Alaska can be a rainy place. Going on my sixth summer up this way, and every one of them has been marked with gray skies and showers and storms. People that have lived here for a long time tell me each year that ‘it’s not usually like this,’ but I’ve come to realize these innocent self-deceptions (read: lies) as coping mechanisms. It rains here in the summer, sometimes for days and weeks at a time. Most days, the rain is pretty tolerable, more drizzle than downpour, and the low clouds create the most spectacular skies you’ve ever seen. Deep shades of palpable intensity, rainbows that make the soul sigh. But it does rain. A lot.
It’s also not uncommon to have several seasons of weather all in the course of a single day, which can be both challenging and rewarding. Wind, rain, sleet, snow, sun, clouds, repeat. One must always travel prepared—both with proper gear and proper attitude. There is always a potential reminder of how much bigger this place is than you might be. Self-reliance is a must.
But some days you do get a little something special. Sunshine to make the heart sing. Clear blue skies backdrops for mountains of dichotomous grandeur—jagged lines of black and white. With special thanks to customary weather volatility, it is easy to consciously exist in these moments—to fully appreciate the gift of a glorious morning, afternoon, evening, maybe even an entire day or two.
Several years ago, I was blessed with a string of such days. I remember them still. That summer had started off with a spectacular May, then steadily progressed into days and weeks of all types of rain. The end of July and most of August it poured steadily and without end. Sometime in August I guided a rafting trip down the Talkeetna (some big water, but a story for another time) and in the three days we were out there it didn’t stop raining even for a minute. The clouds set in a hundred feet above the river and let loose on us the entire time. A rough one.
A couple weeks later, however, the beginning of September, I went back up that way to hike Kesugi Ridge, a well-known backpacking route in Denali State Park. The day I drove up the skies finally cleared, and for the next three days the sun beamed across the landscape providing unobstructed views of 20,310’ Denali, and almost inducing heat stroke in the process. I was not used to the sun at that point, but loved every minute of it. And not only was I fortunate enough to dry out for a while, the nights, dark again after a summer of unyielding daylight, were highlighted by big green bands of aurora snaking their way from the mountain’s peak across the valley below and passing directly overhead my sleeping bag. True story.
I write this now, as the gray clouds pile up outside and the forecast has nothing but bleakness for the foreseeable future, because last week I was again gifted another stint of the same, in almost the same exact place. Between Kesugi Ridge and the Great Mountain, the Chulitna River works its way down into the Susitna. It follows the same basic path as the backpacking route, and both can be easily accessed by the Parks Highway. One high, one low.
A fortuitous shuttle left me sitting on the ice covered banks of the river around 9:30 p.m. last Sunday, where I rigged everything up and pushed off for a couple of hours of late evening boating. It was a beautiful night, clear and chilly, and when I made it to bed around midnight it was still light out. Woke up the next morning to frost covered gear, but after a couple hours on the water I paddled from winter back into summer. From still dormant trees and snow and ice right into green buds, then green leaves, and a day replete with sunshine, temps in the 70s, and big mountain views in abundance. It was clear and warm that evening, and every bit as beautiful the next day. Some days it seems like you must be doing something right. These were those days.
As I write this it’s difficult to believe that it’s the last day of May, but that seems to be the case. I’m glad to have the last two posts and a few other pictures to prove to myself that the month lasted longer than those few days. Other occurrences from the past couple weeks: paddling the Tanana, a weekend down in Southcentral for a wilderness medicine course, back at Birch Lake, Grapefruit Rocks.
Generally, I have an almost non-existent relationship with passive entertainment. Your typical couch potato activities, that is. I’ve never owned a TV, never paid for cable, don’t play video games or spend time on social media. At one point in my life I used to watch a lot of movies, but that was a long time ago. This past year, the year of binge watch marathons worldwide, I’m pretty sure I saw less than 10 films, and only fractions of seasonal shows. I can’t even remember the last movie I watched, but don’t think it was in 2021.
This past winter, however, I’ve developed an unsought YouTube habit. Not sure how or why it started, but it’s the truth, and I’m coming clean. It usually creeps up on me at the end of each day, around 9 p.m. By that time my brain and body are shutting down, but it’s not quite time for sleep. Can’t read anymore, already exercised out, played all the guitar I could muster… And out comes the phone, that awful little bugger. Often, the routine will start off well-intentioned. Initially, I’ll usually try to be somewhat productive. The first video or two will be in Spanish, or have something to do with music. Eventually, I’ll make my way into comedy. Try to get in a few laughs before bedtime. If motivated, I might start that off in Spanish as well—Carlos Ballarta, La India Yuridia, Alan Saldaña—if I can understand 80% of the jokes and catch a few in-the-know Mexican culture references I feel pretty good about it. Failing motivation, however, it’s usually into some Bill Burr, maybe a bit of Chappelle. Straightforward no-nonsense calling out of cancel culture and conservative conspirators alike. The truth is in the middle—if either one of those two things exist—and the reality really isn’t funny at all, but at least these guys can make us laugh about it.
But then, almost inevitably, comes the slide. I don’t often go down the recognized YT Rabbit Hole, but the algorithms have me figured out the same as everyone else. I usually manage to maintain some kind of category focus, but that’s about the only semblance of self-restraint I can claim. There is commonly a slight shift from one type of comedy to another, maybe over to a night-show monologue. You know, get a little daily news in. No less slanted or biased than any network these days, so might as well go with the lighthearted version. After that, about the time I really should be getting into some teeth brushing, what has apparently become a guilty pleasure/curious nemesis takes hold. Sometimes for a couple of videos, sometimes for a whole string of them. I’ve yet to remain captive past midnight, but it’s been close.
I think it all started with cop videos. As in real ones. The body cam captures of crazies, criminals, and constant haters, and all the people and seedy situations police officers deal with on a regular basis. Why or when I started watching these channels, I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps it was searching for another side to a now popular narrative, or maybe it was some really good clickbait. I do have this to say, however, I would recommend watching a couple hours of these videos to everyone.
I’m guessing most of us have a fairly ambiguous view of police officers, they’re good when we might need them, but defiled if they’re holding us personally accountable for something—spoiling our fun or slowing down a commute. Watching certain versions of the news these days sees them constantly demonized, and it is both acceptable and prevalent in pop culture to portray cops as a united enemy to be opposed. And violently opposed at that. There is even blather about defunding departments and eliminating entire forces. Which is why, I would suggest, that before considering joining into any of those conversations a person should sit down and watch some YouTube. Afterwards and during, one might consider what society would actually be like without any means to enforce the laws that most of us agree allow our world to function. That is without the thousands of decent men and women who work at a thankless and potentially fatal occupation dealing with entitled assholes and violent criminals alike. Certainly caused me to soften up a bit. I know I wouldn’t want any part of that job. While fully aware that significant issues exist within the system, and across all strata of our governmental organizations, I can still be thankful for the majority of the people that volunteer to serve in them.
