This is no time for retreat, and no place for silence

Wilderness is cold, indifferent and ultimately egalitarian. In days like these, it might feel good to find refuge in that sort of purity. But we can’t do that.

I’m in a weird place right now. Call it a bit of a funk. I’ve been back from a sweet New Mexico/Colorado trip that took me to some fantastic places. Every time I return from a trip out west, I wish I was back. But eventually that fades a little as I get into the swing of work, training and living my “ordinary” life far from wilderness peaks and alpine forests.

But it feels different now. The urge is much stronger, not necessarily to revisit old haunts, but to get the hell away from what’s going on around us now.

I got to thinking about this more during a recent run and worked it out like this:

When I’m in the wilderness, I don’t hear or see much of anything except what exists in the natural world. This is much more acute if I’m solo. I’m surrounded by things much bigger than me, and all the trappings, labels, prejudices and accolades with which we adorn ourselves and others are notably absent.

There’s no male or female. No white, brown, black or red. No American or foreigner. No gay or straight. No rich or poor. No Christian, Muslim, Jew or Hindu, or Buddhist, Sikh or atheist. On the mountaintop, in the forest or on high plains, I’m an organism left to the mercies of the elements, the terrain, the forces of gravity and the whims of weather. Aside from the technical gear I bring with me, I’m reduced to nothing more than visitor that must play by the same rules as everything else, be they the trees, the rocks, the grasses and the other creatures who call these environs home. Solo wilderness adventures are a wonderful self-imposed equalizer.

So now a confession. I find myself wanting to be in that space. It’s tough to be there, and lonely. Maybe even brutal. But it’s so simple. The rules are not your own, or anyone else’s. Politics don’t matter. Race doesn’t matter. Pick your identity, and out there, none of it matters. There’s something appealing about an exile like that, free from the strife of competing ideas, biases and expectations. Just you and the mountain, you and the trail. No favors or exclusions, just minute-to-minute decisions and basic survival. The wilderness doesn’t care if you’re happy, sad, fulfilled or disappointed. It doesn’t care if you live or die. It just is, a truly egalitarian world that is random and cruel, but in its own way, absolutely just.

On this day, late in the summer of 2017, that sounds far better than what we have in the world of “civilization.” Could you blame me if I decided to pack it in and do the hermit thing?

But the reality is this: Such thoughts are a fantasy. Through the centuries, humans have become decidedly un-wild. We’re creatures of our constructions. It’s practically in our DNA now. So running away from our problems and pretending to be one with the wild solves nothing. It’s merely an abdication of responsibility. Like it or not, we’re in this thing together.

The Nuremberg rally of 1935. This looks eerily familiar.

My mom grew up in Germany, born a year after World War II really got cooking. Our discussions about her early years are a combination of childhood memories and retellings of tales from her parents. She remembers hiding in bomb cellars, fleeing east from Berlin, then fleeing back to the city as the Russians advanced. She remembers the cruelties of war visited upon her, her family and her neighbors. Of doctors who disappeared one day and never came back. Of a city and a country ripped to pieces by an ideology that held up a nation and its people – check that, a certain kind of people – above all other humans. She recalls feeling no pride in being a German because of the evils inflicted on her Jewish countrymen, and millions upon millions more throughout Europe because someone decided it was time to put all the “inferior” people in their place, which ultimately meant being put to death.

World War II ended in 1945 with the total subjugation of Germany and its allies. It ended with the utter repudiation of Nazi ideology. Its falsehoods and evils were readily apparent to most of the world before the war, but made clear to everyone else – including the Germans themselves – once the shooting, shelling and bombing stopped. Tens of millions had to die to make it so, including over 400,000 Americans.

America’s original sin. It still haunts us.

Here in the United States, we have our own national sin. It started the day slavers began importing Africans to the New World to be used as forced labor on sprawling farms all over North America, South America and the Caribbean. Most of the world abandoned slavery before too long, but the U.S. stubbornly held on to it because owning people and forcing them to work was cheaper and easier than actually paying a wage or doing the work yourself. An entire regional economy was built on this model, one which enabled the splitting up of families, beatings, murders and rapes.

We fought a war over this, too. Apologists will say it was about “states’ rights” and “northern aggression,” but those are just covers for the fact that a group of people wanted to end slavery in America and another group did not. More people died in the American Civil War than in all our nation’s other wars combined. The northern states won, as did the cause of emancipation. But soon after, the formerly enslaved and newly freed African-Americans were subjugated yet again through decades of legislative action, rigged court rulings and socially enforced inequality. When these tools of racism weren’t enough, more violent implements were used: intimidation, beatings, murder and terrorism. Children died in church bombings, and in my hometown, an entire section of the city was burned over several days, with the victims being targeted only because they were black.

Oh yeah. The day Charlotteville, Va., looked a little like Nuremberg in 1935.

It’s 2017, folks. Seventy-two years after the end of World War II, and 152 years after the end of the Civil War. We’re nearly a century removed from the Tulsa Race Riot and more than five decades past the height of what we know as the Civil Rights Movement. And yet in 2017, we’re seeing Nazi salutes and Klan-like rallies in an American city that had the temerity to decide to take down the statue of a Confederate general. The torchlit march on the University of Virginia campus last week had all the feel of the great Nuremberg rallies of Nazi Germany. Grown men, kitted in military gear and long guns may as well have been the Brownshirts of yore. The ideology of these people is what led to the assassination Alan Berg in Denver and the bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City. These people, who have embraced the murderous – even genocidal – legacies of white supremacy, felt emboldened enough to crawl out of their basements and camps and spoil for a fight for all of us to see.

Inspired by “The Turner Diaries,” a novel about a white supremicist uprising against the federal government, Timothy McVeigh set off a bomb that killed 168 people, including 19 children in the Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1995. Here is an example of white supremacy’s more recent legacy in the U.S.

