I Cheated

Okay, look…I don’t live inside Yellowstone anymore.  Yeah, it’s true that I could pretty much spit and hit the park from where I now live, but it just ain’t the same thing as actually living in the heart of the whole damned thing.

In summer my favorite places are incredible.  In winter they are…magical.

In summer, an erupting geyser is a reminder of the power and processes under our feet that we never really consider.  In winter…in winter, that superheated column of water and steam, in the right place and at the right time, turns to the finest of ice crystals in the blink of an eye.  Watching that diamond dust erupt and blow, watching it turn the nearby branches into “ghost trees”…  Yeah, it’s not the cold that gives you the chills at that point.

In summer, the trail from Wolf Lake to Cascade Lake is well-trod as a long(ish) day hike.  It is crowded, even.  In winter?  In winter, it is not a trail, it is a two-day marathon of snow and ice.

And then you have Mount Washburn, at the north end of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon…

The country north and east of Washburn has been closed to human traffic for several years.  This is because of the bears, of course.  Oh, it is not to protect humans from the bears.  Quite the opposite, actually.  This area (and a couple of others) are closed as “bear management areas” in order to provide space where cubs and juvenile bears can learn and grow without ever so much as sniffing a human.  No contact means no acclimation, and no acclimation means they will be far more prone to avoid humans for the rest of their lives.  That’s good for both of us, human and bear.

Unfortunately, the area north of Mount Washburn also hosts the only section of the Howard Eaton Trail that I have not yet hiked.

*sigh*

It’s a weird goal, I know, but ever since my first week in the park almost four years ago {Edit – five years, actually. Math is hard}, I have wanted to complete the entirety of the Eaton trail.  That trail, if you don’t know, is pretty much the original “tourist trail” in the park.  Howard Eaton himself was a local rancher and early guide who would lead 3-week horse tours through the park.  From up here in Gardiner, those tours went down to Old Faithful, and on to what is now Grand Teton National Park.  Coming north again, they would pass Yellowstone Lake, Hayden Valley, the Gand Canyon of the Yellowstone, then skirt the west edge of Lamar Valley and cross Blacktail Plateau to return to Mammoth and Gardiner.  The trail still exists, for the most part.  A couple of sections are “lost” and no longer maintained, but you can still find them if you know where to do the research, and what to look for.

I know. I know where to look, and what to look for.

I had completed seven of the eight sections by the time I left the park to move into Gardiner itself.  All I had left was the most “lost” of those sections, the one that left from Canyon Village, skirted Mount Washburn’s eastern shoulder, and continued north to Tower Junction.

Remember that closed area I mentioned, the one just north of Washburn?  Yep, you got it right, that’s it.  The trail goes right through the heart of that area.  In winter, however…

In winter, you can snowshoe/ski it.  If you know what you’re doing.  If you’re confident in your backcountry skills.  If you’re more than a little insane.  I am — ahem — all three.  

Along with a couple of friends who share my insanity, I just had to complete that last section.  Wait…“a couple of friends?” I hear you ask. “But you hate hiking with other people!”

Let’s put it like this — I’m insane, not stupid.  It was actually the hardest thing, in a physical sense, that I’ve ever done.  If you’ve never snowshoed, let me offer a little homework for you: go to the softest and deepest sand you can find, put on your heaviest boots, grab a fifty pound pack, now start slogging.

Congratulations, that’s still a world easier than snowshoeing over several feet of untouched snow and ice in some of the roughest terrain in Yellowstone.  We predicted a two-day trip, but prepped for four.  In the end, it took three, so let’s hear it for splitting the difference!  Yeehaw!  The two day prediction  would have been spot-on, by the way, except for that oh-so-fun shortness of breath that COVID left me with…

It’s tough to get into the heart of the park in winter, by the way.  The roads are closed, the few snowcoach trips are as expensive as they are limited, and snowmobile tours are even more tightly restricted.  Now, I have no problem with those restrictions.  I think they are a very good idea, as a matter of fact.  But, for a local, those restrictions make getting in to the heart of Yellowstone a pretty damned significant trip on skis or snowshoes.

Unless you cheat.

If you…umm…happen to have a friend or two who still live full-time inside the park, you can hitch a ride on their snowmobile.  You can also, if you bring offerings of booze and food (in that order), usually crash at their place for a day or two…

It’s not luxurious, and it certainly isn’t easy, but it also isn’t on any tour company’s list of offerings.

