Life Without Structure

Life Without Structure

March 20, 2008

The crack of the my beer can opening echoed across Farewell Bend State Park, bouncing off the few RVs and trailers that found themselves at home here on the Oregon - Idaho border. I took a long pull on a can of Steel Reserve, a fine workingman's beer. Not that I'm a workingman or know anything about work. I try to avoid the stuff whenever I can. Strong and cheap, the beer became too popular among the economically depressed of the South Sound area and was promptly relegated only to middle and upper class neighborhoods. Apparently only the well-to-do can enjoy a cheap 8% beer. Orion was hunting over head while Andrew and I drank cheap beer and talked about the ethics of paying to sleep on the ground on public land. My land. Your land. Mine and yours. Drat! I've gotten ahead of myself by thinking about malt liquor and didn't get the order of events right. I'll have to back up a bit to try to make sense out of things.

August 1995. Sewanee, TN. The University of the South. Bastion of Southern Conservatism. Men wear coat and ties to class. Women wear dresses. People say "Ma'am" and "Sir". Entering my last year as an undergraduate. Andrew starting his first. Magnum Malt Liquor (Remarkably smooth and rewarding, with all the rich, full character you expect...). Nighttrain wine (A fine apple wine...). Ning Tang. Wait, this isn't right either. I can't go back 13 years in the past to try to make sense of a simple trip. Besides, I have a far too respectable life now to go revealing all the indiscretions of my youth. I'll have to fast forward back to this morning.

I cruised through Tacoma and over the Narrows bridge on my way to pick up Andrew from his place near Gig Harbor. Working stiffs were already at work and I enjoyed the lack of traffic by indulging in the luxury of changing lanes gratuitously as I crossed the Narrows bridge. I thought about the girl in blond pigtails, not that she wore them much anymore. I hadn't seen her in a couple of weeks. Her blue eyes. The nervous, sometimes impish, smile. Little cleft in the chin. Stunning body. Wait, I'm drifting again. Must focus on the task at hand. Pick up Andrew. Load the car. Anything else? Andrew tossed a bottle of bourbon in the trunk.

To say that Andrew and I were going to southern Utah to hike through the world's longest slot canyon would not be accurate. It wouldn't be accurate as neither of us were interested in doing anything. Rather, it was the time that we were after. We had a vague plan for what to do. I even had maps and a guide book. But the slot canyon would occupy only a few days. Unstructured time was what I was after. No schedule, no purpose, no destination. Float on the wind for a little while. Be homeless for a bit. The Blackberry is the sign that the Antichrist has landed. She was in elementary school when you were graduating college, you idiot.

The towns rolled past as we cruised down I-5 talking about the past. Olympia. Chehalis. Castle Rock. Portland. Take an exit, somewhere (nowhere). Change interstates. I-84. Think about the 24 cans of Steel Reserve in the trunk. Wonder if I'll be arrested in Utah, and if so, how many years I'll have to do for drinking 8% beer. The Columbia and the Gorge. Destined for development, no doubt. People need to live, and living means services, and services require a tax base, and a casinos and resorts bring in the dollars. And another place is Wal-mart-ized. Standardized. Given structure. We pulled off in Cascade Locks to have a beer for the road. I mean eat lunch.

My favorite pub on the entire Pacific Crest Trail was gone. The Salmon Row Pub held a special place in my heart from my time there in August 2003. I even remember the day I got there. August 3. And the day I left. August 5. I had hitch hiked into town, eschewing a three mile "urban trail" for a fast ride in a BMW SUV blasting Mozart. The driver dropped me off directly in front of the pub, which I took as a sign from the Divine that I should go inside and see what there was to be seen. Inside, after more than 2100 miles of hiking, I found Walking Man beer. Brewed across the river in Stevenson, it had a picture of a walking man on it. It only took two pints of IPA to make me stagger. I remember eating a pint of ice cream in a heap by the river. Sharon showed up eventually. Damn. I'm wandering again.

