Mountain Passages: Solstice

Portland, Old Friends in the Rain, and the Shortest Day of the Year

By Alan Stark

It’s the winter solstice. A couple minutes ago I was thinking about a friend I lost a long time ago. It wasn’t a warm, fuzzy thought. But I’m in Portland and seeing stuff that makes me smile. There is a sad/happy thing going on in my head. I blame this yin-yang thinking on the holiday season.

The rain is running down my neck, the sort of annoying Pacific Northwest rain that’s not intense enough for an umbrella, but given time, will soak through my allegedly waterproof jacket and polypro pullover. Not that I’d be carrying an umbrella on a run anyhow. It would be an obvious wardrobe blunder in this fashion capitol of Oregon.

I’m running through the burbs near Portland. I turn a corner and see a guy washing his car in the light rain. He’s on the driveway of a normal looking suburban ranch house with a two-car garage. The yard is well kept up, he’s washing a late model Japanese sedan, and there are Christmas lights along the eves of the house. He doesn’t look up as I trundle by. My first thought is that this guy is just nuts. There is much in the Pacific Northwest, and particularly the Portland area, that is weird.

But as I continue running I reconsider. Maybe he’s highly structured and always washes his car on this day of the week. Or maybe he’s unemployed and keeping himself busy or maybe he just had a fight with his mate and had to get out of the house. And maybe I’m getting weird because I’m running in the rain in this strange town and just making stuff up as the miles go by.

Yesterday my older sister and I were walking through the Pearl District at dusk and saw a shopping cart person staring into a store window. The cart was filled with bags of junk, and he looked like he had on four layers of heavy clothing. I wondered what he was looking at. When I passed by I saw he was watching a large screen TV showing tropical images. I’m sure that if I were barely surviving on a rainy Portland street, I might be standing there wet and transfixed by pictures of beaches and palm trees.

There are way too many people like him out in the rain in this country.

I’ve known a good number of people in this life and drifted away from some of them. The drifting away was almost always about alcohol and drugs. Sure—guilty as charged—but I never dropped in to anything without knowing where and how I would land. They made their choices. They dropped in and crashed; time and again.

I can name names but won’t. If they are still alive, the naming would embarrass them. But when I saw that guy watching TV in the rain I thought of an old friend that I lost. I whispered for her “if the fates allowed” in this holiday season.

She was one of my best friends. We hung out together. What I remember and cherish was the laughter. She eventually married another friend of mine and moved to Colorado long before I did. They had a kid and then a really ugly divorce. By that time I’d moved to Boulder. I had one of those civilized divorces at about the same time. You might know what I mean…As the divorce proceeded I often had my teeth clenched down hard when all I really wanted to do was scream.

My friend and I hung out together again. There was always way too much drinking and doping; too much for me. She found someone else, I found Blue Eyes. My friend and I drifted apart.

Several years later she called at three in the morning. She was stranded at some ratty old house with her kid, too strung out to do anything else but call for help. I picked them up and took them to her place. That was 20 years ago. A couple years ago I ran into her at Liquor Mart. I didn’t know what to say. Still don’t.

My taller sister and I walked all over Portland stopping once for an Irish coffee. I live in Boulder most of the time, a town that has somewhat of a reputation, so I’m real careful about making fun of other places for fear of cosmic retribution.

“So Sis, I don’t mean to be insulting but is Portland just weird.”

“What do you mean?”

“ For starters, how about folks milling about in the rain wearing butt ugly stocking caps, huge lumber shirts, pierced nostrils, and clunky boots.”

“Oh that…that’s nothing. Weird is the Facebook page for the airport carpet.”

This is a true fact. Look it up. The Portland locals have a thing for the aquamarine carpet at the airport. Seems about four acres of it were designed by some person who mimicked the runway layout—clever, in a penny loafer sort of way. But now the carpet needs replacement and the locals have dropped in with no idea of where they are going to land. My sister claimed that some of the carpet will be salvaged and made into doormats for the true Portland airport carpet aficionados. This is a true fact.

This run needs to come to an end, my left knee is talking to me and it’s not talking about old friends or Portland. It’s still raining as I slow up and stop. I fly home on this shortest day of the year.

Portland signIt’s the winter solstice; a magical time of year that can be both sad and happy. For me it is a time to remember lost friends and maybe mumble some hopeful words for them. A time to make sure my family and friends know how much I love them. And maybe a time to say a nice thing or two about Portland…they have a really great looking mountain northeast of town…and when the weather breaks, two or three times a year, you can see it.

In a week or so most of us will get back to our routines and maybe our 423rd weight loss plan. We’ll have most of the ski season in front of us and some amazing days with powder up to our noses. And then it could be down to the islands for mud season and then on to summer in the mountains when we look up and think that maybe the blue sky goes on forever in all directions.

But on this shortest day of the year, it is time to gather friends arm-in-arm around a huge fire somewhere in the woods…a time to dance around the fire and howl like wolves in the pure joy of being alive together.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year

Alan Stark is a volunteer backcountry ski patroller in the Roosevelt National Forest and freelance writer. He lives in Boulder with this Blue Eyed person and her dog.

Mountain Passages: Japan, the Tour

I’ve been traveling Japan with Blue Eyes for two weeks, first on an art-and-crafts tour, and now here in Kyoto with friends. The tour included 16 boomers, and two guides, one of whom spoke fluent Japanese, and who also had a firm grasp of art, history, culture, and group dynamics. If you remember the kung fu movies, he is like the counselor monk in the background who advises the principal monk and who gets all the important stuff done… food, housing, laundry, transportation, sword sharpening, etc.

