GPS is fine, but give me my paper maps

The wonders of GPS are thorough. Transformative, even. But there’s no pleasure in them for me.

I was reminded of that this summer when I was given a road atlas to take with me on a trip. I gratefully accepted it, knowing full well I didn’t need it. But I wanted it, and that’s a key distinction.

I’m old enough to remember when paper maps were a necessity. And that’s how I got around, learning what routes to take across multiple states and through numerous towns where I’d never been. Back then, there was no pleasant-sounding voice politely telling me to turn right in 300 feet, or to keep going straight for the next 10 miles. Getting from Point A to a far-away Point B took a little research.

I know this makes me sound like a Luddite, but that’s OK. For me, it was as simple as this: Instead of typing in a destination of choice, picking a route and punching “start” on my phone, I had the pleasure of opening that atlas, looking where I was, and running an index finger along squiggly lines until I was able to connect the dots between where I was and where I wanted to be. In doing so, I also saw what I might pass: towns of interest, wildlife refuges, mountain ranges and national parks. Tracing my route on paper gave me things to look forward to.

It was a little like watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and watching the scenes where you could see on a map where Indiana Jones was flying to now, and where he ended up – always in some romantic, exotic, adventurous locale we could only dream of. Alamosa ain’t Nepal, but at least there was some imagination working as I viewed the map rather than mindlessly poking a touch screen.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

J.R.R. Tolkien knew the allure of maps. His books are famous for their prose, but those maps also sucked you into the story. He carefully drew mountain ranges, forests, swamps and deserts, printing their names with elegant lettering – art in their own right. When you read a passage describing a place Frodo and the gang were going, you’d turn to the beginning of the book to see exactly where it was.

I’ve always been fascinated by maps. I’ll sit down and pore over them, looking at their details – state names, large cities and small towns, rivers, mountains and lakes – my own way of getting to know the land. It’s low-tech, low commitment and engrossing. Someone took the time to plot out a place, and in turn, did their best to write down its details so you can explore it. It’s not a lot different than writing, just fewer words, more visuals to interpret, and so forth. Cartography is a form of storytelling, and storytelling is an art.

And I guess that’s why I opened up my atlas to plot my course instead of looking at my phone. I didn’t head out on a road trip with a goal of merely getting there. I was looking for a story of my own.

I appreciate GPS and the ease of navigation it provides. I love that it’s as close as my pocket. But there’s no romance to it. That’s reserved for my old maps. They illustrate adventure, and that is sexy as hell.

Bob Doucette

Exploring Oklahoma’s Gloss Mountain State Park

An overlook at Gloss Mountain State Park.

I love a good road trip. Pack up the car, drive long miles, see places you’ve never been and make some memories. Heck, I’ve written a book in which most of the settings came by way of road trips out west.

But sometimes you don’t have time for that. And in that case, a day trip will do.

Not quite six years ago I was driving west to go to Black Mesa, home of Oklahoma’s highest point in the far western Panhandle. On the way there, I ran into a surprise bit of scenery. Between the northern Oklahoma towns of Enid and Fairview is a group of mesas that have become known as the Gloss Mountains. They rise suddenly out of the otherwise flat northwestern Oklahoma prairie, and I found them so scenic that I had to pull over, whip out a camera and snap some pics before continuing my drive. I knew one day I’d need to come back for a closer look.

Another outcrop, with a commanding view of the northwestern Oklahoma prairie.Within this range is Gloss Mountain State Park. It’s a small unit of the state’s park system, built for day hikers and casual visitors to check out the unique formations of this area.

Let’s get into a little geological history. How did these things get here? This may surprise you, but the existence of the Gloss Mountains is connected to the Rocky Mountains much farther west.

A look at Lone Peak, as seen from Cathedral Mountain.

At one time, Oklahoma and much of what is now the American West was at the bottom of a prehistoric inland ocean. The continental collision that gave rise to the Rockies also caused the flat seabeds to the east to rise with it, giving birth the the Plains. What was once underwater is now dry land.

