Digital Detox Desert Thoughts

Dawn at Mesa Arch. One of life’s true high-five moments. It never disappoints. Regardless of season.

The sun, as it crests the La Sal Mountains, ignites the arch’s underside like the coil on a stovetop burner turning it from brick red to pumpkin orange. It’s Mom Nature’s version of desert psychedelia. Pure zow.

I shared the moment with approximately 20 strangers. Mostly camera buffs equipped with high-powered cameras and multiple lenses. Nature paparazzi.

On the hike back to my car I conversed with a lady from Connecticut who shared that her husband called her crazy for getting up before dawn and then had the audacity to suggest that he would experience the sunrise, from the comfort of his hotel bed, through her Instagram post.

It made me think of the seminal Apple ad from the 1980s that said, “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers, The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. ”

Here’s to the crazy ones, indeed.

Crazy, of course, is a matter of perspective. But in this day of screen obsessions, when we, on average, now spend almost two hours per day on social media, which, over the course of one year, shockingly equates to almost a full month squandered to mindless distraction, we need to ask ourselves: What stripe of crazy do we want to be?

The one who dares to hit a desert trail before dawn in hope of recharging life? Or the one in constant search of an electrical outlet for recharging a phone?

The one who pursues new experiences? Or the one who pursues new Twitter followers?

The one who sits wrapped in a down sleeping bag atop a mountain pondering the night sky’s infinite mysteries? Or the one who sits atop a recliner staring at apps with all the answers?

The one who embraces getting lost in a forest? Or the one who feels lost when without WiFi?

The one who spends an afternoon in cold, pouring rain reading a trout stream? Or the one who spends an afternoon in Starbucks reading Facebook posts?

The one who understands that every overturned canoe, every leaky tent, every three-mile portage, every busted surfboard, every snapped bicycle chain on a remote mountain single track, every lost ski in backcountry powder is but a temporary inconvenience that will evolve into a life-long, hell-yeah memory? Or the one who doesn’t understand that every hour spent mindlessly scrolling through Facebook is time being taken away from pursuing kick-ass experiences and fire-in-the-belly aspirations.

The one who understands life begins outside the comfort zone? Or the one who who wishes there was an expand-your-comfort zone app?

Get crazy. Get outside. Get inconvenienced. Get muddy. Get lost. Get sunburned. Get hungry. Get cut. Get bit. Get wet. Get chased. Get curious. Get thirsty. Get cold. Get bewildered. Get astonished. Get living. Or, in other words, get off your phone.

Mule Deer Trick-or-Treaters

Not even noon on Halloween and already the first trick-or-treater is at the door. Need to get more fun-size salt licks.


After 34 days without success Dottie and Rusty Gunderson began to question their choice of location for spotting the elusive acorn woodpecker.

2018 North America Ski Area Rankings

I have never been an advocate of annual ski area rankings, equating them with the same ah-hah insight as rating the earth’s top four oceans.

Every annual list, regardless of publication, high-fives the usual heavyweights: Whistler, Vail, Aspen, Squaw Valley, Stowe, Killington, Jackson Hole, Steamboat Springs and Sun Valley. Never are there any curveball entrants like Colorado’s Ski Cooper or New Hampshire’s Pats Peak.

As an alternative to the predictable the following is an all-inclusive list of ski area rankings based on long road trips and zero lift ticket kickbacks.

Ski Resort Least Likely to have a Cologne or Car Named After It
Idaho’s Bogus Basin.

Ski Area Whose Trail Names are Least Likely to Attract New Participants
California’s Mammoth Mountain wears the crown with Avalanche, Stump Alley and Lost in the Woods.

Ski Resort Name That Most Resembles a Batman Punch Sound Effect
Splat! Kapow! Banff!

Best Road Leading to a Ski Area
Whitefish Ski Resort’s Big Mountain Road in Whitefish, Montana. Winding and steep, the approach heightens anticipation with every corkscrew turn that you’re about to enter an idyllic ski village where everyone’s breath smells of cheese Danish, every trail possesses first tracks quality, and every apré ski guitar player doesn’t treat Margaritaville or American Pie as musical mandates.

Finishing a close second and third would be Vermont’s Route 125 to the Middlebury College Snow Bowl and New Mexico’s Route 150 which dead ends deep in the Carson National forest at the Taos Ski Valley.

(The road to Arizona’s Mount Lemmon, outside of Tucson, would had grabbed top honors for its mountain vistas and undeveloped tracts of forest, but I couldn’t champion a ski road that invites the possibility of hearing, “Good God! Lookout for that javelina!”)