We can’t run from this. As tempting as it may be to wait it out, ignore it or minimize it, we just can’t. I know that the fringe that seems to be rising is a very small slice of our population, but it is a fringe that has found fertile ground in our land.

And that’s something we must challenge. Starting with ourselves.

Let’s not pretend we can be color-blind. That’s also a fantasy. And let’s be humble enough to accept that we don’t understand people who are different from us. We don’t know what it’s like to live someone else’s life. But you can seek some understanding. You can try to walk in another person’s shoes. You can seek honest discussions with folks who aren’t like you, and when you do, listen more and talk less. Hear their stories without caveat. Don’t accept some pundit’s agenda-driven characterization of folks that don’t fit into their “acceptable” realm. See for yourself, and follow that up with a healthy serving of “do unto others.”

From there, it’s important to be heard when you see wrong. People who remain quiet in the face of evil, even when they know it’s evil, are complicit. Folks on the receiving end of hate need to know we have their backs. Yeah, it’s going to be uncomfortable, testy and maybe heartbreaking. But standing on the sidelines gives us Jim Crow laws. Or worse.

I’m fighting the urge to turn inward, to insulate myself in some quiet pocket of solitude, surrounded only by the things that give me peace. A hard life in the wilderness might seem preferable – even more pure – than facing the mess that people make. But as tempting as it is to retreat into whatever isolated wilderness we’d choose, it’s not an option. There’s far too much to lose.

Bob Doucette

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My favorite mountain photos

Sunrise on the Longs Peak Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Sunrise on the Longs Peak Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Two short facts about me: I love the mountains, and I like to take pictures of them. I’m not a great photographer, but the cool thing about the mountains is their very nature can make a mediocre photographer look pretty good.

Another fact: I can get wordy. This post is going to be the opposite of that. It’s going to be all about the images of peaks that I love. So here we go…

Misty mountains

Peak 18 and Windom Peak, Colorado.

Peak 18 and Windom Peak, Colorado.

This was taken in a break in the weather during a soggy backpacking and peak bagging trip in southwestern Colorado. We spent hours in our tents waiting for the weather to improve. The occasional lulls in the rain gave us scenes like this.

Tundra in bloom

Looking down the trail on Cupid. Front Range, Colorado.

Looking down the trail on Cupid. Front Range, Colorado.

Last summer, the weather — again — conspired against me. But I found a brief window near Loveland Pass to do a solo hike of Cupid, a 13,000-foot peak along the Front Range. Gray skies, snow patches and loads of wildflowers made this sweet stretch of singletrack one of the more memorable images I have.

Don’t fence me in

Glass Mountain, Oklahoma.

Glass Mountain, Oklahoma.

While driving to Black Mesa, Oklahoma, I drove through a patch of short peaks and mesas in the northwestern part of the state that caught my eye. I love the lines in this one, from the high, wispy clouds in the sky to the fence line in the foreground. Added to that, the textures of the mountain itself. It’s not a big mountain, but it sure is pretty.

Holy moly

Holy Cross Ridge, near Minturn, Colorado.

Holy Cross Ridge, near Minturn, Colorado.

I took this photo from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross. The camera is not a good one — from an iPhone 3 — but the profile of the ridge, the snow, and the way the sun was hitting it made it pretty striking.

Brooding over mountains

Huron Peak, Colorado.

Huron Peak, Colorado.

Another one from the iPhone 3. I snapped this one hiking down the mountain, and the timing was good — a storm was forming over the top of the peak. It’s always good to get below treeline before storms roll in, and it made for a cool image as well.

Mountain monarch

Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Longs Peak is one of the most photogenic mountains I’ve ever seen. It’s big, dramatic and wild. It will test you, but it will also reward you with vivid, dramatic scenery that look great in pictures. I might add that pictures do not do this mountain much justice.

Hiking into mystery

Summit ridge on Missouri Mountain, Colorado.

Summit ridge on Missouri Mountain, Colorado.

Another memorable solo outing. Dodgy weather almost made this one a no-go, but conditions held long enough to bag the summit. While on the ridge, swirling clouds made this part of the trail appear to vanish into the mists. It was surreal and amazing to hike this stretch of alpine singletrack.

Ancient reflections

Mount Mitchell, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma.

Mount Mitchell, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma.

I cut my teeth on Class 3 and 4 climbing on this one. This scene framed itself nicely. The light in the sky is a little flat, but I liked the way the mountain is reflected in the water, and how you can see all the grooves in this ancient granite crag. The Wichitas are hundreds of millions of years old, but still stand proudly over the western Oklahoma prairie.

Clothed in white

Northeastern San Juan Range, near Lake City, Colorado.

Northeastern San Juan Range, near Lake City, Colorado.

You can see four 13,000-foot peaks in this one, graced with late spring snow — Coxcomb, Redcliff, Precipice and Heisshorn. The suncupped snow in the foreground is actually the summit of Wetterhorn Peak, which contrasts nicely with the peaks in the middle of the frame and the skies far to the north. Breathtaking scenery atop my favorite mountain.

Adventure is out there

Overlooking the Angle of Shavano Coulior, Mount Shavano, Colorado.

Overlooking the Angel of Shavano Coulior, Mount Shavano, Colorado.

A shot of one of my adventure buddies, Johnny Hunter, on our first snow climb on Mount Shavano. The sweeping lines of the trail, the couloir and the saddle of the mountain, combined with the sky in the background, just screams “spirit of adventure” to me.

Moment before a triumph

Mount Shavano summit.

Mount Shavano summit.

Another one from Mount Shavano. This was taken less than a hundred feet from the summit. Johnny is paused here, looking up. To me, this captures the moment when you realize that victory is near — the hard work, physical strain, whipping winds — all of it is converging on a slice of time when you’re about to top out after a big day on the mountain. It’s a sweet feeling that keeps us coming back for more.

Watch your step

Summit of Uncompahgre Peak, near Lake City, Colorado.

