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The Question I Ask.

Pretty much every day of the work week I go out during my lunch hour and take a walk. I’m fortunate enough to work in a place where greenbelt paths and trails abound and the horizon is dotted with snowcapped peaks. It’s my midday regimen of flushing away the mental toxins of working in a cube farm for eight hours each day, plus I like breathing in fresh air and seeing things in non-fluorescent hues.

Today, as I was coming back into the building, a coworker strolled up and asked me where all I walked, whereupon I explained the general route and said, “just a stroll ‘round the neighbourhoods and parks”. Barely could I get the words out of my mouth before he started quizzing me about how long it takes for me to make the loop. Whaaaaaat? Regrettably, I told him about forty minutes and that I typically take a minute or two more because I like to sit on a bench and look at the mountains.

Literally, and I do mean literally before I could get those words out, he informed me that he did it seven minutes faster on average. Clearly I was put in my place and I knelt humbly upon one knee in his presence and the virtual blue ribbon of decisive victory he wore so proudly. What a douche.

Seriously, that was the first question he had for me? Not how was my holiday? Did I go skiing? Did I visit family? Man, I hate that competitive mentality.

Over the years I’ve dabbled in lots of outdoor endeavours, some things I still do, some I don’t. Unfortunately there have been things I really enjoyed but  getting lured into a competitive mentality totally killed the buzz and I quit doing them, at least as much as I was.

Climbing was one of those things. I love to climb and I especially love the process of climbing. I like all the gear, I like the sounds and especially love the necessary focus. What drove me away though was that regardless of what I climbed or wanted to climb, it had to be measured up and graded against a benchmark or it wasn’t really “climbing”.

Climbing magazines are the worst at perpetuating this competitive buzz kill. You can’t pick up a climbing magazine and find article about people climbing 5.8 or 5.9 trad routes, which are considered pedestrian or warm up routes amongst the “core” boys and girls. It’s either the hardest, or it doesn’t count. Never mind that some people like me just like getting out and climbing stuff for fun. Climbing gyms are infinitely worse than climbing magazines. So much flexing and bravado talk and so little actual climbing. I rapidly grew tired of it and eventually drifted off in another direction (though I still love ice climbing).

Skiing in resorts is unfortunately sort of getting that way too. I honestly can’t go skiing without later being quizzed on how many vertical feet I did, how fast I could ski from top to bottom, how many runs I got in, did I only ski groomers or ski off piste, how many EpciMix virtual pins did I get at Vail, did  I get first and last chair and the list goes on and on.

You know that distinct sound a cat makes just as it’s about to hack up a fur ball, that ACK-U-ACK-U-ACK sound? That’s what I start doing when people start asking me all those questions.

First of all I’m a telemark skier. There is nothing fast nor conventionally competitive about it. Many times it’s just survival and attrition. Furthermore, telemark skiing isn’t necessarily conducive to a bell-to-bell day at a resort. It’s hard and exhausting, yet beautiful when done properly.

I picked this sport because it essentially forces me to slow down and by nature, it doesn’t lend itself to a lot of measurements or competitive benchmarks. Oh, and it’s hard, really hard. The unenlightened sometimes say it’s stupid and a dying discipline, yet it’s sort of been around since the 1870s when Sondre Norheim from Morgedal, Norway revolutionized modern ski travel with his radical telemark stylings, so I’m not all that worried about being out of fashion. It may just be me and my silly theories, but I’m pretty comfortable with a 140-year test period.

This past week my good friend Melanie came down from Washington and we called our mutual friend Jesse to coordinate a day of skiing in the backcountry up near Vail. As we were getting sorted out at the trailhead, I realized that this was probably one of the rare times where everyone in my group was on teles. Many times I’m the ONLY one one teles. Realizing the makeup of our little trio gave me high hopes that the day would be one of those special ones, one of those that I’d cherish for a long, long time. Three like minds all together, so how could it not be?

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I love skiing in the backcountry. Yes, it’s risky and sometimes scary and yes, it’s way harder than simply turning up at a resort, plunking down hundreds of dollars to ride a lift and ski on prepared slopes. There are no lifts in the backcountry and you have to climb and slog your way to wherever it is you’d like to go. This in itself is a huge deterrent for the vast majority of people who ski — though you can pay hundreds and hundreds or thousands of dollars and have a cat touring company or helicopter transport you. Add on the little detail of telemark skis having a loose and floppy heel and that they’re very hard to control in deep snow and the list of backcountry aspirants grows infinitely smaller.

