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

When life was falling apart, it was running that put me back together

Me and Mike on Mount Elbert. I miss this dude.

I got into an online discussion with a friend who was trying to weigh her desire to join her running buddies in a longer road race versus the time commitment needed to train for it. She’s a busy gal, with a full-time job, lots of family around and plenty of things to worry about.

Something she said struck me. She said that when she runs, it clears her head. And that over the past year, it may have saved her. “I think I would have fallen apart without it,” she admitted.

That resonated with me. I’ve had similar thoughts, sometimes recently, and it became even more clear as a dreaded anniversary crept near.

Six years ago, my oldest brother died. And when everything settled down and I was left to my own thoughts, it was the alone time pounding the pavement or coursing through wooded trails that pulled me from an abyss.

Running may have saved me, too.

***

Mike and I were close. Some of it had to do with the fact that we shared a number of interests. We loved the mountains. Fishing for trout was a favorite, and later on, I got hooked on climbing Colorado’s high peaks after hearing his tales of high mountain summits. We climbed a few peaks together, including my first three 14,000-footers, and made a thing of it with all the brothers – Mike, Steve, and myself – are few years back.

From left, Mike, me and Steve on the summit of Quandary Peak, Colo.

Mike and I were also gym rats. I bumbled around the weight room with a little success while he mastered the art of weight training and bodybuilding. Naturally, we’d talk about all things lifting, and more often than not I’d be the one doing the listening as he offered tips and told of his experiences. Years later, I still can’t sniff the PRs he managed on the big lifts.

But I keep plugging away, and sometimes I’ll learn something new or set my own PR. Instinctively, I look around for my phone, thinking about shooting him a text or a phone call to talk about it. But that gets shot down pretty quick.

Shit. I can’t call Mike. I can’t call him because he’s gone.

***

Around the time when Mike was diagnosed with cancer (it was a blood disease similar to leukemia), other crises were afoot. My job was going down the crapper, and as he got sicker, my own prospects worsened. In January of 2011, I flew to Denver to visit him, not knowing if he’d make it for the next few days or if he’d pull through. A couple days after arriving, Mike grew stronger.

But then I got a call. My employer had a layoff, and I was caught in it. Twelve mostly good years there were over. It’s a hell of a thing to learn you’re on the street via a long-distance phone call from a hospital hallway.

The silver lining was being able to spend more time with Mike. I hoped he’d pull out of it, recover and then we’d be back at it, hiking up mountains and traveling the West. But it was not to be.

Mike’s condition eventually won. His death was slow – agonizingly so – and from everything I saw, miserable. Cruel, even. The whole family was there when he passed. The final moments unleashed our sorrows in a flood of tears and hugs, all of us hating the fact that he was gone yet glad he wasn’t suffering anymore. In the hours and days following Mike’s passing, we shuffled from here to there, buying clothes for the funeral, heading to the church to say our last good-byes, and then settling into the finality of it all.

A few days later, after being out of work for four months, I got a call. The guy who is now my boss, Tim, wondered if I’d like to interview for a job in Tulsa. I said yes, and we arranged for an interview time. I got the job, which necessitated a move. So I moved up to Tulsa while my wife Becca stayed in our soon-to-be ex-hometown east of Oklahoma City to get our house ready for sale. I’d come back on the weekends, then drive back to Tulsa before my Monday shift began.

During the week, I stayed at my sister-in-law’s house in a Tulsa suburb. She and her family had moved to Texas and were trying to sell their Oklahoma home, and they kindly let me stay there until we found a place of our own. The house, somewhere short of 3,000 square feet, was empty – no furniture, no TV, nothing. I made my home in the master bedroom, a cavernous space where I occupied a tiny sliver, sleeping on an air mattress and playing Angry Birds on my phone or reading a book when I got home from work. Aside from the job, I had a lot of alone time, time to worry about the future and mourn Mike’s death.

Before work, I’d head to the gym, and then two miles down the road I’d go to a local park that had a gravel trail a little over a mile long. Work was a great distraction, but my demons were there in that empty house on those long nights after work. I fought back on the trails. Running, it seemed, drove them away.

***

Running became a sorely needed habit — and refuge — during one of the more challenging periods of my life.

I’d gotten into a running habit before Mike got sick, but things took off once I moved to Tulsa. It was cheap – the price of shoes, socks and some tech clothes. It turned out to be a great way to explore my new hometown. Every slow, lumbering run was interesting. I’d see something new, work up my miles and get a little faster.

Not long after, I discovered a park that had a huge network of trails that ran wild through wooded hills that were left as close as possible to their natural state. I’d run plenty on pavement, but this trail running thing was brand new. I learned that trail runners were different. Most runners obsess over mile times, distances and splits. Trail runners get into vertical gain a little, but mostly run hard, have fun and replace all the calories they burned with burritos and beer. This was something I could get into.

For a brief period, I ran with a weekly run group, but most times I explored the trails by myself – in the furnace of the Oklahoma summer, in the rain and mud, and even in the snow. I’d run myself ragged on big hills, trip over tree roots and rocks and go through the painstaking process of tick-checks. I spied snakes, lizards, deer and hawks. Squirrels and rabbits, too. I watched sunsets through the trees, breathed in the scents of fresh redbud blooms and listened to cicadas blast their noisy calls on sweltering summer days. I loved running with friends, but these were experiences I mostly had on my own.

These were the times I’d think. Sometimes pray. I’d rage at God for how Mike died, then calm down and express gratitude that I was still healthy, and able to enjoy these runs on the trails when so many others couldn’t or wouldn’t.

I’d like to tell you that I found peace and healing inside the folds of a new church congregation, but it never worked out that way for me. Too many places of worship were too busy fighting the culture wars for my taste. But I found God anyway. God was in those woods, tolerating my griping, reminding me of my blessings, and listening in. Being there when I was unlovable. That sort of thing matters when you reach a point of being a jerk, something I can testify to rather well. Sometimes I’m not the easiest person to be around, prone to poor judgment and selfishness. Things that Mike wasn’t but I was.