Summit of Uncompahgre Peak, near Lake City, Colorado.

My official “sweaty palms” photo from the top of the San Juans’ highest mountain, Uncompahgre Peak. It’s a simple hike to the top with a small stretch of scrambling near the summit. But the north face cliffs are sheer. This shot is looking 700 feet straight down.

Seasons in flux

Looking east from the summit of Uncompahgre Peak.

Looking east from the summit of Uncompahgre Peak.

Rain and graupple falling to the east gave these peaks a frosty appearance over the Labor Day weekend of 2009. A very moody image that shows how the weather and mountains interact.

Striking figure

Wetterhorn Peak, Colorado.

Wetterhorn Peak, Colorado.

My favorite mountain, Wetterhorn, as seen from the summit of Matterhorn Peak. Wetterhorn offers so many dramatic profiles and is an incredible (and surprisingly accessible) mountain to climb. The spiny connecting ridge between the two mountains offers a little more visual spice that symbolizes the wildness of the San Juans.

So there you have it. You’ll notice that all of these are from two states. I’ve hiked and climbed mountains in New Mexico, Montana, Tennessee and even China, but it is coincidence that my favorite mountain pics come from the two states — Colorado and Oklahoma — where I’ve lived the longest.

I’d like to see your favorite mountain pics. So here’s what I’m proposing: Go to the Proactiveoutside Facebook page (please “like” it if you haven’t already!) and put your best mountain pic in the comments that accompany this post. Include a brief description of what mountain we’re looking at, where it is, and any other interesting information about the image. If I get enough, I’ll compile them and post them in a future blog of your best images. So let’s see em!

Bob Doucette

Finding the hill where the Lord hides

crabeyesoverlook

A long time ago, I found my dad doing something he loves: sitting in front of a sound system, with one of his favorite artists cranking out tunes. My dad spent years of his life as a professional musician, all the way back to his early teens, and is a bit of an expert when it comes to audio. If he didn’t have his headphones on, the house was filled with sounds ranging from Aaron Copeland to Pink Floyd.

In this instance it was Chuck Mangione. Mangione is a legendary trumpet player, jazz artist and band leader back in the 1960s and 1970s, and one piece in particular is considered one of his best. It starts out with Mangione on a lonesome trumpet solo, then builds as the full fury of his orchestra is unleashed.

The title of this song: “Hill Where the Lord Hides.”

It made me wonder what inspired Mangione to compose such a thing, and to have it titled so.

Years later – many, many years later – I found a place that could fit the description of Mangione’s piece. It was on the side of a hill, ancient boulders all around, in the middle of a stand of Oklahoma forest and away from the noise of the city. I paused as the sun was setting and felt that if there was anywhere God might be in those woods, it would be there. It demanded me to stop.

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missouribasin

Ask my folks what sort of kid I was and they’d have plenty of descriptions, but one theme that would often arise is that I had no problem entertaining myself. Play with kids? Sure. Do my own thing? Just as good.

This carried over well into adulthood. Running, hiking, lifting, whatever. I enjoy doing these things with other people. I also enjoy doing them alone. I’ve long been comfortable spending many hours punishing myself on the trail with no one else around.

A few years back, I drove 10 hours to Denver to meet a group of friends for a climb of Capitol Peak. The mountain is one of Colorado’s famous 14ers, a moniker denoting peaks that rise to 14,000 feet or more. Of those 14ers, Capitol is considered the toughest.

I felt good about joining this group because of how experienced everyone else was. Confidence in a team’s experience becomes confidence in yourself, I’ve found. But the weather that week was awful, particularly in the northern half of the state. Heavy rains and floods ravaged much of the East Slope, and well into the Rockies. Higher up, such weather would turn Capitol’s already challenging and tricky route into something far more dangerous. The plan fell apart, and as the days rolled on the group was less and less excited about finding another destination.

For me: a major bummer. I drove a long way to stand on a pile of rocks, and I wasn’t about to head home without trying to summit something. So I fixed my eyes farther south, where the weather wasn’t so nasty, and on a mountain that my experience and skill would prove adequate, even if I was solo.

So on a Sunday afternoon, I pulled myself away from a televised football game, hit the highway and made my way southwest toward Buena Vista. I car-camped at a trailhead in the Collegiate Peaks, a stone’s throw away from a creek that began its flow high in the Missouri Gulch Basin. I’d been here before, 10 years back, to hike Mount Belford: a steep but straightforward march that tested me and a bunch of friends who were new to the whole 14er thing. Memories of that trip – and the route to the basin – would help me navigate my way up Missouri Mountain at dawn.

Like any 14er hike or climb, this one tested my legs and lungs as well as my will. As far as I knew no one else was within miles of me, so I had to rationalize continuing as my body and the weather said “turn around.” Being a stubborn ole goat, I forced my way up to Missouri’s summit ridge and topped out mid-morning.

Clouds swirled, built and fled, almost as if they were teasing me with the possibility of unleashing a storm, or perhaps blowing away altogether. At times they were light gray, then moments almost charcoal. Winds were moving them, but unheard even high atop that ridge.

Below me were layers. All the layers of the alpine in the fall. Grays and browns of ancient rock, and light browns and greens of the tundra. Still farther down were deeper greens of willows, then evergreens, and in the distance, red, orange and gold hues from aspens in full fall regalia. Alone at the summit and surveying the sublime greatness of the high country, I verbally expressed my gratefulness to God. If I were him, I’d be in places like this every day.

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rockcity

The spot where I like to run has a network of trails that covers 48 miles through a trio of tree-carpeted ridges on the southern edge of the Osage Hills on Tulsa’s south side. Before I learned of this place, I’d been a running for about a year, picking up an exercise habit from my youth, but not coming into my own as a runner – really identifying as a runner – until I started pounding dirt on those trails. So many paths to explore, so many opportunities to get lost, turned around, see new things and discover new places, all within 15 minutes from my doorstep. Years later, if I don’t get out there at least once a week, it feels as if I’ve missed a crucial opportunity.

