Can You Smell That?

That’s the scent of fresh air.  That’s backcountry hiking.  That’s decomposing trees and melting snow and grizzly poop.

As beautiful as the main parts of Yellowstone are, they’re not what keep me coming back.  Nope, what has me here yet again are the parts you don’t see.  The parts that only those who live inside the park see and feel and experience.  The mud pots and mineral pools and geysers with no trails leading to them.

Screw the bison herds ambling along — and across! — the roads, a short off-trail hike will take you to a bison graveyard.  Yeah, it’s only three miles from the road, but none of those tourists visiting only for a day, or a week, even know it’s there, let alone are willing to walk through the sage-covered hills to reach it.

During bison mating season, I see all kinds of folks lining the sides of the roads with massive binoculars and spotting scopes trying to catch the barest glimpse of one of the wolves stalking the herds and I have to laugh.  “Give me a couple hours,” I want to shout, “and I’ll you take you to a freaking den!”

You will also never, by the way, well-and-truly appreciate your can of bear spray until you get lost and stumble across an adult grizzly’s main lair.  I would not, of course, recommend that particular adventure — but it sure as hell is a cool memory/experience to have!

I think this summer will finally be the time for me to dive into that secondary project I’ve had simmering for a while.  It’s a “low fantasy”* setting, so the unseen and unknown areas of Yellowstone are the perfect impetus to get me thinking “primitively.”  To be honest, after spending so long on sci-fi, I need the mental and experiential kick of being away-from-it-all to get my thoughts moving onto that very different track. 

*Think little-to-no magic, and a bit of gritty realism, and that’s “low” fantasy, versus the usual “high” fantasy stuff of wizards and elves and noble heroes and other impossibilities…

That is, of course, another of the reasons why I like trips & adventures like this: to get my mind exercising and working.  I can’t sit here and stare at the steep, forbidding, snow-covered mountains that ring Yellowstone — like I’m doing as I write this — and not imagine what is was like for the original explorers and settlers.  No roads, no gas, no electricity — hell, no real, accurate maps — just what you can carry with you on foot or horseback.

Think on that for a bit.

As I sit here, my version of such “exploring” is off to my left: a 4-ton, 28-foot trailer with, quite literally, all the comforts of home.  Yeehaw, I’m really roughing it now!  Lewis & Clark ain’t got nothin’ on me!

Ahem.

I look at that trailer, then I look at the mountains.  I look, and I try to forget what I know about the actual geography of the area — I don’t want to cheat, after all — then I try to pick out the path I would try to take if I was one of those folks way back when.  Whether it’s mountains or meadows or impassible forest, I look and I try to imagine traveling and living there a century, or a millennia, ago.

Then I Google the reality of what I studied and I laugh at how fast I would’ve actually died.

It is, when you think about it, very, very true that we stand on the shoulders of giants.  Whether you think about scouts on a trail, Vikings on a longboat, traders on camelback or even early pilots like Amelia Earhart, over water with no GPS, no LOFAR, no navigation aids at all, just take a moment and appreciate what they did…and how impossible it would be for 99+% to do anything even close…

Part of the Story

Ahh…the middle of nowhere…

Okay, that’s the wrong description…especially for someone who enjoys the pace of life in smaller towns.

Now, look — I grew up in L.A.  The pace and crowding and insanity of that kind of place is something with which I am intimately familiar, so trust me when I tell you this: I hate big cities.  They are the plague.  They are the purest evil in the universe.

If some race of super-intelligent, super-powerful aliens came to Earth and demanded to scoop out and take New York, My response would be simple: “Have at it!”  No haggling, nothing expected in return, they could just take that shithole — err, “place” — as a tip…as a little something-extra for coming all that way just to visit us…

But even I lose track of what life can be like sometimes.

Let me paint you a picture…I’m sitting here, typing this post in small-town Montana.  When folks around here talk about going “to the big city”, they are talking about freaking Bozeman, for God’s sake, which is no one’s idea of a bustling metropolis.  Hell, the coffee shop in which I had breakfast yesterday had more ATVs and four-wheelers parked in front than actual cars.

So, today, I stopped for gas before going to lunch.  A normal gas station, with a normal convenience store, just off the highway.  Great, everything pretty standard and expected, so far…except that my credit card is old, and its magnetic strip has pretty much given up the ghost as far as functionality is concerned, and it refuses to work in the pump’s reader.  Oh well, shit happens.  I’ll just go inside and pay.

As soon I walk through the door, I get a wave and a call from the woman behind the counter, “Don’t worry about it, honey.  Just pump and come pay when you’re done!”

Wait…what?  What the hell?!

The L.A.-raised part of me started to look for the scam, went instantly to DEFCON-1 on the ol’ suspicion-meter…

Another smile, and another wave, from the lady — presumably for the slow, slightly stupid moron starting blankly at her — and I went back outside to pump my gas.  Before paying for it.

Before paying for it.

Let me say that again: before I fucking paid for it!

Think about that for a minute.

If I had tried to do that same thing back in L.A., I would’ve been face down on the ground, with the business-end of a pistol pressed against the back of my head, before I so much as got my gas-cap unscrewed.  If I was very, very lucky that gun might even have been held a real cop…or if I was very, very unlucky.  It depends on who you ask.

In the world of small towns, however, where folks are still human?

