Notes From the Trip (so far)

Dollar for dollar, new wiper blades are the best investment you can make in having a better day. If poutine is on the menu, get the poutine. At least one, you know, for the table. Numbers bigger than about 10,000 are all pretty much the same.

It is possible to stop biting your finger nails by simply deciding to do so. Your flight attendant is more annoyed than you are. Maplewood smoked bacon is delicious, and maple syrup on bacon is underrated . Maple flavored bacon should be against the law. Fish don’t make great pets. You will not be remembered, eventually.

Someone needs to be in jail for this.

Fear of not having done something is not a great reason to do that thing, although it is a powerful one. There is no traditional gift-giving occasion for which bottle rockets are an inappropriate present. All pants should have a little spandex. And while we’re talking about pants you should just buy used clothes and have them tailored. If you don’t outlive at least a few dogs, you’re not doing so hot yourself.

But you still miss them.

The Coriolis effect gets more credit than it deserves. Prince > Michael (RIP). Flint, Michigan still does not have a municipal water supply. Laziness and anxiety are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and actually if we’re honest they probably almost always go hand in hand. Pig is the second best kind of fat. If it’s on the internet, and it’s free, you are not the customer. It’s ok to knock some things before you try them.

Most people are not good or bad or righteous or evil as much as they are really just incredibly bored, and the truest show of patriotism is to go abroad and be kind. Not making a decision is a decision. Happiness and contentment are easily conflated. It’s not really all that hard to build something valuable, but it’s wildly difficult to build something that remains valuable without your daily, fingers-to-the-bone, compulsive commitment to improving that valuable thing. Some people will not, cannot, tolerate even five minutes of silence.

The kids will be fine. Probably.

A handwritten letter means more today than it ever has. You could do worse; you can do better.




Christmas Trees

In Louisiana, Christmas trees more or less sell themselves. This is a truth that stems, largely, from the fact that they don’t exactly grow here. The trees (Fraser Fir, mostly), are nourished for between five and fifteen years on a few acres in rural Wisconsin before they are cut down, bailed in twine, and shipped on flatbed trucks to the land of crocodiles and gumbo. Here they are priced at something like $25 per foot of height and stand for moments before they are snatched away and tied to the roof of a German SUV. This is the brief and coveted life of a Christmas Tree, out of place.

No manner of lackadaisical salesmanship can deter a sale. The Christmas Crew, as we’re known, openly drink beer as we guide patrons through the conifer forest, and I hope that the following excerpts will illuminate that even actively dissuading a patron cannot discourage a sale:

“That tree there? That’s more crooked that a politician!”

“How was the gig last night?”

“It was great, although I’m still rolling pretty good.”

“Like, rolling rolling?”

“Yeah, we ate some MDMA and it’s still on. I had to smoke a bunch of week this morning just to straighten out. If you need me for the next two hours I’ll be in the back watering trees.”

“This one doesn’t look very healthy.”

“Well it has been cut down, it’s certainly dead at this point.”

“Is watching other people pick out Christmas Trees the weirdest thing you do all year?”

“Sir, it’s not even the weirdest thing I’ve done today.”

In fact, it has been my experience that once a man sets foot on the lot with the intention of buying a tree, you must cause physical harm to his infant son in order to change his mind. This is not so much a position of sales as it is socializing with a goal, but of course not everything can be roses all the time.

There are three positions available, each more desirable than the next, and of course the best gig is to ride along on deliveries. We sit in the pickup truck and between coffees tour the lifestyles of New Orleans old money. Tips flow easily, and the other day we were fed pasta carbonara and a beer for lunch. The music is loud, the pace relaxed.

The lion’s share of work is done out on the lot. Patrons shoehorn imported sports cars into the small gravel parking lot and peruse the selection for a moment before selecting one. Our job, then is to lay the tree over, cut a fresh drinking surface from the base, bail it in fishnet, replace the stand if they would like one, and lash it to the roof of their car. We then replace the sold tree with a similar size from the pile, and repeat the process as necessary.

Between trees we are left to either sweep up or to feed, pet, or otherwise amuse the large collection of dogs, cats, goats, sheep, ducks, chickens, rabbits, imported (legally?) tortoise and unfriendly prairie dog that call the garden center home. It is not difficult work, but it needs to be done*.

Only one task on the lot is universally reviled – hanging lights. There is something to dressing a $500 Christmas Tree for a person known only as “Miss Diana” that cannot help but stir a populist rancor  in even the most rabid industrialist.

When quitting time rolls around we pool tips and share a beer and draw our pay in neatly folded twenty dollar bills. We fan out to scour the Crescent City for gumbo and oysters, or maybe head to see a little music, and prepare for another day of moving trees.



*Or does it?