One such week, I had some free time but no real reason to run. The day was growing long, but there was still enough time to jump in my car, get to the trailhead and log a few miles, even if it was just a hike. I eschewed the running gear for sturdier, warmer hiking garb, including a trusted pair of boots, and hit the trail.

My hope was to do a loop that would take me to a sweet little outcrop nicknamed “Rock City” by local mountain bikers and trail runners. I liked it because it was out-of-the-way, quiet and, with the trees stripped of their leaves by the winter, curiously scenic. I’m not sure why, but I felt an urge to go there and catch the views as the sun was going down.

I also knew that as darkness approached, the trails would clear out. That sounded good to me. Some time alone on the trails, in the depths of the woods, was what I needed, almost in the way that you might crave a certain type of food after a week of privation, or maybe a shot of caffeine to jolt you awake in the morning.

As I hiked I knew there was no way I’d cover the two miles to Rock City before dusk. The relative warmth of the hour was giving way to the chill of night, a subtle nip and lengthening shadows signaling the waning strength of day. It was time to pick up the pace, so the hike turned into a run despite my initial intentions. I had somewhere to be, and a finite bit of time to get there.

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crabeyes1

I am amazed by how much water can fall from the air.

I figured the cloud cover on that early June day in 2010 would be a blessing, shading my hike from the hot Oklahoma sun. Well, I got that. And a whole lot more. Shortly after hitting the trail in the Charon’s Garden Wilderness of the Wichita Mountains, those blessed, cloudy sunshades dumped their contents on me and pretty much the rest of western Oklahoma in record amounts.

A weekday hike in a wilderness increases the possibility of solitude. A deluge? Well, that pretty much seals it. Solitude was what I was looking for, and solitude is what I got. Me, alone and waterlogged in the ruggedness of the Wichitas, working out a few of my demons while trying to find some calm during what was, fittingly, a very stormy part of my life.

Eventually those rains gave way. The thunder and lightning subsided. I’d been given a break – a pass, maybe – to continue on.

My destination was an ancient crag called Crab Eyes, so named because of the two, nearly identical boulders perched atop a giant slab of granite. Seen from the north, it looks like a massive stony crab peering over groves of scrub oak and cedar.

Hiking there is a matter of following a skinny trail over a couple of gentle ridges before a final approach to the formation itself. It disappears from view behind the folds of the terrain looming over the trail, and then you make one last turn around a bend.

And there it is.

A short headwall forms the base of Crab Eyes, a foundation for the rock tower that holds the “eyes” of the formation aloft.

It’s easy to describe how Crab Eyes looks. But actually seeing it, even feeling it, well, that’s another matter. It took me a long time to figure that out. I knew it felt different from the rest of the wilderness. The peaks surrounding it are bigger, and maybe more grand. But in truth, Crab Eyes is the center of this little universe. Like I said, it took me some time to capture its feel, but years later, I know. Crab Eyes is akin to a temple, its headwall leading to an altar that overlooks most of the range. During the stillness of the lull in the storm, it felt almost holy, its playful name thoroughly unfit for its actual character.

I walked up the headwall, then had a seat on the giant base of the rock tower. The views of Elk Mountain, Granite Mountain and Twin Rock Mountain were spectacular. The clouds thinned slightly and birds began to sing. I snacked on some trail food, reclined on a rock and enjoyed the quiet warmth of midday. I could easily see how other people would also revere this place, perhaps even hold it sacred. I could imagine native peoples coming to a site like this to do business with their creator in days long gone. I felt that, too.

Right then, what I needed was peace. I needed a calm in the storm, somewhere the phone calls and texts and emails and all sorts of urgent voices couldn’t find me. I could imagine God himself feeling that way. Maybe Crab Eyes was a place God would go, to bask in his creation for awhile before resuming his urgent work. Maybe such a thought is heretical. Hell, it probably is. But in that time, I felt drawn to that stony temple, to seek refuge, even for just a short stay. And God was with me, showing me the place he likes to go when things get too loud for too long.

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Hiking boots aren’t the best choice you can make for running trails. On the plus side, they’ll handle anything underfoot. You feel like a human version of a Jeep as you plow right over rocks and roots, and through mud and puddles. They’re also heavy, and the running becomes laborious. But the clock was ticking, the sun lowering, and time was running short.

I finally rounded a familiar bend, and to my right were the rugged landmarks of Rock City. I’d arrived just in time to stop, snap a few pics and take in the views.

I like the way these hills look at sunset. Any photographer will tell you that late afternoon light (as well as that of dawn) is prime time for shooting the most dramatic pictures. Softening light colors the terrain in deeper shades and the warm glow of the sun contrasts with the shadowy contours of the trees and the rocks. The light is ever-changing and fleeting, so timing is everything.

After a time, I’d taken all the photographs I thought I could get. So I found a stony perch, sat down and watched as the sun sunk low in the west.

I didn’t come here just to shoot pictures. I came here to be alone. I heard a runner pass by a few minutes before, but now it was just me, a light breeze and the occasional rustling of dead leaves from a squirrel scurrying for cover as night approached.

Suddenly my mind was flooded with memories, and most of them were bittersweet, faces of people I know and knew, of pleasant moments and hard times. Reflective thought is often like that, when you get enough time to stop and let regrets revisit you like old ghosts. What-if scenarios play out. Your own history accuses you, not in a prosecutorial way, but something more subtle. And yet it stings just the same, cruelly tearing at you and leaving you feeling a little more tattered and frayed.

Thinking he’d be the only other being out there, I brought these things to God. I asked for things I knew I couldn’t have, beseeching him for favors when I knew the answer was a preordained “no.” But why not? An all-knowing being knows what I’m thinking anyway, so I might as well come clean and get it off my chest. The past is the past, unchangeable and ultimately affecting the direction of our future. I expected those prayers to become teachable moments, but not in the way where immediate revelation is bestowed. I suppose I’d have to wait for clarity.