Right. Ah, the pub. Gone now, but replaced by the Pacific Crest Pub and Hostel. Now, you see, here is development, progress, that I could definitely get behind. The new owners had upgraded the menu (smoked salmon chowder, anyone?), but not the prices. Walking Man was still on tap. But there were new bathrooms and a bunkroom was being built for the dirtbag hikers that would pass through on their pilgrimage. The place looked like it had been cleaned more recently than the 1970s.

The towns kept coming. Hood River. The Dalles. Pendleton. Stop for gas. Groceries. Gawk at the locals. Drive through a blizzard while crossing the Blue Mountains, that final obstacle to Oregon Trail pioneers. We came down through the mountains, passed through La Grande and Baker City and Huntington. State Park on the Snake and late enough for whatever caretaker there was not to come out and shake us down for the $11 we were supposed to pay to throw out some sleeping bags.

That popping sound again. Pontificate on the virtues of a good, cheap workingman's beer. Pretend to be a workingman. Now, you see, we are back where we started and I can start to tell you a tale. Stories must begin at the beginning and end at the end, you see. Essays must have five paragraphs and you must cite sources, you see. Play nice, obey the rules, and we'll all get along. Cactus Jack told me that. I opened a second can of Steel Reserve and then a third. I had really needed to get out of town and away from structure for a while. Structure is good for getting stuff done, but not so good for being human. Being human is more important than having stuff or doing stuff or planning stuff. Structure governs the day-to-day when you are unlucky enough to have a day-to-day. Alarm clock. Shower. Eat breakfast. Get dressed. Drive into work. Drink tea. Write a lecture. Go to class. Grade quizzes. Go to lunch. Everything in the right order so that I can get out of campus and get back to living by 2 pm.

I needed to get away the dehumanizing factory floor of everyday life. So, there is good hiking on the island? I had no idea. No, wait, too young. Ah, where was I? Factories and schedules? Something stupid, no doubt. I need a job to pay for not having a job. I have to work in order to have the luxuries that I can't seem to live without. Like a roof over my head when it rains. Hot water whenever I want it. A place to sleep where the Fuzz or a property owner won't bother me. Like Steel Reserve and canned beans and red wine and the occasional bottle of rum. And a new pair of climbing shoes. And Bach And Beethoven and Stevie Ray Vaughn and Bob Marley and Pablo Cassals. The good stuff in life. I took another slug of rum and staggered over to my bed for the night. The best bed in the world. A sleeping bag on the ground under the limitless stars of a western sky unpolluted by the lights of a near by city. Pigtails. Pretty pigtails.

It was just light out, which meant that I had to hurry. I was late. Behind schedule. The local caretaker would be coming around soon to shake us down. Must hurry. I wandered over to the bathroom as I no longer had the shelter of night to hide the functioning of my body. He was up and emptying trash cans. Why do they always get up so early? I walked calmly over to our camp and found Andrew packing up. We tossed our stuff in the back and were off. I waved at the dude on our way out.

Back toward the interstate, the endless interstate, was a truck stop. As a novelty, it actually seemed popular with truckers. Andrew and I slid into a booth and listened to them talk. Names of towns. Names of mountain ranges. Places been and places to go. Good and bad. Three musicians with interesting hair came in. The waitress asked if they were from around here. Where here was I wasn't too sure. Andrew's plate of two eggs, hashbrowns, four sausage links, and two hub-cap sized pancakes cost $4.95. A real truck stop.

The interstate waited. We raced into Idaho on I-84, although I never quite broke the 75 mph speed limit in the state. Gas efficiency, you see. With the cruise control parked at 73 mph, I was getting more than 40 miles per gallon. Back to the interstate. That lovely interstate. There isn't a whole lot to love about it other than it gets you where you want to go fast. Wait, that is a bad thing. Time is precious. We were wasting it on a stupid interstate. We passed Wendell, birthplace of The Great Destroyer. He was probably out skiing. No, it was Friday. He was probably telecommuting and looking at ski porn.