One of my favourite books of all time is Robert Pirsig’s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Overall the book is basically about how we define quality. At one point in the book he gives an example of the way people learn or measure themselves. He posits that if you take a classroom of students and declare on day one that there will be no tests or grades for the semester, the people who are typically good academic students and who depend on achieving a “grade” will falter. They will not have a tangible way to measure themselves against others and will be knocked off form. Conversely, and quite likely, the students who don’t typically test well in a restricted and measured environment might actually learn better.

Our overall world definitely falls more in the traditional sense of measurement. Everything we do MUST be measured and MUST be compared to validate ourselves. There MUST be questions and answers so we can validate who we are and what we do. No internal questions mind you, just measurement against the masses. Job titles, salaries, cell phone speed, car acceleration, gas mileage…everything. There are questions surrounding everything we do it seems, except the most important one. Does it make us happy?

When Melanie, Jesse and I got back to the car my hopes of having one of the best ski days I’ve ever had been granted. It wasn’t because we climbed “X” number of vertical feet, skied top to bottom in “X” amount of time or anything measurably conventional that skiers typically base their outings on. However, there were two metrics that I measured this day by and they are the two key things I use to determine any good ski day.

The relevant numbers from our day were 22 and 1. Twenty two was the number of photos I took and one is the number of smiles I had during the day, and that one smile started when we got out of the car and I’ve still got it almost a week later.

You know, I never take photos when I’m at resorts because it seems the point is only to ride up and ski down as much as possible to maximize the lift price/vertical foot ratio or some other such thing. I absolutely hate having to race as fast as I can from the top of the lift right back to the bottom only to stand in line to do it all again. I’ve missed everything I went up there to see in the first place…beautiful mountains, clear blue skies, talking to my friends, etc, etc, etc.

If I’m actually taking the time to take lots of photos of the amazingly beautiful places we often find ourselves in, to talk about the latest book we’ve read, to talk about life, to spend time with the people we care about, well, then skiing becomes infinitely more than just simple comparative statistics, it becomes integrated with life itself. I know my non-telemark friends will cringe (again) with all this hippie talk, but it’s why I chose it as my sport of choice to begin with. It’s hard, it takes patience to learn (lots and lots of patience) and it forces me to slow down and appreciate every step along the way. Even the small steps are appreciated and cherished.

I truly believe that the best moments in life are the ones you share with friends doing the things you love, not frantically amassing meaningless numbers or making meaningless comparisons. When the friends you have share the same philosophy and you can merge all that goodness together, your soul can’t help but overflow with a genuine happiness you can carry over from day to day for the rest of your life. You never have to worry about beating a record or someone else doing more because it’s always the right amount, the perfect amount.

The only question I ever need to ask myself, and it’s the most important one, is whether I’m still smiling. If I am, then it was a successful day.

Travel light, climb high, ski hard, pedal far, live simply, smile a lot.

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Books, The Real Ones

I love to read and I read constantly. Every single day I’ll try at the very least to read the headlines and maybe a few stories from my staple sources such as Al Jazeera (English version), BBC, NY Times and The Bangkok Post. Oh, and sometimes I might look at CNN if I’m curious what front page headline worthy story there is about Lindsey Lohan’s latest social escapades — you know, real world news. Of course I would be burdened with 10 kilos of paper every morning if I actually subscribed to and had these delivered to my home, so unfortunately most of my daily reading is done online. However, I do actually have a physical copy of the NY Times with me most days thanks to my employer’s subscription. Yes, I do the crosswords. No, I can’t always finish them, but sometimes I do.

One of my favourite things when traveling is to grab a local newspaper from the city I’m in and start from the first word on page one and read through to the last word on the last page. I’ll occasionally even grab newspapers printed in Korean, Spanish, Italian, Thai, Nepali or Hindi if I see them just to look at the different symbols and languages, especially Asian languages. Silly? Maybe. But I like it so I do it. At least the Spanish ones I can read through for the most part. I love different perspectives on familiar stories and hopefully I never find myself thinking in the horribly narrow views as seen through the filtered eyes of US news sources.

So yes, I love to read and yes, a lot of what I read is online simply because I cannot get my hands on the physical publications of the things I like to read. I unfortunately haven’t seen too many Al Jazeera newspaper boxes outside of Starbucks or Amante Coffee here in Colorado.