The channel I found myself viewing most is created by a man who goes by the intentionally ironic mark of Donut Operator. Donut, as far as I can tell, spent several years working as a police officer, though now seems to make a living from his YT channel and streaming himself playing video games on Twitch. What a wonderful time to be a creative entrepreneur. Anyways, most of Donut’s videos feature footage from incidents ranging from traffic stops to deadly force encounters. In each episode Donut attempts to objectively assess the actions of both officers and offenders, as well as to address prior and current viewer comments regarding the prudence of decisions the officers make, along with the training and procedures they might be following in doing so. As in, why did an officer shoot a crazed addict who was charging them with a broadsword instead of using a Taser or verbally assuaging the danger. The range of scenarios officers may come across is baffling in scope, as are the outrageous and entirely unrealistic demands for non-lethal force against very lethal threats.
But it’s no longer the cop videos that are the draw, they’re just how I got to the next place. The place I’m in now. Even with Donut’s admirable sense of humor and objectivity, the negativity of each situation on his channel quickly becomes a draining experience, even if it does create a sense of empathy for what a lot of officers routinely go through. Realizing this adverse reaction—that of the negativity, not the empathy—however, makes the decision to watch what I’ve been habitually watching somewhat confounding. The name of the channel I’m now hooked on is Active Self Protection, and I obviously ended up there through the benevolent auspices of the algorithm. Like watching people get shot? You’ll love this next suggestion. The thing is, I don’t think I particularly enjoy witnessing or even imagining violence, though somehow find myself captivated by this particular channel (which features nothing but violent situations), and its host, John Correia (pronounced similar to the country in Asia).
The format goes like this: we see a snapshot of a real-life encounter which inevitably involves a person, or multiple people, attempting to violate the rights of another person, or persons—generally a robbery, mugging, car-jacking, kidnapping, etc., though occasionally a road rage incident, bar fight, etc.; the preview is followed by a brief intro of the day’s topic by Correia and a short advertisement by his sponsors, usually makers of pepper spray, targets, ammo, gun holsters…; after the ad we get to the footage, which usually comes from one or multiple angles taken from security or dashboard cameras; following the video, Correia introduces the lessons viewers might take from each incident, often while replaying and reviewing the tape. Once again, these are all real incidents, most of which happened fairly recently. And people, real people, often die violently—almost always by gunshot—in the encounters.
The videos are generally not as horrific as they may sound—though a couple of them most certainly are. And really, all of them should be. Human beings are killing other human beings. They are killing them out of greed, out of spite, out of anger, and in order to survive. And we’re allowed to watch endlessly. We are desensitized to the violence, immune to the telling of these age old stories, and buffered perhaps by the poor quality of the often audio-free videos. We’ve seen it all before so many times on the screen, hear about it every day in the news, so none of it seems all that real. In order to make the scenarios more palatable for dissecting key learning points, Correia himself incorporates humorous euphemisms. The ‘good guys,’ when killed, ‘sadly didn’t make it.’ The ‘bad guys,’ when terminated, take ‘the room/asphalt temperature challenge,’ depending on whether or not they die indoors or out. The winner of a gunfight, we’re always reminded, is ‘the first one to get effective shots into the ‘meaty bits’ of their opponent.’ You should also keep in mind that when a gunfight starts, ‘You have the rest of your life to get shots on target.’ And then there’s John’s FIBSA Factor, the ‘F— I’m Being Shot At’ which often ends an encounter by sending perpetrators fleeing whether they’ve been hit in the meaty bits or not. Curiously enough, they usually run either way rather than dropping dramatically to the ground as Hollywood might have us believe. Like chickens with their heads chopped off, many of the mortally wounded criminals manage record sprint speeds before eventually keeling over.
A good portion of the videos hail from Brazil, which comes out seeming like a terribly dangerous place to live or travel as a result. Many amusing comments may be read pertaining to viewers’ newfound averseness to vacationing there. Ironic, of course, when one realizes that almost all the other videos come from the United States, and that this is exactly how we’re viewed by the rest of the world. Somehow this fact doesn’t seem to register with most of the folks commenting. Perhaps because we’re so used to it now, and perhaps because the incidents are often referred to by which state they come from rather than being attributed directly to our country as a whole. As of a couple of weeks ago, the US, in slightly over three months of 2021, has already ‘tallied more than 12,000 gunshot deaths… and 150 mass shootings in which four or more people were killed’ (The Week). Over 23 million guns were purchased in this country in 2020 alone. Some would have you believe that more guns equal less violence, but that clearly isn’t the case. Others call for the banning of guns entirely—an incredibly impracticable scenario given all the guns that are already out here. What’s the answer then? I really don’t have any clue.
But the real question here is: Why am I watching this before turning in for the night multiple times per week? Why is this what I end my evenings with when I’m too tired to focus on anything else? I guess I’m unsure of that myself, and often swear that I will cease this behavior, but sometimes can’t resist the enticing titles that continue to pop-up: ‘Store Owner Takes the Fight to Robber;’ ‘Two Armed Men Stop Knife Attack Cold;’ ‘Guard Forced to Shoot Angry Patient…’ Do I not already know that the world is fraught with peril? That good and evil are locked in eternal battle? That there are profuse numbers of wicked people waiting for opportunities to do harm? That there are guns and bad guys and boogey monsters everywhere? Is it that I like to see karmic justice delivered to criminals? Which happens, but not always—plenty of victims die as well. Do I like to imagine myself a hero? Or pretend that these videos will provide a sense of readiness in case a similar scenario occurs in my own life? I don’t even ‘keep my tools on’ me (i.e. carry a gun around everywhere I go) which is one of the top lessons of every video.
The answer to that question is also that I don’t really have one. But I think it has a lot to do with Correia himself, and the lessons he provides in each video. Each one is analogous to fostering a holistic lifestyle of awareness and introspection. Correia encourages viewers to think about what they would do in each situation. His channel might even be viewed as an acknowledgment that there is evil in the world, and that we must live alongside it. Correia promotes preemptively identifying our values in order to let them guide us in the event of danger. What is worth dying for? When is compliance a better strategy? Where should you draw the line as far as that compliance is concerned? In what instances might you step in to assist someone else? When shouldn’t you? He talks about what it means to be a moral and ethical defender, and praises those who are able to reduce a threat appropriately and without undue amounts of force. In many of the videos he cautions against letting our egos get the better of us—‘Don’t start none, won’t be none.’ He counsels letting go of reactionary behavior and walking away from unnecessary aggressions.
Correia’s brand is built around the ASP acronym, and features a snake’s head as its logo. He admonishes viewers to ‘cover their ASP’ at all times, and promotes proactive measures to ensure physical and emotional fitness. The letters stand for Active Self Protection, but also double as the guiding principles that allow us all to be better prepared for the unexpected in life: Attitude, Skills, and a Plan. I appreciate the simplicity of it all. Be confident. Always work at improvement. Know what you’re about.