A lot of people don’t believe in God, or prayer, or any sort of spirituality at all, and I get that. But even if my thoughts and words are floating away into space, unheard and unheeded, there is still value to finding a little sanctuary like Rock City, tending to my scars and letting the stillness of the woods serve as a place to convalesce, even if for the brief time it took for the sun to finally dip below the horizon. I looked to this place for some catharsis, and I got what I came for. Dusk was upon me, and it was time to go.

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blackmesacliff

One might be tempted to look at solo ventures to lonely places as a setup for brooding, but it’s not always that way. There are times when you’re in a wild place without a soul to be seen for miles and miles, and completely different emotions wash over you. Being alone for a few hours doesn’t have to have an emo-laden soundtrack on perpetual repeat.

About a year ago, I trekked to far western Oklahoma to see a place that had transfixed me since I was a teen – Black Mesa, the highest point in the state, so far away from everything else in the Sooner State that it exists in the Mountain Time Zone. A little town called Kenton is nearby, a picturesque village of maybe a few dozen souls stubbornly clinging to the western lifestyle of the High Plains.

Black Mesa is no towering peak or grand formation. But it’s beautiful just the same. It’s the remains of old lava flows that coursed through the area eons ago, the hard rock of solidified lava standing firm while softer rock and soil slowly eroded away.

The hike to the top is straightforward and not too difficult. On that mid-December day, no one was out there. All I saw were some cows (the Nature Conservancy allows ranchers to run cattle out there), a few birds, and maybe some ground squirrels. But other than that, it was as still as you can get.

Topping out took a little time, and once I did I hiked to the western rim of the mesa, plopped down on the edge of a cliff and stared out across a panoramic view overlooking northeastern New Mexico. Far in the distance loomed a lone volcanic peak, clothed in snow.

My meal was simple and delicious – rolls, summer sausage, cheese and an orange. Clouds that had obscured the skies briefly broke, and while it was cool, it wasn’t uncomfortable.

Nothing negative bounced inside my head this time. Instead, I spent my lunchtime reflecting on the trip itself – the weird noises of unseen creatures I heard at camp the night before, the improbable beauty of the Glass Mountains near Woodward (a couple hours east of me), the conversation I had with the owner of a lonely gas station farther east in the Oklahoma Panhandle. I was looking forward to hunting down some dinosaur tracks on the way out, a cold brew, and if time allowed, some famously good barbecue for dinner.

Meeting new people, hearing their stories and seeing new places is energizing. The views from Black Mesa were equally so. I’d spent seven hours driving out here, hoping that there would be some sort of payoff, and there was. In spades.

The trip itself was a gift. Not that anyone surprised me and said, “You’re going to Black Mesa!” as if it were a game-show prize. But how it turned out – being able to do all these things, and have the time and physical ability to do so (not to mention cooperative weather) was a pleasant confluence that left me grateful.

Sometimes you have your moments. The universe smiles and says, “this day, this place, is for you.” Black Mesa symbolizes that for me. It may not have the radical vistas of the Rockies, or the storied scenery of China’s Huang Shan or whatever, but gratitude is what Black Mesa means to me. It was good for me to be there, and better to enjoy it on its terms, with no distractions. I suppose I could have stayed home, watched Netflix, hit the gym or done some laundry. But it wouldn’t have topped the experience of slicing off another chunk of sausage and munching away as I stared out into the seemingly endless New Mexico prairie below.

Certain places will provoke dread or pain. Others comfort or safety. But Black Mesa? That place is a big ole smile.

****

Leaving Rock City was a lot like how I go there, a slow clomping run so I could cover as much ground as possible before darkness fell. The ruggedness of the trails and the failing light made me think better of it after only a few minutes.

Slowing down to a hike allowed me to look around a little more, to notice things that might have  escaped my attention if I were still looking at the ground in front of me, picking lines to avoid tripping and face-planting into the dirt. Walking is way easier than running when darkness falls.

There is a spot on the trail that opens up, where trees have been cleared to make way for a row of powerlines that feed electricity to the city. The gap allowed me to see something rising where the sun had just set: Venus was shining bright in the purple and dark blue of the evening sky. Looking to my left, the skies were already blackening, and the stars glinting brightly as night took over.

I’m not sure why this particular trip to Rock City sticks out, but part of it has to do with Venus and the stars, sort of a cosmic wink letting me know that despite my angst, things were going to be OK. And when they weren’t, I could always come back, find my bit of peace, and have my words with God in the quiet embrace of the forest. It would be there, and he would be there, in the lonely places. The sacred places. The happy places. The hill where the Lord hides was in these woods, at the edge of an ancient lava flow, in a stony tabernacle of crags, and on the lofty heights of a Rocky Mountain summit.

These are the places where the worldly and the otherworldly meet, and it’s what continues to draw me to them.

****

If you’re curious about the Mangione song referred to above, here’s a video showing a live performance. You’ll really dig it if you’re into that 1970s jazz sound with a huge ensemble.

Bob Doucette

Five reasons why you need to climb a mountain

The mountains are calling. Don't you want to go?

The mountains are calling. Don’t you want to go?

OK, you. It’s not like you’ve got enough things on your to-do list. It’s probably filled with things that are high in the mundane, uninteresting and nagging. Such is the life most of us lead.

Mow your yard.

Pay that bill.

Go to the dentist.

Yawn.

Repeat.

Or something like that. You get the idea.

My advice, should this pattern seem endless and intractable, is to shake things up a little bit, to do something different, something that will stretch you, push you and provide an exclamation point to a series of life events that consistently end in periods.