Over time, running became bigger. Slow two-mile jaunts around the neighborhood turned into five-milers. And then 10. Or 12. Within a few years, I was knocking out half marathons, 25Ks, and on a bitterly cold November day, my first marathon. The process was one that required some mental toughening, sharpening your mind in the middle of 20-mile training runs, and the day-long recovery periods that followed.

But I found something out there. I found a rhythm, a meditative cadence that cleared my busy mind of the stresses and insecurities that confronted me daily. I’m not one of those crazies who pounds out 80 or more miles a week, or runs insanely long races, or any of that. But I miss it when I stop. Normally I come back from a run feeling spent, and in a good way, like I went to war with my demons, beat them back and stood atop a hill looking at the battlefield when it’s over, me still alive and my foes in retreat. I’m not one to make easy war metaphors; that dishonors real warriors. But when negativity and grief and self-loathing and worry rage at your gates, it feels like a fight. You use the tools at your disposal in order to win.

***

Sunset in the woods at the end of a fun trail run.

Mike wasn’t much of a runner, at least not in his final years. More of a cyclist, a hiker and a lifter. But I think he could appreciate it just the same, like he would after a long day in the mountains or right after coming off the saddle after a 30-mile ride through Denver. He’d get it. He battled through plenty of his own struggles and won them all except for the one that finally claimed him.

I was thinking of Mike at the end of my last trail run. It was a short trip, just a few miles on mostly empty trails near dusk. When I got through and reached the trailhead, the sun was dipping into the horizon, setting the skies and their clouds afire with hues of yellow, orange and red. I snapped a photo with my phone and suddenly got the urge to text it to Mike. Look how beautiful it is out here, dude! And then I’d remember.

But I grinned anyway. I knew that Mike would understand, that he knew running for me was a gift from God, the salve I needed – and still need – in this stage of life. I was sweaty, dirty and spent and more content than I’d ever be, even if only for a few minutes. I was at peace.

I hope my friend decides to do that longer race, mostly because I know where she’s at, and have felt that calming, inner-warmth that comes from a good run.

Bob Doucette

Oklahoma is a case study in why you can’t cede federal public lands to the states

A creek running through Natural Falls State Park.

A couple of days ago, I wrote about a developing big-win story for conservation efforts in my hometown of Tulsa. I was feeling pretty good about that, able to block out the signs that there was going to be plenty of bad news on the conservation front coming soon. For now, though, we celebrate. Good vibes all around.

And then one day later, the other shoe dropped. Budget-makers at the Oklahoma Legislature asked the state’s tourism department to come up with a plan to accommodate a 14.5 percent budget cut the next fiscal year.

The answer, in short: Close 16 state parks.

I could write an entire post about how lawmakers’ reckless tax policies over the past decade or so led us to this point, making the state especially vulnerable during difficult economic times. Schools, health, public safety and child welfare have taken huge hits in Oklahoma over the years, in economies both good and bad. But I’ll let others discuss that. Instead, I’ll focus on what the Sooner State could lose if this plan becomes reality, and what this says about the national movement to turn over federal public lands to the states.

Here’s a list of parks and facilities Oklahoma could lose:

  • Talimena State Park
  • Great Plains State Park
  • Cherokee Landing State Park
  • Natural Falls State Park
  • Red Rock Canyon State Park
  • Great Salt Plains State Park
  • Lake Eufaula State Park
  • Lake Wister State Park
  • Alabaster Caverns State Park
  • McGee Creek State Park
  • Foss Lake State Park
  • Osage Hills State Park
  • Greenleaf State Park
  • Lake Texoma State Park
  • Grand Lake State Parks
  • Boiling Springs State Park
  • Grand Cherokee Golf Course

I haven’t been to all of these, but of visited several of them. Greenleaf State Park is an awesomely hilly, wooded and wild place in eastern Oklahoma that’s long been a favorite for the outdoorsy set. Alabaster Caverns State Park features great caves to explore, is one of the few places you can go caving, and is prime habitat for bats. Osage Hills State Park is a hidden gem, nestled in wooded hills northwest of Tulsa. Red Rock Canyon State Park offers prime rappelling.

Last summer, I made a point to explore another one of these places, Natural Falls State Park. I wrote about it here. Here are some scenes from Natural Falls:

Natural Falls.

Mossy oak.

A stretch of rugged trail at Natural Falls State Park.

 

All of these could face closure if these cuts become reality in the state’s next budget. Needless to say, this would be a huge loss for the state, its residents, and the tourism industry that Oklahoma is promoting on its new license plates. The irony is pretty thick with that one.

The plate encourages drivers to “explore Oklahoma” and visit the state tourism department’s website, travelok.com. But there might be less to explore really soon.

The larger point: Oklahoma is showing why you don’t want to hand over federal public lands to the states. Oklahoma is just one of many states to pursue the Kansas-style form of tax policy, that lowering taxes will increase job growth and eventually lead to higher revenues. That hasn’t happened in Kansas, and it sure isn’t happening in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and many other states that are experimenting with this. Instead, it’s leaving states unable to fund even basic, core functions of state government.

In Oklahoma, we can’t pay our teachers enough to compete with surrounding states, and they’re leaving in droves. Our state troopers can only drive so far from their headquarters to patrol the highways. Our prisons are staffed at 65 percent with underpaid guards who often have to resort to food stamps to feed their families. Is there any doubt that Oklahoma could not handle the added cost of taking over its part of the Ouchita National Forest, or the entirety of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge? How much greater would this burden be on cash-strapped western states where the federal public lands inventory is much larger?

And maybe that’s the end-game, to give public lands back to the states, who, when forced to carry that burden, have no choice but to sell it all off. We know where that ends: Wide-scale privatization, which means loss of forest, loss of grazing lands, and loss of public access. The list of those who lose — hunters, anglers, hikers, backpackers, climbers, cyclists, ranchers, tourism businesses and more — is lengthy.