In parts of the sea bed, gypsum and selenite deposits settled in with the rest of the sediment. When the sea bed rose, time eroded softer soil and rock away, leaving behind sturdier rock formations that have better resisted the powers of natural erosion. The mesas of the Gloss Mountains are the result.

A better look at the scope of Cathedral Mountain, with Lone Peak in the distance.

The park itself is small, encompassing Lookout Mountain, Cathedral Mountain, the Sphinx and Lone Peak, the highest mesa in the range. There are more formations to the north and west, but those aren’t part of the park.

In the park is a parking area, a couple of shelters where you can grab lunch in some shade, and a small monument bearing the U.S. and Oklahoma flags. It’s easy enough to see where the park is by spotting the flags from the highway.

As seen from Cathedral Mountain, this pointy little spire is called the Sphinx.

A trail leads to the top of Cathedral Mountain. You have to climb about 150 steps to reach the top (it’s fairly steep), and then you have a small network of trails at the top, most with great overlooks of the range and the surrounding prairie. The total trail length, round trip, is about 1.2 miles. If you’re bringing children or dogs with you, mind the parts of the trail near the edges of the mountains; there are some dropoffs where care is needed.

U.S. and Oklahoma flags flying near the trailhead, with Cathedral Mountain in the background.

It’s not a huge hiking day, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I spotted people hauling camera equipment to the top, looking for just the right place to shoot. Others brought lawn chairs to find a quiet spot near the cliffs’ edges to hang out, enjoy a bite and maybe something cold to drink. Overall, it’s a chill place to hang out and enjoy some time outdoors without the huge commitment of other destinations.

One of the things I enjoy about Oklahoma is that within all that prairie are little surprises like the Gloss Mountains. And I’m fascinated by how this place is linked by a massive mountain range hundreds of miles away.

As a day trip, I dig it. Here’s to finding more fun spots like this in the future.

A thunderstorm blooms in the northwestern Oklahoma sky near Gloss Mountain State Park.

Bob Doucette

Happy first birthday, ‘Outsider’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far, check and check.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Doucette

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

Road trip distractions: The value of getting sidetracked

I’m not sure how you do road trips, but my normal pattern has me going from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. I want to get there, have my fun, and avoid dragging out the long drive home.

But there is something to be said for sacrificing a little time to enjoy the little distractions along the way. They might slow your journey, but sometimes that’s not a bad thing. I found one of my favorite barbecue joints in Salina, Kan., just because me and my travel buddy had a craving for pork. We blew more than an hour there, and it was worth every tasty bite.

On my last trip out west, we took a couple of stops to examine some scenery in northwest Oklahoma. The Sooner State is known as a prairie state, but there are some unique bits of scenery that are worth a stop.

First up, the Gloss Mountains. Or Glass Mountains. Officially, I think it’s Gloss, but Glass Mountain gets its name from the mineral formations visible at its peak.

Glass Mountain. Or Gloss Mountain? Whatever. It looks cool.

Gloss Mountains State Park contains loads of mesa-like formations like this. There is a bunch of hiking throughout this park, and it’s a cool contrast to the gently rolling plains that dominate the scenery in northwestern Oklahoma. The park is just east of Woodward, which, by the way, is home to another great barbecue find, Wagg’s. Trust me on this one.

Dramatic skies help frame the shot of this formation in the Gloss Mountains.

The Gloss Mountains were on our way to New Mexico, so it’s not like this stop took lots of time. But seeing Black Mesa on the way home would be a much longer detour. Again, totally worth it.

Black Mesa is in the far northwest corner of the Oklahoma Panhandle. Cimarron County is as flat as a board. But that changes abruptly when you get to area surrounding Black Mesa. One minute you’re in flat, high plains prairie. The next, you’re driving around and between high cliffs and hoodoos.

Hoodoos south of Black Mesa.