So here it is: Five reasons you should go climb a mountain…

You need a goal that goes past your previous goals. If you’re shooting for that coveted rec league softball championship, a yard of the month award or getting more than a hundred likes on your next Instagram selfie, you need new goals. The challenge of climbing a mountain will do that. You have to rise up physically and mentally to do it, a process that includes getting yourself in top condition and studying the task of reaching that summit. Goal-setting is not just about the reward after a job well done, it’s about the process of getting there, and the growth that happens along the way. And it’s way better than being the next fantasy league champ.

You need the lessons that hardship brings. Climbing a mountain is hard. Even if it’s a walk-up, when you’re hiking uphill in the cold at 12,000+ feet it will feel like the hardest thing you ever do. Tougher peaks, where climbing is involved, add critical thinking stress to the fatigue that comes with altitude. When you’re on the flanks of a mountain, you’ll feel sore, tired, winded, cold and uncomfortable. If you can deal with those things and still reach the top, you’ll have learned not only what it takes to persevere, but also a bit more about yourself. Embrace the sufferfest!

You need to do something that scares you a little. Is there anything quite like scaling some steep rock with a whole lot of air below you? No? There is a bit of a rush to stuff like that, not to mention the confidence that facing down your fears instills. At times, it may make you want to brown your shorts. But it also might make everyday challenges look a lot less daunting.

You need to unplug. One of the great things about mountains is that they’re often in wild places that (gasp!) don’t have cellphone service. Whether it’s a few hours or several days where you’re unconnected from the world, not having your head craned downward toward your phone, tablet or laptop might just be the best thing you do for yourself during that time. Don’t just tune out the noise. Turn it off. Get busy on those peaks. Those texts/emails/notifications can wait.

You need to see things from a new point of view. This comes from several angles. Obviously, there is no view quite like a summit view. Seeing the world from a mountaintop is one of the great, simple pleasures of life. But seeing wilderness from the inside, viewing wildlife in its element, absorbing the greatness of the outdoors – we rarely get these privileges in our home environments. You can’t appreciate what is out of sight/out of mind. Getting out there on that mountain might just change the way you think… in a good way.

So there you have it. Tempted to spend your precious time ramping up for a season of meh? Wouldn’t you rather go high and go big?

Bob Doucette

Chris McCandless and Cheryl Strayed: Tales of when Generation X wandered outside

books

I’m going to show my age a bit and talk about a particular time of transition.

If you grew up in the 1980s, chances are the stereotypes are pretty familiar: huge hair, lots of synthesizers, “greed is good,” and a general optimism that ended up giving us really bright colors in the stuff we wore and the things we had in our homes.

Most of the music sucked. At least I thought so. Even the hard rock and metal I listened to became overly formulaic — a few faster songs, the required power ballad, and vocalists trying to too hard to sound like Robert Plant in his Led Zeppelin II days. Every hair band was from the same cookie-cutter stamp, sort of like how country music artists are now.

At least we had hip-hop. That was original enough.

Then some things happened. We had riots in L.A., we went to war with Iraq and then had a recession. Crack cocaine went from being a Los Angeles/New York thing to a national dilemma, and crime soared. Suddenly all the factory-line optimism of the ’80s wore off, people started wearing flannel and music took a darker, more introspective and heavier tone.

We questioned everything, but not in the hippie, free-spirited way of the 1960s. Those guys/gals were our parents, and became fodder for our angst, by “our,” I’m talking about Generation X. We looked back at the glee of the 1980s and scoffed. No more Duran Duran or Poison. We were all about Nirvana and gangsta rap.

Some of us plowed through anyway. But some of us didn’t. Those few went a different direction. They went into the woods.

Hiking, backpacking, rock climbing — all those “adventure sports” that millions of people do now have always been there, but they just weren’t much of a thing for the masses until my generation came of age. I think it was partly a rejection of traditional sports (“ball sports” is how one doofus on MTV put it) and this funny fixation on “extreme” activities. “Extreme” being pretty much anything that involved jumping from a plane, hanging off a crag, riding your bike on dirt or doing something that could get you scuffed, hurt or killed without a ball being involved. That’s how it was billed, anyway. Never mind that people had been climbing, skydiving and getting “extreme” before that term became a marketing buzzword that got driven into the ground.

In any case, a good-sized chunk of Generation X got downright crunchy in the early 1990s, so much so that Nike started making hiking boots. Yeah, I bought a pair of those. They didn’t last long. But they did get me through a couple of alpine hikes in Montana as I hummed verses of “Under the Bridge” from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s not like heroin addiction in L.A. had much of anything to do with Montana hiking (though heroin was definitely a thing in the 1990s), but it was a big song in a big time in my life when I reconnected with my outdoorsy self.

Others were a little more profoundly immersed in it. Two of them became the subjects of books — one a biography/adventure tale, and the other in an autobiography. One lived to tell that tale. The other died and became almost legendary to a lot of young, aspiring adventure seekers.

It’s probably not hard to figure out that I’m talking about Chris McCandless and Cheryl Strayed. And to be sure, their stories have been compared frequently enough.

But aside from the compelling tales of their lives, I want to be clear on this fact: Theirs are generational stories. They are very Generation X. And I guess that’s why they resonate so clearly with me. These were my contemporaries, in their early 20s, when their defining moments unfolded in ways that only now, years later, I can fully appreciate.

Chances are, you know their tales. McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” rejected the life that was expected of him — college, then a job, then setting down with a family/house in the ‘burbs/career — and decided to wander the American West. He later took on an adventure in Alaska that, despite his pluck, took his life after a series of events, both of his own making and bad luck, proved too much.

Strayed, on the other hand, went into the woods on a whim to reset a life that had spiraled out of control. Unlike McCandless, she survived her foray into the Cascades, and came back a changed woman.