Correia also covers the tactical aspects of each scenario and highlights the need for increased diligence in certain situations, namely transitional spaces. While we should always be attentive to our surroundings, even in what we might consider to be safe zones, we put ourselves at greater risk as we travel about in the world around us. Vigilance is recommended. These spaces may be represented by thoroughfares and parking lots. Always go to ATMs (‘Accessories to Muggings’) inside of buildings. And so forth. This too, I think, can be applied to the larger scale of life. Seems like the transitional spaces can last for years even as we move about looking for a safe environment, our happy place. It’s imperative then to be able to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. To be able to identify threats and deal with them appropriately. To remain aware. Stoicism is an endorsed form of compliance, and we must accept much of what life visits upon us—though there is also time for action and self-preservation. It’s also significant to realize that sometimes bystanders are there to help you out. Even more important to know that you can help someone else out. And finally, when life suddenly spirals into chaos, we must recognize the wisdom of Correia’s guidance, ‘Attitude is Everything.’
Honestly though, I really need to just go to bed when I’m supposed to.
Speaking of transitional spaces, the day I got back from the trip down south it started snowing and didn’t stop for days. Then it warmed up and all that snow started to melt. And then it got really cold for a while and all that melted snow turned to a whole bunch of thickset ice. For days the roads were about as treacherous as they can get. A few places even shut down for a minute, but for the most part it was business as usual, though more cars in the ditches than ever. And after that, it got crazy nice. From -20 on Saturday morning to 50 something on Sunday afternoon. And it stayed there for two full weeks. Days of glorious sunshine and brilliant blue skies. Gorgeous spring weather and all kinds of snow for all the things. Perfect conditions for just about any winter sport you can imagine, but no need for bundling up. Quite the opposite, in fact.
It was days of getting out and getting after it. Waking up each morning and greeting the sun. The standard doses of fresh air and exercise, plus welcome regimens of Vitamin D therapy. Lots of day trips and multiple modes of transportation/recreation. One of the highpoints was a day with Emilie, Jim, and a few of Emilie’s sled dogs for a marathon distance skijor from her cabin at the top of Murphy Dome, down down down to the pipeline and the Chatanika River, along the river for many miles and then all the way back up the big hill. The morning was a bit harrowing with less than desirable conditions due to overnight freezing. Some sketchy descents, and a handful of falls for everyone but the dogs. The afternoon, however, was magnificent. Once we hit the pipeline it was nothing but sunshine and slush the rest of the way. The temperature was hovering around 60 that day, about enough to melt a person after a Fairbanks winter, and after lunch we all had to strip down to our skivvies to finish out the rest of the day. Even that layer proved too constricting for Jim, who bucked it all the way down and courteously hopped in the back of our line. Thankfully, no severe burns were accrued in the following hours, and the dogs pulled like champs in helping us back up the hill. A big outing for Jim and myself, a casual day in the life of Ms. Emilie.
There were also a couple days of snowshoeing around Wickersham Dome and a perfect three-day weekend—t-shirt snowboarding on Saturday, super-fast skate skiing on Sunday, and the season’s first float trip on Monday with Emilie and Becky down the Delta Clearwater, the only ice free section of water around. Well, mostly ice free, I got to hop out and ride a big floe down the Tanana for a few minutes, which was actually more stimulating than it sounds. Fun facts: first mosquito bite on April 20th, first cloud of mosquitoes encountered two days later (even though still in the 20s most nights!), and then all the sudden one more full day of winter and snow on the 30th. So now back to transitioning with a little Alaskan reminder of the impermanence of all things. Those sure were some amazing days though. Warm memories, you might say.
Bonus Track: Clay Pigeons. I heard this song for the first time ever a couple days ago. Originally by a singer/songwriter from Texas named Blaze Foley, it was also recorded by John Prine. Both artists use a technique called Travis Picking for the song, and both versions are worth a listen, or lots of them. Maybe I’ll get there one day, but for now just sticking with some chords. The most basic ones. Like the rest of life, a work in progress.
And just like that, springtime once again. Compounding daylight and warming weather—sometimes a whole year’s worth of seasons in 24 hours—the inevitable oncoming of another Alaskan summer. While many profess their impatience for winter’s departure, others feel a different sense of urgency. Panic almost, that we didn’t quite do as many things as we should have over the past months of frozen opportunity. The remaining days of serviceable snow calculated anxiously, plans made in hurried anticipation of life without skiing around every day. Last minute exploits and explorations executed with resolve.
When I came up a little over a year ago, I promised myself, for various reasons, that I would stay in the state for at least a year before even thinking about going anywhere else, vacation or otherwise. Turns out, COVID made it easy to observe that conviction. But honestly there isn’t anywhere else I really want to go at the moment anyway. Other than to visit family, I have no motivation to return to the continental US. And while I might move to another country if the opportunity presents itself, I have no desire to travel abroad for diversion. Too many people. Too much hassle. And truthfully, this place is the real Disneyland for anyone with free spirit and inspiration.
Not only have I not left the state, however, I’ve barely managed to make it out of a hundred mile radius most of the time. No need to. Other than the trip to Arctic, I’ve been perfectly content hanging out in Interior Alaska. I love the landscapes here, the lighting, the hundreds of miles of unpopulated trails and rivers.
Last week though, with the inescapable end of winter nearing, I motivated to take myself on a little trip down south. Back to Southcentral AK, that is, where I spent many a summer, but haven’t really explored in the winter. It was time for a breaking of routine. Time to re-center and recalibrate. Check out some new landscapes for a change. Search for inspiration. Maximize the season.
As usual, I had only a rough idea of an itinerary. A few thoughts, plenty of free time, and only myself to debate with regards to daily decisions. Easy enough. I might annoy myself a good deal of the time, but I’m quickly convinced to make abrupt alterations based on spontaneous motivation. And I got lucky. Every day sunshine everywhere I ended up. I needed that, and am grateful for the good fortune.
Kid’s Corner. Spent the first night at my friend Pat’s house in Wasilla. Imagine Sarah Palin as a mid-size city and you will know what Wasilla is like—a trashy, sprawling, meth addled, crime-infested nightmare of traffic, generic box stores, churches, and littered highway… But I digress; suffice it to say it’s my least favorite place in the state, but apparently it works for some people. Like Pat, for instance, who was a gracious host.
Pat used to work for NOVA as a glacier guide, and climbing, ice, rock, etc., is his passion. Last winter, he came up this way to help oversee a couple of ice climbing trips for the program, and I’ve always wanted to join him on a more involved excursion than the easy waterfall we took the clients on. We woke up the next morning to a heavy snowstorm outside, but loaded up the gear and drove out towards the Matanuska Glacier. About halfway through the drive, the roads and sky cleared up, and warm(ish) weather made for perfect conditions for a climb up Kid’s Corner, a multi-pitch series of frozen waterfalls in a small side canyon up Caribou Creek, the put-in for river trips down the Matanuska River, where I guided for several summers.
Pat is a pretty serious guy, but he’s always excited to take people out climbing. He’s also a great instructor, and after each section I would ask him a couple of questions to which he would offer tips to improve what he identified as my ‘shitty technique.’ You can’t teach someone everything all at once, however, so I had to learn a couple of lessons the hard way—such as each time you swing the axe you should look where it’s going to hit, then tuck chin to chest upon impact to avoid getting smacked in the teeth with an exploding chunk of ice. Good times. Really. It was an amazing day, and a great experience, and I am super thankful to Pat for taking me out there. So beautiful, and much more fun than I’d imagined ice climbing might be.
