Category Archives: Life thoughts

Alaska, Again.

I found a great deal a few months back.  We landed round trip tickets to the 49th State, Alaska, for under $450 a person.   That’s a steal of a deal, and after a short discussion, I gladly gobbled the tickets up and confirmed some plans for us with my sister and bruh-in-law.  This was my 5th trip to Alaska, and Katie’s 3rd.   She likes to remind the 12 year old boy I devolve into when I talk about traveling to Canada or Alaska, that we have already been there several times and maybe it is time to explore new places.  She is not wrong and I am grateful that she agrees to explore new parts of the my favorite regions over and over.

I am not sure what it is about the state of Alaska that excites me.  It could be its unique geographic boundaries that seem to barely contain it’s varying an dramatic terrain, all the splendor!  Maybe it’s the landed gentry, the fauna: wolves, bears, moose, elk, and buffalo; the great beasts of our natural world.  Perhaps, it’s one of the many volcanos looming in the distance, occasionally puffing out some steam, reminding you that your surroundings are primal, natural things that would humble you if they desired.  For me, part of it is surely the variety of Mountains, classic looking shark teeth, frothed with snow and ice, to lower round cupcake sized rocks, sentinels in the distance.  My eyes have been clear and wide from a good nights sleep, and blurred, bloodshot from the long travel it takes to arrive in there, regardless, the terrain never ceases to force a space between the two rows of my teeth, letting my lower jaw wag in the wind and force my heart quit and still.  It’s sounds dramatic, because it is.

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How many places do that to you?  I can’t think of many.  Granted, the scope of my global experience is fairly narrow.  When it does happen, it tends to be in the presence of the natural world.  My body doesn’t provide the same physical reaction when presented with the fairly good evidence that humanity can create civilized wonders.  They never seem as humbling, even in context.  Maybe that is unfair.  Art definitely humbles, and evokes a physical reaction.

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Photo taken from: https://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/gogh/gogh.vegetable-montmartre.jpg

Broadly speaking, Americans have a bad reputation for ethnocentrism and xenophobia.  It has been suggested that this is true because they lack exposure to cultures outside of their own country (shit, read: County, or Town in some cases) and they source information that reinforces their world views (I think we are all guilty here). But, in a somewhat shitty defense of the former – when exploring is concerned, North America is pretty spectacular, geographically vibrant (read: fucking RAD) and culturally diverse-ish. In open honesty, when considering vacation, I am not usually super charged to leave the continent.  I feel ashamed to say it out loud, but I would prefer to go back to Yellowstone or Alaska than go back to Italy.

I think that partly has to do with how I want to see these places and how my perspective on “seeing” a place has changed.  Just last year, a friend of mine and I were exploring the next county over from ours, and we found an abandoned western movie set.   Someone had filmed a western movie in Central Illinois.  Who knew?  How much do we really know or see of the geography we live in?  Check your google maps history.   I am still surprised at the frequency of my visits to the same places and how I always take the same route to get there.  I am most likely only experiencing a few of the same miles of my own town, over and over.  Maybe it’s just me, maybe not.

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I think how we consume and explore places and other travel destinations matters. A person bike-packing the Great Divide trail or backpacking the Appalachian trail experiences something completely distinct than that of the car tour of the smokies, or a visit to old faithful.  A slow, human powered digestion of a landscape versus the blitz view of a natural phenomenon.  I think the former is a more thoughtful approach to travel and exploring.  Maybe it’s just a difference in how people view the world they live in: something to visit or something to experience?  In the end, I think you need both, each has it’s own independent value.

Someone close to me recently pointed out that hobbies and traveling are a privilege.   To their credit,  it’s true, and I was most likely whining.  Travel and experience places how you want.  I should just shut up and relish that I can travel at all.  I should feel lucky to have the means and opportunity to do any of it…many don’t.

I digress.

We really enjoyed our trip.  In Anchorage, we rented fat bikes and explored the plethora of pedestrian trails groomed for fat biking and skiing.  Checked out the local pastry shops and every brewery we could find.  We ventured down to Homer, Alaska too!  While we were there we witnessed a raft of seals enjoying their dinner and a whale playing in the ocean.  Back in Anchorage, we were also able to attend a free presentation on the Baja Divide by Lael Wilcox and Nicholas  Carman (plus: free Tecate, Chips, Salsa and Guac).  If that wasn’t cool enough, we also got chat with them after.   So stoked from the family and outdoor time.