More hoodoos. There is also the remains of petrified trees at nearby Black Mesa State Park.

In some ways, Black Mesa is the easternmost outpost of the southern Rockies. Lava flows filled ancient valleys eons ago. As softer rock and soil eroded over time, Black Mesa’s harder volcanic rock remained. The Black Mesa summit is Oklahoma’s highest point (4,975 feet above sea level), and has a good trail to the top. As you drive west into New Mexico, more of these formations are visible, as well as a number of dormant volcanic cinder cones. All of these arise just before the Rocky Mountain uplift soars into the skies west of places like Raton and Cimarron. So yeah, Black Mesa is sort of where the Rockies and the high plains meet. It’s a cool place.

Black Mesa. Very green for this time of year.

Another shot of Black Mesa, near the trailhead. The formation is huge, so you’re looking at a small corner of it.

Near Black Mesa you can see dinosaur tracks. A number of bed and breakfasts operate near Black Mesa, and the natural setting of Kenton, a small town nearby, is about as scenic as you can get in this part of the world.

Going here added about 90 minutes to our return trip, but it was worth it. Cedar, cactus, sage and shortgrass carpet these rugged lands. If you’re looking for a place with an Old West feel, Black Mesa has it.

Anyway, all this is to say that if you have the time and can pull over from time to time, do it. You never know what  you’ll discover, or what you’ll learn from out-of-the-way places. And if you’re really lucky, maybe you’ll find a spot with good ribs.

Bob Doucette

Books: ‘The New American Road Trip Mixtape,’ by Brendan Leonard

roadtripcover

“What is a life?”

That’s the central question driving Brendan Leonard’s first book, “The New American Road Trip Mixtape,” an honest and sometimes raw look at the forces that propelled him out of what he thought would be a comfortable urban existence into something much more untraditional – that of full-time life on the road, working, travelling and bunking down in his car as he piled on the miles across the American West.

You may know Leonard from his semi-rad.com website, posts on the Adventure Journal or articles written for a number of outdoor magazines. In his book, he explains how the latest chapter of his life was born and where it’s taking him.

Like I said, Leonard is quite frank about his past: A failed marriage, followed by what he’d hoped was a better relationship with a woman whose interests matched his. But when that ended, he found a need to clear his head on the road.

Leonard works through the pain of the breakup as well as the observations and lessons he learns visiting friends scattered across the West while also taking us back to his younger years, the time when he became what he is now – a writer, traveler and climber.

The book is loaded with anecdotes of climbing adventures in the grand peaks of the Rockies, but is also takes us to lonelier moments where it’s just him, alone with his thoughts as he tries to get some sleep in the cramped back-end of a Subaru.

The highs and lows of his journeys are pretty well summed up when he writes, “But a true pilgrimage has to have some struggle, right? If there was no pain or suffering on the way there, was there meaning at the end?”

That resonates deeply with anyone connected to the outdoor community – the relishing of the sufferfest, working out your demons on hard treks, spicy routes or long journeys. Interestingly, Leonard surprises himself that the answer to his central question – “What is a life” – is simultaneously found in his observations of his closest friends as well as the realization that he doesn’t necessarily need to emulate them to find what he’s looking for.

Leonard’s storytelling is solid, and the indictments against many of the trappings of modern living are sharp and, honestly, very revealing.

The book is fast read, and with the weather warming up in time for all those dreamed-about road trips, it just might be the type of thing to get you going. You can get it in print for $9.62 on Amazon or on e-reader for $7.99 on Kindle and Nook.

Bob Doucette

Road trippin’: On finding freedom, insight and meaning behind the wheel

Any good road trip is going to have cool places to see. Good company is a huge bonus.

Any good road trip is going to have cool places to see. Good company is a huge bonus.

Adventure is sometimes what you make it. There are a few constants. For instance, the reality that your situation can become dynamic, or that the decisions you make might end up costing you more than you’d like.