This is only the second time I’ve been on a tour. The first was several years ago on the White Rim Trail out of Moab, an easy, leisurely mountain bike ride through some magnificent red rock country. That tour was for four days with six riders and two guides. Eighteen people on this trip seems like a crowd, a nice crowd, but a crowd nonetheless.

The people on this tour come from essentially the same demographic and age group; both of these factors tend to lessen the potential for conflict. But we’ve been together for a long while and I’m not good at it. Add to that a tightly packed schedule, plus travel by bus, train, and taxi, plus a number of group meals, and the conversation starts to go round and round.

There isn’t a whole lot of central heating in Japan and we thought the houses we visited looked like they’d be cold in the winter.

“The human body generates 400 BTU in a day,” Thomas said.

“Wow, I had no idea.”

“Yes, it’s important in calculating heating for a building.”

“Of course.”

“I’ve been wanting to use that fact for years.”

“Thank you for sharing that information.”

Blue Eyes is my life friend and mate. There is no one else one else on the planet I’d rather spend extended periods of time with, but—and it’s a big but—being alone for a while is often a good thing. I need to walkabout solo. The aloneness gives me time to sort through all the ideas running through my small brain and toss the thoughts that are dumb, wrongheaded, or useless, and maybe write down the thoughts that may lead somewhere interesting.

Blue Eyes and friends head off for another site that will no doubt include iconic Japanese structures and, because it is late autumn, brilliant red maple trees. I turn left at the front door of the hotel and start walking north toward the Imperial Palace. I know a reservation is needed for the tour. If I had an Imperial Palace I wouldn’t let just anyone come gawk either, particularly me. While I don’t have a reservation, I think I’ll go anyhow. Who knows what I’ll discover?

Being on your own in an unknown city is pure adventure in the sense that what you see and do are absolutely driven by your curiosity and timing. At one intersection, a bike rider crossing the street passes too close in front of a car. The car nips her back tire throwing her off balance for a moment. She regains her balance and rides on, not looking back… as if that sort of thing happens all the time in Japan. In North America, that same encounter would involve some hand gestures and an exchange of opinions. And if there were any lawyers around, and they are always loitering at busy intersections (sometimes with cardboard signs), they would be falling over each other handing out their cards.

Kyoto gets in your brain the way Paris does. On this trip I’ve only seen two big cities, Osaka and Nagoya and both seemed a jumble of buildings and warehouses, many on narrow streets. The first thing that stuck me about Kyoto was the wide boulevards, just like Paris. Looking at the map it became clear Kyoto was built on a grid. The buildings are still a jumble of sizes and styles like the other two cities, but Kyoto is elegant.

I’m hungry, so I start looking for a place to eat. A number of less expensive restaurants hang a red lantern outside and either post pictures of their food or put out actual plates of food, or at least realistic models, in the windows. As a patron, you simply point at the picture of the food you want or you haul the waiter outside and point at the displayed food that you want. It’s a struggle to covey the diversity of appearances and tastes in Japanese food. Last night, we had Shabu Shabu, where you dip thinly cut meat in boiling water and watch it turn gray. Then you boil vegetables until they get soft. While the process and resulting meal sounds slightly dreadful to western tastes, the meat and veggies were superb.

But I’ve had enough Japanese food. Checking over my shoulder to make sure I’m not being observed by anyone on the tour, I duck into McDonalds for an Egg McMuffin with Sausage. Wonderful, and only 450 calories and about half of my daily recommended consumption of salt.

As I walk, I note a propensity to avoid eye contact by both the bicyclists on the sidewalk and my fellow pedestrians. I don’t see any bike lanes in Kyoto even though I’d guess that Japanese have been commuting by bike for a good deal longer than North Americans. They simply weave through sidewalk pedestrians on cruiser bikes that are a tad thinner and thus more maneuverable than our cruiser bikes.

Like all cyclists everywhere, the riders watch everything happening in front of them and to their sides with a constant, sweeping eye movement. The riders see my eyes but there is no recognition in their eyes other than that I am an object to be avoided. I’m amazed that pedestrians aren’t routinely run down but it never appears to happen.

I’m not big on eye contact, or at least I don’t have that weird compulsion to look everyone in the eye. I think my feeling about eye contact is born of a sense of privacy. Eyes convey a good deal, often eyes convey what a person is thinking. I’m not sure I want anyone to know what I’m thinking. Not that what I’m thinking is particularly unique, it’s just that they are my thoughts that I don’t choose to share. That’s what writing is for.

So for a non-eye contact person like me to note a lack of eye contact in another nationality is indicative of a cultural aversion, something innate in the Japanese. It could be shyness, it could be superiority, after all I am clearly not Japanese, or maybe it’s just fear that I’m going to ask them something that they will be unable to answer because they don’t understand my mountain patois.

When you walk a major city street in North America it is absolutely clear that we, as a people, came from everywhere. In a sense we are all mongrels and that’s a very good thing, one of our many strengths as North Americans. Japan is a heterogeneous society. It’s a good bet a researcher could trace most Japanese back to five hundred families 10,000 years ago. Point is, you don’t see many other nationalities in Japan, Japan doesn’t take in refugees, emigrating to Japan is difficult, and Japan has a long history of subjugating other nationalities with great prejudice…ask the Koreans or Chinese.

Even when I tried to make eye contact with bike riders or Japanese pedestrians I just couldn’t make it happen. It could be that one of the Japanese outside rules is not to make eye contact with anyone. Later in the day I was walking through food stalls in a covered alleyway and saw a cook in a glass booth frying dumplings. He sensed I was watching him and looked up. I smiled and he smiled back. It was a nice moment across nationalities. But on the street there was a sense of being studiously avoided.