Mind numbing sage. Some dude walking along the side of the interstate in full BDUs (those are fatigues for those not versed in militaryspeak) carrying two top-of-the-capitol sized flags. Boise. We stopped occasionally to make tea and stretch and marvel at the posh rest areas in Idaho. I went into an empty stall and took a wide stance for fun. And then ran out laughing before anyone else came in or got the wrong idea and arrested me. More towns smelling of cow. Jerome. Shitville. Dungtown. Utah wasn't much better, but at least a highplains storm was brewing, bringing a new scenery to our little pod.

Finally, something different. We left the interest and headed into the hills, aiming for Logan, UT. and the world wide headquarters of ULA. The headquarters is also Brian's garage. Brian? Brian who? In the interest of complete accuracy, and that is what I always strive for, except when I have something important to say, we'll need a little diversion from our story. Besides, the rest of the day was spent primarily talking politics and hiking and eating at La Familia, which now owns the title of Best Mexican Food I've Had (previous best was Amigo's in Bishop, CA), and I can hardly write about such things. Well, I can, but I don't want to right now.

In the interest of complete disclosure (which is highly overrated, but now excepted), I have to say that I am an officially sponsored, professional athlete. A ULA Ordinary Person. That just means that Brian floats me some gear to test every now and then. Unlike GoLite's people, I actually used Brian's gear before this. Brian runs ULA, which makes ultralight packs and other assorted bits of gear. Like a simple square of sil-nylon with velcro straps that you can wrap around you as a skirt if it is raining. A simple solution to rain pants and venting. So simple that no one had thought of it commercially. Brian also hikes, and in fact hikes interesting trails and routes. The Pacific Crest Trail. The Arizona Trail. The TransAmerica Trail (cross country motorcycle route from Tennessee to the Pacific). The Hayduke Trail. Haven't heard of it? Don't fret, many people in the long distance hiking community haven't heard of it either. Obscure. Aesthetic. Those who know it speak of it like it was a Holy Grail. Well, Brian was the first person to hike the entire thing in one push, moving 900+ miles through some of the most spectacular, fearsome, awe inspiring, religion creating, angelic, demonic, scenic, deathly land in the US: Abbey Country. Red rock country. Slickrock country. The Colorado Plateau. Blushing yet, Brian?

He let us in on his latest project, but required us to give a blood oath not to reveal it to anyone. Never been done before, super scenic, perfect length, passing through some of the wildest land left in the contiguous 48. He's got a year to get it done before I jump his claim. Compare that with, say, hiking the Long Trail without a resupply or the John Muir Trail without resupply or the Colorado Trail without resupply. Ok, that is a dig at an egomaniac whose company makes shoddy gear and hasn't had a good or original idea since Ray Jardine swore to have nothing to do with it. Yeah, I know a high profile hiker is sponsored by them, but he didn't even use their gear for the first 2100 miles of his hiking life and I'm pretty sure he'd be the first to admit he could do his thing with anyone's gear. The comparison between the two companies and people is a good one and I'm sure that I made Brian blush with these two paragraphs, which really was my only goal.

We had nothing to do. Well, beyond eating breakfast and eventually hitting the road for the south. But that was more of a direction rather than a requirement. We'd leave eventually, but had no real purpose down south as Tera and Nate wouldn't be meeting us for another two days. Brian fixed a few things on an old prototype of the Catalyst pack that he now sells, and also fixed a few dings on my Serratus pack, no longer made. Wred Dog sat around and guarded the place. It was nice not having a schedule, a routine, a list of things that I had to accomplish every day. Like taking a shower. It wasn't until noon that Andrew and I packed up the car and headed out to the interstate once again for the seven hour drive down to Kanab.

The interstate was fast, but mind numbing. Once clear of the Salt Lake - Provo slum, I tried to find a rest area to stop in and brew up some tea. However, the state of Utah seems to have privatized these. And by privatize I mean replace with a gas station. That's it. No real place to walk around and stretch your legs, or sleep in your car, or exercise your dog. Nothing except an opportunity to spend money. Maybe it was just like this along I-84. But the privatizing of public land and open spaces bothered me. Like a proposal to bring in commercial vendors and advertising to certain city parks in Seattle, the loss of a public, common area, free and open to all, was something to be mourned. It certainly wasn't a sign of progress.