Oklahoma’s budget process is still in the early stages, and it’s not certain what will become of its parks. There is already a petition going around to save the parks. But in the big picture, Oklahoma is the canary in the mine when it comes to public lands and land management policy for federal lawmakers and policymakers. Voters favor longstanding public lands policy that preserves national parks, forests and other federal holdings for use by the people. Adopting a policy of divestiture in favor of state control will do exactly the opposite of what the majority of the public wants. And by looking at what’s happening in Oklahoma, we know what the end result will be: a rapid loss of public access to treasured natural spaces in favor of the highest bidder.

Bob Doucette

The eternal excitement, glory and joy of being a noob

My friend Rick (left) and I at the top of Wheeler Peak, NM, in 2003. Check out that cottony, newbie goodness we're wearing.

My friend Rick (left) and I at the top of Wheeler Peak, NM, in 2003. Check out that cottony, newbie goodness we’re wearing.

If there is a title that nobody wants but everyone’s had, it’s that of being the newbie.

The noob.

A rookie.

We’ve all had our turn at being a beginner, a gaper, or whatever other term that is used to describe someone who is new to climbing, skiing, mountaineering or whatever. Usually we’re desperate to shuck that label, learning the lingo of the sport, buying all the right gear and going for “the look” of someone who has been there and done that, as if wearing/using the right brand of stuff will give us an outdoorsy version of “the thousand-yard stare” or something.

As for me, guilty as charged. Years later I ask myself, why the hell did I do that?

One of the glories of being a noob is the excitement of the “new.” You might remember it: You saw something that looked awesome, and decided you wanted to try it. So you made your plans, prepared for the task, and then got it done. The anticipation of the reaching the goal, and the satisfaction of having done it, is one of the sweetest rewards in life.

I remember a few years ago, I’d just gotten into the peak-bagging thing and was consuming stories and books about it like a starving man at Thanksgiving. Many of the most compelling stories I saw involved ascending on snow, and in my book, I couldn’t be a “real mountaineer” unless I attempted a snow climb. (For the record, I still don’t consider myself a “real mountaineer”).

I hit up my buddy Johnny on the idea. Being the kind of guy he is, he agreed to play along. We picked a mountain, found a date, and let those newbie vibes propel us toward an adventure neither of us had ever done before.

It felt awesome.

***

I’ve been drawn to the mountains ever since I was a kid, growing up in the suburbs of Denver with the Rockies an ever-present visual any time I looked toward the west. But for all the childhood camping, fishing and other adventures in the high country, I never visited to top of one of these titanic piles of rock.

Years later, my brother Mike got into hiking and climbing the Fourteeners, Colorado’s peaks that top 14,000 feet. He’d tell stories of the hardships and rewards of reaching these high summits, and the photographs he showed me – glorious vistas, dizzying drop-offs, and other amazing sights – compelled me to consider taking on that challenge.

But it was one I knew next to nothing about.

I remember going on vacation in Red River, New Mexico, having a good time exploring that town and some of the others in a region called the Enchanted Circle of that state’s Sangre de Cristo range. Included in that was a whitewater rafting trip, which would normally be the highlight of such a vacation.

But what stuck out was the morning I looked outside my window, stared at Red River’s ski mountain, and decided I was going to hike to its summit.

So that’s what I did. I don’t remember how long it took, how lengthy the route was, or anything like that. But I do remember feeling pretty rad hiking to the top – somewhere over 10,000 feet – and waiting on all the people who taken a ski-lift ride to the top. They rode up. I got there under my own power.

My gear: Jeans, a cotton T-shirt, a jacket and a pair of steel-toed work boots, with a dead tree branch used as a walking stick. You know, typical noob stuff.

***

Me on Mount Shavano, going up the summit pitch.

Me on Mount Shavano, going up the summit pitch.

A lot of planning went into that snow climb. I wasn’t so dumb as to pick a mountain that was out of my league. We chose familiar ground – Mount Shavano, a mountain I’d summited five years before in summer conditions with my oldest brother. In the winter and spring, there are three ribbons of snow that look like a stick figure with its arms signaling “touchdown!” in a gully leading to a saddle between Shavano’s summit and another nearby, lesser peak.

It’s called the Angel of Shavano, and if you’re going to pick a first-time snow climb on the Fourteeners, this is the route you choose. It’s not too steep, and in late spring, avalanche danger is minimal. If you catch it early enough in the spring, more snow will be with you all the way to the summit.

Here’s the problem: Johnny and I don’t live anywhere near a mountain where you could practice snow climbing. Sure, you can buy the gear – crampons, an ice axe, a helmet, etc. – but that won’t mean anything unless you get to actually use that gear.

Of course, that didn’t stop us. We bought the gear online and watched videos on how to self-arrest. That would work, right?

So in early June, we packed up my rig and drove to Buena Vista, Colorado, checked into a hotel and tried on our crampons for the first time. The next day, we’d see what this whole “snow climbing” thing was all about.

***

That New Mexico trip lit a bit of a fire in me. The day after hiking that ski mountain, I picked up a brochure on some of the more popular hikes in the Red River area. One of them was Wheeler Peak, the state’s highest mountain, described as “extremely strenuous” and a good 20 miles round-trip from the East Fork trailhead. I hiked a little of that trail that day, clearly not expecting to top out, but just wanting to see what it looked like.

The next year, I was back. I did some serious planning for this one, picking up real hiking boots (as it turns out, steel-toed work boots are not ideal), a day pack (complete with water bladder!) and what more or less qualified as the ten essentials. I recruited my brother Mike and a friend named Rick to give it a shot.

The one thing we had going for us was we were all in excellent shape. It helped that Mike had done hikes like this many times before, so this wouldn’t be the blind leading the blind, so to speak.

But our noob-ness showed. In choosing to return to Wheeler Peak, I’d picked a walk-up (good choice!) but also one with what turned out to be 21 miles of hiking, all of it over 9,000 feet. That’s a big day for anyone, especially for a couple of beginners. And while my footwear choice was good, I was still wearing cotton clothing and sporting a dead tree branch as a walking stick.