Ski Town Most Likely to Cause You to Lament 10 Years from Now, “I should had bought a place there in 2017”
Silverton, Colorado. Despite being only slightly more accessible than North Korea it has the look and feel of Telluride but without Oprah and Telluride’s odd compulsion to add the word “fest” to every noun in the English language. Old West storefronts and Victorian homes ornament Silverton with refreshing authenticity. And its ski area, Silverton Mountain, has Etcher-Sketch quality where every carved track is quickly erased by more powder.

The Ski Area You’re Least Likely to Hear, “Dude, I think I have altitude sickness”
Rhode Island’s Yawgoo Valley. This ski area sports a base elevation of 70 feet. To put this in perspective Yawgoo is only 63 feet taller than Shaquille O’Neal.

The Most Liberal Use of the Word “Mountain” in a Ski Resort Name
The entire Midwest snatches top honors. Colorado, the state synonymous with high altitude skiing, features only two areas–Sunlight Mountain and Copper Mountain–that employ mountain in their names. Wisconsin, however, the dairy state that is to alpine adventure as t-shirts are to Trump’s wardrobe, has seven ski areas that liberally use mountain in their names. Michigan has eight. Minnesota four. And even Illinois, the geographic version of a floor tile, whose highest point–1,235 feet–is 2,115 feet lower than Colorado’s lowest point–3,350 feet–has a ski area named Chestnut Mountain.

This type of Midwest geographic chicanery prompts question if the Great Lakes really are great. Maybe they’re not great, but rather just okay.

Most Unpredictable Ski Area
Arizona’s Mount Lemmon north of Tucson. Because of erratic snowfalls it’s the only area in the nation where a one-day lift ticket could conceivably turn out to be a season pass.

The Ski Resort You are Most Likely to Experience Irony
Any ski area located on an Interstate. Last winter while speeding to Vail on Interstate 70 I was issued a ticket for driving too fast. Three hours later I had my lift ticket confiscated for skiing too fast.

The Ski Area You are Least Likely to Hear, “I spent all day looking for you.”
Villa Olivia, northwest of Chicago. It offers 15 acres of skiable terrain, making it the skiing world’s version of miniature golf. If it harbored snowmaking capabilities it would use a snowmaking pistol.

Best Ski Town that Really Isn’t a Ski Town
Missoula, Montana. You can zoom down blue-ribbon mountain runs at the Montana Snow Bowl just 20 minutes north, and then sip Fat Tire drafts at Stockman’s, the Top Hat, or the Missoula Club, all thick with local character, without having to share the bar with some cheap-drunk rube still in his ski boots at 9 p.m. and whose chin is raw from his lift ticket flapping off his chin all day due to it being attached to the front zipper of his parka.

Ski Area You are Most Likely to Hear, “The savings on this half-day lift ticket price makes me feel like I’m stealing.”

Any ski areas or ski towns you care to add? Please share with me.

Ski Bum, Dirt Bag & River Rat

I have a friend who is passionate about wine. If asked he could, without hesitation, pair the perfect wine for a soggy, half-eaten berry pomegranate chia-flavored Clif bar found floating in the hull of a freestyle kayak. His wine expertise prompts people to refer to him as an aficionado, a connoisseur, sophisticated.

Conversely, I’m passionate about skiing. If asked, I could, without hesitation, confidently negotiate any double black diamond slope. But my veneration of skiing does not translate into a gush of high-brow platitudes. Instead I’m called a ski bum.

Not an expert. Not an aficionado. But a bum. It makes it sound as if I spend my days panhandling for money at the base of Aspen Mountain, causing people to mutter, “Don’t give him money, he’ll only spend it on lip balm and hot cocoa.”

The late Jim Harrison once observed “A man at play in America has John Calvin tapping him on the shoulder and telling him to please be serious.” This especially applies to anyone whose outdoor gear consists of poles, paddles or packs. Only instead of a tapping on the shoulder admonishment flares in the form of pejoratives.

I also backpack and raft. Consequently, I’m also tagged as a dirt bag and a river rat.

Instead of worthy passions these sound like problems. Or code names for addictions, creating unjustified guilt, raising half-expectations of finding an intervention letter from my girlfriend taped to the refrigerator door:

Your backpacking is ruining us. Last Saturday, unbeknownst to you, I spied you in the basement secretly seam-sealing your tent. Two nights later you claimed you had to stay late at work but returned home reeking of campfire smoke. The next morning, when asked to help my daughter tie her shoes, you tied two taut-line hitches. And last night you took leave-no-trace too far when you insisted we bus and reset our table at Carrabba’s. Can’t you see how being a dirtbag is tearing us apart?

Outside of surfing (beach bum) and maybe hockey (rink rat) all other outdoor activities remain strangely immune. When I queried a friend, who works as a psychologist, about this he suggested that labels sometimes manifest when an activity becomes so encompassing it morphs into a lifestyle choice.

