A pursuit of excellence: My biggest takeaway from Alex Honnold and ‘Free Solo’

Alex Honnold was the subject of what many consider one of the best climbing films ever, “Free Solo.”

When I went in to see “Free Solo” on the big screen, I had high expectations. Alex Honnold’s feats in big-wall rock climbing are incomparable. Given the filmmakers involved, including pro adventurer Jimmy Chin, I figured the production quality would be somewhere on a “Meru” scale, which is in my eyes, pretty damn good.

We all knew Honnold succeeded in becoming the first person to free-solo El Capitan. That’s news from awhile back. But seeing it unfold on the big screen? That’s a whole other thing.

The film delivered. I got sweaty palms watching it unfold. I was given his backstory. All of it was beautifully filmed, expertly told and compellingly arranged. You don’t have to be a hard-core climber to enjoy “Free Solo.”

But there is something else I got from “Free Solo” that I wasn’t expecting, and in my eyes, it was probably the most revealing part of the movie: Honnold is driven by a desire for excellence.

I think it’s forgotten by most of us just how much preparation, practice and study it takes to do what he does. “Free Solo” makes sure you know.

There is a montage about midway through the film in which Honnold is shown reading from one of his climbing journals. Every entry is about a specific part of the Freerider route he planned to climb, sans rope, from base to summit. It’s loaded with climber jargon, route locations and descriptions of specific obstacles he’d have to work though to finish the route. Each step is detailed, complete with what sort of technique and move he’d apply. There’s nothing colorful or emotive about his writings. It’s all business.

His meticulous attention to detail is matched by the hours he spent “practicing,” or in other words, time spent climbing the route over and over again. He climbed Freerider a number of times in the traditional roped style while also climbing big walls elsewhere and hitting the climbing gym often.

Pro athletes are seen spending hours in the gym or on the practice field, and hours more in film rooms, and hours more still hitting the weights. It’s no different for Honnold, except when it’s game time for him, the price of losing is fatal. To succeed – which is to live through it – is to be as close to perfect as a human can get. Getting yourself ready to be perfect is an exercise in discipline and work ethic that’s hard to fathom.

I left the theater wowed, just like everyone else. But more than that, I walked out hoping that in some fashion, I’d reach a level of excellence in something – anything – that Honnold achieved when he topped out on Freerider in the spring of 2017. It won’t happen in climbing for me, and in reality, it probably won’t happen in anything I do. But if it did, we’re talking about Hall of Fame/Pulitzer/Nobel-level stuff. Maybe climbing doesn’t have the gravitas of all that, but if you want to see what being the best at something looks like, watch the film.

As it turns out, the dirtbag climber community has more to offer than high stoke, big views and an adrenaline rush. The best of them can show us what it takes to be great. Or in Honnold’s case, the greatest.

Bob Doucette

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Pics or it didn’t happen: Would you climb a mountain without posting pictures?

Hiking and photography go together. But will you hike without posting pics?

I asked a question on Twitter and got some interesting answers to this: “Would you climb a mountain if you couldn’t take or post pictures?”

The question itself was rhetorical. But people answered.

“Absolutely. My camera is my least important piece of equipment. If I did not carry my phone for navigation I would likely take even fewer pictures than I do,” one responder said.

Another: “Definitely, though I think I’d still want some way of recording the experience to remember it later, probably some scribbled notes.”

And another: “Do it all the time.”

I believe these folks, as well as the others who more or less said the same thing. Based on what they’ve posted, many of them are pretty serious about their outdoor undertakings. They hike and climb for the sake of the activity, not because they want to be able to say that they’ve done it.

But I also know that there are those who probably would not climb mountains if they couldn’t take photos, or share the experience on a blog or via social media. In fact, many of them are trying to get new images for the sake of keeping those platforms stocked with new things for people to look at, comment on, or hit “like” or whatever.

I also know the nature of the question (and the responses that followed) probably discouraged these folks from answering that no, they wouldn’t climb if they couldn’t share. To admit it would seem shallow.

That’s the part I want to break down, because I think there are a couple of reasons that push people toward this side of the outdoor world.