God, I needed that.

Post Script — I get tired of people asking about the “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” thing. I have heard far too many tourists say, “It’s just marketing, honey. They borrowed the name from the real Grand Canyon.” *sigh* A picture, at least, might help to explain the name. And, yes, I have hiked down into the Canyon. I have camped on the river. And I have hiked (inevitably) back up that steep-ass wall…

It’s All About The Musical Notes

One of the habits I’ve let fall by the wayside, over the last couple of years, is my quest for new music.  To find new artists and songs that resonate and mean something — that just plain work for me — takes time and effort.  If you have an eclectic taste that wanders over many genres and styles, it takes even more time and effort.

Just like so many other areas of life, it is far too easy to let that musical search slide and live instead inside your own status quo.  It is especially easy when you already have an extensive library.  “Who needs new stuff,” it is too easy to ask, “when you already have so much that works?”

There are a lot of ways to find new music.  None of them, unfortunately, is quick, easy or certain.  Recommendations from friends is perhaps the most reliable method, but even that has a batting average that would make most major leaguers fear for their job.  It also can lead to its own musical/cultural cul-de-sac…

One of my old stand-by’s, then, has been a podcast from NPR called “All Songs Considered.”  Oh, the odds of finding there something that makes my regular musical rotation are pretty damned slender, but it has proven over the years still to be a good way to expose myself to songs from styles and artists I would never otherwise hear.

To put that in context, I am not one for rap, country, or gospel.  But, thanks to that program, I have found artists and songs in each of those genres that have touched me, and earned a place on my personal playlist.  I am not, I will reiterate, a fan of country music…but Trampled By Turtles is an awesome band, and I would never have so much as heard of them without the podcast.

At any rate, that long-winded introduction is there merely to set the stage for a different kind of post.  I’m not writing a post about writing, or the world. I’m not even writing one based on random drunk ranting.  No, instead I’m doing this post solely to call out a couple of new songs that just plain work for me…and to provide a bit of insight into how I hunt for new music.*

*Recommendations are always welcome, by the way.  I will give a listen to anything you folks want to share or steer me towards.

Okay, so…in the preceding paragraphs, I harped on the fact that I am not a fan of country music. I did that to set up one particular song.  Steve Earle is the very definition of a country artist.  His music has been covered by some huge names, across a number of genres, but at the core of it he is a full-on Dukes of Hazzard, deep south, country guy.  But…well…some things transcend boundaries.

His son — also a musician — died this past summer. J.T. Earle died from those twin demons that haunt so many artists: drugs and alcohol.  I can just barely grasp the love and courage — the sheer strength — it took to do this, but Steve went through his son’s music and recorded an album of them.  That album — named J.T., for his son — will officially release on Monday.  Listen to the song below, then, and go give the entire album a try when you can.  Even if the style or sound isn’t to your taste, the emotion and strength behind it have meaning to everyone:

The second song is one I found through a different source entirely.  It is still however a new one, released as part of an EP just a couple of weeks ago.  This song (and artist) is far more in my “normal” vein of music, but…well…I still had to get lucky to stumble across it.

For someone who writes often about the loss of youth and innocence, the entire freaking EP just plain connects with me.  Don’t look at the text on the video I linked below, by the way.  Just listen to the music.  The voice should be familiar to you.

And, well, because I am — behind the scenes — a serious foodie and cook, I just have to make this a three-course meal.

I’m, err, gonna go ahead and violate everything I talked about above.  Wandering pretty damned far from the planned path has pretty much defined my life so far, so why change now?  This is an older song, but from an artist that has been firmly in my library for a very long time.  It also happens to offer an outlook and tone that pretty much defined my younger years…

Err…so like all true French chefs, you have to make that a four-course meal. Hey, everyone deserves a dessert, right? Right?!

Even older, this song. Not much to it, other than the fact that you just never hear it anymore. Well, that and the oh-so-young memories I have that go along with it. C’mon, it’s freaking dessert — it’s not supposed to be good for you!

Losing Your Pants in a Dumpster Fire

It’s almost gone!

No, really…it’s almost freaking gone!

Let’s be honest here — 2020 can’t die soon enough.  Sadly, I have the strangest, most disconcerting feeling that this dumpster fire of a year will not actually end.  Maybe it’s just the looming, ominous music I can hear playing behind every story about 2020 that I read, but this freak show has all the hallmarks of turning into Freddie Krueger and coming for us over and over (and over and over and over…ad infinitum).