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Which way to work…

My actual commute to work is pretty short.  I think I can get there in less than 10 minutes if I take the most direct, 1.5 mile route (one way), hit the single light, and sprint.  It offers traffic, a school zone, and a primo road with a wide shoulder.  Sometimes you can’t ask for more.  I don’t ask, but I look for alternatives.

I usually do not take that route.  It is boring, direct, even when racing traffic.  I take a longer, slower, route, that winds though the local hoods with myriad house styles, less traffic, more sunshine.  I think it adds a small hill too.  This alternate route also adds a mile on each end of the trip, and is worth every extra minute.  Who wants to be at work before they are awake and ready?  Spinning myself awake, aware.

Commuting doesn’t have to be boring; if time is not a concern, use your extra to explore.  After work one day, I found some run off ponds behind some apartment buildings and doctor’s offices.  There are paths that wind through the area made from woodchips, lite single track, and some gravel, but in some really essential connecting points to make the route work it is overgrown, full of broken glass, and trash.  This section would add a mile or so to my commute and let me have some fun between home and work.  I guess I should clean it up, someone else did all the work of building out the other parts and trails for fishing access.  Maybe they are there for bird watching?

 

 

 

 

Friendship and Fat Biking…

I was introduced to fat bikes a few years ago when I participated in a local event, with my friend Colin: A Winter Fat Bike Relay Race in the snow.  I borrowed my friend Mike’s fat bike, and Colin and I teamed up to compete in the three lap race.

The race was for fun, put on by the local MTB club: CORBA. There was snow when the race started, but as the sun came out and stayed to party with us, the course, quite quickly, liquefied into grassy slop and mud.  Still, we raced on, wet and muddy, laughed and drank beer.

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After the race,  I cleaned the bike up (twice if I remember) and thanked Mike for lending me his Surly Pugsley.  It was a weighty blue beast, a touch small, but reliable in the corners.

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Just writing this reminds me of how fantastic the biking community here in Bloomington/Normal is and I am forever in debt to Mike and Colin (and the Local Bike Shop), for being fantastic friends, and introducing & inviting me to participate in these things…

Since then, I have been lazily eyeing a fat bike for purchase.  My relay race experience left me wanting more in terms of racing and fat biking, but time passed, and as money permitted, I chose  Mountain, Cross, and Gravel bikes and rides instead.    During this same time period, all new fat bike models have come out from every bike company and they are becoming increasingly lighter, faster, made from Carbon, and Ti, in a cascade of price ranges.  Any way I cut it, most of the time they were too expensive for me, and I didn’t want to spend a whole lot of money on a bike I was not going to race.

Colin got in contact with me about three weeks ago.   He mentioned that he had a Fat Bike, a Salsa Mukluk, that he was looking to part with after having purchased a different model, a Surly Ice Cream Truck, and was wondering if I would be interested.  I mentioned that I was interested, but would need some time to think about it.

He sent me this text message:

“In about 10 minutes I’m going to come by and put a fat bike in your backyard. That sounds inappropriate but it’s true.  Ride it this weekend and get rad.”

I did just that, and never looked back.

My first few rides were in a Elementary School playground with the dog.  I spent most of the time learning to wheelie, riding down stairs, and sprinting back and forth so the dog would chase me.

I raced the bike in the Fat Bike open at a local CX race, and had a great, but exhausting time.

I went on a Tuesday Nite Team ride with a few others on fat bikes and rode 16+ miles, with intermittent sprinting and ridiculousness.

On Christmas Eve, I rode 32 miles, and felt all the resistance of the large tires, and all the enjoyment of its ability to corner on suspect turf…

Yesterday, I rode it to the gym and back, in a head wind, learning the how important that high gear is.