My Public Land

A colleague posed the question once what right we have, as writers and photographers, to publish our experiences in the mountains. I told him that there is no question, really: that our experiences are our own to do with as we please.

But then I think the question that he asked was not the question that he meant. I suppose now that he was probing the pangs of guilt he felt for somehow spoiling a secret that wasn’t his to share, say, the relative position of cats and bags with respect to top-secret fishing holes, hunting camps, and powder stashes.

Bitterroot2015 (13 of 20)

Public lands are, to be sure, ours to enjoy and to share. The notion of a private fishing spot  or family hunting camp are categorically at odds with America’s best idea. We don’t need to ask permission to go skiing, or hiking, or hunting, and that’s what separates the American West as a bastion of democratic ideals: I own 640 million acres of public land. (Hey! So do you!)

An essential part of the backcountry landscape is its capacity for solitude. If every single American was spread evenly across our public land, we would have a hard time seeing the next nearest human. Time in the mountains gives us the opportunity to feel small and vulnerable and disconnected from what feels increasingly like an irrevocably chaotic modern world, and as we spend time in these places we forge personal relationships with them. Seeing your favorite backcountry haunt on some college sophomore’s Instagram feed is infuriating. Violating.


But like that Woodie Gurthrie song goes, we don’t own that land alone. Sharing photographs, stories, and maps celebrates the places that make us whole and inspire others to get out, and it risks ruining the mystery for those to come. We walk a line between inspiration and exploitation; these places are ours to enjoy but not to diminish.

Whether publicizing these rare places diminishes them is up for debate. I doubt that anyone who’s visited Yellowstone or Zion National Parks in recent years would argue that their wilderness experience was unsullied, and a recent proposal to build a gondola to the bottom of the Grand Canyon rightly faced furious dissent. But people have to know something to care about it, and we are at risk now of losing our public land.

Make no mistake that western public land is under attack. The Republican National Committee adopted as a tenet of its platform to “urge the transfer of [Federal] lands … to all willing states.” A bill is before Congress now (HR 621) to compel the sale of Federal lands across the west. The American Lands Council is hard at work to bypass voters and decentralize public land management.


Public land transfers cannot be undone, and their protection relies on the attention and care of every American. In the face of real economic and political uncertainty, exposure to wild places wanes as people work to stay at work and keep food on the table. In times of prosperity, free time and disposable income not everyone thinks of a frigid 12-hour slog through the mountains as “fun,” but appreciates the value inherent to such places being free.

So sure, tweeting the coordinates of the last place you caught a 25 lb. brown trout is probably going to get you some dirty looks at the bar. But never feel shame for promoting the wild places you love. They need the attention.




Rooting for the Goat

Well, the Cubs won the Pennant. After nearly a century of being the losing-est team in baseball, Chicago’s blue-eyed darlings defied convention, broke the spell, and are headed to the World Series. Cubs fans, now scattered across the globe, can be found yelling gleefully at strangers something about a goat.

Because you see the Cubs, for the last seven decades, have not just been a bad baseball team. They’ve been terrible. So bad you could forgive their coke sniffing frat boy fan base for being so irritating because the team was just so damn pathetic. They’ve been plagued by losing seasons and bad luck for so long that the only conceivable culprit at this point is witchcraft. Voodoo. A curse.

The last time the Cubs played in the World Series was 1945. Things were looking up, the Cubs led the seven game series 2-1 heading into game four at Wrigley Field, until William Sianis showed up with his pet goat and insisted they both be seated. The usher denied the goat access, allegedly on the grounds that the animal smelled bad. Sianis threw up his hands and swore that “The Cubs ain’t gonna win no more.” They went on to lose the game and then the series.

After the final game Sianis sent a telegram to the team reading, “Who stinks now.” The spell was cast. The Cubs have not won a World Series since.

PC: Nick Merrell – The curse of the goat.

Baseball is a game fraught with superstition. Pitchers won’t step on the lines. Players don’t wash the luck out of their jocks. But even for baseball the Curse of the Goat runs deep. In a pivotal playoff game in 1969 a black cat wandered onto the field and gazed into the Cubs dugout. They lost momentum and lost the Pennant race.

In 1986 the curse followed Bill Buckner to the Red Sox. In the 10th inning of a World Series game, he committed a Little League level blunder that led to his team’s loss. He was wearing a Cubs batting glove under his mitt.

But nothing compares to the bad luck of 2003 (the Chinese Zodiac year of the Goat). It was the 7th inning of the fourth-of-seven games in the National League Champion Series. The Cubs led the series 3-2 and the game 3-0. A high foul ball left the bat of Luis Castillo for an easy out into the glove of left fielder Moises Alou. Instead, the now infamous Steve Bartman leaned across the wall to catch the ball, interfered with Alou, and watched the Cubs go on to lose the series.