But often, it’s also a state of mind. I won’t go so far to include mundane acts of fun as being “adventures” (“Me and the kids had quite an adventure at the park today! We saw a rabbit!”). Sure, there will be some who say true adventure is almost dead today. Much of what could be explored has been already. There are not many peaks left unclimbed, forests unsurveyed and deserts untraversed. With satellite technology, we’ve pretty much quantified all the lands of the earth. So no more hidden worlds to be discovered.

Worse still: Life in the modern, developed world shuns adventure. Our lives are routine, regimented and fenced in. Show me someone whose life is not mostly within this realm and most likely I’ll show you a homeless vagabond.

Face it. We like predictability. Sameness. Societally induced quality control. We all pretty much color inside the lines. Too much variation from our scheduled, hurried lives is unsettling. And yet, life spent inside that manicured, fenced-in slice of stability can be stifling. Why is the film “Office Space” turning into an enduring classic comedy? Because it pokes fun of and comments on the lives most of us live, those soul-crushing, mind-numbing hours every day for five days a week in which we toil to enjoy the same two days off doing the same chores around the house, in the yard or, if we’re feeling ambitious, gathering with friends at a club, movie theater or backyard grill. We could spend decades doing this and never lack for anything and yet still feel like we’ve accomplished nothing.

That’s why middle-aged men buy $20,000 motorcycles and ride in groups to Sturgis. Why 30- and 40-something women join the teenage concert crowd with their gal pals and rock out like it was 1989. It’s why we take up skydiving. Scuba. Ballroom dance. Or whatever it is that stands so far apart from what we do every day that people simultaneously gawk at and envy us for attempting something so outside-the-box from that they normally see or expect us to do. This is what we do when the need to break free becomes too pressing to ignore. It’s the definition of “escape.”

It’s also why the road trip is so quintessentially and perfectly American. Pointing to a place on the map, gassing up the car and saying, “I’m going here. See you in a couple of weeks.” Modern adventure is partly about escape from the world we’re comfortable with. Or maybe escape from a world we’re no longer comfortable with.

I’m not alone in looking back and remembering some of the funniest, or scariest, or most profound experiences of my life have come on long roadies, with or without other people. It’s where I found myself in September of 2010, on a long stretch of Oklahoma Panhandle highway, heading back from the mountains and seeing loved ones with a whole load of burdens on my mind.

But occupying my thoughts at the moment was a specific reality of the trip. Miles from anywhere, I was wondering if this journey at 70 mph was going to turn into a much slower, human-powered trek on foot.

***

September of 2010 was not a happy time for me. Back then, I couldn’t imagine things going a whole lot worse. My personal life was a mess and my career was tanking badly. Embattled as I was, I was taken aback by more bad news that would force me to set much of that aside.

My oldest brother had cancer.

Nothing will make you step back from your own crises than hearing that a loved one may indeed be in the fight of their life. Two months after his diagnosis, I saw a chance to go see him, encourage him and hopefully find some way to help out.

A friend of mine had planned a trip to Colorado’s San Juan Range to do a little hiking and climbing west of Lake City. I had to bail on a previous trip scheduled a month earlier, but this time was a go. We’d head up to Lake City, hike into Matterhorn Creek basin and summit Matterhorn Peak, a 13,000-foot summit exquisitely placed between the hulking mass of Uncompahgre Peak to the east and the craggy spire of Wetterhorn Peak to the west.

A couple of days in the mountains, then a drive northeast to Denver to see my ill but determined brother and his family. I loaded up the car with gear, some clothes for my stay in Denver and a charged iPod for tunes that would keep me alert for the 14 hours of driving that lay ahead. Finally on the highway, a drink was at the ready by the gearshift and food within reach in the passenger seat. I pointed the car west. God, I love going west.