As a funny aside, as we were gearing up to climb a woman showed up at the base of the first falls with camera in hand. She was a professional photographer who had seen our car in the parking lot and followed our tracks up to where she knew we’d be climbing. As mentioned, Pat is usually a pretty no-nonsense character, so I was surprised at his generous attitude at being photographed while climbing, though he did (actually) refuse to smile. Look for us in an upcoming adventure magazine. I’ll be the one exhibiting the shitty technique.
Alyeska. Alyeska is the state’s biggest ski resort, located an hour south of Anchorage. The drive down takes you alongside the Turnagain Arm, where you can see belugas in the summer and lots of sea ice in the winter. Though not as massive as many famous ski areas, Alyeska is a world class resort with several high speed lifts, a tram, great terrain, and one of the best views ever from the entire mountain. Like you’re riding down into the Pacific. The last time I visited was a very long time ago on a pair of Army issued skis, bowlegging it down the mountain in camo Gore-Tex just wishing I had a snowboard. Well, that wish finally came true, and was one of the main intentions of the trip. And man-oh-man, what a day it was. Mid-week, no crowds. Early clouds and overcast turned bluebird before noon, ski patrol started opening up the gates, and it was sunshine, steep lines, and mashed potatoes. Run after run after run. Seven hours of straight shredding son. An all-time top-ten day of riding.
Seward. I had planned on spending a couple of days snowboarding, but after that day I knew the next would not compare, especially after waking up to cloud cover and colder temps. Thoughts of flat light and hard pack were entirely unappealing, adjustments appropriately made. Drove a couple hours down the Kenai Peninsula over to Seward, where I once again found sunshine beaming down on snow covered peaks and seascapes. Spent the morning X-country skiing around freshly groomed Bear Lake, the afternoon duck-walking for a couple of miles on a trail of ice through shady trees out to Tonsina Point on Resurrection Bay. As Pete wrote in response to the last post: ‘A land touched by the hand of God.’
Hatcher Pass, Independence Mine, Government Peak, and Palmer, AK. Initially, I imagined spending a couple days down south, taking my time driving back to Fairbanks, and camping out in Denali on the way home. Once I got down that way, however, there was no compelling reason to hurry back—especially given forecasted negatives in the park. So I decided to stick around for another day and check out Hatcher Pass in the winter and spend a night in Palmer. Palmer, in spite of its unfortunate proximity to the aforementioned Wasilla, which festers like a growing tumor a few miles away, is one of my favorite towns in Alaska, and has the added bonus of several great breweries. Not a hard sell to myself.
Admittedly, I was somewhat wary to visit Hatcher Pass. It’s beautiful and busy in the summer, and famous for snowmachining and backcountry skiing in the winter. I had always imagined it to be crazy and noisy with people and tracks and avalanche slide paths all over the place. Maybe it gets like that, but the day I went my car was alone in the parking lot, and there was only one set of ski tracks through a foot of powder on the mile up to the mine. Oh, and it was t-shirt weather. Truthfully. Spent a couple of hours soaking in the sunshine and poking around the old gold mining camp, and then drove over to the Government Peak cross country trails, which were freshly groomed and a blast to ski. Great views, lots of fun ups and downs, perfect conditions. That evening was sunlit peaks above town and a couple craft brews down in it. #blessed…
Made it home just in time for the biggest snow of the year here in FBX. First day back on the job was hours of deep pow tree riding at Ski Land. Looks like winter might be here for a bit longer after all, though it’s getting a little crazy out there conditions wise. After those days down south, however, I can know that I did my best this winter, and ease on in to whatever comes next. Which, I’m guessing, is like a bunch of mud followed by four straight months of daylight and all kinds of who-knows-what.
There is an alternate hazard, I suppose, to that of creating endless lists comprised of future plans. And that would be the living of them until no further desires remain. The point where invasive realities and uncontrollable circumstances descend—a deep fog obscuring the bygone brilliance of halcyon days. Colorization in reverse: full spectrum vibrancy turned monochrome. The point where the choices don’t make sense any longer, and only confusion remains. What happens when all the dreams are gone away—whether realized or otherwise? When the things one lived for previously have disappeared into the past forever?
What’s left then? And how to make sense of it all. Can meaning be created? Forced? Found again? Hoped for or believed in? The obvious truth is that life goes on with or without overt implications of purpose. Some people care more about this than others.
To wonder what this world might be about may be the most senseless burden a person can voluntarily assume. Crushing, really.
Time, considered a constant in many practical conversations, seems anything but, and paramount somehow to any discussion of reality and the meaning we might impose upon it. It is this concept of time in which we work out our interpretations of attainment and fulfilment, or their antonyms. Time alters as we age. It changes with mood, with activity, when we are with different people and in various environments. Without a feeling of purpose in life, or a someone to mark the memories with, weeks and months melt into years and disappear without notice—while mornings, nights, and hours alone languish in indefinite suspension.
What is there to do then, at least in the meantime, but move from macro to micro. To focus on maintaining, to figure out improving. To hold fast to hope. To do the things, and work at appreciation in the moment. To be open to new experience and change. To eat less sugar and play some more guitar. To get some rest. To sleep, perchance to dream.
March in Alaska is appreciation in the moment. The light, the snow, the warming temps. Every single day importunes to be lived in. Recent things: hiking six miles up the McKay trail with MA, Jack, a sled, and enjoying a few speedy descents; killer day of skiing with Sean on the old Fairbanks to Circle route; long shadows and tea time on big solo Stiles Creek loop; the Fairbanks World Ice Art Championships; my little place in the birch trees and the more guitar part. (Might have to give the page a minute.) They say you have to perform to get better. With gratitude and apologies to Mr. Guy Clark.
Having done no real research into the origin of the phrase ‘Bucket List,’ I will simply proclaim with confidence that the idea of cataloging ones cravings pertaining to travel and experience went mainstream with the eponymous 2007 movie co-starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. I remember watching the film around the time it came out, and enjoying it in the feel-good, mindlessly entertained manner intended (though with perhaps a deeper message overtly delivered).
In subsequent years, the phrase began to permeate the common lexicon and inundate the imaginations of millions of would-be travelers and experiencers. Most everyone, it seems, has a bucket list these days, and is happy to share that fact in casual conversation. Whether there is an actual bulleted list that lives on the back pages of mostly blank journals, or ideas that simply exist in the universe of intentions, its presence is regularly mentioned though rarely acted upon. Daring to dream, but not bothering to do.
As you may have ascertained from the title of this post, I’m not a big fan of the expression, or the expression of it. I don’t hate it in a serious manner, of course. More like a mildly perturbed one as with any time I hear someone sharing some trite cliché. A little cringe-worthy, it is. There are two reasons for the trifling revulsion, both of them, I’m sure, topics touched on at other points on this blog. The first one is the distance between words and actions; and the second has to do with consumeristic collection of events as compared to appreciation of authentic experience.