But our hubris was rewarded. The weather held out, our conditioning was adequate, and we reached Wheeler’s summit and got back to the car in less than 10 hours. To this day, it ranks as one of my favorite summit hikes, and it turned a curiosity into an obsession. In the months to come, I devoured all things mountaineering.

I was going full-on noob.

***

Johnny and I hiked awhile before we spotted a place where we could traverse and reach the snowfield of the Angel of Shavano Couloir. We’d missed the place where we were supposed to turn, but no matter. We could get there now.

Soon we were at the couloir’s base. We stopped, ate some food, and strapped on our crampons. The helmet came next. Winds were barreling down on us through the gap in the saddle above, but the skies were mostly clear as we, for the first time in our lives, kick-stepped our way up the couloir.

There is a rhythm to this type of hiking that is far different than the normal slog up a trail: Kick, set the ice axe in the snow, step up, then kick again. Traction was good, and we methodically reached the saddle, then turned our attention to the summit pitch. Mixed snow and rock lay before us until we reached the summit slopes, and then a thick blanket of snow all the way to the top. It was as if the lords of winter had set a path upward, covering the rocks and tundra of the mountain with a magical substance that made the climb easier, more interesting, and even a bit more scenic.

It taxed us – neither of us were in great shape, but before long, we’d topped out. Two snow-climbing newbies from Oklahoma showed up and got it done. It felt pretty rad, that I might be able to graduate from being a mere hiker to being christened a “mountaineer.” Years later, I know better. But on that summit, it was a real consideration.

Might we be recognized for our outdoor excellence? Did we finally have that thousand-yard stare? Had we earned the right to be elevated from the ranks of the newbies?

Nope. Not yet. That would become apparent soon enough.

***

So. Much. Noob. And so much awesome. The crew on Mount Belford, 2004.

So. Much. Noob. And so much awesome. The crew on Mount Belford, 2004.

The excitement of the noob takes on many forms, but there are a few common threads. One of those has to do with gear.

A lot of time is spent researching what gear you need, what brands work best, and the kinds of outer wear that will keep you warm and dry during your time in the alpine. I remember spending significant time online, shopping different retailers for all the stuff I wanted: Tents, backpacks, sleeping pads, socks, boots, sleeping bags, camp stoves, and so forth. When not online, I haunted a few local outdoor shops, spending far too long drooling over gear I could never afford but eventually walking out with something I figured I needed. Many lifelong gear junkies are born during this stage of noobism, and I now possess enough stuff to lend to like-minded friends.

I also recall spending hours on online forums and different hiking and mountaineering websites, perusing trip reports, route descriptions and topical discussions, even weighing in a few times when I felt I had enough knowledge to actually add something to the conversation. I believe I reached this level of expertise and wisdom after collecting four summits. Or was it five? Anyway…

You would figure that all this preparation, time and monetary expense would have quickened the learning curve, but it ain’t so. Noobism tends to hang around awhile, sticking to you like a bad cold. And that brings me to a second thread: Learning the hard way.

It took me a few mistakes to get a better handle on how to do the backpacking/hiking/mountaineering thing. I remember being annoyed at the mosquitoes below treeline while hiking Mount Elbert, so I reached into my bag and applied plenty of DEET-infused bug spray to keep the little buggers away. Wanting to be sure every bit of exposed skin was protected, I sprayed some on my hands, then rubbed the stuff onto my neck, cheeks and forehead.

Mike and I on Mount Elbert in 2005. By then, some of the noob had worn off of me, but not much.

Mike and I on Mount Elbert in 2005. By then, some of the noob had worn off of me, but not much.

Total noob move. Anytime I’m hiking uphill (especially at elevation), my body is working hard. I’ve long contended that I’m one of the sweatiest humans on earth, and this is true even on a cool alpine morning. The combination of my sweat and newly applied DEET was not a good one, as the stuff ran down my face and into my mouth. I can tell you through experience that DEET tastes terrible and will make your lips go numb. You can thank me for that pro tip later.

I also learned that when choosing foods for a backpacking trip, canned tuna, MREs and self-heating dinners aren’t the best options. All of them have a good deal of water in them, and that extra weight will make your pack go from a reasonable 35 to 40 pounds to 50 to 60 in a hurry. That, and the extra cotton hoodies and whatever other extra crap I used to bring.

Speaking of crap, it’s also wise to bring toilet paper, and to make sure that your toilet paper is in a waterproof container. Backpacks usually aren’t waterproof, and toilet paper loses its effectiveness when getting drenched by rain. A self-sealing baggie will do wonders to solve that problem, unless you simply omit bringing it altogether.

On the backpacking trip where I was learning these valuable nuggets of knowledge, some of my buddies were getting the hard-knocks treatment as well. For some reason, everyone on the newbie crowd thinks it’s cool – nay, even necessary – to attach as much shit as possible to the outside of your pack. I don’t advise that, especially if your gear is hanging on the bottom of your pack. All that junk swinging around and hitting the back of your legs is no way to hike.

And then there was the gun. Another member of my party sported an enormous pack, strapped a hydration pack to his chest, and a leather holster with a .40-caliber revolver, loaded and ready to roll. Revolvers ain’t light, and it took about a quarter mile of hiking, huffing and puffing before the decision was made to go back to the trailhead, hide the gun in the van and lock it up tight.

We survived all these newbie mistakes. Not only that, but both trips ended up being a good time. Most of us ended up topping out and coming back with good stories about the mountain. Some of us even decided that we should keep doing this stuff, even though camping on the cold ground is decidedly uncomfortable, as is straining for breath above 12,000 feet and running away from afternoon thunderstorms that toss hail and lightning upon you out of the blue. I guess we could just do an all-inclusive tropical vacation in the Caribbean, but really, where is the fun in that?

You can’t summit a beach, and the gear for a week at Sandals isn’t nearly as cool. But that’s probably the noob in me talking.

***

Johnny on Mount Shavano. He's the least noobish noob I've ever known. He did awesome on what was our first snow climb in 2009.