***

We can thank several people for the concept of the American road trip. Henry Ford made cars affordable for working stiffs like you and me. A whole slew of entrepreneurial souls birthed the amalgam of attractions that gave life to the Mother Road, U.S. Route 66. And of course, President Eisenhower endowed the nation with the interstate highway system. Our country is huge, diverse and wide open. You can literally drive for days at highway speeds and not traverse its expanse. Within it are numerous mountain ranges, wide rivers, deep gorges and glimmering cities. Endless miles of open prairie are only outdone by even more endless miles of farmlands that feed the world. America is peopled with energetic go-getters, stodgy  bluebloods, hopeless curmudgeons and weirdos. Every state has a bit of everything. Hippies and rednecks are ubiquitous.

Jump in your car or on your bike and, if given the time, you can see it all, see them all. And if you’re wise, you’ll love it all.

Need proof of the greatness of the concept of the road trip? Tell me that the best part of “Animal House” is not the Delta boys’ roadie in which they land in a club where they clearly did not belong. Faced with the prospect of a huge, angry man standing over you, menacingly “asking,” “may we dance with your dates?” would you not have also ran from the joint in terror but also relived it as one of the pivotal and most awesome moments of your life? Hell yeah you would!

Because it is, in its own special way, a tale of adventure. Not hanging from a rock face 2,000 feet in the air with a swirling blizzard all about, but still out of the ordinary, foreign and risky. One might say exhilarating. Scary. And memorable. A story retold amongst friends who lived it with you, for as many years as you gather, still inducing the imagery, scents and emotions that first hit you when you were living it.

We go on the road to find ourselves. Or lose ourselves. To build a new story that goes beyond what lives inside cubicles or seven-foot privacy fences.

***

Heading up. One of many memories and sights from a recent roadie.

Heading up. One of many memories and sights from a recent roadie.

The night before the climb, I’m not feeling all that amped about it. I’d been reading Aron Ralston’s “Between and Rock and a Hard Place,” and I’m imagining myself high on a peak when some rock comes loose, or some wind gust suddenly appears, blowing me off a ledge and sending me freefalling to my death. In his book, he quotes uber-climber Gerry Roach saying “geologic time is now,” meaning a rock could move at any time, or not for eons. It happened to him, costing him an arm and nearly his life, and the thought is unsettling to me. Mixed in with all the other turmoil going on, I’d really just rather bag it, pick up a fishing pole and idle the day away at some slowly tricking stream.

I scale back my initial plans – there would be no double summit  that day, just Matterhorn – but the day becomes a good one. The weather was perfect. My legs were strong. Me and my buddy were alone on the peak. And no chockstones moved during the short but fun scramble to the summit.

The mountains are a wonderful playground. I’ve had some of my most profound thoughts and experiences in the high country. They are wild, at times dangerous and always uncompromising. They are what they are and will not budge for anyone. If you get to summit one, it’s partly because the mountain let you do it. No one really conquers a mountain.

But for all the beauty that day, and the modest success of our efforts, my mind is elsewhere. Partly, it’s at home where a whole bevy of problems await. And it’s in Denver. Primarily in Denver. Every minute I’m here in the splendor of the San Juans is a day I’m not where I’m supposed to be.

It’s time to hit the road.

***

I’m amazed sometimes at the silliness in which I’ve partaken on the many long drives I’ve made. And grateful to God that I’ve survived some of them.

In college (how many stories of stupidity begin with, “back in college…”), driving through the high plains with some buddies to go skiing, I can remember switching drivers while the car was still moving at 75 mph. It was an awkward thing of one guy setting the cruise control, keeping a hand on the wheel while scooting to his right while I climbed over the bench seat from the back and clumsily slid into place to take over. Just dumb things college kids do, and usually we get away with it. I guess it doesn’t matter that one wrong move in this little exchange could have made us all grease spots on the highway, but seeing we lived through it and are now wiser through advanced years would teach us that such stupidity is not something to be repeated.

Thankfully, not all road trip foolishness is quite so dangerous.

This will have to do for a roadside "restroom" in the Oklahoma Panhandle. When traveling with women, you learn how well they can team up and improvise when the urge to pee is strong.