We roared over the mountains on I-70 and dropped down to US 89, a lonely road running through small town Utah. I had driven it before and remembered it fondly. It wasn't fast, but it didn't have to be. If I wanted to drive 80 miles an hour, I could do that on 84. It was 7 pm by the time we rolled into Kanab. Kanab reminded me of Moab, but without all the off roaders. And without Stephanie. The last time I was through the town the owners of a certain cafe offered to buy me breakfast and coffee thinking that I was down on my luck. I appreciated that. Andrew and I pulled up in front of Grandma Tina's restaurant and walked inside after finding the other cafe closed. Empty. Bland. Vanilla. I didn't have much hope. But the soup. Oh, the soup. A melange of roasted vegetable and black beans, with just enough chipotle to remind you that you're still alive. The pasta fagioli soup was also sublime. Someone had actually made these soups. The vegetables were not uniformly cut. Chunks of garlic floated about, too large for the delicate sensibilities of the mass produced, fast food inspired palates of my fellow countrymen. The soup wasn't out of a bag from Cisco. Kraft didn't make it. Someone in back cooked it up. A person. Things were looking up. A pretty girl in hospital scrubs walked in. Definitely looking up.

Andrew and waddled out of the restaurant pondering where to spend the night. No worries, I thought. I'll just ask around. A local will know. Always ask a local. Anywhere close to camp around here? No, no, I mean close to town, not 100 miles away. Really, we're looking for something other than the RV park. No, thanks, we're trying to avoid the RV park. Ok, it there some place other than the RV park? The locals just didn't know. And we asked eight of them. The first grocery store didn't sell beer. The second one only carried 3.2 and 4.0 beer. Whatever. Something will work out. We drove back north out of town for five miles and pulled off at a sign for Kanab Canyon. There we found ample camping off of a dirt road. I guess the locals don't get out much.

I should probably be a little more clear about what exactly constitutes "camping". Since I'm hauling my car around with me, I need a place to put it for the night where it won't get in the way, towed, or stolen. Since it is easy to spot my car, I have to hide it away, other wise someone might come around and want money. Like the Feds. And that is about it in terms of requirements. I had water jugs in the trunk next to beer, rum, and my chair. It took me forty seconds to set up camp: Ground cloth thrown out, sleeping pad on top, sleeping bar out. Done. The stars over head would shelter me and in the morning I would make tea. But the night was still young, and Andrew and I had beer drinking and philosophizing to do. Orion came out to join us.
Sunshine. Bring me sunshine. I could see the canyon wall lit up. Golden. But I was in the shade and stayed burrowed in my sleeping bag, my nose frosty. Andrew was down by an overlook of the river that we found last night as we walked about in the bright moonlight. The silvery river under the pale light was something to see. My bed was under a juniper. Life was pretty good, despite my cold nose.

I eventually gathered the courage to get out of my warm sack and fire up my stove for some morning tea. Andrew found me gawking at the canyon walls. Just gawking. The reality of the physical landscape of southern Utah, of Abbey Country, is something that has to be seen to be understood. Words and pictures just don't work. Music might. I drank tea and chatted with Andrew for a while before we headed back into Kanab for breakfast and a check at the BLM office.

Closed. Closed. Closed. Every place except the McDonald's was closed. Kanabians seem to respect the Sabbath. I turned the car around after reaching the edge of town and tried another direction. A Mexican joint was open and we popped in. Nedras Too boasted of the world's greatest salsa. While worthy of consideration, it couldn't beat the salsa (or, rather, the ten salsas) at La Familia. I wanted to order an OId Fashioned Jelly and Cheese Omelette but was too much of a traditionalist to try something new, even if it was called old fashioned. Huevos Rancheros for me.