The one place I haven’t compromised the physical element of my reading materials is with books, especially when traveling. As cutting edge and convenient as friends and advertisers make it out to be, I just can’t acquiesce and procure a Kindle, iPad or Tablet (or whatever the gadget de jour is), even with the knowledge that it can store hundreds, if not thousands of books in one tidy little place. Efficient? Yes. Almost cost effective? Possibly. Appealing? No.

Now, as I’m making ready to set off for more far away travel in the coming weeks, I find myself looking for books to help me while away the hours during the mind numbing hours of flight time. As such, I’ve been collecting a few books to take along. I know some people can turn up at the airport fifteen minutes before departure and dash into an overpriced newsstand and grab a crappy novel with Fabio on the cover and a stack of those excessively cerebral celebrity gossip magazines and  be satisfied.

I’m not one of those people. I have to put thought into my reading materials and I’ll honestly spend weeks thinking about what I want to read during my travel time. I’ll spend hours querying my friends from all over the world, researching topics and endlessly perusing the shelves of my local bookstore (non-chain store, thank you Boulder Bookstore). The hunt for the perfect book is just as gratifying to me as reading it.

When my friend Jason and I were cavorting about Southeast and South Asia last year, we’d invariably find our way into bookstores regardless of city, languages offered or size of shop. The more off the beaten path, the better. We both love bookstores for the same reasons and the ones with international offerings are preferable.

I know for a fact there was never a day in two months where we didn’t have at least two paperback books in our backpacks. Similarly, there was never a day that passed where we weren’t sitting late into an evening writing in our journals or reading a book by headtorch or candle. One of the best of those memories came from high in the Himalaya when we were lying in our sleeping bags in our tiny, sparsely furnished teahouse room, eating dark chocolate KitKat, reading by headtorch with the silhouette of some impossibly huge, moonlit peak just outside our window.

Some of the best shops were in obscure villages in rural Nepal or less trafficked neighbourhoods in big cities such as Bangkok or Kathmandu where the shop owners would take great measure to help us find suitable books and even better, would ply us with masala tea and engage us in fun, broken language conversations about our respective lives.

One of our favourite little shops was in Kathmandu and was called The Little Tibet Bookstore. Sure, just down the way in Thamel there was a big bookstore called Pilgrim Books which offered an endless selection of books from all over the world and a lifetime supply of cheap trinkets (think gawdy images of Buddha or Ganesh). Despite its relative rusticity and popular location in the heart of filthy Thamel, it still felt like a Nepali version of Barnes & Noble. Okay, I’ll admit it was pretty rad that you could browse books, drink masala tea and have a plate of momos all under one roof, but it still felt like a stale Barnes & Noble — also probably due in part to the fact that tour busses barfed out people in front of it every half hour or so.

The Little Tibet Bookstore was fortunately located on the outer edge of Thamel on a quiet little side street, near the eastern part of the ring road, and was owned by this lovely Tibetan lady, who I regret never asking her name. The shop was clean, well organized and conveniently located just down the way from one of the only places in South Asia that served a decent cup of drip coffee instead of the omnipresent Nescafe with chemical based creamer and a minimum of three tablespoons of sugar per 6 oz. serving. Seriously, we’d ask for “black coffee” and the aghast response from every proprietor was basically equivalent to asking him if he would urinate in our cups. Black coffee?….What?…Absurd!…It’s unheard of! Silly Americans. Sometimes despite our early morning, desperate pleas for black coffee, we’d still get the creamer and sugar. Things just work that way in Nepal.

A funny story about coffee is that after we’d been gone from Kathmandu for over a month, we returned to this same little coffee place and the owner immediately recognized us, vigorously shook our hands and said, “Yes, yes, black coffee! I bring! “. Nothing like becoming a legend based off the love of legal stimulants. Truly one of the most heartwarming highlights of all our travels.

Anyhow, The Little Tibet Bookstore was probably no more than 80 square metres in size, maybe three head-height, two-sided shelves in the middle and the walls shelved to the ceiling. About a quarter of the shop was dedicated to English language books, probably half to Nepali and Hindi language and another quarter to various languages such as German, French, Spanish and Eastern Asian languages. When we’d come in, which was often when we were in or around Kathmandu, the owner  would always recognize us, always respectfully greet us with her hands gently pressed together, a slight bow, and softly say, “Tashi Delek”, to which we would return the pleasantry.