For some, it really is a question of meeting demand. Many hikers, climbers, mountaineers or whatever have websites that need new posts. They’ve got social media channels that need fresh photos and videos. Sponsorships might be part of the deal, or perhaps a larger prize down the road that will pay off if all these online efforts showcasing their adventures hit some sort of critical mass. So yeah, that’s pressure to get out there more, push harder and provide new stories to tell online audiences.

For others, it’s simpler. They’ll hike a mountain, or climb a pitch, get a dramatic photo, and post it. Soon thereafter, folks are double-tapping that image like crazy and their phone is blowing up with likes and comments from enthralled followers. It’s a symbiotic stimulus-response reaction between the person and their audience. For the followers, it’s a matter of expressed appreciation. For the poster, it’s validation. And validation is a powerful drug. A numbers game follows where the tally of likes and followers drives these folks to see what image will garner even greater numbers.

Most of the time, this is pretty harmless. If it floats your boat, you do you, man. While there are examples of people trying things in places where they get in over their heads (sometimes with deadly consequences), those are rare exceptions.

I asked the question following a trip to Colorado for a family wedding. I had a day after the ceremony where I could head up into the mountains and maybe hike a trail and bag a peak. Might as well, right?

But it had snowed pretty hard in the high country, and I’d left my ice axe at home. I read a report that a hiker had a near-miss with an avalanche in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. And someone else lost control of their car at Loveland Pass, with icy conditions sending them down the mountainside. I took a pass.

And yet, part of me regretted not going up, especially after seeing some friends’ pics in the hills at the same time I’d planned to go. Was it fear of missing out? Or fear of missing the opportunity to take a bunch of photos of snowy alpine scenes, writing a trip report, and posting fresh images on the IG?

And that brought up a deeper question: What’s my overriding motive?

I’m a storyteller by nature, be it with words or pictures. I enjoy it. But I’d hate to get to the point where every outing has to be justified by fresh content for all the interwebz to consume. Worse yet, I’d hate if it turned into something where I planned all my trips on the basis of what new thing I can publish.

In other words, I needed to check myself. Hence the question.

I can say yeah, I’d climb a mountain if I couldn’t take pics or post about it. I have before, and I enjoyed the experience just fine. I’ve done plenty of hikes without snapping a single shot. Those were good, too. And so were the ascents and hikes where I took dozens of photos.

But I don’t want to get to the point where I’m hiking for the approval of others. I never want to make the hike akin to a job, where it must be done and documented or it’s not worth my time. That would signal a loss of the love for the outdoors, and that would be far more tragic than not seeing a bunch of affirming notifications pop up on a hand-held screen.

My next hike ought to have no photos taken. Or at least I should give myself that option.

Bob Doucette

Let’s get on board with the fact that mountain goats are pee-lapping weirdos

Majestic. Wild. Weirdos.

To most people, seeing a mountain goat is to view something majestic, powerful and wild.

I know better. These creatures of the rock are just plain weird. And it was confirmed after news got out that a bunch of mountain goats were being airlifted out of Washington’s Olympic National Park because, for starters, there are too many of them. And also, their growing throng has as unnatural attraction to human urine.

You read that right. Some online headlines are proclaiming these horned lords of the crag are addicted to pee.

You might be thinking, “What in the name of Bear Grylls is going on here? Pee? Really?”

Really. As far as these guys are concerned, all you hikers making a pit stop on the trail for No. 1 may as well be playing the role of Heisenberg, dealing yellow-tinted meth in the A-B-Q.

This requires some explanation.

Like most animals, simple hydration with water is nice, but not enough to sustain proper bodily function. You need electrolytes. Salts, to keep it in layman’s terms. And urine contains, among other things, plenty of salts.

Humans have long known the worth of salt. During the days of antiquity, salt was more valuable than gold. It was mined extensively in North Africa, building the riches of civilizations there for generations. Today, we sprinkle the stuff on our food to add flavor and add electrolytes to our sports drinks to keep us performing on the field and the court.

We even put out salt blocks for our cattle during the winter so they get enough of the stuff to keep them happy.