Johnny on Mount Shavano. He’s the least noobish noob I’ve ever known. He did awesome on what was our first snow climb in 2009.

I’d be lying if I said everything went according to plan for Johnny and I. Yes, we did properly use our new-fangled snow gear, and we summited Mount Shavano without skidding down a slope and breaking our necks. It’s not a huge accomplishment, given the ease of this particular snow climb. But we do get credit for a successful outing.

However, we broke a couple of rules. For one, we topped out well after noon. Maybe something like 1:30 in the afternoon, which will get a whole lot of finger-wagging, dismissive looks and maybe a couple of lectures from the non-noob crowd. I’m OK with that. We dodged a bullet, or more precisely, an afternoon storm.

But we were admittedly not in the best shape of our lives, and we felt it going down. Shavano’s trail is rough, and we arrived back at the trailhead beat up. Our knees, backs and ankles were all singing a chorus of “why do you do this crap to us?” in an angry harmony.

But that wasn’t my worst sin (Johnny gets a pass here). Not even close. And it’s something I wouldn’t realize until later that night.

We were far too tired to do the big victory dinner back in Salida. Instead, we opted to hit a Subway, crawl back to the motel in Buena Vista and turn in early. Gluttony at a local pizzeria would have to wait.

But as I was sleeping, I woke up feeling dampness on my face. I figured it might be sweat, but I wasn’t hot, nor did I feel sick. And the stuff was sticky to the touch.

As it turns out, the moisture I was feeling was the gunk that normally appears when you become so sunburned that your skin blisters. And that makes sense, because that’s what happened. Worst of all, it was totally avoidable. Let’s rewind.

Back on the ascent, when we stopped to don our mighty crampons and unhitch our fearsome ice axes from our packs, I left one small detail out. Even though it was in my pack, I forgot to apply sunscreen.

In the words of Rick Perry, “Oops.”

This is a multifaceted problem. First, all noobs are told to bring – and use – sunscreen, because the sun at high altitudes is particularly intense. Thinner air and closer proximity to that giant ball of atomic fire means more radiation is zapping your unsuspecting epidermis. Sunburns are easy to get in the high country.

But wait! There’s more. When you’re on a snowfield, you get double the pleasure as rays from the sun are reflected off the snow. If the direct sunlight doesn’t get you, the reflected sunlight will.

And we’re not done yet! Remember how I said how windy it was that day? As it happens, the wind was blowing right in our face at a steady 35 mph, gusting to over 50. Chafing from wind burns is actually a thing.

The predictable result was my face turning into a blistered, scabbed-up mess that made me look like a monster. An inexperienced, noobified gaper of a monster.

I’m more careful about sunscreen now.

Years later, I’ve tackled more peaks, done tougher ascents and perhaps, in the minds of some, finally moved on from the newbie stage. But in my mind, I’m still there. I don’t feel too far removed from noobland because I know where I stand in comparison to some of my friends who have climbed most or all 58 of the Fourteeners (I’m not even halfway there). And for them, they are a few steps behind those who climb these things in winter. Or those who have climbed the glaciated giants of the Cascades, Alaska, Mexico and South America. And those people look like lightweights compared to the mountaineers who ply their skills in the Alps, the Himalayas and the Karakoram.

Besides, there are benefits to keeping the newbie spirit alive. I’d hate to get to the point where some mountain hikes are “beneath me,” or I get too jaded because of the growing crowds of first-timers clogging the trails. I never want to lose the enthusiasm I had when I hiked Wheeler Peak back in 2003, or when my friends joined me a year later on our Colorado backpacking trip.

The mountains offer varying degrees of sufferfests – sometimes by their nature, other times by our own hand – but for a bunch of us, the allure never dies unless we let it. And I don’t want to. Experience is awesome, and it makes you safer, more capable, and able to do more in the peaks. My wish, no matter how many mountains I climb, is to keep the sense of wonder alive as long as I can, to view each summit through the eyes of a guy who is a newcomer to the high country, much like I was years ago in northern New Mexico on a fine July day.

I’ll just remember to leave the cotton T-shirt at home and to apply the sunscreen. Liberally.

Want to read more great newbie stories? Lose yourself in this glorious thread.

Bob Doucette

2016 get you down? Not me, and here’s why

2016 wasn't all gloomy skies and bad times.

2016 wasn’t all gloomy skies and bad times.

I know a lot of people bemoaned 2016. Certainly, there was enough bad news going around to make you think that 2016 was about as dark as it gets, though you’d have to admit, unless you’re someone who just fled the ruins of Aleppo, that statement might be a bit hyperbolic.

But I understand. We’ve been given a steady diet of celebrity deaths and election dysfunction for 12 months, and a chunk of the country is apprehensive about the future. But I’d ask you, before you go into a deeper funk, to do an inventory on your 2016. I did that, and found that while plenty of things left me scratching my head, I have much to be grateful for.

I saw this in 2016, and it did not suck

I saw this in 2016, and it did not suck

I got to hike a lot. I hit my local trails hard, discovered a new place to go bouldering in town and found myself on a bunch of trails in the Rocky Mountains as well as Tennessee. I found four summits with my nephew Jordan, took my wife to Tennessee’s high point and had an unforgettable adventure in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado with a pretty cool dude. Never mind that weather and thieves robbed us of a couple of summits. The Colony Lakes region of Colorado is ridiculously beautiful.

I also ran a bunch. Not as much as the year I ran a marathon, but still quite a bit. I ran trails and streets, sometimes for a few minutes, and sometimes for several hours. I got better at running, too. Maybe even a little faster at the longer distances. As my age advances, I’m all too glad that I can lace ‘em up and bust out a few miles just about any time I want. Plenty of other Gen-Xers can’t.

Time on the bike increased a billion-fold in 2016. That did not suck.

Time on the bike increased a billion-fold in 2016. That did not suck.

I spent more time on a bike in 2016 than I have in decades. Daily bike commutes to work and longer rides just for fun. I almost forgot how freeing that time on the saddle can be.