The shop was seldom crowded, meaning no more than four or five people at a time, and the owner would go to great lengths to be of help to everyone. There were various niches around the shop with the ubiquitous photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well as burning incense and a freshly snipped marigold nearby. It was a comfortable place and Jason and I spent countless hours in there. Oh, and just outside the door to the shop, the same ancient lady was always there, sitting on the cold concrete, selling masala tea brewed in a battered aluminum pan on a tiny, grimy little propane stove. She always smiled, pressed her hands together and simply said, “namaste” as we’d go in. I miss that so much.

I think all told, we read close to eight or nine books each during our two months of travel. As I mentioned before, we’d usually have a couple of books with us at any given time. Sometimes we’d exchange with each other if we finished them quickly. Sometimes we’d exchange them with other travelers we’d meet in hostels and sometimes we’d simply leave them at our guesthouse or hostel for others to enjoy. In fact, some of the best books I read were found at hostels, monasteries  or teahouses where we’d stay — free if we’d leave one in exchange! We’d also exchange them at local bookstores when we’d stay in one place for more than a few days.

If available, we’d almost always buy used books, something I always do here in the States too — or at the very least buy from the clearance table. I like to imagine used books have a life and I’m just part of their journey. One book I brought back from Asia was purchased in Kolkata, India. I read it on the flight back to the States and not too long after returning took it to a bookstore and exchanged it for something else. Inside the front cover was a small sticker with the name of the bookstore there in Kolkata. I’ve often wondered if whoever bought it will see that sticker and will stop and think about where that book came from and imagine the story of how it traveled half way around the world and ended up here in Boulder, Colorado. Perhaps it will add something to their reading experience? I want to think it would. It would for me.

I don’t know, for me there’s still something intrinsically comforting about the interaction and relationship with a physical book and a local bookstore that just won’t let me jump over to the Kindle-iPad obsession. I love the smell of books, rifling through pages, having a favourite bookmark (usually a boarding pass), looking through all the titles in a certain section in a shop and the inevitable out-of-the-blue discovery of a book that hits the mark for being “travel worthy”. Spending time in a bookstore is much like travel itself, if you’re willing to go exploring on your own, with an open mind, and are patient enough to let the experiences come to you, you can usually wind up going on journeys you never even dreamed of.

As of now, this is my reading list for our coming travels:

·         Train to Pakistan, by Khushwant Singh (okay, I’ve kind of already started this one so I’ll probably have to get another before I leave)

·         Lessons From the Road, by Alastair Humphreys

·         Dreaming in Hindi, by Katherine Russell Rich

·         In Patagonia,  by Bruce Chatwin, (if I finish Road to Pakistan, which is likely)

I’ll likely get two of these read on the long, 20+ hour flight over. Then, ideally, within 24 hours of landing I’ll have located a little independent bookstore, exchanged the books for others and be ready to read my way through another country or two. If I finish those, maybe I’ll leave them at a coffee shop along the way and pick up another in like kind exchange. Since we’ll be driving a campervan in a circuit and will return to that same town in the end, it would be great fun to return to the first shop and exchange those books acquired from the road for another couple for the long flight home.

Books are cool.

Ski fast. Pedal hard. Climb high. Travel far. Live big.

Things Remembered, Moving Ahead, Good Times…

For the last six-point-five days I’ve pretty much been obliterated with one of the only summer cold/flu/sinus infection type things I’ve ever had. I don’t get sick as a general rule and if I do, I can usually just ignore the symptoms for a couple days until they go away or I get used to them and move on. However, this time it crushed me and I found myself canceling a mountain biking trip to Fruita, a climbing jaunt and just about anything else that involved standing up or breathing.

I managed to work a full day yesterday and today but I can say with all honesty that my heart wasn’t into it. What’s worse was all the people coming by, seeing me in the throes of death and asking me cerebral questions such as  “are you sick?“. The nice thing about having a sinus infection, about the only thing actually, is that when people say stuff like that you can produce a nuclear wave of green snot on command and cough up things the size of a house cat. That’ll send ’em running for the hills and it doesn’t take but once or twice until word gets around the office and people leave you alone. Not covering your mouth during a violent coughing attack or offering to show the results of the Kleenex gets quicker results. Just sayin….

Anyhow, today I was actually feeling saucy enough to make the trip up the three flights of stairs to my office without having to stop ten times to avoid passing out. Small victories count in my world. By the afternoon I was feeling better and actually thought of maybe taking a walk this evening, or dare I say, maybe run a mile or two. Yeah, well, by the time 3:40 rolled around I was plummeting from my Sudafed Non-Drowsy stoke and gave up on those thoughts.  Once again I resigned to just coming home and making dinner for myself (Donna’s in Jackson Hole this week on business and Carly is out with friends).