My rambling includes a bookstore. Having spent my entire career in the book business, I’m curious about the bookstores of other countries because I miss being in big North American cities and cruising bookshops. These selfsame independent bookstores have been run out of business, first by corporate, chain-store greedheads and now by internet-discounted sales from another set of megalomaniacs. But it is nice to note a resurgence of sorts in the North American bookselling business. Reading a real book is an all around better experience than reading a book on a screen of any type. Yeah, I know I just bit the hand that feeds me because you are reading this on a screen. But hey, technology is a tool, this technology has probably helped more people read, but to really enjoy the full experience of reading, you need a physical book.

The real difference between North American bookstores and Japanese bookstores is that while Japan is all about esthetics and in many ways is a design-driven country, Japanese book design is pretty rudimentary and most books have plain but readable spines. The racks in a Japanese bookstore look like journal collections in a library. I thought to buy a kid’s book because the interior art was so fine but settle on a finely bound blank notebook and one of those pens with four colors of ink. I look forward to causing trouble with both.

The walk continues to the Imperial Palace that is entirely surrounded by a high wall. I’m a backcountry person. Fences, walls, gated communities all offend me. This wall was built as a military installation, there are 180 degree fields of fire stretching three hundred yards in all directions from the walls of the Palace. I marvel at how imposing the walls must have looked to an attacking foot soldier.  Like an old rock climber looking for a route upward, I look for weaknesses in the walls, places that could be breeched or climbed. I laugh at my neurosis of always being the outsider trying to get inside. I walk all the way around the Palace and then head back in the direction I had come I except that I’m walking side streets back to the hotel instead of on a boulevard.

These streets are about a car and half wide with a white stripe along either side like a bike lane in North America, but in this case, the white line indicates a sidewalk of sorts. I imagine that if a taxi nailed you inside the white line there might be trouble. I like small streets in other countries because that’s where folks live. Amazing what you can see, hear and smell if you pay attention on these streets. I find a number of restaurants worth visiting on the next trip, small shrines, gates to beautiful courtyards, a bike shop, flower shop, soshi screen shop and end up in a covered alleyway filled with food vendors including a number of fishmongers.

Just as I am about to head back to the hotel and the shuttle to Osaka I pass a fish stand where sashimi is being sold and walked on by. I get about a100 yards away and turned around, grumpy at myself for not taking the chance to eat raw fish from a food stand in an alleyway. There are three pieces of fish on a stick with a couple squeezes of lemon that cost 200 yen or about $1.80. I buy two. They are delicious.

Blue Eyes was waiting for me in the lobby.

“Where did you go?”

“Walkabout.”

“What did you see?”

“Many wonderful and curious things.”

“Time for you to go home.”

“Yes, Grasshopper.”

Alan Stark is back from his travels in Japan with this Blue-eyed person. He’ll wrap-up this five part series with the last installment sometime soon. He is a freelance writer and volunteer backcountry ski patroller for the Forest Service who lives in Boulder and Breckenridge.

Mountain Passages: Bear Takes a Japanese Bath

Chances are, I wouldn’t be a very good Japanese person. I understand taking my shoes off outside, but I don’t get the cultural reason behind shoe removal. The communal bath is not something I’d make habit a habit, and there are several bumps on my head from unintended encounters with low beams.

At some homes in Boulder we leave our shoes at the door. It has always seemed to me a good idea for keeping street dirt out of the house. But Willy the dog doesn’t much care about tracking dirt in the house. After a snow or rain, the wood floors look like we are running a dog hotel. Because we have Willy, we don’t bother to remove our shoes at The Creak House.

Apparently the Japanese view the world in terms of inside and outside. Shoes are for outside but not for inside. An extrapolation of this idea of outside and inside is the idea of dirty and clean; or to take the idea further, the profane and the sacred. But now I’m culturally in way over my head. All I can do here is observe and comment in a western context. To understand the Japanese mindset might just take a lifetime.

So I’m fine with the shoes outside thing, but then when I start hearing additional rules about outside things never touching inside things, I start scratching my head and possibly rolling my eyes. For example, I’m carrying a wonderful old Mountainsmith pack that has been with me for more than twenty years. It has been on the ground for hundreds of hours.  I need to bring the pack inside the inn to get to my shaving kit and clean clothes. So where do I put the dirty pack in the clean room? I’m trying not to be a Philistine, so I leave the pack by the door to my room, but it was definitely a dirty thing in a clean place.

The gender-separate communal bath I tried was spotless. It wasn’t that I dislike communal baths, other than the fact that I’m soaking in someone else’s bathwater. It’s just that given the choice, I’d rather be with the girls than the boys.

Remember that in Japan it is about process. So there are these written instructions that tell you how to behave in a communal bath that start with an explanation of how to wash yourself before you get in the bath. I don’t know about you, but I’ve done an okay job of washing myself for about the same number of years as the candles on my birthday cake—less maybe three. That’s a lot of experience washing myself. I don’t need to be told how to do it.

