Mountain reads: ‘Running Home,’ by Katie Arnold

I’ll admit to being a sucker for New Mexico landscapes. So when I started turning the pages in Katie Arnold’s memoir “Running Home,” I got treated to big dose of it. And then there was this zinger about running:

“People think long-distance running is about speed, about getting from point A to point B as fast as possible, but really it’s about slowing down. In the quiet of prolonged effort, time stretches, elongates. I look around at the hot blue sky, summer settling down on northern New Mexico, and feel my legs moving automatically and do what comes naturally. I run.”

And that’s all it took. I was hooked.

Much of Arnold’s book is about running, and it skillfully loops her earliest running experience back to a more recent memory, tying together a lifetime of experiences involving family, running, and how people evolve.

Like any good memoir, Arnold allows for vulnerability, admitting doubts and fears. And she’s transparent about her family history, which is at once heartbreaking but also common to the experiences of many in her generation: growing up like most families, then seeing things change, balancing jolting new realities while not totally understanding why things turned out as they did.

In the midst of this is her account of a fascinating but complicated father who, during a battle with cancer, must go through the pains of reconciling his own decisions and how they affected his children.

And woven into this is the mechanism that serves as Arnold’s tool to work out her past – mostly questions about her family – and her present, becoming a writer, a wife, and a mother. For her, it’s running, and she’s accomplished more there than most could in a lifetime.

Arnold has been a podium finisher at several ultramarathon trail races, including the grueling Leadville 100 trail race in Colorado where, in 2018, she was the women’s champion. The outdoors has long been an integral part of her life, but it’s in trail running that she found the medium in which to work out her biggest challenges. In between the description of her non-running life are accounts of casual mountain runs, the labors of training, and all the joy, doubt, pain and elation that comes with races, many of which are set in the mountains in and around her New Mexico home.

Arnold paces the story well, not rushing through anything, but providing the right amount of punch to give you a sense of the magnitude of what she’s describing. It’s a common theme among trail runners – using the sport to stay at even keel. But it’s uncommon to see it told so naturally. Nothing is overstated or melodramatic: Life events are told as they are. Her prose ranges from essay to conversational, and that’s not an easy mix for most writers, but Arnold pulls it off.

There are plenty of running memoirs out there, and they all have their merits. As an athlete, Arnold is a person who has accomplished a great deal. But in reading her story, she feels like one of us.

Bob Doucette

Happy first birthday, ‘Outsider’

I was hiking with my friend Bill on a hot July morning when we got to talking about the book I wrote. He’d already read it – he was actually in it – and gave me the kind of cool feedback you really dig as a writer. It was a fun way to keep the conversation going that morning as we put in a few miles on some of my favorite local trails.

Altitude wasn’t the issue, obviously. Bill was used to hiking at 12,000 feet and up, and nothing goes much higher than 800 feet in Tulsa. But he’d been kind enough to surprise me by showing up for an informal launch party the night before, so I figured I owed him a hike before he flew back to Denver.

“Hot,” was his main observation. Colorado gets heat. But not Southern Plains heat.

As far as the book? He noted how its title, “Outsider,” was appropriate to me. I’d orbited Colorado’s 14er hiking community for years but wasn’t really quite part of it. At least not in the way that Coloradoans are. The same could also be said for the local trail running community, one I don’t get to interact with nearly as much as I’d like because I work nights and they all have normal gigs that allow for plenty of night time, early morning and weekend get-togethers. So I orbit that group, too.

Not that I realized it. It took someone looking at that book, and at me, to point it out. As it turns out, there was a layer to “Outsider” that even I wasn’t aware of.

That’s the kind of thing writers live for, to see how something we create affects others, to see how readers interpret it, relate to it, and maybe even get moved by it. As of this week, I’m one year removed from when “Outsider” was published. You dream in your head it was like a countdown to a rocket launch, or some other big deal, but it was just a click of a button on my computer and presto! People could order it without the slightest bit of ceremony.

When a book comes out, I imagine a lot of writers fantasize about hitting that New York Times best-sellers list. Maybe getting interviewed on the Today show, or get chosen by Oprah’s book club. You dream about launching this new, big thing that will finally give you the freedom to do what you love for the rest of your life, and live out the rags-to-riches tale of J.K. Rowling. I know I did. But it usually doesn’t work out that way. It didn’t for me.

I told people I had three goals. First, break even. Even self-publishing has costs, and if you really care about your work, you’re going to invest in it. My hope in this regard was to at least recoup my costs. Second was to make enough money to fix my car. Years of deferred maintenance had piled up, and the price tag to cover this multitude of sins wasn’t small.

So far, check and check.