But I guess what separates us from the animals (except for the aforementioned Grylls, or maybe Aron Ralston) is the fact that we don’t piss on our food or tip back goblets filled with the fruit of our bladders.

Then again, survival in the wild is something almost none of us can contemplate, at least not in the way the creatures of the wilderness do. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and when every waking moment is consumed by where you’ll get your nutrition, well, that sounds pretty desperate to me. The goats have found an answer to their salt problem.

And they aren’t alone. Marmots will gnaw the sweat-stained handles of your trekking poles just to get a nip of that salt your hands deposit on them during an arduous uphill hike. Pikas and mice will steal your gloves for the same reason. And deer have taken a liking to your pee just like the goats.

About nine years ago, I was camping in the Uncompahgre National Forest of Colorado, and while eating some grub with my campmates, I noticed a healthy doe rooting around the dirt not far from my tent. I was wondering what on earth was so interesting to that deer, and then it dawned on me: That’s where I was relieving myself in the middle of the night. Eww, I thought. But when you really need salt, you get it where you can.

You do you, Bambi.

Lounging weirdo.

But the deer wasn’t weird about it, at least not beyond the innate weirdness of lapping up the piss-soaked dirt a few yards from my tent. But mountain goats? They’re weird about it. Really, really weird about it.

Let me take you back a few years to another pristine slice of alpine heaven in Colorado’s southwestern corner. The place is called Chicago Basin, a remote but popular backpacking and peak-bagging destination tucked deep inside the Weminuche Wilderness of the San Juan Mountains. It’s an impossibly gorgeous basin flanked by jagged peaks and has to be one of the most scenic places I’ve ever been. The snows in the ‘Nuche are typically deep, and the summer monsoons tend to dump heavier and more frequently than elsewhere in the Rockies. The result is a lush mountain landscape that defies the semi-arid reputation of the Rockies.

The downside to this place is three-fold. First, you’re likely to get rained out of any climbs at some point during the summer. Second, the flies. Dear God, the flies. They are everywhere. And last, are the mountain goats. They are drawn to humans and can be quite pesky at camp.

They’ll follow you around, stalking you like fluffy, horned paparazzi. They’ll monitor your every move, and the males can be a little, er, assertive. It’s not that they’re curious. They’re just slavishly thirsty for your little yellow drink.

While at camp, one of my friends decided to do an experiment. Being the funny guy that he is, he thought it would be hilarious to take a leak on a bush just to see what happened. And so he did.

He spent a few seconds watering a lonely sapling bush with his golden bounty, and the goats couldn’t wait. They were practically tripping over themselves to get there, then proceeded to denude that shrub in a matter of a minute. I think all the leaves were gone before he had finished. It was the funniest and most bizarre thing I’ve seen in years, and I’ve seen a lot of weird shit in my days. But to paraphrase Will Smith from his “Men in Black” days, the Great Shrub Massacre of 2014 just about broke the needle on my weird-shit-o-meter.

I suppose the conservationist in me should say something profound or important about the pitfalls of frequent human contact with wild animals, maybe even with a tone of solemn concern. But I just can’t. Mountain goats are majestic, amazing creatures.  But they’re also really damn weird.

Seriously, dude. Get off the pee-pipe, ya weirdo.

Bob Doucette

Places I like: South Colony Lakes

The northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise abruptly over the town of Westcliffe to the east, and their towering spires loom over Great Sand Dunes National Monument to the west. But what the tall peaks hide within their folds is one of the most stunning alpine scenes I’ve ever laid eyes on.

That’s a big claim, for sure. I’ve seen some fantastic places. But there is something about South Colony Lakes that stands out.

The lakes fill a tiered basin underneath the steep slopes of Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak and Broken Hand Peak on one side, and the gentler, cliff-banded flanks of Humboldt Peak on the other. To the south, Marble Mountain and other majestic spires rise. Many of these mountains have exposed, striated layers, giving a clue to the intense pressures of geologic uplift, wringing ancient and persistent violence to bend rock layers just so.