My time in the weight room had been profitable. I’m not a terribly strong dude just yet, but I made progress, remained mostly injury free and learned a ton about what it takes to get strong. I’ll be putting that bit of knowledge to good use all through the coming year.

And then there’s this: I have my health. Only this past week have I felt the slightest bit ill, breaking a two-year streak sick-free days that kept me on my feet and out of the medicine cabinet. That’s pretty awesome. I also remained employed, well-fed and housed. Family and friends still bless my life, whether they’re here in town or in states many hours and hundreds of miles away. There are people I know who are looking for work, struggling with health and don’t have much family left.

A view seen in the Smokies -- in 2016! -- that did not suck.

A view seen in the Smokies — in 2016! — that did not suck.

When you total all that up, I’d say my 2016 was pretty good. I might not like the news of the world, but I can’t get too bummed when I consider the good things that happened to me. That’s not to say I didn’t have some disappointments, or that I’m entirely satisfied with where I’m at. There is definitely room for improvement for me personally, and I’d love to catch a few breaks in some other areas of my life. But I can’t dwell on the latter without considering the former.

Going forward, I’ve never been much of a resolutions guy. If you see something you want to change, change it. If other things are going well, keep doing the things that make you succeed. My plan is pretty simple. I’m going to hike some trails. Run ‘em, too. I’ll race some, but I’ll spend way more time running without a race bib, by myself, through urban streets and wooded trails because I can and I like it. I’m going to move some iron, and pick up heavy things. I’ll keep riding my bike. I’ll travel to wild places, hike secluded trails, spend time with rad friends or hike alone. God willing and weather cooperating, I’ll climb some more mountains. From the sound of it, 2017 is going to be a lot like 2016, though I’m sure there will be some tweaks and changes that will give it it’s own spice. And who knows? Maybe something awesome will happen along the way.

I got to run some in 2016. That did not suck.

I got to run some in 2016. That did not suck.

Take a look back at your 2016. It may have sucked, I don’t know. But maybe it was pretty good, even though Prince died, American democracy reached new lows, and the Kardashians are still on the air. If it was good, then consider that, be grateful for it and make the next 12 months worth celebrating. There’s a lot we can’t control, but you sure as hell can control you.

Own your 2017. Our days are limited, and each one is more precious than the last.

Bob Doucette

Scott Pruitt, the EPA and the looming legacy of Tom Joad

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who is the Trump administration's pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who is the Trump administration’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

I’ve waited a bit for the fallout of the November elections to settle, to give myself a little time to take stock in what the results will mean when it comes to conservation. There are a lot of mixed messages coming out of Donald Trump’s transition team as to what we can expect from his administration concerning public lands and the environment.

If you’ve been a reader of this blog for any length of time, you know where I stand here. Federal public lands belong to all of us, and federal stewardship of these lands are key to preserving them for everyone. A lot is also at stake when it comes to issues of clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat, public health and those who work in tourism and the outdoor industry, itself a $646 billion contributor to the national economy. A healthy public lands system and a vigilant stance on clean air and water are vital.

I’m not going to say much (at least not yet) of Trump’s pick for interior secretary, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington. All I know for certain is she seems to agree lockstep with the Republican Party platform on public lands, that is to open them up for drilling, mining, logging and, if so desired, sale to the states or private interests for use of their choosing. She is also a climate science denier. Clearly these are stances in which I am in disagreement, and her leadership of the agency that manages federal public lands might be a good topic in the future.

But I do want to examine the broader picture of the nation’s air, water and land. And there is one particular nominee I do want to focus on, and that is Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency. While my knowledge of Rep. McMorris is relatively thin, it’s different for the EPA pick, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

I’m from Oklahoma. I’ve lived here since I was a teenager. I’ve come to know Oklahoma’s stories well, some more than others. I’ll get to that in a minute. But first, if you’re not familiar with Mr. Pruitt, here’s a small primer…

Scott Pruitt is fairly typical in what you see in Republican political circles, advocating for smaller government and fewer federal regulations. Like Rep. McMorris, he’s a climate science denier, calling climate change “far from settled science.” When he was elected attorney general, he set up a unit in that office to monitor and take legal action on anything he deemed “federal overreach.” He sued the federal government over certain aspects of the Affordable Care Act, and joined Nebraska in suing the state of Colorado over its legalization of recreational marijuana use and sale.

But his biggest legal target has been the EPA, the very agency he is slated to lead. On at least eight occasions, the EPA has been sued by Pruitt’s office over regulations regarding emissions from oil and gas production and coal-fired power plants. He has close ties to the energy industry, taking in more than $316,000 in campaign contributions over the years from individuals and groups with ties to that sector; Pruitt’s PACs have received even more. In fact, those ties are so close that he once accepted and signed a letter to the EPA that was written for him (with a few minor edits) by officials at Devon Energy, a large Oklahoma City-based oil and gas company.

Politics being what they are, and with Oklahoma being a very conservative state, none of this should be much of a surprise, though in some instances, it does send up a few red flags.

But you’d think a guy who has lived in this state for any length of time would learn some of its history, and particularly what has happened when lax environmental regulations and practices run amok. The answer is stark, and at times, quite terrible. Here are four that come to mind, in case Mr. Pruitt needs a reminder…

1930s dust storm in Cimarron County, Okla.

1930s dust storm in Cimarron County, Okla.

The Dust Bowl. Back in the 1930s, crop rotation and soil conservation wasn’t much of a thing. Huge swathes of Oklahoma acreage (as well as significant chunks of Texas, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado) were vulnerable to losing topsoil (and thus creating a perfect storm for crop failure) if the conditions were right. Around the time the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, record heat and drought created those conditions, wiping out crops, bankrupting farmers and creating huge dust storms that blacked out the sun. Lessons from the Dust Bowl days taught us a lot about proper soil conservation, but not before thousands lost their farms, livelihoods and homes. Great migrations of Oklahomans headed west, and a famous book, complete with Okie stereotypes’s personified by John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad protagonist, followed.