Third, I really wanted to make enough to get an adventure-worthy rig that could take me to the backcountry places I love. It would be nice to not always be the guy bumming rides from people with high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles. I haven’t made that goal yet.

But those weren’t really my aims. And I knew better than to pin my hopes on becoming the next big name in the publishing world. What I really wanted to do was write something honest, something I could be proud of, and something that would affect people in a positive way. I hoped to communicate the way the outdoors has blessed me and describe how wonderful the people I’ve met and traveled with really are.

“Outsider” is about all those things, and more. It’s about family. About grief. And God. It’s about being lost, but finding yourself in the midst of wilderness, both physical and metaphorical. It’s about finding healing in those wild, difficult and beautiful places. That’s what I hoped to communicate, anyway.

On that note, feedback was more valuable than the money. My friend Matt brought a bunch of his California friends to town late last summer, and one of his buds had read it. She wanted to talk to me about it, particularly about the chapter on my oldest brother Mike. Reviews posted online were gratifying. And just this week, a friend of mine texted this: “Your book struck a deep chord in me.” These conversations, reviews and other messages help me believe that maybe I don’t suck after all.

That might sound a little sappy, but here’s the reality of writing a book: It’s a lot like anything else someone builds from scratch. You write a paragraph, then a page, then a chapter. You string those chapters together. You edit. Revise. Tweak. Edit again. And again. And again. Eventually, you check the last box, call it good, and send it to market, the same way a carpenter might take simple boards and end up with a fantastic piece of furniture, or a custom bike builder would take sheet metal, a frame, a motor and scores of parts and fashion a road-worthy machine. A lot of time, effort and love goes into that kind of work, and that’s what makes it meaningful. The hope is that the effort and meaning you place in that comes through with satisfied buyers.

And this is the point where I have to offer some gratitude. A good number of you all plunked down a few bucks to buy a copy of “Outsider,” and for that I’m hugely grateful. You invested in the thing that took me a few years to build. My sister and parents became a pro bono marketing machine, so there are a bunch of copies of the book floating around in Texas right now. And more of you helped the cause by word-of-mouth via social media and in person with your friends and family. It really does take a village.

So what now? Well, there’s always something on the fire. A few interviews done here, a few more to get there. A chapter written. I guess I need a little more time in the shop.

If you haven’t read ‘Outsider’ and would like a copy, you can order it here.

Bob Doucette

So I wrote a book… and you can read ‘Outsider’ now

In this post, a little bit of news.

I’ve been writing on this site since 2011. That, in itself, is hard for me to believe. Nearly eight years of writing about the outdoors, running, fitness and whatever else strikes me, I suppose. Before that, there were a couple more years on the blogosphere at the new-defunct Out There blog on newsok.com.

In the midst of all of this, I’ve been working on another, longer-term project, one that’s finally ready to be read. It’s a book, titled “Outsider: Tales from the road, the trail and the run.”

I’ll dispense with the more cliché descriptions of what this work means to me. And yeah, I’ve had a hard time coming up with an elevator speech to describe what it is. But I’ll give it a shot here.

When I was young, I loved the outdoors. I can recall many adventures in the mountains, at camp and in a cabin that cultivated a fascination with the mountains and other wild environments. Growing up, I let that stuff slide. But eventually it came back to me, and boy, I needed it.

The book details it pretty well, but I hit a spell when my normally in-control life was anything but. How I pulled out of that nosedive was heading outside, running downtown streets or wooded trails, hiking in the hills, climbing mountains and taking road trips across the West. I learned a lot about myself, about life, and about God in those times. I wrestled with some tough questions. And I met some fantastic people along the way, each one of them making my life that much richer.

Scenes for this happen in my hometown, in the High Plains and in the Rockies, among other spots. All of them hold a special place for me, and there are some specific moments that will be burned into my memory for as long as I live.

I think a lot of you will be able to relate. How many of you use running to battle personal demons? Or head into the wilderness to quiet your mind, sort things out and recharge? If that describes you, we’re birds of a feather, my friend.

I’ll cut to the chase: I hope you buy it, read it and enjoy it. Hopefully we can start a few conversations. You’ll read my stories, as well as those of some folks I know. Maybe you can give me a few tales of your own.

“Outsider” is available in paperback and on Kindle. Pick up a copy, have a read and tell me what you think. And thanks – not only for giving a book a read, but for being here on this site through the years. We’ll see ya out there.

Bob Doucette

Mountain reads: ‘Backpacking 101’ by Heather Balogh Rochfort

NOTE: This is an installment of an occasional series on books, old and new, about outdoor adventure.

The growing popularity of outdoor adventure, highlighted in famous books and movies, has more people hitting the trail. Many are seeking to travel to wild places for days at a time, but as you might guess, those sorts of adventures aren’t as simple as throwing a few items in a day pack and waltzing through the woods. The gear, knowledge and preparation inherent with backpacking is substantial in its volume. Any cursory search of the internet will reveal that. Often it can feel like drinking from a fire hose.