One of my most difficult struggles in life repeatedly resurfaces in activity-planning conversations with others. People talk. Sometimes they believe themselves, sometimes they simply say what they think others want to hear. They make plans on the premise that they might truly like to do whatever it is they say they’re going to do. They want to be the person that would get up in the morning committed to crafting a gratifying lifestyle. However, those plans are often made with the (perhaps subconscious) knowledge that when the time comes there’s little to no chance of said plan coming to fruition. As with dieting, exercise, and the cessation of self-destructive behaviors, many people like to imagine an idealized existence of motivation and fulfillment. In reality, however, the fridge beckons irresistibly, cigarettes and cocktails prove too inviting, and the couch feels way too comfortable come Saturday morning.
Having a bucket list is a lot like making New Year’s resolutions or even dreaming of winning the lottery. All of these things are benign in practice, and it’s often fun to envision a fortuitous restructuring of our personal circumstances. The only harm in resolutions and bucket lists is imagining that any of these things are truly going to happen without dedication and effort. And if a person isn’t willing to put either into the manifestation of their goals, there’s about as much chance of them happening as picking the Powerball.
This pattern, that of talk without action, blab without intention, the jib flapping and tongue wagging and word vomiting, only partially represent the overwhelmingly misdirected coopting of the bucket list ideal. There is also the issue of people doing things solely to say they did them. The accumulation of packaged adventures. The checking of the box, and buying of the t-shirt, and flaunting of the instantly posted photos. It is always mildly depressing to hear a rafting client exclaim: “I can’t wait to check this one off,” as we prepare to go down the river—the experience already over before it begins. To mark things off a list generally signifies getting them done and over with so that we can move on with our lives, little appreciation given to the chores that need crossing out. There is only a slim chance of truly living in the moment given such an attitude, where phone calls and photos are mentally making people jealous (adding items to their own bucket lists) even before the day’s journey commences.
It is even more disheartening, though more rule than exception these days, to witness individuals entirely consumed with their technologies rather than in physical experience. Obsessed with capturing proof for public reference. And surely this is all too familiar to all of us, expedited experiences forgotten in the moment only to live on in their documentation. As I heard it recently in a Ted talk from Argentina: ‘Como resultado, empezamos a vivir la vida para mostrarla, no para disfrutarla…’ [As a result, we began to live life to show it off, not to enjoy it…] And yes, it is fun to share our lives with others (as demonstrated on these pages), but it is even more imperative to live it for ourselves.
As such, the bucket list—if we are to define it as things you really want to experience/achieve before you die—should be getting shorter all the time, and each bullet on it best be meaningful. Which seems to be the problem with most people’s use of the phrase. To hear the items come up, the lists seem never-ending and constantly expanding—and based primarily on what other people are doing or have done. The things on it are things people imagine other people looking at photos of them doing, and judging them accordingly as intrepid adventurers and the protagonists of amazing lives. I realize I’m being both dramatic and literal here, but a real bucket list should be things you really want to do, and things you actually can do—and above all there should exist deeply developed reasons corresponding to each yearning. It should be personalized and prioritized and based entirely on individual values and goals rather than insatiable status quo/social media trends. You should have a plan to achieve each item, instead of hoping a chance appears in some far off future. If you want it, you will make it happen.
And if you don’t really want to put in the work—well, just pass me a bucket next time you decide to mention that list. Kinda makes me want to puke.
No he escrito nada en español hace mucho tiempo. De hecho, solo he dicho pocas palabras españoles este año. Un par de cortes conversaciones, y ya, no más. También, y obviamente, tampoco no he ido recientemente a México Lindo y Querido, ni a ningún parte del mundo hispanohablante. He estado aquí. Y aquí, todavía estoy. Pienso que en los últimos diez años, tal vez más, he pasado por lo menos algunas semanas de cada año en un país de habla hispana, y muchas veces hasta meses viajando y viviendo y a veces trabajando donde el español era el idioma nacional. Tengo muchas memorias de todos los viajes, especialmente el tiempo que he pasado en México. Como amo a todo de este país: la comida, la cultura, la gente, los colores, el orgullo, la historia, los paisajes, las montañas y las playas, y la música. En las últimas semanas he estado escuchando a una estación ‘Vicente Fernández’ a todo volumen en mi casa. Todos los grandes músicos de ranchera y mariachi. Me regresan. Ay, como me duele el corazón pensar en todo… Quien sabe cuándo tendré una oportunidad para regresarme. A volver, volver, volver…
Tengo mucho tiempo libre en estos días. Más que quiero, de verdad. Un horario muy tranquilo, mucha oscuridad, invierno, un virus, pocas personas conocidas, etc. Entonces, busco cosas para ocupar mi tiempo, cosas que sean positivas. Por algún razón, y de verdad no hay un buen razón, empecé a estudiar italiano. No estoy diciendo que voy a aprender italiano, pero he estado pasando algunas horas cada semana en DuoLingo, y con un libro que compré. Más que todo es interesante pensar en la historia de las dos lenguas uno a lado del otro. Y eso me animó a regresar practicando español. Entonces, la combinación de la música, el aprendizaje del otro idioma, y un hábito de mirar videos de cómicos mexicanos, ha aumentado mi interés en el español. Por eso, decidí escribir estos párrafos. También, fui a repasar algunas notas de lecciones viejas, y encontré algo que pensé era muy a propósito de estos tiempos en que estamos viviendo. Lo escribí para una clase hace pocos años cuando estábamos en Tulum. La tarea era escribir (usando el subjuntivo) algo en el estilo del autor argentino Julio Cortázar, quien es conocido por aspectos surrealismos del sus obras. Pues, aquí esta:
Un Instructivo Para No Pescar Una Enfermedad
+Antes de empezar, ojala que sepas que significa la palabra ‘enfermedad’ en esta época. Si no, hay que buscar la definición correcta. Más o menos es así—cuando enfermas te pones con cuernos del diablo y cola de liebre. Saltas como sapo por la casa y gritas los gritos del zorro más tristes que hemos encontrado nunca. Tus lágrimas vienen y se callan como fuertes gotas de limón verde—y se callan sin parar. Comes poco, pero siempre tienes hambre—un hambre tan doloroso que no te puedes imaginar. La piel se convierte en escamas y con tus nuevos ojos del gatito la noche nunca se oscura.
+Entonces, es importante que, si no quieres tomar el riesgo de tener nuevas experiencias como te describí, andes siempre cuesta arriba con un ojo bien cerrado y los dos oídos tapados con pelotas de algodón.
+También es mejor que camines descalza y que hables a la tierra cuando la pisas.
+Es necesario que rezas al dios de los elefantes cada día cuando toca la campana—las tres en punto. Si no puedes rezar, es malo que salgas la casa antes de las once en la noche—aunque si es solo para recoger el diario.