The lakes are pretty, to be sure, shining gems under the bright Colorado sky. But the star of the show is Crestone Needle, and it is best seen at dawn.

As the sun rises, the long shadow of Humboldt Peak makes a retreat. The low light of sunrise drench the eastern face of Crestone Needle, giving it a warm, orange hue that is one of the most spectacular mountain vistas I’ve come across. You understand the meaning of the word “alpenglow” when you catch Crestone Needle during the peak colors of sunrise.

And it’s a fleeting thing, gone in minutes. But the scenery still packs a wallop just about any time of day, as the Needle commands center stage above the lakes.

Bob Doucette

It’s not your imagination. Wildfire seasons are getting worse, and the West is getting drier

Wildfires this summer have stretched government resources to their limits. (Uriah Walker/U.S. Army photo)

One of the great talking points of late has been the severity, or even the existence, of climate change. There was a time, maybe just short of 30 years ago, when the scientific and political consensus were on the same track, agreeing that man-made carbon and methane emissions were changing the climate.

A lot of industry pushback, in the form of like-minded politicians and convincing-looking counternarratives, soon cropped up. Arguments of “job-killing regulations” and no small amount of doubt-sowing opinion pieces, studies and so forth muddied what was at one time a clearer picture. And to be frank, the far-off implications of what might happen didn’t move the meter much in terms of public opinion.

What people needed was evidence. Evidence they could see. And not just data, which for some reason, people just don’t trust as much as what they see with their own eyes. Bad things were coming, we were told. But for most, out of sight means out of mind.

The trouble with this line of thinking is that when you finally see the negative consequences that were predicted all along, it’s likely too late. And that’s what we’ve seen come to pass in the American West.

Two things come to mind, things that are not only measurable, but visible.

The first is the expanding wildfire season, and the growth of its severity.

The Union of Concerned Scientists recently published these facts on the subject:

Between 1980 and 1989, the American West averaged 140 wildfires of 1,000 acres or larger every year. Between 2000 and 2012, that number nearly doubled, to 250.

The wildfire season has grown in length. In the 1970s, the season lasted about five months. Now it’s up to seven months.

As western states heat up, snowpack is melting four weeks earlier than normal. Hotter, drier forests are becoming more vulnerable to more frequent and more destructive wildfires.

A satellite image of wildfires in California. (NASA image)

The journal Nature confirmed this with its own research, noting that this is a global problem:

“Climate strongly influences global wildfire activity, and recent wildfire surges may signal fire weather-induced pyrogeographic shifts. Here we use three daily global climate data sets and three fire danger indices to develop a simple annual metric of fire weather season length, and map spatio-temporal trends from 1979 to 2013. We show that fire weather seasons have lengthened across 29.6 million km2 (25.3%) of the Earth’s vegetated surface, resulting in an 18.7% increase in global mean fire weather season length. We also show a doubling (108.1% increase) of global burnable area affected by long fire weather seasons (>1.0 σ above the historical mean) and an increased global frequency of long fire weather seasons across 62.4 million km2 (53.4%) during the second half of the study period. If these fire weather changes are coupled with ignition sources and available fuel, they could markedly impact global ecosystems, societies, economies and climate.”

And from NASA, data show that as bad as things are looking in the western U.S., the problem is significantly worse in eastern Brazil, east Africa and western Mexico.

The statistics for 2018 obviously aren’t in yet, but if it seems like the entire West is on fire, you’re not too far off target. Drought in the U.S. Southwest created massive wildfires in Arizona, northern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado. Wildfires later erupted in Utah and Wyoming. Record-setting blazes are scorching California once again, and massive fires are currently burning in Montana and British Columbia. It’s one of the worst fire seasons I can remember, and my guess is by the time 2018 ends, it could be a record-setter.

Lengthening, more damaging wildfire seasons are one thing. But there’s more. The nature of the arid west is changing, too. It’s growing.

NPR recently reported this:

“The American West appears to be moving east. New research shows the line on the map that divides the North American continent into arid Western regions and humid Eastern regions is shifting, with profound implications for American agriculture.”