FullSizeRender-4Nonetheless, the instructions tell me to sit down on a stool that is about six inches off the ground. After multiple unintended encounters with the ground, hard snow, or boat gear, there are parts of my body that don’t bend well and are not operating at optimum design standards. This means that squatting on a stool six inches off the ground is awkward for me.  Once down on the stool, I turned on the shower to wet myself down, and then scrubbed top to bottom, rinsed off the soap, shut off the water, and attempted to dry myself with a towel about half the size of a dishtowel. Then I eased myself into a large pool filled with hot water with a couple of other guys, all looking slightly embarrassed. Admittedly, the bath is relaxing; my old parts that were a tad sore from squatting in the shower just mellowed out in the heat. The sign near the pool reminded us that the towel must never touch the water. Rubber duckies and other bath toys are not allowed either. I lasted about fifteen minutes and called the communal bath experience good.

I’m sort of an average-size North American male at barely six feet tall. I’ve spent some wonderful time on small sailboats, and understand crouching in a cabin or ducking in the cockpit when the helmsman yells “Heads!” Here in Japan I bump my head on a beam about four times a day. The first time stuns me and really hurts. The second time is less of a surprise and by the third or fourth time I am mostly feeling glancing blows to my head. None of this does any more damage than has already been done over the years. But I have now developed a sort of sixth sense to be constantly looking up before leaving yet another impression on both an overhead beam and my skull. I suppose that when I get home I’ll spend a week or so watching out for low ceilings.

Someone tried to explain to me the concept of boxes in the Japanese way of thinking. Apparently, everything in life has a box, some quite large such as family, and some quite small such as car keys. So as an example, let’s take getting a cup of coffee at the inn. We’ll call this the coffee box example. There is one coffee machine in the reception area of the inn. The machine grinds the coffee, brews the coffee, and pours it into your cup very quickly when the green light is on and pressed. The red light means the machine needs additional water or coffee or whatever. It is available to guests at 7:00 am. It is 6:50 in the morning and I need a cup of coffee. I go to press the green button and the hotel manager says, ”no, no, no, no,” and points at his watch. Even though the coffee machine is ready, in his mind the coffee is not available until 7:00 am. Those are the rules for the coffee box.

Curious.

I’ve just spent a couple of hundred words complaining about this country but here is what I have learned. In a highly structured society with rules for just about everything, I have become much more conscious of how my actions are perceived, and more perceptive about what may be an infraction of Japanese rules. In other words, I have become more mindful.

I’ve also learned to duck my head.

Alan Stark is traveling Japan with this Blue Eyed person. He will be sending irregular dispatches for the next several weeks.

Photos by (top) Mark Going/Courtesy Columbia Sportswear, (bottom) Alan Stark

Mountain Passages: Art and Order in Japan

In his ongoing posts form the Land of the Rising Sun, Alan Stark

 

There are magical places all over this blue planet—then there is Japan.

As North Americans, and particularly as mountain people, we tend to thrive on chaos. Maybe it’s our weather that makes us a little nuts, or the mountain terrain or that dream that drove us to the mountains in the first place, but here in Japan it is all about order. Almost everywhere you turn there are examples of purposeful order, from the way Japanese interact with foreigners, to way food is served, to the gardens and architecture. And even in the large tacky cities where you would expect chaos, there is always order and often pockets of beauty.

People speak of the Japanese aesthetic. Millions of words have been written about this aesthetic. My words will add nothing to the definition. Save to say that if you watch a Japanese prune a tree you will see him use a small pair of clippers with which he will take off single pine needles at a time to attain the shape and texture that suits his aesthetic—or better yet, the Japanese aesthetic. North Americans use chain saws for tree pruning.

FullSizeRender-2Order is curious word that it can mean thirty other things including a command or a definable structure of things. Order in Japan seems to be an accepted mandate among a homogenous society just as a definable organization of things is an agreed upon aspect of Japanese life. I might have just gone off into a philosophical swamp here so let me give another example.  To my eye, the rows of raised beds in my Boulder garden represent order in spite of the fact that toward the end of the summer the tomatillos, tomatoes, and zucchini’s are a jumble of vines and leaves. I suspect that a Japanese would never let that happen, that under Japanese stewardship my garden would be neat and orderly throughout the season, not just in winter and spring when the ground is bare or when the seeds are just starting to come up in neat rows.

The large cities I’ve seen are perfectly in tune with North American chaos. Superficially, they appear to be totally unorganized as if the zoning department had been closed down early in the twentieth century. But if you look closely in the jumble of buildings you can find both order and small spots of beauty such as an open courtyard of stylized pine trees or well-tended plantings along the median of a street.

And the architecture? The inventiveness of Japanese architecture is something to see and marvel at. I just saw a building obviously modeled after the Taos Pueblo only much taller and larger. I note the architecture because of the building being done now in Boulder by architects who seemed to have been trained someplace in East Germany by blind people before the wall came down. This trip isn’t very much about cities except for Kyoto that will come at the end of these reports, but now on to some small, out-of-the-way places worth seeing in Japan.

We are on the Island of Naoshima in the Inland Sea that is essentially a contemporary art center, that is if you can call “contemporary art” ART.

Let’s not get me into a definition of art that will embarrass or possibly enrage some, or all of us. I’m probably among a minority who see contemporary art as a bit of a cosmic joke on those who build word piles of art obfuscating prose in appreciation of a stack of sticks in the corner of an expensive art space.

Here on Naoshima, take for example some of the work of Lee Ufan that involves large rocks and plates of steel arranged in a concrete bunker-like building. The building by Tadao Ando shows a great deal of imagination not to speak of ingenuity, superb design, and engineering with all sorts of curious angles and odd shaped rooms. Ufan’s rocks and steel plates, not so much.

At another bunker, James Turrell messes with our sense of perception but, to be honest, the installations felt like an elegant physiological psychology experiment. One room has semi-sloped walls leading to large square hole in the ceiling. That evening we came back to the room just before sunset and sat there watching the hole in the ceiling as light banks in the wall changed our perception of the color of the sky in the square hole.