In McCandless’s case, the attraction to his story is hard to define. Certainly, the adept storytelling in Krakauer’s book – as well as some excellent reporting – has a lot to do with it. But there is more to it than that. A lot of the people who read the book felt drawn to wild places, to escape the endless sea of suburban rooftops and chain restaurants, unplug and test themselves in the wilderness. A few of those people make it a point to go to the bus where McCandless died, deep in the Alaskan bush. I get that, and so did a number of my contemporaries well before McCandless’s story became widely known. Hordes of us started disappearing into the backcountry before we knew who he was, mostly because we, as a generation, were seeking something, an experience of authenticity that was very anti-80s. Keep your “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” Mr. Leach. Just give me a flat spot to pitch a tent and a crag to crawl on.

That’s what McCandless sought, to extremes. A quest for authentic self, straight from my generation to the pages of a book and eventually in the minds of millions who have carried that torch decades later.

Strayed’s story brought about something else, and I believe something wonderful. The book came out only a few years ago, though the events occurred about 20 years before. She was part of a new kind of woman that wanted to break the mold of what women could do.

Now to be sure, there have been some seriously legit outdoor women going back a long way. But there was a turn of mindset back then where a lot of women decided that they, too, could test themselves in the wild. Male-dominated activities like backpacking, rock climbing and mountaineering saw an influx of female powerhouses as well as legions of everyday adventurers suddenly come forward. That has its roots well before Generation X took a breath, but the idea of women doing big things outdoors seemed to take flight somewhere around the time Strayed was lugging Monster around on her back, trekking north through the Sierras and learning a lot about the do’s and don’ts of how to make it on an 1,100-mile through-hike.

Now her book (a fantastic read, by the way) is a movie, and people are expecting a big influx of would-be “Wild” hikers to test themselves on the Pacific Crest Trail. In between the movie’s release and Strayed’s hike, growing numbers of women have been getting after it outside, to the point now where gear manufacturers  live and die not just by how good their products are, but how well they can reach and please a growing demographic of female outdoor adventurers. Strayed’s tale may not be unique, but it is emblematic.

So what does all this mean, and how does it relate to Generation X? In McCandless’s case, I’d say it reflected a general dissatisfaction with what proved to be an illusion of what American life offered. Naturally, the preferred escape route was the opposite of where we came from. We fled the cities and small towns and the expectations their denizens had of us, and we went into beautiful, indifferent and difficult places outside. That sentiment has always been there, but I’d say it’s never been more prevalent than it is now, going back to those times when we were all spinning Pearl Jam CDs for the first time.

And in Strayed’s case, it marked the beginning of the ubiquity of the outdoor woman. The guys may still outnumber the ladies when it comes to getting dirty in the woods, but the playing field out there is quite level now and fewer people question why a woman would get all scraped up climbing a big wall or spend days out on the trail by themselves. The oddity of old is now more routine. I’ve seen it, and seen it for years. Strayed’s adventure embodied empowerment of women in the outdoors.

For me personally, the common strains of their stories resonate deeply. When surrounded by the trappings (handcuffs?) of “normal” life, I feel that urge to jump in the car, load a pack and head west until I see towering peaks and a singletrack trail leading into who knows what. I feel the need to hear birds, streams, and, at times, nothing at all. A quiet retreat where I can unload my burdens into an eternal place that’s been around well before I was born and will be around long after I’m gone. I feel the need to empty myself through exertion, to solve atypical problems with only my wits and whatever I’ve hauled in on my back.

Peace comes out of that. A little meaning. And empowerment. Maybe the same tunes were running through Chris’s and Cheryl’s ears as they ventured out that first time, when we fled the plastic excess of the 1980s and headed outside – who knew that our stories might change the way people interacted with the wild.

Bob Doucette

Casey Nocket, creepytings and the inevitable collision of ‘look at me!’ and the outdoors

It was bound to happen, sooner rather than later.

A collision of forces, innocuous by themselves, but in combination pretty unfortunate. An affinity for the outdoors, social media and a desire to be noticed by a lot of people have brought us… creepytings.

Casey Nocket and her Creepytings vandalism.

Casey Nocket and her creepytings vandalism.

Creepytings is an Instagram gallery of photos that a woman named Casey Nocket created in which she photographs acryllic paintings she plasters on rock faces in the country’s national parks.

I’m sure some people found these stunts interesting or cool, but most public reaction has been harshly negative. And for good reason, as it’s not only defacing places that are set aside to remain pristine, but it’s also illegal.

The “art” in itself looks like graffiti intended to look like primitive cave paintings. At least that’s the impression I got. Photographs showcase the paintings, and sometimes heavily stylized images of her with her paintings. It’s very hipster-in-the-wild chic, I guess.

I’m not going to debate whether or not what Nocket did was wrong. It’s obvious it was. Whatever punishment she has coming can’t come soon enough.

And it would be easy to take shots at the younger generation that has embraced all things social media and photography. No hike goes undocumented, no selfie is one too many. Go Pros and “Go Poles” have changed the way we see the outdoors, and how we portray ourselves in it, or more accurately, the image we try to portray of ourselves. Whether it’s a thing of personal branding or just hunting for likes, the result is the same — there is a lot of media out there of people doing things outside.

I’ll admit to being at least partially guilty of that. The biggest reason I write in this space is to showcase the outdoors and the need for all of us to be out in it. When you’re in it, you learn to respect it. That’s my theory.

But on that note, we’ve got work to do.

I’m a huge proponent of my local urban wild space, Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness. It’s an awesome place where I can run trails and hike, and it’s within Tulsa’s city limits, 15 minutes from my front door.

But I get discouraged when I see stuff like this.

Someone's bad idea of "art" at Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness.

Someone’s bad idea of “art” at Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness.

That was all chalk, but there are other rock faces defaced with spray paint. Similar acts of vandalism have tagged a number of wilderness areas I’ve visited. This is not a new problem, though one that’s worth fighting.

What’s different is people (in this case, Nocket) making it so public, justifying it as “art,” and then publicizing it widely (before she succumbed to public backlash and made her Instagram account private).

So I see this in two ways. We’ve succeeded in getting people outdoors, at least to a certain extent.