Harrumph.

Even the inevitable, inane stories and pieces that accompany every new year — the best and worst lists, the memorable moments spotlights, the year-in-review diaries — are more than a little grudging and bitter this year.  It’s like the folks writing those bits are doing so because they have to, rather than out of any real desire.

Oh wait, that’s exactly why they’re writing those pieces.  To focus on art and quality and exploring the human condition is all well and good, but well…the bills have to be paid, and editors stopped listening to what writers want a very long time ago.  Nowadays, those decisions about content and tone are made by SEO teams and marketing committees, not writers.

It’s rather like the old, old wisdom: we complain about politicians being self-serving and dishonest, then turn around and vote for the most narcissistic, dishonest politicians we can find.  Well, translated into writing terms: we complain about the shallow inanity of articles, then turn around and click on those very same pieces. So long as we keep clicking on the, well, click-bait, they’ll keep producing it.

I am, as a matter of fact, more than a little guilty of that myself. I’m complaining out shallow, shit articles…right after spending an hour of my morning clicking on those very same pieces. There aren’t enough harrumphs in the world for that one.

Okay…so…well…New Year’s Eve has come, and it’s the time for the inevitable, annual festival of always-broken resolutions.  Except that I don’t actually do resolutions.  Hell, I don’t even do New Year’s Eve, really.  When you get right down to it, New Year’s is just an excuse to go to a party or a bar and get roaring drunk.  I can do that just fine without the excuse, thank you very much.

Fine, fine, the resolution-thing is expected, so I’ll give it a shot anyway.

I resolve to be better about regular posting here on the blog.  For a couple of years I was posting three times a week, as regular as clockwork.  Then, well, life got in the way and I started the (not so) long, slow slide into posting only when the “mood was right.”

To all my fellow writers out there: there ain’t no such a thing as a writing “mood”!  There is no waiting for the “right mood.”  To wait for the right mood is nothing more than an excuse.  Like most excuses, all that one amounts to is an internal salve for failure.

“I sat down to write, but I just couldn’t get in the right mood” isn’t, as excuses go, a whole lot different from “I saw the kid run into the street, but I didn’t save her because I wasn’t in the right mood.”

And, yes, I fully realize just how incredibly hypocritical that is, coming as it does from someone whose freaking choice of music defines his writing mood!

Ahem…back to resolutions…

I’ll add a resolution here to ignore the 2021 version of the political circus that 2020 has been.  That particular brand of national insanity isn’t going to get any better, and it just is not worth the frustration.  Crazy folks are gonna crazy just fine with or without my attention, so why bother?  I will — hopefully! — let the crazy play out all by itself, and focus instead on putting my thoughts and opinions on the current insanity into my fiction works, rather than these blog posts.

Oh, and as a little addendum to that, I most definitely will stop going to the more extreme websites (on both sides of the political spectrum) just to read the comments.  As amusing as that can be, the Google algorithms have looked at my search history and decided I’m completely, hopelessly insane.  I’m pretty sure they have me listed in a special file now…

Of course, like all writers, I just have to do a Year in Review bit as well:

Calling 2020 a dumpster fire is an insult to honest dumpster fires.  If 2021 follows in the same vein, I may have to join a cult and go live in the jungle somewhere.  Hey, the Kool Aid can’t be as bad another year of this shit!

Happy New Year, then, and here’s a toast to our collective responsibility to make this new year better than the last!  Now go get stinking drunk so you can properly send 2020 off in an alcoholic haze, and wake up fresh in 2021 like you should: hungover and missing your pants.

Hmm…what to do for a final Musical Note for 2020? I could go all serious and introspective and put a song here to really explore things…

But I’m not in that “mood,” so let’s try something completely different, shall we? It’s starting to get pretty long in the tooth now, but it’s still a song that has some awesome lines and insights:

The Music

Okay, so we all know I don’t do nostalgia.

Err…

I don’t do nostalgia well, so I try not to do it at all.  Give me enough booze and a basically unlimited supply of music, however, and my thoughts occasionally take on a life of their own.