This will have to do for a roadside “restroom” in the Oklahoma Panhandle. When traveling with women, you learn how well they can team up and improvise when the urge to pee is strong.

A few years back, I was with a small group of friends and kin heading west to New Mexico where we planned to camp in the Carson National Forest and hike to that state’s high point, Wheeler Peak. Five of us were jammed into a late model Camry, streaking west across the same Oklahoma Panhandle highway I’d driven many times before. Suddenly the driver whips the car to the side of the road and stops. The door flies open, and he is on the run, sprinting through a muddy, recently cut cornfield.

Apparently, he’d seen a pheasant. Being an avid hunter, well, I guess his desire for the blood of a game bird was just too much to keep him contained in the car.

We all laughed at his antics. His shoes were caked with mud, and the pheasants were never in any real danger. Being in a crammed car for hours on end will make you do funny things. And the absurdity of the moment is exactly what made it perfect. I love Wheeler Peak and its many gorgeous vistas. But the pheasant chase is the recollection most seared into my brain from that particular trip.

Real life, normal life, is not usually filled with such random acts of frolic. The uninhibited glee over such a fruitless (but oh so profitable) exercise like this marks the high point of any given road trip. Normal life can go days, weeks, or months without the mirth so generously provided on that drive. But these little roadies are often filled with memories that in some way define us, flavor our lives with something new, fun and unexpected.

A culinary metaphor might be something like this: Our mini adventures are like a wonderful bowl of pho, where you taste every flavor – the broth, noodles, meat, vegetables and spices – all at once. Most of the rest of our lives is like a bologna sandwich without even the benefit of a squirt of mustard.

Fun isn’t the answer to all life’s problems, and I’m sure you can get by for a long time eating bologna sandwiches. But the rhetorical question is obvious: Would you really want to?

***

Me and Mike at camp below Mount Elbert, Colo. He's the big boy to the right.

Me and Mike at camp below Mount Elbert, Colo. He’s the big boy to the right.

My time in Denver is bittersweet. My oldest brother has always been a titanic figure in my life. Uncompromising in his own personal integrity, strong in body and mind, kind to those he knows and to strangers he doesn’t. Seeing him the hospital, he still has the powerful frame he spent years trying to build. But he’s been weakened by a cancer that wants to sap his immune system and wreck his body’s ability to produce blood cells. Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a disease very similar to leukemia, has taken hold and is not wasting time trying to get his body to waste away.

Not that it’s slowing him down, though. Even from his hospital bed, he’s hammering away at his computer, performing tasks for his job as a computer programmer. He’s also blogging about his newly joined fight against MDS and sending emails and Facebook messages to people who want to know how he’s doing.

Mike’s a take-charge kind of man when it comes to things like this. He learned everything he can about the illness, the ways to treat it and the methods in which the hospital provided care. He’s not one taking things lying down and is assertive in determining the direction of his treatment.

So I find myself not wanting to do too much for fear of making him feel helpless. At the same time, we both need to see each other. He needs my strength, and really, I need his. Cancer has a way of making the afflicted and the people who love them feed off each other’s strength and soothe each other’s fears.

In time, I find a few ways to make myself useful while I’m there. It feels good to help out. But I know that pretty soon, I’ll have to leave. It doesn’t matter that I don’t want to. Life goes on, and the show (or the trip) does not go on forever.

One more time, I pack my car. I head to the hospital to see Mike. Neither of us is really good at goodbyes, and given the circumstances at hand, this is even a bit more painful. I’d rather stick around for weeks, months or whatever it takes to get things right again for this amazing friend and sibling. So when I finally leave the hospital room and head to my car, a million thoughts are tumbling through my mind. Uncertainty awaits me when I get home. Worse yet, a far darker mystery gets left behind in Denver for a guy who lived for so long as a rock of strength for the family into which he was born as well as the one he raised.