If so then why does my neighbor, who claims falconry as a lifestyle, remain nickname-immune? This, after all, is a person who devotes his days to making pigeons nervous. Yet everyone respectfully refers to him as a falconer. Never once have I heard, “He’s nothing but a predatory bird bum.” Or, “He’s a raptor rat.”

Or fly-fishermen? How have they escaped being besmirched? They not only fit the pole criteria, but in any given day they exceed it by also carrying packs and using paddles while donned in rubber slacks and posing with hooked trout like kids with mall Santas.

These are questions only my wine friend can answer. For, after all, by society’s standards, he is sophisticated

Have any outdoor nicknames to share?

5 Car Camping Lessons

Transitioning from backpacking to car camping is like going from a Hilton on Waikiki Beach to a Motel 6 in Gary, Indiana. Backpacking offers an embarrassment of outdoor amenities: hermetic solitude, unfettered wilderness, brain-bucking star shows. It sets all precedent for the outdoor experience. Anything less is a massive, mind-sagging disappointment.

I learned this several days ago in New York’s Allegany State Park. After spending several days backpacking in Canyonlands National Park’s Salt Creek Canyon, a remote maze that holds a trove of Anasazi ruins, I returned east to attend to family matters. During a free night I grabbed a campsite at Allegany State Park, in southwestern New York along the Pennsylvania border.

I only wanted a patch of forest to pitch my tent and use as a base for a quick hike at dusk and an early morning kayak paddle. I expected a relaxing night, but instead received the following lessons in the cold realities of today’s car camping scene.

Car Camping Lesson 1

Leave no trace does not apply to car campers. Upon pulling into campsite 17 I conducted an Allegany CSI (Camp Site Investigation) and learned that the previous tenants enjoyed Little Debbie snack cakes, read People magazine, and mistook maple syrup as a picnic table lacquering agent.

Car Camping Lesson 2
Camping trailers today are large enough to apply for statehood. The trailer that neighbored me spanned, according to the owner, 32 feet. It created the comforting aura of camping next to a strip mall with lodging options.

Car Camping Lesson 3
Roughing it for people in trailers means the trailer’s flat screen does not offer the Weather Channel in HD.

Car Camping Lesson 4
Even with the Boy Scout motto “Be prepared” firmly rutted in the mind, nothing can prepare you for the horror of spending a night camping listening to the trailer across the road play Foreigner’s Greatest hits over and over and over until 1 in the morning. The lone consolation being the sleepless hours gave me time to read the left-behind People magazine. I had no idea Taylor Swift sported a tattoo.

Car Camping Lesson 5
Maple syrup lacquered picnic tables are still sticky the next morning. Six days later and the daypack still feels like it’s coated with invisible Velcro.

Best Not to Describe Camping

While lying on the Utah desert floor cinching the sleeping bag’s hood so only my nostrils were left exposed to the sleep-denying cold, I concluded that it’s a good thing we have words for outdoor recreation otherwise we’d lose interest if we had to describe our favorite activities.

Take camping for example. The word itself conjures happy images of pitching tents along forested edges of gin-clear lakes, conversations around campfires, and monarch butterflies landing on the foreheads of small children.

If someone asks, “Want to go camping?” the outdoor-minded don’t think twice. It sounds fun. Yet, if we didn’t have a word for camping getting people outdoors would take convincing.

I would give second thought if some of my backpacking friends instead of asking “Want to go camping?” asked “Want to spend the weekend without furniture and focus every waking second to avoiding mosquitos, ticks, bears, and mountains lions?

And then at night sit around a campfire attempting to escape camp smoke that regardless of wind direction somehow defies all logic and follows your every step? And then when it comes time to call it a night sleep on wafer-thin air mattresses filled with our own foul breaths. But don’t worry about sleeping. We’ll be too bug-eyed awake from the comforting realization that even though all of our food is dangling from a sturdy branch inside a bear bag, bears also like meat, we’re the meat, and we’re on the ground.

After limited sleep we’ll rise at dawn and eat freeze-dried cheese omelettes from a foil pouch. Just before you’re about to compliment the deliciousness of the meal you or someone else will realize we forgot to remove the oxygen absorption packet from the pouch. We’ll then become obsessed with food poisoning concerns, distracting our attentions, leaving us vulnerable against mosquitoes, ticks, bears, and mountain lions.

Out of necessity we’ll then spend the afternoon collecting firewood like hapless medieval peasants. Just so we can repeat last night, with all of its discomforts and fears, all over again.

So what do you say? You in?”

I’d hesitate, but I’d be in. For what sounds like discomfort is actually the entranceway to experiences and memories. A weekend spent camping – good or bad – will perpetually bloom in the brain as a king-wow memory, forever fueling a sustaining sense of being alive.

Try saying that about a weekend spent indoors watching TV. No memories, only guilt for squandering time that can never be recovered.