So how do you pare that down into something more digestible? Enter “Backpacking 101,” a compact tome by backpacker, traveler, blogger and Backpacker Magazine writer Heather Balogh Rochfort. She’s spent a lot of time on the trail and on the road with her life on her back on a few continents and numerous wilderness areas across the U.S. In her book, she seeks to create a primer for people looking to turn their day hikes into deeper adventures.

The book breaks down backpacking into its core elements — the gear and supplies you’ll need, how to pick a campsite, first-aid, hygiene, navigation and more. Included in its pages are diagrams and illustrations, and short breakouts that highlight specific issues of importance related to each chapter. It’s written in an accessible style (it’s absent of the stodgy, “owner’s manual” language of a lot of how-to books on the outdoors), but that doesn’t mean it’s light on details — it’s rich with useful information. I’ve had a decent amount of time on the trail, and I learned new things upon reading it.

I’d mention a couple of things about sections on gear. A lot of equipment comes with different ratings that don’t mean much to the average consumer: temperature ratings, fill ratings, insulation ratings, etc. All of these things are explained or illustrated in the book, thus taking some of the mystery out of gear purchases. And pay special attention to the author’s breakdown on footwear. It’s thorough.

Balogh Rochfort also takes time to explain considerations that are unique to women, be it gear or self-care in the wild. It’s done in a way that breaks the ice on certain topics which, at first glance, can be a barrier for some women when it comes to giving backpacking a try. She solves this by demystifying these issues, breaking them down as logistical problems with simple solutions rather than blowing them up into full-blown warnings.

You’ll also find information on wilderness ethics (where to set up camp, how to store food, and what to do with gray water, for example) as well as a chapter devoted to backpacking with dogs.

Backpacking has a special allure of adventure, but given the cost of gear and the acquired knowledge it takes to do it safely, it can be intimidating. “Backpacking 101” is a good way to educate yourself and hopefully set yourself up for success in the outdoors.

You can see more of Heather Balogh Rochfort’s writing at her blog, justacoloradogal.com.

Bob Doucette

Mountain reads: ‘Colorado 14er Disasters’ by Mark Scott-Nash

NOTE: This is an installment of an occasional series on books, old and new, about outdoor adventures.

We’ve seen an uptick in the allure of alpine adventure, and nowhere is this more true than in Colorado.

Specifically, the state has seen a spike in interest and visitors to its 14ers, the peaks that rise to heights of 14,000 feet. It’s a rite of passage for many in Colorado to climb one, and as I can attest, the attraction goes well outside of Colorado’s borders.

But as is true of any wild place, the mountains can be risky places to be, particularly for the unprepared and inexperienced. Even seasoned hikers and mountaineers can get caught in a bad place in the high country.

And that’s the point of Mark Scott-Nash’s “Colorado 14er Disasters,” a compact book detailing incidents that have led to major rescue efforts, serious injuries, and even deaths on the high peaks.

I came into this book hoping for something akin to “Death in the Grand Canyon,” a sizable tome that recorded every recorded death there. This is not that book – there are far too many incidents, too many deaths, and too many unknown and unrecorded stories to cover. Instead, the author picks a number of accidents and incidents that are representative of what happens in the mountains when things go sideways.

In putting this together, Scott-Nash goes through incident reports, news reports and interviews with people involved in the accidents or those who took part in rescues. The reasons for these mishaps vary – weather, getting lost, accidental falls, rockfall/avalanche, etc. Most times, the fault lies with something the victim did or did not do.

Scott-Nash doesn’t pull punches. Where he finds fault in the individual, he says so. Some people may find some of these observations harsh. But at the same time, the stark description of mistakes and assumed risk also serve as important warnings for those new mountain adventures.

The book contains helpful appendices and a glossary of terms and is peppered with informational blurbs concerning relevant information in each chapter.

What I found particularly interesting was the fact that I’m familiar with some of the stories he tells and have been to some of the mountains where the accidents he profiles took place. Viewing Humboldt Peak, for instance, I can see exactly where the dangerous portions of this otherwise tame mountain could be. I can see where people could get lost on Mount of the Holy Cross (though trail improvements, including huge cairns on the mountain’s northwest ridge have helped), and can easily spot the problem areas on Longs Peak, a burly mountain that is routinely underestimated by far too many climbers.

It’s a matter-of-fact book that doesn’t go into narrative storytelling. Rather, “Colorado 14er Disasters” is more like an expanded compilation of mountain incident reports, organized and written in a way to help readers understand just how tenuous life can be in the high country. Most importantly, it dissects each incident and provides relevant information readers can take with them the next time they plan a mountain adventure.