A meridian running through the plains of Canada and the U.S. and into Mexico is seen as the diving line between the drier West and the wetter East. Researchers, according to NPR, are discovering that line is moving east, increasing the size of the Rocky Mountain rain shadow and making the breadbasket of the U.S. that much smaller. Farmers are finding it more difficult to successfully irrigate their crops (and the depletion of the Ogallalah Aquifer will only make this harder), so they’re switching to ranching, which is less water-intensive.

The arid climate of the West is edging its way into the wetter, more humid East. And that will affect agriculture and livelihoods for people in the Great Plains.

Right now, it’s difficult to measure the impact of this shift, but you can imagine its potential significance. Production of food and biofuels lies with the success of agriculture in the Great Plains. If that becomes less tenable in places like the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, the shift will be felt not only by the farmers themselves, but consumers in the U.S. and abroad. The real question becomes one of figuring out how far east that dry/wet dividing line will go.

At one time, people might have wondered what climate change will look like. Well, now we know. It means longer, more intense fire seasons. It means less land for farming, and a fundamental change in the lifestyles of people making a living in the Great Plains.

In other words, some people asked for evidence. Now you can see it for yourself.

Bob Doucette

All that mountain fun comes with a cost

A conversation starter.

Dawn was just breaking as we approached treeline, revealing the towering peaks that surround South Colony Lakes. The uphill march at 12,000 feet is never easy for me, and even for the guys who are more used to this sort of thing, it’s work.

The payoff, of course, is the scenery. It gets more dramatic and memorable the higher you go. The effort it takes to climb a mountain, the skills that some of these peaks demand, and the conclusion of a successful ascent demands repeat performances. It’s easy to get hooked on this stuff.

But it comes with a cost.

I’ve hiked with Mike a couple of times. We were part of a big backpacking group that marched into Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness a few years back. We bagged Mount Eolus and North Eolus on a brilliant August day, but more memorable than the mountain was the man. Bright, funny, irreverent and fun. We swore we’d get together again.

Years later, it was Mike, me and Bill, our eyes on summits surrounding South Colony Lakes in the northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In between the jokes and general banter about the peaks that were on our minds was a bit of honesty. Mike was feeling a little guilt.

It takes time to do these things. If you’re an occasional peak-bagger like myself, it’s not as severe. But for those trying to climb all of Colorado’s 14ers, or something more ambitious (the Centennials, the Bi-Centennials, and for the super-obsessed, maybe all of the Colorado 13ers), the pursuit of mountains consumes precious time. The drive time to get to trailheads is measured in hours. Approach hikes can be lengthy. If multiple peaks are sought in one outing, you could be out there for a few days. Each trip consumes weekends, vacations and other free time that might be filled with other things that involve other people.

When we see views like this, we often don’t see it with those closest to us.

The fact is a lot of us dive into these endeavors without our loved ones. Even if there is a shared passion here, there are times when schedules or goals are mismatched from time to time. Risk tolerances may differ. So do skill levels, fitness and a ton of other variables that will have one person heading into the hills while another stays home, left to watch the kids, feed the dogs or figure out what to do on consecutive nights when we’re out there getting our altitude fix.

These were the things Mike had on his mind. His wife Maggie enjoys the high country, too, but isn’t always up for yet another weekend of thin air, dirt, sweat and soreness. Not as often as he is, anyway.

And there is also the presence of objective risk in the mountains. I’ve been lucky that my family doesn’t give me too much grief about this stuff, but there was one instance when I’d planned to climb a more difficult mountain at the same time my eldest brother was in need of a bone marrow transplant. I heard loud and clear that I should hold off on any climbs until we knew if I was donor match. Translation: If you die on that mountain and could have saved your brother’s life, it would be a double tragedy.

I stayed home from that one. But I’m sure the worries from loved ones are still there with every trip. They’re just not voiced, or at least not as urgently.

Grand beauty, but with objective risks.