Well fed, we roared out of town heading for Old Paria. Old Paria was, well, where a town used to be and where a movie set used to exist. It was last used for The Outlaw Josie Wales, a Clint Eastwood western where he shoots a lot of people and squints. He also spits tobacco juice on dogs and people's feet. Once on a scorpion. Quality. HWY 89 ran along the edge of the Colorado Plateau, with distant buttes, mesas, and landforms ringing the north. To the south was the North Rim. The North Rim of what? Of the most beautiful place on earth. People back in the 50s wanted to flood it. In 50 years what will people think of our bright ideas?

It was noon, which meant it was time for a beer. The Civic had made it down the dirt and gravel road easily, but it was dusty and, gasp, warm. Coming from the Pacific Northwest, I hadn't seen the sun since October. October 9th to be exact. It was warm in the sunshine. Glorious sunshine. Andrew and I fiddled about drinking our beer when a BLM ranger rolled up. We talked, swilling beer, about the upcoming route. She had never heard of anyone doing such a thing. But she had spotted a lot of interesting formations along our route back. From her car. Using binoculars. She didn't know if there was water up there or not, never having been through the Sand Hills or Poverty Flats. I popped the top on another Champagne of Beers.

With a couple of 3.2s in us, we decided to go for a little stroll to see what might be down the wash. Around the corner. On the other side. To go for a walk and see for ourselves what there was, for a place, like a thought, depends on the person. Abbey could write all day long about the desert, but that is his desert. My desert is something else. Even though Andrew was next to me, he was in a different place. This is why you have to do things instead of just hearing about other people doing them. You have to live as opposed to living for or living through another. Otherwise you miss reality completely.

A rough track led down to the Paria river, a silty grey mess whose status as a river was in some doubt: It was more like flowing mud than water. From here we had a choice. Up river the way was open and expansive, running toward the source. Red rock on the ends, a river close by, sunshine. Tempting it was, but we turned downstream instead, preferring to move toward the future instead of the past. Besides, it looked like the canyon might narrows a bit downstream and that meant interesting things would be close by, as opposed to spread out.

There wasn't a track out here, at least none worthy of the name, but bushwhacking it was not. In the lush bottom lands of the Pacific Northwest, bushwhacking is a serious endeavour. You're going to sweat and curse and probably get hurt. It takes a month for the spines of the Devil's Club to rot out of your skin. And rot they must: Barbs on the ends defeat tweezers every time. But here walking cross country was easy. The land was open (enough for motorheads to drive their Things here). Vegetation was minimal. Getting lost wasn't a problem. All you had to do was walk and think and be human for a bit.

Eventually the shoes and socks came off and the mud and sand went squish between my toes, a reassuring feeling that guarantees that you have nothing important to do. Except climb on the consolidated mud that form the rocks in the area. The big arches, the vaults, the ribs, the otherworldly formations are caused in part by rock so soft that you can carve away at it with your fingers.

We continued down river for a while, wading in and out, until we found a nice patch of sun to sit in and eat lunch and watch two men and three horses go racing by, dressed like they were extras for that Clint Eastwood movie I told you about so recently. You know, the tobacco spit epic.

Although we had no real rush, I had neglected to put any beer in the back pack before we set out for our hike and after two hours of walking I felt like another 3.2. I peeled off my big toe nail, which had died a month earlier during a climb of Mount Hood but had taken until now to depart from me. I tossed it in the Paria for good luck and took another bite of my king size Snickers bar.

On our way back to the past, Andrew bopped across the river to investigate some holes in the rock that we had spotted. Symmetrically cut and forming a ladder, it was unclear what it was there for. Andrew had to find out. The pattern was too regular to be natural, but it didn't lead to anything. The rock ladder just went up twenty feet and ended at the base of a crack. Climbing the crack would be beyond most people, and besides the rock was way too soft to make climbing safe. Even odder, there was something that looked like a platform at the base, as if someone would sit in a chair at the base of the ladder. Andrew scrambled up and poked around for a while before returning with the verdict: "No idea." There was a physical, wooden ladder over which concrete had been poured.