“So what you guys do for cocktail hour yesterday.”

“We sat silently in a concrete room contemplating a hole in the ceiling.”

“And then what happened.”

“The walls and sky changed color.”

“And?”

“Please don’t tell the boys and girls at Nederland Fire that I was staring at a hole in the ceiling for 45 minutes.”

The Teshima Art Museum on the island of the same name is memorable. This huge, flat, water-drop-like structureIMG_1102 of white concrete covers a football field-sized area. The structure, with two large ports for light, is a stunning piece of work unto itself. And then I noticed droplets of water bubbling up from the floor that randomly formed larger droplets that either snaked across the floor or became pools of water. The droplets and drops seemed to randomly move across the polished concrete floor. The effect was calming, contemplative, possibly transformative, but certainly magical.

“So what did you think?”

My friend Linda looked at me quizzically for a second.

“I was relieved,” she said, “The randomness of it all reminded me that all was not lost in the last election.”

Maybe contemporary art is at the crossroads of chaos and order.

Nah.

We are due to for some travel tomorrow and will visit the sculpture studio of Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese-American—more a citizen of the world. Then on to what may be tourist trap called Shikoku Mura where 19th century Japanese houses have been relocated and end with a walk through a formal garden in Takamatsu on the northern coast of Shikoku Island.

Alan Stark is traveling Japan with this Blue Eyed person. He will be sending irregular dispatches for the next several weeks.

Mountain Passages: Even Bigger in Japan

The Mountain Gazette’s Alan Stark jets off to the Land of the Rising Sun… and promises to try to be good.

 

It’s a real effort not to be a jerk sometimes.

The jerk comes out with a little stress—in this case a couple of flights from Denver to Osaka.

As soon as the flight attendants closed the doors, I got just a tad bit cranky. Nope, it’s not fear of flying. I’m fine with hurtling through space at subsonic speeds. The crankiness comes from being stuck inside a composite tube with a bunch of strangers.

“Jerk,” Blue Eyes says

“I deny gumpy-ness.”

“You’re being cranky and grumpy.”

“I am not a character from Snow White.”

“It’s 12 hours to Osaka, get over it.”

Last month, I was on a flight from LA when this self-involved person took it upon himself to do a stretching routine in the aisle, occasionally hanging his butt in my face. Blue Eyes was across the aisle and rolling her eyes. I thought to pat him on the butt but Blue Eyes waved me off with her, “I-won’t-bail-you-out,” sort of look. If past history is any measure, she means it.

After the doors were shut a Japanese-American flight attendant leapt into the air to close an overhead bin on this 787. Seems like Boeing engineers could figure out that most flight attendants aren’t five-feet, ten-inches tall. The leap in the air made me wonder about the rest of the engineering on the plane.

We were up and out over the Pacific when dinner was served. It’s was a slice of old chicken in a goopy sweet sauce on a bed of ossified white rice with a side of boiled vegetables. Lunch was sort of a turkey sandwich and a carton of gelato.  Although it was mid-afternoon as we approached Osaka, they served a breakfast of nuked egg and potato. United Airlines should be ashamed of themselves.

The Osaka airport is a typical international flight experience where the locals have you walk through a maze of hallways and escalators and more hallways to get to customs where they make you wait. I take no offense, they have learned a great deal from American Customs.

I’ve just finished reading a modern history of Japan and come away thinking that all my preconceived notions of what it is to be Japanese were mostly wrong. That’s a good thing. I wish that the citizens of other countries had a better idea of what it means to be an American than what they see on exported American TV.

We are not Duck Dynasty.

But one of those preconceptions appears to be true—the Japanese appear to have specific jobs from which they don’t deviate. The sniffer dog guy at customs hit every bag as we crossed his territory, he didn’t miss one American which made me glad I left the brownie wrapper on the plane. There were three people at customs, the first document checker sent us to the document corrections person who then sent us to the customs officer who still found something wrong with our paperwork. Again, three people at the money changing concession the first checker, the window clerk who did the calculations and transaction and someone unknown behind a screen who hands the clerk the money. Change your money in Japan, the charge was minimal whereas most money changers I’ve encountered in the rest of the world are thieves.

Same thing with loading a bus—there was a ticket taker, bag handler, and driver all of whom don’t seem to multitask. The ride into Osaka was a about an hour of traffic. My first impression of the town was a tacky jumble of buildings and streets at all angles and billions of cars, busses, and trucks all rushing around with very little honking, all very efficient and polite.

IMG_0837This politeness seems to permeate this society, maybe the most important trait of the Japanese, certainly the most obvious. But under this politeness is regimented process. Think of a sailboat where the skipper has a place for everything and does everything in a particularly efficient yet precise way. Leave something lying around and he’ll put it back in its right place. Do something untoward and he’ll immediately correct you. The only difference between the average Japanese and the average sailboat skipper is that the Japanese will be polite about correcting you.

The reception clerk apologized that the room we booked was “under construction” and that we had been upgraded. After being hustled about for 15 or 16 hours an upgrade was meaningless to me, and somehow it seemed odd that she apologized for upgrading us.  I just wanted a clean, warm place to go to sleep. But when I saw the room—words fail. It was a perfectly designed 400 square feet with a wall of windows overlooking Osaka. There were switches and lights everywhere and a magical bathroom with a toilet from an electronics store.