In the back of my mind, I know that I’ll probably be safe on the mountains I like to hike and climb. But I also know that nothing is guaranteed. A couple of weeks back, a man died on one of the easier 14er hikes out there, the east ridge of Quandary Peak. He died of a heart attack. Other fatalities have nothing to do with the climber. Rockfall happens at random, and can kill. Entire sections of a mountain have been known to slide off, carrying unlucky climbers with them. When these thing happen, people get hurt. Or die. Most injuries and deaths are caused by bad judgment (not reading the weather, stumbling into avalanche zones, or inexperience/overconfidence on difficult terrain), but sometimes bad things happen randomly when people are in the way. It’s way safer to not go, and spare our loved ones the worry or, when the worst happens, picking up the pieces when we suffer serious injury or death.

These are costs. Costs of time, angst, money and grief. All for an activity that has only selfish value. So why do we bother, given the steepness of the price?

A few years back, I wrote a piece titled “Five reasons why you should climb a mountain.” Looking back on it, I still agree with every word I wrote. But I would simplify it.

We do it because it makes us feel more alive. The mountain experience is visceral. The commitment to go there, the physical hardship, those objective risks — all of those combine to make your blood pump a little harder, altitude notwithstanding. Pushing yourself to do something you doubt you could do is a rush. The joke is that you hate yourself for getting into these adventures and the difficulties and pain they bring, but by the time you’re back at the trailhead, the gears in your mind are already turning, wondering what new mountain outing you can dream up. Get bit by this bug and you might just develop a feverish obsession.

By the end of the day, Mike, Bill and I got what we came for. We got to tick off a few more summits from whatever list we were pursuing, snagged some incredible summit photos and spent ourselves physically in ways that don’t happen anywhere else. We eventually made our way home, back to the people we care about and the everyday obligations of life. We’ll end up taking care of the routine business, spend time with others doing non-mountain stuff and do so in ways that don’t worry our families. But we ask for some patience. Sooner or later, we’ll be back in the mountains. It’s not something we have to do, but damn close to it.

Hate to break it to ya, but we’ll probably go back. A lot.

Bob Doucette

An ode to roadtripping in the West

NOTE: The following is an excerpt from the book “Outsider: Tales from the road, the trail and the run.” The book is available here.

I have a personal philosophy when it comes to road trips: They should always begin by getting in your car/truck/rig, and pointing that sucker west. Let me explain…

Not long ago, I was sitting around with a bunch of co-workers as we wished a colleague well during his last days with us. He was leaving to take a job in Pittsburgh, which to me seems like a far-off place in a totally different world from my current home in Tulsa.

Someone asked him if he’d be driving straight through or stopping overnight. He chose the latter, but said the trip can be made in about fifteen or sixteen hours.

That shocked me. So many states away, and it’s just sixteen hours from here?

That’s only two hours longer than my last trip to western Colorado, that big rectangular mass that actually borders my home state.

It got me thinking about the vastness of the West, the wonderful, weird, wide open expanse of what I think is best in America.

A few hours earlier, I was home watching a re-run of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations program. It was one of my favorite episodes, the one where he hangs out with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme in the high desert of California. In addition to the coolest soundtrack of any show on TV, it showed more of what makes the West so alluring to me: Desperate scenes of civilization clinging to life on the shores of the Salton Sea, a dude who painted a mountain (literally painted on the whole mountain) and long stretches of open highway slicing through arid wastelands most people would assume avoid.

Vast, wonderful, weird and wide-open.

Where I live, in my opinion, is sort of the dividing line between east and west. Tulsa is right on the edge of the Ozarks, which I see as being Appalachia lite. Drive a few hours west and you’re in the high plains. At the edge of that, you hit the Rockies.

That’s where things get interesting.

I was born in Illinois and have lived most of my life in Oklahoma, but I grew up in Colorado. Despite this pesky accent I’ve picked up I consider myself a westerner. To this day, I still envision sunsets over the Rockies and associate pines with the high country.

This had an effect on me. I live here in T-town, but feel compelled to return to what in my mind is my homeland. It’s sort of a salmon-spawning-grounds story, but without the whole breeding/dying/getting-eaten-by-bears thing. Money (or a lack thereof) keeps me from going more often. To be honest, I’ve got a serious road trip itch working right now.