*sigh*

We’ve lost so much of ourselves in our mad rush to concentrate and urbanize.  We’ve lost that sense of community, and of brotherhood — not to sound too hippy — that is what made us what we are…that is also what could make us what we should be.

“Go outside an play.  I don’t want to see you back in this house until the streetlights come on!”

“Don’t worry about the money, just take the gas can now, then pay for everything when you come back.”

“Naw, I’m not gonna write a ticket.  Just slow down a bit and watch out for the cows…”

E670C71A-CB46-4134-923C-01C38F57F0E7We watch it in movies, we read about it in stories and articles…but usually there is that (inevitable) overtone of superiority, of patronizing indulgence, from those “betters” who have spent just a day or two in a small town, and who want to use that experience to highlight what really matters to them: New York, or L.A., or London…

There is nothing on the face of this planet more fundamentally insulting than patronizing superiority, by the way.  That unspoken sense that someone is “better” because they “get to” go home to a 500 square-foot box costing $2,000 a month…that the reality of “the rest” is somehow less.  Less valuable, less important, less real than theirs, just because they have 30 million “neighbors”….

Once again, all I really to say is: *sigh*

I could talk about my waitress at lunch, about the fact that she was one of the best I’ve ever had.  Hell, I could talk, even, about the fact that she could make far more as a cocktail waitress in a “real” city.

I could talk about all that, but I won’t.  Frankly, I don’t particularly want to roll around in the pigsty of recrimination and criticism that going deeper into this subject would bring.  There’s a cigar bar right down the road, and I have better things to do…

Besides, what are fiction novels for, if not to take the foolishness and flaws of our society and make them a part fo the story?!

My Cross To Bear

One of my favorite (over-used) concepts is having a “cross to bear.”  That phrase is generally so over-the-top self-congratulatory and gloriously narcissistic that it is pretty much self-parodying.6C1AA318-A27E-4D21-96A5-5D08414067F9

“I’m just too smart for my own good, that’s my cross to bear…”

“I’m gorgeous and rich, that’s my cross to bear…”

“Palpatine knows what’s best for the Republic, that’s his cross to bear…”

I know too much about beer, that’s my cross to bear.

No, really…stop laughing, I’m being serous here!

It’s a terrible burden, having a foot (and several internal organs) in the craft-brewing world.  I mean, c’mon, it’s hard going to new bars in new(ish) cities and trying new breweries when you know what various styles and types of beer are supposed to taste like.7B0C62A0-DFB2-46AD-8C85-C467639D0195

Look, when I order a Czech-style pilsner, I expect a Czech-style pilsner…not a freaking wannabe-IPA.  I hate (most) IPAs!  Harrumph!!

Like I said, having actual beer-taste — and knowledge! — is my personal cross to bear.*  It’s a terrible burden for which I’m willing to sacrifice myself in order to save you, because…because, well, that’s just me.  I’m a giver.

*As opposed to, say, my complete inability to commit to long-term romantic relationships, or my arrested adolescence that (still) shows no sign of ending…

I’ll even go so far as to go to other places to discharge my moral duty of sampling beer.  I mean, look, I’m sitting here in Bozeman, Montana — in preparation for going in to Yellowstone for the next six months — and what do I do?  I spend half-an-hour discussing craft breweries with a couple of the taproom’s staff members (after bitching about my poor, not-really-a-pilsner pilsner).

Saving the world, one beer at a time, that’s me.EC2EC66A-BB98-49BD-9AA3-D18ACC3974D2

Annie was right, it’s a hard-knock life…and that’s just my cross to bear.

Climbing The Second Mountain

I’ve mentioned before that my news and opinion reading is pretty dang broad.  I do my best to take in info and viewpoints from all across the spectrum, then run all of them through my own perspective (and BS filter) in an effort to come up with something approaching the “whole picture.”

You come up with some surprising results that way, by the way.  You come up with writers that you like — that you take quite seriously — even though you may not agree with the policies and positions and opinions they express (I’m looking at you, Richard Cohen).

That’s rare, however.  More commonly you find those writers who simply make you shrug, who are there just to read in the moment.  Every once in a while, however, one of those “blah” people surprises you…every once in a while you find a column or an essay that makes you sit up and take real notice of someone you had dismissed for years…

I ran across one of those this past weekend.

Maybe it was because the piece had nothing really to do with politics, but rather was about life itself…about life, and second chances.  Given that I, in the essay’s terms, am on my “second mountain,” this piece really resonated.

I cannot for copyright reasons quote the entire thing here, but I am going to put a pull-quote to give you an idea of what he has to say, along with a link to the piece itself.  It is…erm…a terrible title for the piece, by the way.  The headline has nothing whatsoever to do with what is actually written, but that’s not the author’s fault…blame the editors for that one.  Ignore the title and just read the essay, it’s worth it.

David Brooks, “The Moral Peril of Meritocracy”

“Life had thrown them into the valley, as it throws most of us into the valley at one point or another. They were suffering and adrift.

Some people are broken by this kind of pain and grief. They seem to get smaller and more afraid, and never recover. They get angry, resentful and tribal.

But other people are broken open. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that suffering upends the normal patterns of life and reminds you that you are not who you thought you were. The basement of your soul is much deeper than you knew. Some people look into the hidden depths of themselves and they realize that success won’t fill those spaces.”