But we’ve failed in terms of instilling the sense of responsibility people need to have in caring for wild places. The chalk art, the creepytings paintings, the video of two idiots hitting golf balls off a mountain summit — all cases of people doing decidedly non-awesome things outside.

Or maybe we haven’t totally failed. Perhaps that’s too harsh. But if Casey Nocket teaches us anything, it’s that we have a lot of work to do in terms of teaching people to respect and protect wilderness.

So let’s get this message out. If you don’t respect it, you won’t protect it. And if you don’t protect it, you won’t have it for much longer.

Bob Doucette

Alone time: A case for going solo

There are days where you wish you never would have gotten out of bed.

Most of the time, those days pass. The sun rises the next day, you breathe easier and chalk up one bad day as something you have to go through every now and then.

But there are times when those days run back-to-back. Or maybe they run on for a week. Or several weeks.

I’ve had a few of those stretches. Personally, I’d like to forget most of 2010-2011. But more recently, it goes something like this…

There is, legitimately, a lot of angst over this little guy.

There is, legitimately, a lot of angst over this little guy.

I wake up in the morning and check the headlines. Ebola has made it to the United States. Elsewhere, some crazy, well-armed maniacs are making a case for beheading people they don’t like. And according to one group, the rainbow flag is now the new “sign of the beast.”

Add to that a few long, stressful shifts on the job, and let me tell you, I’m ready to escape. I’m ready to be away from people. I’m ready to see no one, hear nothing, and just be still for awhile.

Funny thing. I was involved in a Twitter chat recently where the topic was solo travel. It got me to thinking about those times when I hit the road for some serious alone time.

Back when I was in college, my family was spread out all over the world. At one point, I had a sister in west Texas, a brother in Colorado, another brother in Germany and my parents in France. I was attending courses at a small Baptist liberal arts college smack in the middle of Oklahoma.

I was cool being on my own. I liked school. I had good friends, things to do and a certain feeling of, dare I say, “accomplishment” for making it on my own. Never mind that I had my parents’ gas card and plenty of help along the way. But I digress.

When the holidays rolled around and campus cleared out, I’d often make my way to my sister’s place in Midland, a small west Texas city built on the petro-riches found deep underground in the Permian Basin. The routine: Load up my duffle, slip on a thick hoodie and a jacket, and buy a pack of cheap cigars as my truck rolled southwest to the flattest land in all of Texas. That’s an eight-hour drive, boring as hell and I loved every minute of it.

Probably not your idea of a good time, but hear me out. After a semester of communal living, tight class schedules, high stress and all that other business, those eight hours on the road — blowing cigar smoke out the window as the sound of the engine, the tires on the road and the music on the radio droned on — was just the release I needed. The yellow, orange, red and purple glow of sunset over the horizon was a pretty sweet bonus.

I’m sure the trip would have gone by faster with some company, but then I wouldn’t have been able to burn all those cigars, wouldn’t have been able to sing all those songs a full volume, and wouldn’t have had all that time to decompress.

Going solo is often about just that – decompression. The time alone without distractions to just drink in what’s going on around you without having to satisfy anyone else’s agenda but your own is exactly the tonic I need when life gets a little too crazy for a little too long.

A rainy day in the Wichita Mountains. This was taken on a different outing, but the visual effect is the same.

A rainy day in the Wichita Mountains. This was taken on a different outing, but the visual effect is the same.

Those couple of years that went awry (I mentioned 2010-2011 earlier) was also a time when I had one of the most amazing and memorable outdoor experiences of my life. A solo hike in the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma included a near-miss with a charging buffalo, a record-setting torrential rain storm and some absolutely incredible scenery – ancient granite peaks shrouded in rain and fog, transforming the appearance from sandy, beige granite into icy hues of pewter, silver and white.

When I tell people about that hike, they wonder aloud what would have happened to me if that buffalo would have gored me (self-rescue would have been a serious issues), or how I could possibly enjoy being soaked to the bone for hours on end.

But being alone allowed me to really pay attention to my surroundings. When you’re solo, your senses are heightened to a point where every sight, smell and scent is much more intense than it would have been if you had shared it with others.

It also gave me time to think. And believe me, I had a lot on my mind.

But in also focusing on the task at hand – navigating wilderness with no one else there to help – it also allowed me to escape. Maybe not forget. But even if for a day or two, just to not be where all the world’s troubles were, where all my problems were –  yes, that is an escape. As hostile as the conditions, and maybe the wildlife, were, that place at that time was a refuge not unlike the smoke-filled cab of my little pickup motoring down a west Texas highway.

More recently, a group climb in northern Colorado got washed out by bad weather, forcing me to make a choice: Go solo in a drier part of the state or go home. I chose the former.

I camped at the trailhead parking lot, which was dark and empty, nodding off to sleep to the mellower tunes I had on my phone before waking up in the pre-dawn hours and setting off on the trail up Missouri Mountain.

When you're walking into this misty void alone, the experience is visceral. This is on Missouri Mountain's summit ridge, just shy of 14,000 feet.

When you’re walking into this misty void alone, the experience is visceral. This is on Missouri Mountain’s summit ridge, just shy of 14,000 feet.

I suffered a bit on that trip, and the weather was dodgy the entire ascent. The only voice I heard was in my head, telling me to turn around and pack it in. But that same sense of heightened awareness I experienced in the Wichitas returned as I plodded my way up past 13,000 feet, and ultimately an amazing time where, for the first time in my life, I had a high summit to myself.

Hours later, I was back in my car headed toward civilization. As it turned out, I missed the news of the day – a mass shooting at a Navy station that ultimate kicked off another predictable social media shoutfest over guns.

At that point, I wished I was back in the bosom of wilderness, and away from the angst and outrage of “the real world.”

After the week I just had, I feel that pull pretty bad. The world can be a noisy, angry place. When I’ve had my fill of that, the quiet indifference of the wild, taken in on my own, sounds like paradise.

Bob Doucette