The toilet had a row of switches mounted on the wall. From what I could discern through the fog of travel I could push a button and get my butt washed and then push another button and get that same butt dried. This is all stuff I’ve done for myself for a number of years. And while adventure is always an attractive concept, the thought of getting blown off the toilet buy a gush of water wasn’t all that appealing so I settled for a standard flush but remain intrigued by a multifunction toilet.

We are headed for  Naoshima and  Teshima Islands in the Inland Sea that are reputed to be contemporary art centers. I’m going to have to be good because I think “contemporary art” is sort of like free verse, lacking traditional form and structure this art can be anything the artist wants it to be. I never had much appreciation the pile of sticks in the middle of a room that you can sometimes find at a contemporary art museum. But part of this textile and crafts tour of Japan are some contemporary art installations.

Try to be good.

Try to be good.

Try not to be boorish and don’t make fun of contemporary artists.

Much.

Alan Stark is traveling Japan with this Blue Eyed person. He will be sending irregular dispatches for the next several weeks.

Mountain Passages: Putting An Old Trail Running Partner On The SPOT

Dear Dan:

I can see and hear you as you open this SPOT unit.

“Jane! Bear sent me a SPOT unit,” you yell from the den.
“That’s nice.”
“You think he’s nuts?”
“Could be a message Dan.”

There are a number of reasons for the gift including age, friendship, and laughter.

I don’t know about you, but I’m always surprised and frightened when I walk into the John first thing in the morning and catch the image of this greyhair in the mirror.

“Geesus, who’s the geezer?”
“You,” says Blue Eyes and giggles.

SPOT unit
Let’s face a fact that neither one of us is forty anymore. I quit doing the trail runs to the sky some years ago and stay closer to town on my routes today. No more leaving at eight in the morning and straggling back at dinner time looking like I’d been sorting wildcats. No more showing up at a friend’s house after a long run with him and then having his wife call us “junkies.”

So, brother, when you were training for ultra’s and out there alone along the Front Range and up into Rocky Mountain National Park, I’d worry a little about you and then trot out the old cliché about dying doing something you love. It’s a lame condolence, but to those of us who love the backcountry, it’s good enough.

But when I got the call that you’d busted your ankle on the Appalachian Trail last May and had to be carried out I really started thinking that maybe it was time for you to have a modicum of protection in the mountains.

I’m not a gadget person. I find the 5-watt handheld radios we carry on backcountry ski patrol semi-annoying, because we can often throw them farther than we can communicate with them. But when the Forest Service issued us SPOT units, this sort of Wylie Coyote balloon went up over my head and I thought, “What a good idea. If we actually got into the deep and brown at treeline with a snowboarder with multiple injuries, we could get help with a SPOT unit.”

This thing has a bunch of functions. Have Jane read you the instructions…slowly. Try not to move your lips while she is reading to you. But if you are really injured in the backcountry, the most important thing to remember is to punch the SOS button. The SPOT unit will transmit your lat/long coordinates to GEOS, the International Emergency Response Coordination Center in Houston, and they will in turn call the Boulder Sheriff, who will most likely send Rocky Mountain Rescue to haul you out at no cost unless you have done something really stupid.

So we’ve known each other for a while or certainly since we both had brown hair and sold textbooks. Do you remember the Trip That Ate Durango? I’m not exactly sure that much work got done on that trip, but man we ate well on our expense accounts and got some runs done, and maybe even a climb. But it is less about the work and more the really dumb stuff that happened to us over the years and the ensuing laughter that has made the bond between us.

You were leading something easy on Flagstaff. I think it was just a one-pitch crack and you had dropped in pro about every fifteen feet. I scrambled up cleaning the pro when I stopped for a moment and saw that you had dropped a nut right in the middle of a patch of poison ivy growing out of the crack.

“What are you doing?
“I’m clipping out around this poison ivy.”
“Don’t leave the pro.”
“I’m not reaching in that shit to get your hex nut.”
“Yank it out by the runner.”
“I’m not doing that either.”
“It’s my favorite piece of pro.”
“Geesus. what a baby.”

Back east where I grew up I used to get full-body poison ivy where I essentially turned into a giant blister for about ten days. But I’d come to Colorado in my mid-20s and never had a problem with poison ivy out here. Ten years later I figured I’d outgrown the allergy.

Nope.

I pulled out the pro, racked it and finished the climb. Three hours later my right arm looked like Popeye’s forearm. It was huge and oozing and itched like crazy.

Your fault.

Or, how about the time in Boulder Canyon where I was working a dihedral and I got stuck reaching around the corner looking for a handhold? You were belaying from above and could see I was in trouble. Then I got sewing machine legs. I calmed myself. Sucked it up and made the move again. I missed and barely caught myself. Now I was really gripped. I looked up and could see you staring down at me.

“Dead is bad,” you said.

And then there was the Leadville 100. I was crewing for you from Winfield to Twin Lakes. You were bitching all the way up Hope Pass about your right toe. At the aid station on top I took off your shoe and saw this huge swollen big toe. I had a Swiss Army knife in a small fanny pack. I pulled it out and went to work on your shoe.

“No, Buddy you can’t do that.”
“I’m just cutting a hole above that toe.”
“Buddy, I love those shoes.”
“Geesus.”

You were wearing a half size smaller shoes than I was. I only had six or seven more miles to go and you had forty some. We switched shoes. We were running downhill and you were doing your typical down hill dawdle and talking at the same time.

“Real ultra runners can run and pee at the same time.”
“Damnit, those are my shoes.”
“Too late.”

