Dad. The first ten years of their marriage consisted of trying to run a farm, while Dad also worked full-time in town at the Midland Cooperative, an employee owned business that sold gas and provided farm supplies.

Their first set of twins died a few days after birth. Every year Mom continued to put flowers on Stan and Glen's grave. Ruth came along a couple years later. Then Doug. And eight years after Doug came along, I showed up. Mom later told me that those years spent on the farm were the happiest years of her life.

Then, in the early 60's (1962? 63?) a factory opened in Rushford that changed everything. The factory made heater switches for GM automobiles. The wages were good for such a small town, and prosperity soon followed for most everyone. Mom took a job on the factory line, and for the next 30 years she sat on the line, with its mind numbing work, earning a living for her family. Mom and Dad bought an old Victorian in town. They divided the thing into three apartments and paid the thing off in ten years. They were as frugal as could be. They ate out of the huge garden we had. We froze sweet corn and beans with Mom's secret recipe.

Those were good years for Rushford. Good years for my family. The factory closed around 1995, thanks to Clinton and NAFTA with the jobs shipped off to Mexico. Now I'm told the Mexico factory closed and it was shipped off to China. Ten years earlier, the Midland Cooperative shut its doors. Dad found work working with an implement dealer.

Mom and Dad retired in the early 90's. They spent their winters in Arizona. Summers in Minnesota. Mom walked everyday and blossomed with the friendships she made in Arizona. I remember going for a walk with her and I could barely keep up with her.

Mom was about the kindest, most humble person I've ever met. She never had a cross word to say for anyone. She worked in the factory and cooked for her family and cleaned my messy laundry with never a word of complaint. I never heard her complain of anything ever. People like that are so very rare. Giving without expecting anything back. A heart of gold.

Mom got liver cancer at the age of 71. She never smoked. She never drank. I expect those chemicals at the factory that she breathed all those years contributed to the cancer. Again, she didn't complain when the pain kept her up at night.

Sorry Mom I was such a crappy son. I didn't go home often enough. I didn't write. I didn't send Mother's Day cards. I did say thank you for the times life was tough and they took me in after my first attempt at an adult life failed. But all in all, I sucked as a son.

I was living in Reno, Nevada when I got a call from Dad. They were in Mesa, Arizona. Dad told me to please get there as quick as possible. I literally dropped the phone and hopped into my red Saturn. I didn't stop until I was in Mesa, Arizona. I walked into the hospital room. Alone with her, I told her I loved her. She said, through her delirium, that she loved me. She never said another word.

I stayed up with her that long night. When the doctor came in at 5:00 am, I told the MD to stop the IV as Mom was in delirium and wouldn't eat or drink. We had as a family, made the decision to cut the fluids. We got Mom out of that hospital, an awful place where I had to bug the nurses to get pain meds for my mother when she experienced break through pain. She went to a hospice facility where the nurses knew how to take care of the dying. I was in the room when Mom took her last breath. Holding her hand. As she took her last breath, a tear ran out of her eye, down her cheek.

A life cut too short by cancer. Rest In Peace Dear Mother, Rest In Peace.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


Okay, I admit it: I am a nature nut. An enviro. A person who gets pissed off when yet another house gets built in some suburb. I mourn the loss of habitat to the extent of being nearly pathological. I love Ed Abbey. I'm with him when he said "the ideology of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell".

And so it isn't often I read a novel that understands such themes. Virginia Arthur takes her time with the book. She sets up the characters and let's them be what they are. She doesn't shy away from themes of class. And I think the cover of the book, with the beautiful Ellie, looking into the future with a couple of bulldozers around her and a binoculars at her feet, well, that cover is perfect.

In this case, you can judge a book by its cover.

Some might say the thing is a bit long and wordy. That the author could cut something here or there. No. Our lives are long and fun and tragic and good and bad and sometimes tedious and sometimes disastrous and sometimes magical. This book understand that and so it takes its time as Ellie leaves her husband for the love of birds.

And I come away from the book, borrowing a line from it often: to be an environmentalist is to live constantly with a broken heart. Oh so true.

I'm told that this work took 13 years to write and is loosely based on the author's own experiences. It takes a whole lot of effort to create such a story that includes themes of environmental loss, yet inspires hope that maybe, just maybe, others will get the bug of watching birds, or whales or trees---and figure out that they are worth saving.

Books that inspire you to become active outdoors are few and far between. Most nature books are written with adrenaline in mind. They are about climbing Everest or doing the seven highest peaks or climbing the highest tree. Or climbing a rock. Having an adrenaline experience is what the outdoors has become to a generation that comes after generation X. The slopes of a mountain have given way to the artificialness, and adrenaline, of a snowboarders half tube. This book isn't about adrenaline. It is about enjoyment. Solitude. Love.

We need more novels like this. We need to encourage writers who write books like this. A wilderness experience has become so rare that it rarely becomes a setting or subject of a novel these days (except to spur adrenaline). Virginia inspires something else; she inspires action. Beauty. Reflection. Listening. Watching. Being observant. In a world where the Pacific Crest Trail is only mentioned in regards to speed records, Birdbrain presents something better: take a look around and enjoy what you got because it ain't gonna last long unless you get off your butt and take care of it.

Buy this book.