This curse, it seems, is the real deal.

And it’s why this recent spate of Cubs good luck is so bittersweet. The Curse of the Goat, more than a winning team, is something to rally behind. For our entire lives, the Cubs have been the essential underdog, the original Bad Luck Bears.

The annual Sisyphusian trudge through the regular season is as essential to the Cubs experience as the ivy covered walls at Wrigley Field. The Cubs without the curse is like contemplating Thanksgiving without turkey. Sure, it’s kind of the worst part of the whole thing, but it needs to be there.

Without the Curse, the Cubs are just another sports team, adrift in a city that loves its sports. Championships come and go, and the fair weather zealots (looking at you, Blackhawks fans) drift from franchise to franchise based on a complicated algorithm of athletic merit and nearby dive bars.

The Curse is a part of old Chicago. Of Al Capone, and deep dish pizza, and Meigs Field. To see it go is like seeing the Sun-Times give way to the Trump International. It’s the cruel wheel of progress that values glamour over tradition.

So yeah, like any expatriated Chicago kid, I’ll probably keep an ear tuned for news on the World Series, even if I haven’t seen a baseball game in years. And maybe that makes me a bandwagon fan. Maybe. Except that this midwestern expat is rooting for the goat.



D.B. Cooper and Forrest Fenn, American Heroes

“He was the single most hopeful man I ever met, and I’m ever likely to meet again.” – Nick Carroway, The Great Gatsby

On the eve of Thanksgiving in 1971 a man bought a ticket aboard a Boeing 727-100 for a quick flight from Portland to Seattle. Once the flight was underway, and from a seat near the middle of the plane, he handed a flight attendant a note describing a bomb in his carry-on. He showed her a tangle of wires to demonstrate the seriousness of his claim. If he did not receive a ransom of two hundred thousand dollars and a selection of parachutes, he would detonate his bag in mid-flight.

Hero status.

We’ll never know if the man who went by Dan Cooper really had a bomb. Hours after the hijacking began he was bound for Mexico with a bag filled with cash and a parachute. Somewhere over Oregon he opened the Boeing’s rear hatch to jump into the freezing November rain and illuminate the imagination of generations. He was never seen or heard from again.

A few weeks ago the FBI officially closed the case: unsolved. At some point they had to get tired of fielding deathbed confessionals from people who claimed to be D.B. Cooper or the Lindbergh Baby but can’t be sure which one. But there’s still something captivating about our nation’s only unsolved airplane hijacking. There’s an infectious kind of hopefulness in carrying off a plan like that.

I can hear your incredulity now. A hijacking, you say, is the most violent throe of desperation. But hope and desperation are on equal footing in the foundation of the American Dream. We are a nation built by refugees who fled untold horrors for a crack at a new life. In fact it’s only a deeply rooted tradition of hope that can explain the rise of D.B. Cooper as a legend. Who can really believe that an untrained man could jump alone above a rugged wilderness and into a freezing storm at hundreds of miles an hour in the middle of the night wearing only a polyester suit and survive?

It’s this hope that drew settlers to a New World, then to the farthest flung corners of it in search of gold. Hope has a way of gnawing at us, and like gold itself it’s as much a gift as a curse. It allows us to believe that the future will be different from the present, not through a commitment to self-improvement, but through the work of chance. And even to this day nothing captivates us like the prospect of hidden gold.

Buried treasure is the stuff of high adventure. Of the movies and books that guided our understanding of what it means to go on an expedition. From the mutiny on the Hispaniola to the riches of the Sierra Madre to a ramshackle group of kids on the Oregon Coast, a search for hidden treasure has provided a simple and tangible objective to catalyze adventure.

A picture of hope.

But in our Brave New World the hope of improbable prosperity has been watered down to gas station keno machines and scratch-off lotto tickets. There is no buried treasure. Or is there?

Forrest Fenn’s goal was to leave a legacy behind. The millionaire art collector was battling cancer and planned to die alone in the woods, leaving a bronze chest of gold clutched in the hands of a skeleton for a future adventurer to find. Well, he beat the cancer but still thought the treasure chest was a neat idea, so he hid one somewhere in the Rocky Mountain west. No X marks the spot, but a poem gives the clues.

Forrest Fenn treasure map

Forrest Fenn’s claim to have hidden a great wealth of treasure somewhere in the mountain west is outlandish. It’s improbable. The cynic in me calls it a ploy to sell copies of his book. But then there’s the hope. Not so much the hope that I find the hidden gold, but the hope that someone of means so believed in hope itself that he really did hide a collection of gems and doubloons.

Because the gold isn’t really the treasure. It’s the idea that the gold might be out there, sitting in a hole or a hollow tree, just waiting to capture the imagination of a new generation of adventurers.

And if we never find it? Well, as long as we look, that might even be the point.