What I found over the past three weeks:

  • Fat bikes will help you learn to wheelie
  • Fat bikes can move quickly
  • Fat Bikes can roll over just about anything
  • You will always have fun
  • You will rediscover your inner child
  • You can ride and have fun on any of the following surfaces:
    • Snow
    • Single track
    • Pavement
    • Grass
    • Mud

My final thoughts:

  • I think the fat bike is the perfect tool to bridges the gap between fun and training, road and all other trails.  Even my dog loves chasing it around.
  • A 4+ Inch tire gives you all the traction and comfort needed in all situations.
  • The Mukluk has all the bosses needed for bike packing…
  • Fat bikes are good for solo endeavors, but are better shared with friends.
  • Listen to your friends…buy a fat bike.

 

What a Quote:

“Now, in the purported wisdom of my eighth decade, I can dismiss our invincible destiny as a youthful fantasy,” he wrote. “But I also know that nothing else came along to fill the void it left behind.” Those words, the final sentence of the essay, mesh well with the final two of Roberts’s memoir: “In the human heart … there are nobler feelings than pride. And there are more important things in life than joy.” ~ David Roberts

http://www.outsideonline.com/2127886/david-roberts-rebelling-against-void

Meandering thoughts about Midwest’s “Mountain”

This February some friends of ours rented a cabin near Mountain, Wisconsin settled in the southern part of the Nicolet National Forest.   It was a great break from a fairly brown and dry winter here in central Illinois.   It had been a while since I had been that far north in Wisconsin – 4 years maybe?

As a kid, every Winter I spent a week up in this area cross country skiing with my Scout Troop, exploring all the local groomed trails and jumping up into the Upper Peninsula for better snow or steeper hills.  It is where I learned to ski (both XC and Downhill).  With exception to the bigger trips to the National High Adventure Bases – Bahamas for sailing, New Mexico for Backpacking, Ontario and Manitoba for Canoeing – this was my favorite annual trip and still remains my favorite winter activity.  I still try and ski once a year (even in town if I can).

We stayed at an old Civilian Conservation Corp Camp, turned conservation education camp, called Trees for Tomorrow.  I highly recommend stopping by – it is farther north, in Eagle River, but in the same area and worth the trip.  You can rent all the equipment to XC ski there.  The local rangers used to put on education sessions, the last I can remember was on Raptors – he brought in an Great Horned Owl and a Hawk.  Our Troop was given the run of the place, and were free to use the main auditorium to play movies on the big projector screens in the evening.

The timeline was kind of funky for many families – leave Illinois the day after Christmas, and returning on NYE.    This annual pilgrimage to the Mountain area became a family tradition – my parents, sister, and eventually some of my sister’s friends would come up.   We spent each day, all day skiing, drinking hot chocolate and having snowball fights at night.  While in undergrad – I would go on this trip, and do a same day return to campus to spend NYE with friends. 10 hours total in car to be able to fit as much excitement in as I could.

These trips to Mountain and Eagle River became a defacto model for how we chose to plan and spend out time outdoors.  Long drives book end the trip allowing us to get the hell out of central Illinois and into unfamiliar geography.  Grocery stores for lunches, snacks, provisions, not restaurants.  Spending 10 hours outside each day to max out the time off before we had to head home.  I don’t think this is a unique way of doing things just for me or my troop, but the way to diehards in the middle of a state of mostly farm land do.

I think somehow Wisconsin is taken for granted as a State. Being from Illinois, I love going there, and I think it might be one of the Midwest’s best states.  The farther north you go the better it gets for living, skiing, paddling and Mountain Biking.  Devils Lake is perfect for climbing, and hiking.  Kettle Moraine is beautiful, and has backpacking routes and killer MTB trails.  The farther north you go the more plentiful the outdoor space becomes – Dairy’s and farm fields give way to hills, and valley’s carved out by the blades of indifferent Glacial Ice during it’s northern retreat. Walls of trees buffer everything and eventually you run into a natural moat, a giant sea of fresh water – Superior.  Directly East is Lake Michigan, another inland titan.  You can surf both apparently.  What are we doing here?   Funny how one word can trigger all these thoughts, memories, and information…

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Reportage: Tough Mudder – Half

I recently had the opportunity to take part in the “Chicago Tough Mudder – Half.  While it is advertised as the Chicago TM, the course was actually in Rockford, at the back of the Airport, and in the surrounding swamp/river/farm fields.  They create a little tent city for the weekend’s events, and there is food, beer, changing and shower stations once inside the gates.   Attendance was high, and apparently had the most participants of any Tough Mudder event that year (they are weekend long events). The Cost was high too – $85 a head.  The course was 5 miles long, broken up by a total of 8 obstacles along the way. From a terrain perspective – the course was very flat and much like that of dirt/double track, for trail running.