+Quizás vayas a sentirte muy sola, pero esto no es importante. Lo más importante es que no pescas la enfermedad. Tal vez oigas ruidos extraños afuera de tu ventana—posiblemente sean las palabras de una monja joven que quiere rechazar sus promesas—İNo Importa!—es mejor si cantes en voz alta para esconder el miedo que vas a sufrir.
+Si haces todo que puedes es extraño que te enfermes—pero no es imposible. Siempre hay peligro en este mundo y cuando pasas por el universo tan pequeño siempre te vas expuesta a todas las enfermedades y los monstruos que hay. En todo caso lo más importante es que te despiertes todas las mañanas dando gracias por todo que tienes. Por la salud que te acompaña, por los amigos que te llaman, y por el sol que siempre te calienta. Las enfermedades puedan ser malas, pero la vida nunca es.
January 20, 2021. To take some time today for thanks. To acknowledge a sense of coming out from underneath something. To breathe regular and deep. To celebrate less anger and antagonism, a respite from doublespeak and incessant invocations of lies. To appreciate a little more class. A modicum of decency. To hope that the terrible ironies of the past weeks, months, and years may relent, even if only for a minute.
Here, aside from those outside influences, it’s been an intentional shift of focus. No longer the same drive to go out and about no matter. A hiatus from solitary efforts and extended excursions in exchange for a few hours of fellowship when available. Still the long hours of confinement, the days and nights of quiet seclusion, but a renewed concentration on communal activities. And a few new ones at that. Ice fishing with MA and Yi, cross country skiing and exploration with whoever wants to go, a newfound enthusiasm for winter biking, and a foray into skijoring (skiing super fast on sketchy trails while tethered to a sprinting sled dog) with Emilie, Salomon, and Ragnar.
A few hours from now I will have been in Alaska for one complete year. It’s been interesting to assess, over the past several days, how much has shifted since this time last January. Globally and socially on the macro scale, and all sorts of ways at the individual level. Thinking about how foreign this place seemed at times. All the darkness and a certain kind of cold, and trying to figure out how to exist in it one day at a time. Trying to figure my way out in this part of the world, that is, and how to navigate in a new reality with minimal support. I thought that moving here mid-way through winter might have been a better time to arrive than earlier in the fall, but now I realize it was probably more difficult not having any sort of transition time. I smile to think of all the groping around in the dark on several different levels, often quite literal. How a majority of learning my way around occurred in the black of some very long nights.
But one acclimates. We figure it out. We get comfortable, and gain an awareness of our environments until a place holds a certain familiarity. We adapt. We learn to appreciate what we have around us, and to embrace the locations we live in with a certain sort of pride. We work to identify the beauty therein. Or, at least, we are capable of doing so if we commit to it. It’s been refreshing then, over these past few days, to think about those first winter months compared to now. The cold and the darkness are simply a part of life, and I’ve learned the whereabouts of all sorts of amazing places, and the timeframes for experiencing them. It’s also been inspirational to realize that there is still a lot of exploring to be done, even just a few miles from my doorstep.
Another calendar year now a shaving of history. What we learned in the process remains to be seen. Upon us now, 2021, The Year of Unprecedented Expectations. May it live up to even a small fraction of these anticipations. And may we notice if it does.
For my own part, there are aspects of life, mostly out of my control, that I hope will shift in the near future. Yet it seems the best way to start a new year, or week, or day, is with an attempt to offer appreciation for what we might have, rather than lamenting that which we don’t. I like the idea of resolutions, but more so, it’s prudent to reaffirm that which we are doing right in life, make some small adjustments, and move forward from there. Change, as has been proven, does not occur overnight, not even on New Year’s Eve. Perhaps better than a list of unlikely habit modifications then, how about a list of the things we are thankful for, an expression of gratitude for the things we’re already doing right, and maybe, just maybe, a couple things we might want to work on from there.
Mine? Gratitude: Family, healthy body, income, house, motivation, good sleeping & eating habits, books, curiosity, ability, free resources for learning, access to the outdoors, access to equipment, memories and impressions left over from years of adventures, a life in Alaska, a few friends to call, money in the bank, food in the belly, clothes on the back, car in the driveway, fuel in the tank, keys on the table, skis in the backseat… Keep doing it right: Language practice, exercise, exploration, personal and professional growth, focus on healthy practices, positivity, learning, letting go, holding on, keeping some faith… Two things: Less sugar, more guitar.
It has not been an easy year, and the next might not be any easier, but I’ve always loved ending and starting a new one not just with words and thoughts, but with actions as well. What better way to confirm one’s convictions than invite them to the party? The past couple holiday weeks have held some tough days, but many positive experiences as well. The solstice was indeed a celebrated time of year. The night before, I met up with a friend and her friends who decided to create a small community event with the making and lighting of ice lanterns (a core of ice illuminated by a candle) along a mile of trail just outside of town. It was fun to participate in the placement and lighting of the lanterns, and then watch the whole neighborhood come out to walk and ski the route. The following day, that of the actual solstice, I did a ‘Dawn to Dusk’ hike, something I’d heard of months back, and wanted to participate in. The event is more of a do-it-yourself thing, which is exactly what I did, but sponsored by the local running club. The idea is to run/hike ‘all day,’ on the shortest day of the year, which, if you’re going by sunlight hours up here, was around 3 hours and 48 minutes. I went up to a place called Chena Dome, started just after it got light, and walked steadily for 15 miles on snowpacked trails around Angel Creek. Took about 6 hours total, and was almost dark by the time I got back to the car. I got to see some spectacular colors in the sky around sunup, but never saw the sun itself as it was too low on the horizon and behind the mountains all day. The moon that night was huge, its light shimmering across the snow covered landscape.
What else? The last couple days have been great as well, and the amount of winter trails in this area is truly unbelievable. Must be hundreds of miles all a short drive away. The new ‘Trails Challenge’ has been revealed, with even more places to find, and just today I discovered a 12-mile loop right down the road from my house! Last day of December was teaching some ski lessons and taking a group to track down a few signs; New Year’s Eve was a midnight 5K run on ice at -10° in downtown Fairbanks with fireworks exploding from every yard in the neighborhood; and this morning was miles of skiing those newly discovered routes.
2021, so far, so good. All the best to you and yours, and may we all be inspired to adapt to and appreciate whatever might come next. Happy New Year!
Winter solstice, 2020. The darkest day of one bleak year.
December 21st. Fairbanks, AK. Sunrise: 10:57 a.m. Sunset: 2:42 p.m. Not quite the full story, as it’s certainly light out for a little longer than those few hours each midday. However, with the sun so low on the horizon, overcast weather can obscure it for days at a time. I am fortunate in that I’m able to be outside for at least a couple hours each afternoon, and that my schedule conveniently allows for driving to work in the 9:30 predawn. Nice to get at least a few hours a day of visibility, even if it’s through a windshield. I can’t imagine what it must be like to go to an office in the dark and sit inside all day and then drive home in the dark. But then again, I could never even imagine the office part to begin with.