As I pulled into the garage I glanced back into the jumpseat of my Tacoma and decided that since the pile was approaching the height of the back of the bucket seats, it might just be a good time to take advantage of my lack of physical energy and clean out my truck.  And what a treasure trove of goodies and memories of the past few months that produced. Okay, I do get things out  from time to time but I ski, run, mountain bike, climb or whatever else every weekend so sometimes it’s easier to just leave things there.

First was a dangerously warm can of Oskar Blues Old Chub Scotch Ale that I acquired a couple of weekends ago at the Singlespeed USA Mountain Biking event. So many good times there and so many memories…and some I’ll never get back. Glad that baby didn’t go off in my hot truck over the last couple of days!

Among other things were my filthy cycling shoes, ski helmet, tele boots, Gorilla Pod, assorted Clif Bar wrappers that had hidden under the seat, a lift ticket from skiing on Memorial Day in Aspen and a t-shirt I’ve been looking for.

Ah yes, and lest we forget the dirty woolen ski sock that had gotten down beside the jumpseat and eluded detection for a while. I think that’s the one that went missing after a particularly warm skin up Peak Nine in Breckenridge a month or so ago. That may have also been the day my toes were actually pruned up from all the sweat in my boots. Man alive, finding that thing certainly explained some things and got the cat off the hook. Good times.

On a roll, I decided I’d clean out the glove compartment, which is a name I find odd because I’d never put my gloves in there. Anyhow, various stickers, torn lift tickets, the requisite insurance and registration stuff for big brother Colorado, napkins from various road trips and various and assorted condiments. All things I fully expected to find after a long ski season and all with great memories attached! Then came the thing I didn’t expect to find.

I pulled out a folded piece of paper and when I opened it I saw it was from the funeral home where my buddy Chris had his service back in November. Hit me a little harder than I expected. I read through it, folded it back like it was and put it back. Amazing how fresh that sting can be after almost eight months.

So I gathered up all those other awesome treasures and brought them into the house…and tossed some things into the trash en route (not my sock!). Needing a little fresh air, I spent the next little while out in the garden watering plants so I wouldn’t get in trouble for neglecting them while Donna was away! While I was out there I thought about all those things in my truck and how it kind of told a story about how I’d chosen to deal with Chris’s death.

I could have sunken into despair, given up or scaled back everything I did out of fear of the same fate, but I didn’t. I don’t live in fear at all, quite the contrary actually. I admit it was hard at first just to find the motivation to get out of the house because I was so shattered with sadness, but I did. It took me a while to get that mojo for adventure back, but I did. Chris and I shared a frenetic, sometimes crazy zest for life and we fed off each other. Chris helped me be who I am and he would always knock down any self doubts before they could ever materialize…not just for me, but for everyone.

Yeah, I was down following his accident, still am from time to time, but I know what it felt like to live the dream and go big before all that happened and there is no way I was staying down forever. I just needed to reset for a bit, honor what Chris gave me (and still gives me), then come back even stronger and more hungry for life. Chris was a huge part of that and I will never let him down when it comes to living the way I should.

One thing that I need to mention is that by being hungrier for life and living bigger is that I’ve met some of the most amazing people. It is a privilege to call them my friends. They’ve been incredibly supportive through those tough times and contribute every bit that Chris did to my life. I hope I can repay them someday.

Anyhow, a little later, while making myself a nice dinner and looking for the right red wine to pair with my chile de arbol shrimp pasta with feta and amoxicillin, I grabbed a bottle of wine a mutual friend of Chris had hand crafted and brought down to help celebrate his life back in November. No better time to open it than right now. Salud Chris. Salud Tom. Thanks for the life you helped open for me Chris. And thanks Tom for the friendship and good times to come. Familia. That wine rocks.

So finding all these little trinkets in my truck this afternoon was actually a brilliant reminder that I’m back to living my life “in the right”. Not living every day to the fullest is dying a slow miserable death and I’m honestly not quite ready to check out just yet. And once I get out of this amoxicillin/NyQuil coma I plan to rally with a renewed vigor.

Pretty amped about finding the sock and solving that little aromatic mystery. My friends will be happier passengers for sure. Good day.

Paddle far, climb high, run long and drop those tele turns deep.