The Sequoyah Fuels disaster. Nuclear power seemed to be the answer for American energy independence, but funny things happen when you start playing with radioactive materials. The Sequoyah Fuels Corporation had a nuclear fuel processing plant near the small town of Gore, Okla., and in 1986, an explosion there released 29,500 pounds of gaseous uranium hexafluoride, launching a 30-foot column of poisonous fumes into the air. One person died and 37 people were hospitalized. General Atomics bought the site a few years later, then suffered its own troubles — a 20,000-pound spill of uranium tetraflouride powder, and the discovery of some 21,000 pounds of uranium under the site’s main processing building. Uranium levels in the groundwater underneath the plant were 35,000 times higher than federal regulations allowed.

The facility was eventually shut down, but there are still buildings near the plant site — including the old Carlisle School — that remain abandoned for fear of radioactive contamination. Several million cubic feet of contaminated material are on the site to this day, and there is fear that toxins could leak into groundwater or taint the nearby Arkansas River. Maybe a little more red tape and a few more regulations would have helped (though that would be an Energy Department and not an EPA function). In lieu of that, Sequoyah Fuels’ buildings, vehicles, toxic sludge and contaminated soil have all been buried underneath large berms, which will be monitored by the Department of Energy (and Rick Perry!) once the cleanup operation is complete.

Chat piles of toxic mine tailings loom over a neighborhood in Picher, Okla.

Chat piles of toxic mine tailings loom over a neighborhood in Picher, Okla.

Tar Creek. In what is Oklahoma’s biggest environmental catastrophe, and what is dubbed by some to be the country’s worst environmental disaster, a small corner of northeastern Oklahoma that was rich in lead and zinc deposits is now a major EPA Superfund Site. Dating back to the late 1800s (and seeing its heyday through much of the 20th century), zinc and lead mining in Ottawa County, Okla., as well as adjacent parts of southeastern Kansas and southwestern Missouri, was big business. As with any large mining operation, there are waste products — called mine tailings — that end up being left behind once the ore of the desired material is refined. So in the towns of Picher and Cardin, massive chat piles of mine tailings rose around and within the community like small mountains. But the chat piles were contaminated, poisoning ground water, creeks and streams. Children in these communities began suffering the effects of lead poisoning, and with no realistic way to clean up the mess, the government was forced to buy out all the properties in Picher and Cardin. Both communities are now ghost towns, forcibly abandoned by contaminants left out in the open during a time when mine tailing regulations were spotty at best. Waters in the Tar Creek area are still poisoned, and unlike the towns’ residents and many of their homes and businesses (a tornado wiped out many structures there in 2008), those giant chat piles remain.

quakes

Oklahoma earthquakes. This may be a shock to you, but Oklahoma has a history of seismicity. In 1952, a 5.5 earthquake shook the state, and even cracked the floor of the state Capitol. But most Oklahoma earthquakes were small and rare. Until around 2009. At that time, and with increasing frequency and strength, Oklahoma went from being a mostly earthquake-free state to the country’s most seismically active. Temblors went from infrequent to several hundred a year in that time, and in some cases, damaging — a 2011 event near the central Oklahoma town of Prague buckled pavement, damaged homes and toppled portions of buildings as far as 30 miles from the epicenter. In 2016, a series of earthquakes near the towns of Pawnee and Cushing did even more damage, with one quake registering a 5.8 magnitude — a state record.

The cause was not some new mountain range trying to break through the state’s famous red clay. No, it was caused by the disposal of wastewater from oil and gas drilling activities. By drilling deep disposal wells and injecting wastewater underground, fault lines long dormant were exposed and activated. The severity won’t rival anything along the San Andreas fault of California, but the damage is enough to spawn a number of lawsuits. The state was slow to respond, and received a lot of pressure from the energy industry and its political allies to downplay any link between oil and gas activity and the quakes. Eventually, science won, and soon after we discovered that if you decrease or shut down disposal well activities in quake zones, the number of quakes diminishes. But scientists warn us that even with tighter regulations on disposal wells, the damage is done — Oklahoma will likely see more quakes, and the chance of something 5.0-magnitude or greater still exists. This will likely persist for another 5-10 years, according to one study.

Obviously, Pruitt is not to blame for these events, and the EPA’s scope wouldn’t cover them all. But as an elected official representing this state, they are things of which he should be aware, and the lessons therein point toward the need to keep a close eye on how human activity affects the environment. No one wants an overly intrusive federal government that squashes business. But the EPA’s role in protecting the nation’s air and water is vital. It’s one that shouldn’t be relegated to a “hands-off” approach until something bad happens. It needs to be a proactive watchdog.

It’s been said that those who don’t learn from history are doomed by it. Mr. Pruitt should look at Oklahoma’s environmental history and understand that when he heads to Washington, his job isn’t to serve the donors that have fueled his political ambitions. His job is to protect the land, the air and the water. It’s to protect us, so we don’t suffer calamities like the ones I described above.

Don’t let the legacy of Tom Joad come back haunt the entire country.

Bob Doucette

Freedom on two wheels

Hello, darlin'.

Hello, darlin’.

It was shortly after another holiday eat-fest that I felt too flubbery to stand it any longer. As much as I savored the food on the table and the brews from the fridge, all that consumption and sitting around had finally worn me down.

I needed to get out.

I guess I could go run. Or take a walk. But I looked in the corner of the sun room by the front door of my house and saw it there, like an expectant puppy, just waiting to be taken out: My old 1998 Trek, a mountain bike built in the days before mountain biking got fancy.

Let’s go, it beckoned. Let’s take a ride, feel the wind in your face, and breeze by some scenery before the sun goes down…

It didn’t take much convincing.

***

I come from a family of cyclists. All the kids learned to ride at an early age, usually on some sort of entry-level machine with a banana seat and a place to fly a flag. We’d clip playing cards on the frame so they’d make that cool sound on the spokes, helping us imagine we were on a motorcycle, getting ready to jump over a row of buses like Evel Knieval.