These are the things that occupied my thoughts, blended with the soundtrack from my iPod, as I turned south, then east for the 12-hour drive back home. Just north of Castle Rock, I top off the car’s tank. My little Honda’s pretty good on gas, and I’m curious how far it will be before I need to stop to refuel. Such a random thought to have in a time that was so heavy! And yet there it was. It would matter later on.

***

Going home again is, to me, the toughest part of a trip. It means the fun’s over, the adventure is done and the whole “back to reality” thing is at hand. But hopefully that is not all.

When people think of the term “travel,” I’m not sure road trips come to mind. It’s certainly not erudite enough for some.

Travel, it would seem, is about going to new places, and then being transformed by them. Most people who take travel seriously turn their noses at tourist traps, all-inclusive resorts and anything else that might resemble what they can get at home. I know the feeling. On the occasions where I’ve gone overseas, I want to eat what the locals eat, stay in the same neighborhoods where they live and just soak it all in. There’s something very valuable to be gained by that. It’s not usually the stuff you bring back that is most treasured. Most often it’s the memories of what you saw, heard, smelled and tasted. Or who you met. It’s all treasure of the mind.

Think about Marco Polo, and how the stories were told of when he and his companions finally arrived home back in Italy, people didn’t recognize them as countrymen. They reportedly wore the clothes and practiced the customs of the eastern peoples they’d lived amongst for so many years. They’d changed.

There’s no ski trip on earth that’s going to be that weighty, no rad mountain ascent or cross-country bike adventure or whatever it is that most of us do that will be so epic as to become an iconic part of our cultural lore. But can our little indulgences of wanderlust be transformative? Is it possible to follow a jam band for a month and then go back home a changed person? Can four days of backpacking alter the course of your life, even if your “adventure” goes off without a hitch, without even so much of a hint of crisis?

I think it can. The fact that going home can be so hard can be evidence that something important did happen, that somehow the escape proved beneficial, cathartic or even life-changing. Maybe not always, but definitely not never.

I think back to another foray into the mountains with a small group of friends where we crammed all the hiking, camping, climbing and fishing we could into five days. As great as all of that was, the best memories were made in none of the places where we hiked, camped, climbed or fished. They happened in a van, where a book was discussed, new lines of conversation were opened, and a bunch of guys got very real with each other. They also happened at a fast-food restaurant run with such comical incompetence that all you could do was walk out and laugh. The journey home can be as rewarding as the trip itself, be it lessons learned during a philosophical roundtable inside a lumbering passenger van or endless guffaws over the lunacy of a bacon double cheeseburger served with everything, including the bacon, but no burger patties.

Things happen on the way home. And the best part is you get to take those experiences with you, too.

***

Way out in the plains, you see stuff like this. A good place to plant wind farms, a bad place to run out of gas.

Way out in the plains, you see stuff like this. A good place to plant wind farms, a bad place to run out of gas.

Somewhere in the eastern Oklahoma Panhandle, it dawns on me that my gambit to make it to Woodward for my next gas stop is not going to pay off. As lightly as my Honda has been sipping the gas, a road sign confirms it. Seventy-eight more miles to go until I reach Woodward, and the gas needle is below the “E” line.

This ordinarily wouldn’t be a big deal, at least if I was on some interstate highway. Towns seem to crop up every 20 miles or so, with 24-hour stations at the ready.

But not out here.

On U.S. 412, in the most rural stretch of highway in this mostly rural state, the touchstones of highway commerce are spare. I should have stopped for fuel in the notorious speed trap town of Hardesty, but that place left my rearview mirror a long time ago. Other corner stops have signs advertising gasoline for $1.79 a gallon, but there are no cars or pickups around. That’s mostly because the place stopped doing business years ago, when gas was still relatively cheap. The old price on the sign is somewhat like a clock on a wall of an office or store that was suddenly shuttered, be it for ordinary or tragic reasons. The long-stopped clock is a time stamp for closure. Same deal with the way-out-of-date gas prices.