I don’t want to write about this at length, but I do want to share 7 Observations and a 2 final sentences about the experience overall.

7 Observations

  1. FUNRunning around in the mud with a team of friends is FUN.  Accomplishing stupid tasks for no reason, other than to do them is fun! It doesn’t seem like exercise, or difficult, but it is.  Our team (Team name: Mud, Sweat, and Beers) wants to do the full (10 miles) next year!
  2. CONSPIRACYThe conspiracy theorist in me (in a joking way) thinks the whole operation is funded by the CIA to recruit more people for the US war efforts abroad, specifically in the US ARMY and US ARMY reserves.   On the level, the US ARMY is a sponsor so is the RESERVE, and they advertise heavily in the Mudder Village area.  There are Army Vets, and active duty personnel involved in putting the event on as Advertisers and Volunteers.  There is even a mini skills test guided by the army located in the Mudder village you can participate in after the race (a big obstacle course).*****
  3. PATRIOTISMWe sang, as a group (each wave did too) the Star Spangled Banner before the start of the race. See above for added context.
  4. TEAMWORK – The Tough Mudder MC made an impassioned speech about team work, giving your all, effort, and in general, the unforgiving and rewarding nature of the obstacle course.  More importantly, he stressed that while this was a “race” and a “competition,” that we would most definitely need each other (our team) and OTHER teams. This speech was interpreted by most (derived by the looks on the participants faces) as really cheesy and over the top, but it turned out to be true.
  5. COMMUNITY – The point of a Tough Mudder event (read: boot camp) is to humble (read: Break) you and realize you need to be a part of the whole and that as a whole – you can accomplish anything.  Teamwork (see above) and community is the name of the game, and together we are greater.  This is true.  We could not accomplish all the obstacles without other teams help and assistance.  Because we were aided in our pursuits – we aided others and we all finished the race and “won” that day. It was bonding – strangers helping strangers.  This was evident at the shower station later, which were communal, and gravity fed, so everyone is forced to kneel down and scrub off all the mud and dirt.  Strangers huddled closely together and showered off, exchanging “war stories” and what they had all just experienced together.  It was actually kind of great to witness and be apart of.
  6. SPONSORS – Off the top of my head, I believe the most Iconic or accessible American Sponsors were chosen to support this event: US ARMY, PAPA JOHNS, ANHAUSER-BUSCH, OLD SPICE..but free samples and beer make it okay.
  7. EVERYMAN – or Every Person.  You don’t have to train, but you can.  People took is seriously and sprinted, while others chose a run/walk combo to complete the event.  Some teams just walked the whole thing.  There were some truly large, and out of shape people working through this event with a team.  There were all gender’s and ages present. We were witness, as a team, to all body types participating in these events.  It was pretty impressive.

Final Thoughts:

  • Expectations – We went into this with little to no expectation or ego.  We told the couple that we would participate on a team with them after we were half in the bag from drinking beer all day.  We had no ego wrapped up in our decision to do it, just to participate with friends.  We chose to participate just to do something different, and see what all the fuss was about.  Expectations can ruin a good time.
  • Do it, you have everything to gain – despite the uber patriotic machine that fuels this – it is FUN and a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon with friends. We went for milkshakes and burgers after.  It was sweet. I genuinely enjoyed the community building outcome; The experience made me wish we all did feel like we were in this together.  It doesn’t seem that way anymore.
  • ***** I received a follow up email from Tough Mudder after the event asking me to take a survey, my submission gave me the opportunity to win a $50 gift card.  The survey was asking me if I ever considered joining the US ARMY or Armed Services and gauging whether after I participated in the event – if I was reconsidering my decision NOT to join!!