*sigh*

For no real reason, I kicked off an “80’s flashback” music-fest a few days ago.  Now, keep in mind, my real knowledge of musical theory and history began in the early 90’s with the whole grunge/alternative movement.  From there, it grew into old school blues and folk.  One of my favorite outings, in fact, was the National Bluegrass festival when it was held in Maine while I lived there. But…

But, it all started back in the 80’s.  More to the point, my deeply personal and emotional attachment to music, and to various songs, started back in the 80’s.  It hadn’t meant much, in fact, until the final years of that decade.  Until one particular morning, driving in my car.

I was on my way to the my friend’s graveside internment.  I had sat through the church memorial without falling apart, but…then…

On that drive, from church to cemetery, a particular song played…and I finally fell apart.  I still can’t hear that song, as a matter of fact, without reliving that particular drive.

My close association of moments and emotions with music — with specific songs — has done nothing but accelerate since.

I can’t help it anymore — things that matter to me get a soundtrack.  From the triumphant and celebratory songs of a hunting wolf pack, to the mournful soundtrack of Connor and Oz, to the wistful longing and nostalgia of my memories, there is a soundtrack for everything.  I have only to hear a few notes/lines of a song and I can tell you every single detail about the moment it evokes for me.

Remember that eidetic memory thing we talked about a year or so back?  Yeah, that’s what we’re talking about here.  Every memory I have is still…real.  I can tell you what I smelt the day my brother shipped off to war.  Just as I can tell you the song playing on the radio the day he came back.

I can tell you what I was wearing the day my sister died…

I can tell you what I had for breakfast the day I sold my first story…

I can tell you the song playing on the radio when she told me she had chosen to end the pregnancy…

*sigh*

I don’t forget.  At all.

If I tell you I forgot something, by the way, I’m lying.  I am, remember, a recovering Sales and Marketing weasel, so lying is second nature to me.  I’m very, very good at it.  As a matter of fact, I lie all the time.  Wait…

Ahem.

We’ll leave aside my life as a fiction writer, shall we?  That aside, I still lie…a lot.  I tell folks what they want to hear because it’s generally far, far easier than the truth.  The only place I tell the truth, when you get right down to it, is in the words I type.

This blog gets one brand of truth.  It is a truth that often makes my friends and family uncomfortable, by the way, but it is still a surface truth.  It is a truth of mind and thought.  It isn’t until you get into the fiction — into the characters and worlds I create — that you get to the emotional truth.  It isn’t until barriers come down, and the music starts playing, that the real truth comes out…

So, my question for you is this: what drives your truth?

I have a friend who can only express her thoughts and feelings through drawing.  “What’s wrong?” I would ask.  Her answer would invariably be soft and deflecting…then she would show me her drawing.  A drawing of power and emotion.  A drawing that told a story…that told the story, the one she could not put into words.

A guy I know needs a stove and knives to be himself…

Another friend defines himself through the beers he creates…

I define myself through the words…

How do you define yourself?  Who are you?

I would say that you can’t be a writer/artist until you can answer that question, but that would be complete bullshit.  It isn’t the endpoint that defines you as an artist, it is the question itself.

For me it is the emotions and memories tied to the music.  It is the questions that come from the music that define me as a writer and an artist.  It isn’t the answers, by the way, because I have no answers.  The me of today is a stranger to the me of that miserable drive all those years ago…but the one could not exist without the other.

So, anyway…I’ve wandered pretty far afield from my original thesis of an “80’s Extravaganza” of music and memory.  I’ve wandered from the memories that gave rise to this piece, too.  I’ve lost the thread on the concerts I went to, and the songs no one talks about anymore.  The dances and parties with songs whose meanings have changed as I’ve changed…

I may have lost the thread in what I’ve written, but it’s all still there, those memories I talked about:

Dancing to house music in a converted bunker in Berlin…

Smoking bowls on the beach at a Grateful Dead concert…

Sweating, almost fainting, from the heat in a mosh pit…

The long, slow kisses at a — honest truth! — Wayne Newton show in Vegas…

The day I met Stevie Ray Vaughn…

Music is my bane, then, but also my savior.  I can remember that terrible, terrible drive…but I can remember, also, every detail of the day I stood backstage at a show, watching Clapton and Sting play together…

{Musical Note — c’mon, was I ever gonna play anything but the song that was playing in the car on that awful morning?  And, yes, it still brings a tear.  Where the fuck do you think Oz and his death came from?  He is the written embodiment of the three suicides that have so deeply scarred my soul…}