I put my trust in a little village called Elmwood. I only know of this place because in my reporter days I wrote a story about a murder that happened at a motel here. As I drive through Elmwood, I come to realize that the slaying is not the only tragedy that has struck Elmwood and its largest business. That motel is now a burned-out husk, and has been that way for some time.  Unfortunately for me, when the motel burned the owners also shut down the gas station that went with it.

Ahead of me are a couple of small towns that might have something open. First up was Fort Supply, which exists only because there is a minimum security prison in town and a small lake nearby. It’s past 5 p.m., though, so any semblance of commerce that Fort Supply has looks to be done for the day. I drive on, nervously looking at the gas gauge, turning off anything electrical and slowing my speed in a lame attempt to preserve the few vapors I’ve got left in the tank.

I find myself looking around, trying to spot any farm houses that might be nearby.  There are a few, sometimes a half mile or more from the highway. If need be, I’m going to have to pull over and walk to one of these places, hoping that a stranger walking up to the doorstep doesn’t alarm some old farmer to the point where he wants to plant a load of buckshot in my chest. Visions of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” run through my mind. I could see it now…

“Sir, do you have a gallon of gas I could use? My car is about a mile away and I ran out.”

“Sure, son, come on in and take a load off.”

I go in, the door slams shut, and out walk ole Cooter’s grown kids, armed with power tools and giant blades, ready to do me in because it is I, not beef, that’s what’s for dinner.

Stupid, I know. But that’s the kind of stuff that crosses your mind when you’re alone, on the road, and faced with a dilemma that leaves you at the mercy of strangers. Sort of like when you’ve made camp somewhere, on your own, and the night is so quiet that any little noise rings down like a thunderbolt in your mind, where a literal thing-that-went-bump-in-the-night just ambled by a few feet outside your tent. It was probably just a dead twig falling off a nearby tree, but in your mind it was a bear looking at your bivvy like it was a nylon-wrapped human burrito.  Or a crazy guy sneaking up on your tent just before he pulls the starter on his chainsaw and makes you Victim Number Whatever.

Fort Supply is now far behind me, and I’m out of the Panhandle and pretty much out of gas. A little hamlet called May is just ahead. At 10 minutes till 7, surely there’s no way this place is open. I pull in. The lights are on. The pumps are on! And I’m saved. From embarrassment, that is. Because you see, the only danger I was in was having to make the walk of shame to the nearest inhabited domicile to beg for a gallon of gas, and the inconvenience of having my arrival delayed a couple of hours.

But adventure is what you make it. It’s very much in your head. A good road trip has the elements of adventure in it. It’s often a narrative of several individual experiences sewn together by a single goal. It’s accented by risk, success and failure. Joy and pain.  Companionship or, in some cases, badly needed solitude. And often it is, in some way, an event that has a lasting impact on you, be it for a season of life or an entire lifetime.

The days of Lewis and Clark or Hillary and Norgay may be way behind us. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go looking for them just the same. We’re lucky to have an open road in front of us that invites us to point that car in some direction, say “I’m going to go there” and then seek whatever lies around the next bend in the road.

Bob Doucette  

The Weekly Stoke: Tips on living on the road and the seas, training advice and the real meaning of risking your life

hotshots

It’s Friday. If you already haven’t blown off work for the day, chances are you’re tanking it for the afternoon right now, right? So let me help pass the time. Here are some more great links in this edition of the Weekly Stoke!

Adventurer and traveler Katie Boue gives us a list of things learned while living 5 months on the road.

Another list, or more of a Q&A, with a woman who, with her family, spends her life sailing the seas.

After the deaths of 19 Arizona firefighters, Brendan Leonard takes a look at the real meaning of putting your life on the line.

Interval training is awesome, but this trainer says people need long-duration, lower intensity cardio as well.

Outside of a war zone, Caracas, Venezuela is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Here’s a story about how Venezuelan runners band together to train and stay safe from crime.

Have an awesome weekend, all!