Bob Doucette

Mountain reads: ‘Exposed: Tragedy & Triumph in Mountain Climbing’ by Brad McQueen

NOTE: This is an installment of an occasional series on books, old and new, about outdoor adventures.

Put yourself in this situation: You plan a mountain adventure with your wife and your dad on what is supposed to be a straightforward alpine hike. As the day wears on, a few things go awry: You make a wrong turn and get off-route. The weather worsens. The darkness of night takes over. And when it’s all said and done, you end up in a freezing bivouac fighting off hypothermia. By the time morning arrives, your spouse has suffered permanent injuries due to frostbite, and all of you are lucky to be alive.

But despite the guilt over what transpired, the pull of the mountains remains so strong as to be undeniable.

That’s the backbone of the 2015 book “Exposed: Triumph and Tragedy in Mountain Climbing” by Brad McQueen, a Colorado mountaineer who has built quite the alpine resume.

When I started the Mountain Reads series, I wanted to find books that told interesting and important stories about adventures in the high country. McQueen’s book does both.

When something bad unfolds in the mountains, people often write a book about it, explaining the highs, lows and lessons that incident provided. “Exposed” does this, but doesn’t stop there. While his mishaps on Mount Evans provide the frame of his story, it’s just one part of a still evolving tale of McQueen’s mountaineering life.

McQueen details not only hikes and climbs in his home state, but also those in Wyoming, Washington, Tanzania, Ecuador and Alaska. You get a good sense of what it takes to prepare for his more ambitious climbs while learning the emotional pull that climbing can bring.

In that respect, “Exposed” is also a family story. McQueen and his wife, Melissa, are in fact an outdoors team, as she has also put together a respectable list of accomplishments in the mountains. Overcoming the trauma of their shared Mount Evans experience is a major thread in this story, and in several places throughout the book, Melissa McQueen adds her words to provide context to their tale.

You might also learn something about climbing in the process (there is a succinct appendix and glossary of terms at the end of the book), including a short but instructive bit about crampon technique on snow and ice. Nuggets like that are scattered throughout the text.

I liked this book, and I think most people who enjoy the high country will, too. Pick this one up and see how a regular guy has lived some extraordinary adventures.

Bob Doucette

Mountain Reads, part 2: ‘Sixty Meters to Anywhere’ by Brendan Leonard

Imagine sinking so deeply into your vices that your immediate future included jail time, and your long-term prospects would likely involve sickness, heartache and succumbing to your addictions.

Then imagine detailing it, warts and all, to anyone willing read about it.

That’s not the entire scope of Brendan Leonard’s memoir “Sixty Meters to Anywhere,” but it is the foundation of this unapologetically open account of how he spent his younger years, and the series of events that turned things around.

Leonard is best known for his popular outdoor blog semi-rad.com, and his debut book, “The New American Road Trip Mixtape” was a hit among the outdoorsy set. And for good reason: That was a book in which he bared his soul while colorfully retelling the journeys he took – literal and metaphorical – across the American West while living out of his car. Leonard’s prose is spare, and I mean that in a good way – absent are the clunky mechanisms that trap a lot of wordy writers, leaving behind sleek, fast-paced storytelling. (You can read a review of that book here.)

In “Sixty Meters to Anywhere,” Leonard’s toolbox is the same and with similar effect: You get a style of writing that is stripped down yet chock full of imagery as he describes his descent into substance abuse, hitting rock bottom, and then slowly climbing out of it during post-graduate studies, far from home and isolated from his family, friends and the demons of his Iowa hometown.

It’s no real spoiler to say that he discovered something to fill the void of the troublesome fun he found too often at the bottom of a bottle – the outdoors. Those familiar with his writing (aside from his blog, he has credits in Outside, Climbing and Backpacker magazines, among others) already know he’s an accomplished climber and outdoorsman. But how he got there is the essence of what lies behind “Sixty Meters.” Baby steps into the mountains, followed by a particularly fortuitous gift (the name of the book comes from the standard length of climbing rope he received), not only gave Leonard a new way to channel his passions, but also a path to fundamentally change who he was and avoid the sad story of what could have been.

Leonard doesn’t shy away from his shortcomings and doesn’t glamorize his accomplishments, and he’s careful to include the ways in which his actions hurt others. You find yourself rooting for him while also appreciating the people who stood by him over the years. It’s that sort of honesty that has won over his fans.

The outdoors has proven to be a haven for people who bottom-out in life, and Leonard’s story embodies that. I’m sure it has — and will — resonate with a lot of readers.

NOTE: This is the second in an occasional series called Mountain Reads. Part one can be read here.

Bob Doucette