We talked about possible theories on the walk back up the river. The end of a rappel route from the canyon rim. Start of the only rock climb in the canyon. Archeology site. Hunting platform. Maybe the BLM people would know.

It wasn't a long walk back to the car and the beer, which was only moderately warm from sitting in the sun. The Civic charged back up the steep gravel road to the plateau and hummed along to the highway, where we made a left turn for the start of the main event. Nate and Tera were going to meet us at the Whitehouse campground, a BLM operation close by. Although the road to the campsite was marked as being washed out, I decided to give it a try. Two miles and ten minutes later the Civic was parked in the lot with twelve other cars and Andrew and I were down by the Paria drinking beer and reading in the late afternoon sun.

Andrew was still working the 3.2 Champagne, but I had shifted over to the 211. Steel Reserve. Cheapest beer there is and almost 9%. Anything banned from poor neighborhoods in Tacoma has to be good. I drank and read Abbey. Abbey preaching to the choir. Abbey preaching to Ms. magazine. Abbey preaching to the ocotillo, cholla, and javelina. Abbey preaching to anyone who would listen. I crushed a can and opened another.

A quote on the outside of Andrew's book read something like, "His greatest story was his life." That, I think, is why the words that the man wrote carry such weight with people who venture beyond their safety net. Who spend some time doing nothing productive in the out-of-doors. People who actively engage in the process of living gain something from his writing; they hold a bit of magic. His writings give one a glimpse, that terribly precious glimpse, of how life could be, not because he built a theoretical house of cards and then dazzled all with his clever thinking, but rather because he did things, and those things were all the evidence needed of the existence of a better life. He wrote about these things to earn enough money to keep doing them and to help protect the land where it was still possible to live as a human being. He know of what he wrote. He knew because he did.

"I'm going to change my perspective," said Andrew. Picking himself off the ground, he waded through the Paria and set up shop on the other side of the river in a thin patch of sun, Highlife next to him. Good idea, I thought. I should change my perspective on things also. Instead I retrieved my last Steel Reserve from the river where it was cooling in the thin mud that passed for water in these parts. Where was I in my rant? Pretty blond girl who sometimes puts her hair in pigtails Nervous smile. Blue eyes. Born when around the time I was starting high school. Wait, no, that isn't quite right. Abbey and doing things. I had a beer with Ed once, but it was a couple of decades after he died. It was in Oracle, AZ, and I was on my way to the Santa Catalina mountains outside of Tucson to do some hiking before a wedding. You see, there was this Italian joint that advertised cold beer, and it was mighty hot out and I remembered that Ed had once lived in Oracle and there was a strange dome-like thing on the side of the road and my car wouldn't start after I ate my sandwich and drank my beer with the ghost of Abbey, but there was a run down autobody place across the street and a man with long, greasy hair came over and scrubbed the terminals of my battery clean and I paid him $10 and my car started.

Three cans of 9% are pretty stout. The sun was fading rapidly and so I packed up my pink chair and collected my empties and went back to the campground. I brewed up some tea and sat in my chair looking at the pink, wavy rock next to the campsite. Andrew returned in his rock shoes and climbed up to the top of the rock via some steps that someone had once cut in the soft stone. Or firm mud, if you will.

The Steel Reserve was beginning to fade under the calming influence of the green tea and my mind ceased wandering around just wherever it pleased. Andrew came down from the rock when it got cold and pulled out the high end whiskey he had toted along. I made my bed for the evening.

The temperature dropped as the stars came out and I was soon encased in my down jacket, warm. Star gazing and dreaming of all the things that are possible in the world. Dreaming, as Thoreau once said, is good. Dream away and build your castles in the sky. Just make sure to build a foundation up to them some time. Dreams are pointless unless you do something with them, for them. Andrew was sleeping out in the open where his brother might spot him. I was under another juniper tree, looking at the stars and dreaming about dreams, about people, about places, about times. I was home.