A lot of folks, including myself before moving here, say they think the darkness would be tougher than the cold. They’re both just part of life, I guess, these days. And I suppose one’s reaction depends on how life happens to be going that winter. I’m working on three years of solo living, the last one in a new place where I moved just in time for a socially distanced pandemic. So, there’s certainly a lot of darkness outside the window. Every morning, every night. No people, no pets, no TV, no terrible habits or hopeful distractions. I won’t lie, it’s a lot. The deepest blues are blacks. At some point one has to be honest about whether or not more daylight would help anyway. Trying to keep the faith. Trying to stay healthy. Trying to find new ways to fill up brain space, and override the thinking time. A few new songs on the guitar, a foray into picking up some Italian, books and more books. Reading overdose. Exercise and stretching. Lot of time to manage and strange how it passes. Weeks and months blur together leaving one wondering where they disappeared to. Days, however, or the long dark hours between them, drag on forever.
In the daylight hours it’s the usual, but with less motivation than usual. Skiing, walking, skiing, couple days of snowboarding, bit of snowshoeing. Trying to get in at least a few hours of socialization each week. Been out on a few jaunts with the Fairbanks hiking club, which materializes as anywhere from 2 to 10 people depending on the week (though several hundred members on Facebook, of course, always ‘liking’ it up). Have also been able to run a few trips at work, trying to keep other people on the positive side of winter as well. A few photos from work and not work, and an encouraging end note: After tonight—Gaining!
Work: More Castner Glacier, Ski Land Resort, Plow Truck, Trail Maintenance, Trail Enjoyment.
Not Work: Moose Mountain, Rat Pond, Angel Rocks, Chena Dome, Mastodon Trail, Upper Angel Creek Cabin.
Happy Solstice. Happy Holidays. May there be light in your life.
Entrenched in winter. Around mid-October snow began to fall, followed by a cold snap which sent temps down in the deep negatives for days. A recent warming trend has suddenly brought on a serious winter storm, with a couple of feet of snow on the ground already, and no signs of letting up anytime soon. Outside the window, birch and spruce trees sit in perfect silence, giant snowflakes descending slowly from the sky. It’s calming to gaze out, observing the world as the serene place it can be. Elsewhere, the crazy continues to compound. The pandemic, the election, the denial associated with both, and the frightening fact that a significant percentage of our population refuses to accept anything as news that doesn’t bend to desired truth. Conspiracy over democracy, shallow self-interest above communal consideration, anger and lies trumping acceptance and positive intention…
But this isn’t about that. It’s about music. And roads. It’s about coming and going, and leaving more so than arriving. It’s about, as Sturgill sings it, ‘looking for the end of that long white line…’
As detailed in many prior posts, a good deal of my years have consisted of nomadic cycles of travel from one season to the next. Life in motion. And rarely set location to location, more like free-form rambling. One river to another, one state or country to the next, and a lot of worthy and whimsical attractions and distractions in the spaces between. Things have changed, of late, and I’m accepting of that in the moment, grateful for many aspects of my life in these difficult times, but it’s hard to subdue the spirit.
I chose a career based on opportunities to continually pursue a life outdoors, and accepted my current post with the intention of obtaining a different position in the near future—hopefully in another country altogether. In spite of having committed to a full-time job, I have no current plans or motivation to settle down to a sedentary lifestyle. Funnily enough, I’ve haven’t lived in Alaska even a full year this time around, but am already in my third residence. Old habits die hard. Something about staring at the same stale walls all the time, and sleeping in the same bed, and doing all the same things in the same places day after day tends to grind all the enjoyment out of life. Ugh, and don’t get me started on the accumulation of material goods. They’ve been piling up for months now, the needs and wants incarnate and little chance of even half of it fitting into the trunk of a Camry. Bed, sofa, mountains of warm weather gear, kitchen supplies, a good start at a home gym… Thankfully, however, I could throw it all in the Goodwill bin and walk away without a rearward glance. Could really care less about owning anything at this point.
There is just something about the kind of freedom that comes with leaving places and things and routines, committing instead to open roads and uncluttered options. Something that makes it seem like the only kind of freedom there is even. As Townes knew, ‘There’s no stronger wind than the one that blows down the lonesome railroad line; no prettier sight than lookin’ back on the town you left behind…’
And nothing enhances that feeling of freedom like music about endless roads, heartbreak, hopeless drifters, outcasts and outlaws. Windows wide open and desert air and straight lines into sunsets. Good time tracks you know every word to, along with a few ballads about lost love and longing. Songs that let you experience being alone but not alone, in other words. At other times, songs you can enjoy with that perfect someone in the passenger seat. As Isaac Brock concludes, ‘I like songs about drifters, books about the same. They both seem to make me feel a little less insane…’
Following then, the outlines of a playlist. A top ten of sorts, or thirteen, or whatever. Not even enough to get most people to the next state line, but maybe a half-tank’s worth of songs and a full start at starting over again.
fIREHOSE‘Windmilling’ and ‘Sometimes.’ One of my favorite bands as a teen, once I finally figured out there were bands that no one played on the radio. Growing up in a very small town in Texas, long before the internet, our window to the outside world was limited to television and Top-40. I guess a lot of people there didn’t mind, as one of the main stations in Amarillo remains stuck in late 80s mainstream. Even today, when visiting the Panhandle one is guaranteed to hear Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran, and Tears for Fears on a daily basis. Fashions at school were at least a decade behind, with pegged jeans and hair-sprayed bangs the standard. MTV did feature actual music back then, but ‘alternative’ anything was just beginning to emerge, and punk rock was definitely not part of the format.
Hard to say if skateboarding led to a rejection of that small town mentality and accompanying status quo, or if it was the other way around. Maybe I just loved the freedom and creativity and sense of individualism that skateboarding provided, and craved more of the same. I wanted to know what else was out there. Not only that, but I wanted to go and skate it. When we turned old enough to drive, cars weren’t a good reason to stop skateboarding, they were tools to travel to far and away skating adventures. And then there was Thrasher Magazine, which, if I’m being honest, probably wasn’t always the best influence content wise, but provided a much desired counter-culture for a Texas teenager with little interest in pick-ups and team sports. Thrasher gave us inspiration, along with access to music and skate film soundtracks we never would have found otherwise. fIREHOSE was one of the many featured bands, all of them to become favorites, on the original Santa Cruz videos. These two songs in particular still evoke the feeling of freedom found with those first energies towards what would become endless road trips. Journeys of discovery.
Modest Mouse‘The World at Large.’ With music, as in life, I always appreciate new interests. Love to stumble upon new sounds, artists, genres, and songs. It’s nice to switch things up a bit, to find something that creates excitement and revives passion. At various times I’ve put effort into doing so, and other times that stimulation appears organically. You hear something through the static of a community radio station while driving across a sprawling reservation; are captivated by a group of drunk strangers singing along to a heartfelt ballad in a palapa bar on a Mexican beach… You remember a few lines, maybe scrawl out a name, scan the credits at the end of a movie. You find that song, and perhaps others at the same time, and play them until you never want to hear them again. That’s what happens to me at least, a lot of the time. Every couple of years sees a shift from one or two genres to significantly dissimilar interests. I’ve gone through phases and hundreds of albums from punk, ska, grunge, alt rock to industrial, tribal, dub step, folktronica to rancheros, norteños, banda, ballenatos, flamenco, reggaeton to country, bluegrass, rockabilly, and old gospel. Just as I can’t imagine living in the same place for decades at a time, I cringe to think of getting stuck with the same music for all the days of my life—rocking out to tired sets of unchanging ‘classic hits’ on stations called Big Dog and K-WOLF.