My pilgrimages there have often been with friends and family. A couple of times, they’ve been blessedly solo. However it works, the one thing that is true is that I feel a little more free when I go. Sometimes dangerously so, or at least that’s how it seems – on your own, the comforts of home farther and farther away, but the promise of seeing something new and possibly transformative pulling you down the road. Road-tripping is the best form of American escapism there is, and the West is a magnet for dreams of freedom.

And it always has been. Since the founding of the nation, people have looked west to find their destiny or otherwise flee the confines of the lives into which they were born.

That’s one of the most interesting aspects of the West. Free spirits, non-conformists, weirdos and outlaws all looked to the wilderness beyond the Mississippi. The profound impact this has had on the American cultural landscape can’t be understated.

I’ve often told people that the farther west in America you go, the weirder it gets. Boulder is pretty weird. All those little mountain towns from Montana to New Mexico are pretty weird (even the smallest Montana villages have at least one church and one bar). Roswell is weird. In Nevada, you get the weirdness of Las Vegas, Burning Man and Area 51 within its odd confines. Once you hit the coast, you reach the gleaming metropolises of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. The farther you make your way west and north, the stranger it gets.

And then there’s Alaska. For those fleeing conformity, broken relationships, the law or any other demons, there is no farther place you can go, at least not in the U.S. You have to be committed to go that far, and even more so to stay. And that makes for a place with some truly colorful personalities – real frontiersmen and women who could actually live libertarian ideals of self-sufficiency, and ex-governors who say they can see Russia all the way from suburban Anchorage.

People go to these places, and invariably, those places change them. A person who has lived in the mountains or the desert for any length of time won’t look, talk, think or act like those who have spent their existence in a suburb of Cincinnati or in a borough of New York. Harsher climes and sweeping landscapes alter people in that way, building up quiet strength and self-reliance while stripping away pretense. Scratching out a living out West will humble and toughen you in ways few other places can. Many folks envy that, which explains why people pay for the privilege of spending a week on dude ranches and will even shell out thousands to outfitters who give them “authentic” backpacking experiences. Guns are scary to many Americans; they’re just tools to the people of the rural West.

And let’s revisit that landscape. America is filled with gorgeous places. I’ve been out east quite a bit. Tennessee, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are knockout beautiful. Closer to home, northwest Arkansas has the same feel. All throughout the east you have these wonderful hills and mountains, thick woods and meandering rivers.

But it’s also stable. It feels old. Established. And that makes sense, seeing that the communities in the east date back to the 1600s or even earlier, and the Appalachians are some of the most ancient mountains on Earth.

Not so much in the West. While some Spanish settlements there are quite old, most cities and towns out West are pretty new, historically speaking. The mountains themselves are younger. Their rise is more dramatic, and in the case of the Tetons, startlingly so. The West has volcanoes. One of them famously blew up back in 1980, and we know that some of its Cascadian neighbors could well do the same. The West has glaciers. In one section of Colorado, deep in the San Juans, you can see the confluence of geologic uplift, volcanism and ice-age glacial carving, sculpting a landscape so wild that it boggles the mind.

Wind gives us the carefully crafted arches and towers of Utah and Arizona. A tiny alpine trickle gathers itself and plummets downhill, gaining strength and size and speed until it slices a gash so long, wide and deep that it can be seen from space.

Towering heights.

Deep canyons.

Deserts and rain forests. Grizzly bears, wolves, eagles and whales.

Is there any wonder as to why I don’t take off right now?

I envision a future trip unfolding like so many others have in the past: I’m in my car, cruising at seventy-five miles per hour on a two-lane highway with endless vistas of the Oklahoma Panhandle prairie all around. The stereo is up loud, cranking out tunes from U2’s The Joshua Tree. In the back, with the seats down, my belongings – a pack, a tent, food, mountaineering gear and campsite tools – jostle with the contours of the road.

Then I spot it. Rabbit Ear Mountain, a small peak in the far northeastern corner of New Mexico, a marker of what I see as the easternmost outpost of the Rockies.

I grin a bit. Adventure is close. And I keep driving.

West.

Bob Doucette