So, the SPOT is a way of saying thanks for the friendship and laughter but it is also a bit self-serving on my part. It’s fine to die out there, most of us sort of acknowledge that it could happen. But if this little piece of gear saves you, it simply means that we’ll get more time and laughter together.

Alan Stark is a backcounty ski patroller in the Roosevelt National Forest and lives in Boulder with this Blue Eyed person and her dog.

Mountain Passages: Drunk Emeritus

Gunner the barkeep looks up as I come into his mountain bar. He nods and goes to work on my usual. I shake him off like a pitcher rejecting a catcher’s signal. He stops and looks quizzical for a second and then leans back against a cooler.

Waiting.

The “usual” is a Manhattan. When I first wandered into his bar about a hundred years ago and ordered a Manhattan I got the same quizzical look.

“You know how to make a Manhattan?” I asked.
“Are you lost? This ain’t Manhattan.”
“Clearly. See ya.”

We stared at each other for a moment. I’m not sure who smiled first, probably me. Gunner is huge and I’m a lifelong non-combatant.

“So you want a Manhattan or a Perfect Manhattan.”
“Manhattan on the rocks with bitters, no cherries.”Manhattan
“You don’t have to tell me how to make a Manhattan.”
“Yeah I do, here in the High Country most barkeeps forget the bitters. It’s a couple ounces of good bourbon, a couple ounces of decent sweet vermouth, and three splashes of bitters.”
“That’s more than a double.”
“I got money.”

As you might have guessed, Gunner doesn’t show up as Mr. Congeniality in his high school yearbook. In fact, he didn’t make it into his high school yearbook. He dropped out and ended up in the Army. Spent a tour as a door gunner. Came back pissed off. Stayed drunk for months. Fought in bars. Hit bottom someplace in Montana. The local sheriff, who had lost his son, took him in and got him straightend-out—or as straightend-out as Gunner is going to get.

I sat down at my regular spot near the far end of the bar. If you love mountain bars you don’t sit at a table. You sit at the bar and talk to whoever will talk to you including the barkeep. Sometimes you sit quietly by yourself and think great thoughts or laugh at your most recent injury. Other times you feel sorry for yourself remembering a love lost, or an opportunity missed, or maybe you just watch the crowd in the mirror behind the coolers.

“So after all these years, you’re not having the usual?”
“Nope.”
“Okay, I’m game.” Gunner says. “What do you want?”
“Got a soda with a twist?”
“Kidding?”
“Make it two twists.”
“Get out of my bar.”
“Really?”
“No, but you may lose your permanent seat if you keep this up.”

Another friend of mine was a highly functioning alcoholic. We competed against each other and sometimes side-by-side for one book publisher after another as sales and marketing types. Regardless of whether or not we were on the same side, we would often find ourselves in the same town, and end the day in a bar telling lies and laughing. What I didn’t know was that while I was having my first drink of the day, he had started his day with a hit of vodka.

We both married other publishing people. We socialized as couples and the drinking continued, but at some point five or six years ago he began a downward spiral, starting with maybe the fifth time he had been fired from a publishing house. There were times when I didn’t see him for six months or so. His wife left him, so he ended up on public assistance and tried to dry out. Never successfully. Most don’t. I’d meet him for lunch every once in awhile, and the spiral downward continued.

He’s been in and out of skilled nursing centers, emergency rooms, and acute care hospitals for the last three months. I see him when he is coherent. He has nearly died of septic shock twice, due to a foot lesion and infection associated with type-2 diabetes. The surgeon went looking for the infection in his leg and ended up removing his right hip bone and a couple inches of his femur. I do what I can as a friend. It’s not much.

“So you want to talk about it?” Gunner asks.
“When did you become a shrink?”
“OJT.”

I told Gunner about my friend. He listened and was quiet for a moment.

“So you think you might be a drunk too?
“Yeah, something like that.”
“And now you are going cold turkey to prove you aren’t a drunk?
“Yeah.”
“So is this forever.”
“No, a month or so just to prove something to myself.”
“I’ve been sober 12 years.”
“ I know Gunner, it’s damned amazing.”

He got me my soda with two twists and reluctantly slid it to me.

“Gunner, you have a real name?
“Dour.”
“Which war?”
“Does it matter?”

Alan Stark is a freelance based in Boulder and Breckenridge who lives with a blue-eyed woman and her dog.

Mountain Passages: Written in the Sky

The ineffable look of the sky exhausts my modest vocabulary.

It is late summer here in the High Country and the color of the sky is telling me that I maybe have six more weeks of cycling before I have to rack the road bike in the garage and unrack the alpine touring (ATs) skis to be tuned. dave's cloud

The sky is a crystalline blue that obviously goes on to darkness. This sparkling blue backdrops white puffy cumulus clouds that often morph into cumulonimbus, the kind of cloud that can go grey in a matter of minutes and throw lighting bolts that will blast you off the ridgeline if you are dumb enough to be there after lunchtime.

You can almost smell fall coming on the air. It’s the best time of year in the High Country and as good of a time to die as any. The weather is beautiful, with warm days and cool mountain nights. No more of the flatland heat that can scorch the back of your eyeballs. And months before mountain winter, when four layers aren’t enough to keep you warm on a windy backcountry patrol.

A mountain person is dying of stage four prostate cancer, and he’s not seeing anyone anymore besides caregivers and his son. But when he’s feeling okay he answers the phone. I won’t bother with his name. If you Google your own name you’ll realize just how unimportant names are. But we’ll call him Dave. The couple of thousand people who know him will know who I’m writing about.