There are a few bands, however, that have proven the test of time. Artists I’ve been listening to for years that I’m still happy to hear on occasion. Albums and songs that still raise that same original energy upon listening. Modest Mouse is one of those bands. Not sure I could say what the exact appeal is, but I suppose it is the variation throughout each album, and even most songs. It’s the craziness, the melodic discordance. It’s that Isaac Brock is a remarkable lyricist, that even today I still catch deeply considered phrases that have passed by unheard somehow in 20 years of listening. It’s that so many of the songs are about searching for whatever—truth, meaning, purpose, sense in the universe—as well as the search itself, stories of pointless adventure, rambling chaotic songs about life and perpetual motion and infinite miles of freeway. Songs like ‘Dramamine,’ ‘Dashboard,’ ‘Float On,’ ‘King Rat.’ Probably my two favorites ever are one of their shortest tracks ‘So Much Beauty in Dirt,’ which speaks of local adventures, and one of the longest tracks, ‘Trucker’s Atlas,’ which sprawls from California, to New York, to Florida, to Alaska. ‘World at Large’, however, is replete with incredibly poignant lines, all relevant to the impulsive need to wander, from leaving the front porch without founded intention, to shifting seasons portending imminent departures. The ultimate song about drifters. One other great thing about being a Modest Mouse fan is that their digital discography represents at least a couple states worth of recordings—the perfect soundtrack for ‘a long drive for someone with nothing to think about.’
Waylon Jennings ‘Ramblin’ Man.’ I was emphatically not ‘country when country wasn’t cool.’ As mentioned, while growing up in Texas I was less than enamored with cowboy culture, and had little interest in romanticizing small town life. I guess it was in the Army when I eventually came around to that country state of mind, once I started listening to Hank Jr. and all the rest of the outlaw country legends. Waylon, David Allen Coe, Charlie Daniels, Merle Haggard, and on and on. Songs about drinking and rambling and being free from care of judgment. Well, some of the songs at least. The best ones. I have little in common with the protagonist of this particular song, but like so many of those best ones, it sure is fun to roll down the windows, crank the volume, and sing along as loud as you can.
Hank III‘Thunderstorms and Neon Signs.’ I love all the Hanks, and have spent a lot of hours listening to each. Senior sang about life, love, and loneliness, and died on the road. Bocephus—bad habits and good times. And Hank III, well, all of the above plus some extra darkness and added twang.
Sturgill Simpson‘Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean.’ These days I listen to a lot of new country, probably even more than is good for me. It’s what’s on the radio. And I like a lot of the top 40 songs, the relatable ones I suppose. Songs about merciless southern girls breaking hearts, and feel good numbers dedicated to boats and beer drinking and Mexican beaches. A couple of the following bands on this list, as a matter of fact, might be heard on some of those stations. But probably not Sturgill. And that’s fine by me. Would hate to wear these songs down. Mr. Simpson sings it raw and real, often times with humor, and sometimes straight psychedelic. ‘Life Ain’t Fair’ is just a starter. ‘You Can Have the Crown,’ is an even better time. Things get stimulating with ‘Turtles All the Way Down.’ ‘Panbowl’ could crush a person.
Ramon Ayala‘Un Puño de Tierra.’ This song came across the only radio station I could pick up last winter as I was driving aimlessly through a desolate section of New Mexico. Apropos lyrics for the moment, to say the least. The singer was a guy named Chris Arellano, and I certainly appreciate his voice and cover of the song. But it was originally made famous in separate recordings by a couple of Mexican greats: Ramon Ayala and Antonio Aguilar. At least, that’s what I was able to discern through some perfunctory internet research. Spending so much time next to the border, out west in general, and down in Mexico itself, I’ve certainly come to appreciate a wide variety of Mexican music, and love to pick it up on random stations across the US. Most of the OG machismo tracks fit right in with all that outcast country. Couple of the best examples would be ‘El Aventurero,’ by Aguilar, and ‘El Rey’ by José Alfredo Jiménez, covered also by the great icon Vicente Fernández.
Ariel Camacho y Los Plebes del Rancho‘Amarga Derrota.’ Another band from border travels. Kids really, these three, from the northern desert states of Mexico, and unbelievable talent. Songs about all the things, ‘corridos’ about cartels, ballads of new love and lost love. Check out the creatively original tuba of Omar Burgos, and consider the legacy left behind by prodigy singer-songwriter Camacho, who died in a car accident in Chihuahua at the age of 22. So many good songs, all of them really, including ‘Hablemos,’ ‘Del Negociante,’ y mi favorita ‘Con Cartitas y Whatsapp.’
Zac Brown Band‘Stuck in Colder Weather.’ This is a band you will definitely hear on the radio. Some songs might cause you to tear up a little, like this one, while others make you want to hoot and holler. ‘Chicken Fried’ anyone?
Townes Van Zandt‘Snowin on Raton.’ If you have never seen Be Here to Love Me, you should watch it. Townes Van Zandt spent most of his life living on the road, writing and singing songs that have been performed by almost all the country greats. A true Texas legend, Townes’s songs are about seeking and rarely finding. So was his life. I guess that’s theme for a lot of the music on this list. In the verse mentioned earlier, the one about the lonesome railroad line, the speaker has actually found the one thing that will keep him settled for a while, true love, though it’s difficult to know how long the convictions will hold. And maybe that’s what all the roamers out there pretend to be looking for: something to make them stick around for a while, be it person, place, or thing.
Chris Stapleton‘What are You Listening To?’ A song about being stuck in love with someone you’ll never see again. A voice that encapsulates all the loneliness in the world. A look that says pariah as fuck. Stapleton has been making the move from underground to spotlight these last couple years, singing duets with J. Timberlake, and Pink, as well as his own wife. Success well deserved. His latest release, ‘Starting Over,’ is not only playing on commercial stations, it debuted at number one on the charts. It offers a different something to search for: that someone who wants to be there with you the whole time, no matter how hard life might be otherwise. A lasting companion willing to pack it up, get in the truck, and go along for the ride. Two people that don’t need anything but each other.
Tom Waits‘Long Way Home.’ (Also, amazingly covered by Ms. Norah Jones.) Seems like that’s the goal more than anything else. The dream. Finding that person that’s happy to be part of the process. The one that appreciates the adventure, and doesn’t obsess over the small details. If I ever had to pick the one song that says it all, the few verses that manage to distill life values into a couple of simplistic ideas, it’d be this one. ‘Money’s just something you throw off the back of a train…’ ‘And I love you pretty baby but I always take the long way home…’
Above photos taken during a trip from Texas to Alaska a few years back: Northbound 17.