My dad was a little more serious about it. He had this big, steel-frame Schwinn 10-speed that weighed a ton but could fly with the right sort of rider in its saddle. My dad was that sort of rider. He could make that lime-green chunk of metal go, and whenever he wished to take a break somewhere along his route, he’d dig into a little leather pouch attached below the seat, light up a Kool menthol and soak in the day.

My oldest brother Mike also made cycling a lifelong habit. As an adult, he’d do epic rides from his house in suburban Denver all the way into town and back, cruising up and down sizable hills that most of us weren’t ready to handle.

As for me, the bike was a tool to get me from my house to a friend’s place — fast transportation that would expedite whatever childhood hijinks was on tap that day.

Beyond that, it was also an escape pod of sorts. Imagine some sci-fi movie where people need to get off the ship and onto the surface of some strange, alien world. They step in, buckle up and jettison themselves straight outta there and into whatever adventure awaited. The bike’s not much different: Wheel it out on your driveway, hop on the saddle and go.

Where you go doesn’t really matter. The fact that you can zip your way down the street toward whatever destination awaited is the real trick, cruising as fast as your legs and its gears will take you.

In that way, a bike is liberating: A simple, go-anywhere tool to take you somewhere else on the spur of the moment. When you think about it, it’s pretty liberating.

A bike is freedom.

***

My road bike is in a bad way right now, so if I want to ride anywhere, it’s on my seriously outdated mountain bike, knobby tires and all. I definitely don’t look like one of the cool kids in their $5,000 road bikes, decked out in skin-tight cycling uniforms bedecked with company logos and whatnot. Not that I care. My bike’s got 21 speeds, is mechanically sound and does the job. And unlike the cool kids and their pricey get-ups, I can take mine across grass, rocks, pavement, mud and anything else and not fear a thing.

But we all hold this one thing in common — we can get places quickly, kind of like a car, but we can also stop and have a look around on a moment’s notice, just like you could on foot. It’s rather frowned upon to stop your car in the middle of the street to gawk at something you find interesting.

Anyway, I found myself in such a spot barely a mile into my ride. I was crossing a bridge over the Arkansas River, the sun sinking lower and giving the sky that soft, low-light glow of approaching dusk, right when the shadows are getting long. The river was fairly full, surrounding a small, tree-covered island. High-rise apartments and commercial buildings towered over the river in the distance. Reflections off the water were a rippled, tinted orange. Most of the trees still held on to their fall colors, matching the sun’s mellowing glow.

I lingered for a bit, taking it in. I wish I had a camera, but in my rush to ride, I left the electronics behind. No matter. I hopped back on the seat and pedaled on, crossing the river and ripping by a group of apartments overlooking the Arkansas’ west bank.

What it looked like on another ride.

What it looked like on another ride.

***

Some of my fondest memories growing up surrounding fishing. When I lived in Colorado, it was for trout. For the one year I lived in rural Illinois, it was bass.

And what a sweet year that was.

An 11-year-old kid in a small Illinois farm town has no excuse to be bored. None. I know this because I found plenty to do. Sometimes that involved getting into trouble, but most of the time, when the weather was good, it started with me grabbing a pole, a tackle box and a red 10-speed and jetting out of my wooded neighborhood down dusty farm roads to a friend’s house where there were a few well-stocked farm ponds.

I cut my angler’s teeth on those ponds, reeling in small bass and bluegills by the dozens during the summer months. Sometimes I’d meet up with friends, other times I’d go by myself. That suited me just fine.

I reeled in my first “big” bass on one such trip, happily riding home to show off the trophy I hauled out of that one-acre pond. A few weeks later, I bested the feat, coaxing a fat largemouth out of the weeds with a carefully retrieved plastic worm. I felt like an expert that day, that maybe there was a long-term future in this fishing thing for me. That’s what 11-year-olds think, anyway. I know better now, but no matter. The memory is a sweet one.

But getting to that prized fishing hole would have been a whole lot harder had I not had that steel-frame 10-speed. Without it, I might have been tempted to sulk around the house during those long summer days, waiting for the next thing to happen. Who knows? Maybe life in that small town would have been pretty boring after all, if not for the escape I found on two wheels.

***

I must admit, I fell out of love with the bike for many years. As soon as I got old enough to drive, I didn’t see the point.

I can remember a couple failed attempts at mountain biking. It seemed cool, and the people who were doing it seemed cool. I guess I wasn’t. Being out of shape and riding a borrowed (and rather crappy) bike didn’t help.

But moving from my apartment to a new place farther away from work got me thinking. I used to be able to walk to work, which I loved. I spent more than 20 years driving anywhere from 70 to 100 miles a day on my daily commute, so spending a few minutes walking to work was an eye-opener. Leaving that luxury behind left me a little blue.

But what if I could live close enough where I could bike to work? Surely, I could find a cheap ride that would do the job. I found a place close enough to my job to do just that, and within a month, I purchased two used bikes for dirt cheap, fixed them up, and became a bike commuter.

Bike commuting is sort of a pain. Walking to work is far simpler, and driving to work is more convenient. But a year later, it’s become normal.

But something else happened. I rediscovered what I’d lost when I got my driver’s license, that simple pleasure of feeling the wind in your face and the smell of fresh air on a casual ride around town. Or the satisfaction of being able to hop on my ride and go pretty much anywhere, and do it without spending a dime in gas money. People ride around town, on trails, across the country and even over frozen wildernesses and high mountain passes on bikes, you know.

It was nice to ponder that as I rounded out my loop, riding a few miles in the cool autumn air, then climbing the big hill toward home, out of breath but feeling good. No, not just feeling good. Feeling right. I’d gotten reacquainted with a long-lost love, and discovered that even after such a long time, things could be good again.

It feels good to be free. To go on a whim. To ride for miles, wondering what I might see, how much ground I might cover. To escape lethargy and feel the burning in your lungs and legs, payment for seeing how fast I could rip the straightaways in a high gear.

We often wonder what it would be like to go back in time, to be a kid again, with a chance to start anew.

Well, get on a saddle, point your ride down the road and find out.

Bob Doucette