I first met Dave when he was director of a Mountain Trail Running Circuit in the mid-80s. Some fool had talked me into running the circuit. We had to run something like eight out of twelve races to qualify to earn overall points. Some of the runs were simply ridiculous like the seventeen-mile Imogene Pass run from Ouray to Telluride, or the half-marathon up Pikes Peak, and the grunt up Mount Evans to just over 14,000 feet. Others included a 10K course at Winter Park that made its way through a storm sewer and then followed a mountain stream where runners could be seen standing in the water trying to find their shoes.

But it was the Kendall Mountain Run in Silverton that reminds me most of Dave. The run started in downtown Silverton at 9,300 feet and went six miles up to the top of Kendall Mountain at 13,000 feet, and then back down. Dave made some announcements at the start of the race.

“You fast folks, remember when you are blasting downhill that slower runners are still working twice as hard as you did to get to the top. Give them some space.”

“That’s me, a slower runner.”

“You guys going uphill, watch for the boys and girls coming downhill fast. Give them some space. Crashes are hard at that speed.”

The run was awful. Near the top, runners had to scramble hand-over-hand for the last 200 feet to touch the summit. At the start of the race Dave would hop in a Jeep and greet all the runners at the summit. So I’m pretty close to last, I’m bleeding from a knee that hit the ground, and there was Dave.

“You are looking strong Bear.”

“Fuck you,” I managed to grunt.

“You may have dead last in the bag.”

“Double fuck you.”

I was still running as I reached the finish line…last. Dave called for applause on his megaphone. I was handed a beer.

Earlier in his life Dave bought into the American Dream but then quit. He just walked away from being a successful Mercedes salesman because it was too stressful. His Dad and brother had died in their fifties of heart attacks. He was determined not to die that way. He got fit and ran trails in the summer and snowshoed in the winter.

The local ski area wanted to hire him to run a snowshoe school. Dave was excited about a seasonal job in the winter. Then they told him that he had to shave his beard off, and Dave smelled corporate stressfulness and rejected the job, but kept his beard and instead ran a free-lance snowshoe touring business out of his apartment in Nederland. In his spare time he revised a successful snowshoe how-to book by The Mountaineers.

In Boulder, we have this modest little 10K every Memorial Day weekend where half of the town’s residents turn out to run or walk. The Bolder Boulder is a half-day party with a little exercise for most of us. Dave was the start announcer for years. He would have a complete list of the participants by staggered stage. He would underline names and call out four or five names in each stage.

“And in this stage we have the Bear.”

“Fuck you, Dave.”

“Winner of the Least Points Scored Overall two years running in the Mountain Race Circuit.”

“Double fuck you, Dave.”

“Dead last, two years in a row.”

Dave did such a great job on revising the snowshoe book that I called him from time to time to do books for whatever publisher I worked for. He’d come down from Nederland to Boulder on the bus with his day pack. He was always meticulously dressed in clean backcountry functional clothing, and his daypack was organized with stuff sacks for rain gear, a notebook, extra food, and maybe a jacket plus a full water bottle.

We’d have lunch, I’d pitch my idea and he’d promise to consider it. And then he’d always call back in a couple weeks and tell me that doing a book would be too much stress for too little money. I’d laugh and tell him that I’d have another pitch in six months, would he have lunch with me again. He always laughed too and said yes.

As a recovering book publisher I lost touch with Dave over the years, much as an alcoholic loses most of his bar friends. And then I got a call from another backcountry patroller who said Dave was dying and would I call.

I called twice and didn’t get an answer. My ex-running partner called and said he’d gotten through to him and that Dave wanted me to call. I called again and we talked and laughed for twenty minutes.

He told me that he was at stage four, and that he was trying to make it to his 75th birthday on September 11th. I laughed and told him that Blue Eyes, my wife, was born on 9/11 and how we left the year after for a couple weeks in France because she didn’t want to be stateside for the first anniversary of 9/11. “Too sad,” she said. We told other lies and laughed and I could sense that he was getting tired. I knew I had to say goodbye.

I didn’t know how. “So Dave, I guess I’ll see you again on the other side.”

“Yup, I’ll be sitting on a summit when you get there. I’ll be making fun of your trail running. And then we’ll laugh and drink beer.”

 

Alan Stark is a recovering book publisher and member of Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol. He lives in Boulder and Breckenridge with this blue-eyed woman and her dog.

Mountain Passages: Ghost Bike

There was hate in the cyclist’s eyes.

I was caught by traffic and blocking an intersection. Dumb move on my part; I should have been paying more attention. He was on a high-end road bike and in full kit—tall, skinny, powerful, and unshaven. I had blocked his turn. He yelled, “You Fucker!” and then slammed his fist on my hood as he slipped in front of me.photo-3

There was a moment when I moved to grab a flare from the side pocket, jump out of my 4Runner, and throw it at him. Sanity prevailed and I pulled through the intersection. What he did was totally uncalled for; a sociopathic overreaction to a traffic problem.

 There are a few Boulder cyclists who are unfit for the human race. Every bike town has them. Due to some chemical, genetic defect, or bad socialization they act as if traffic laws, common sense behavior, and the unwritten rules of civil interaction don’t apply to them. They are self-involved anarchists whose words and actions endanger everyone on a bike.

Out in the flats north of Boulder I heard a car speeding behind me. Instinctively I moved to the right. Within a second the mirror of a white SUV blew by my shoulder, six inches away. The truck was close enough and going fast enough that his slipstream drove me further right. The driver was either not paying attention or trying to blow me off the highway.  In either case, he had threatened my life. I yelled “ASSHOLE!” as loud as I could and flipped him off.

He turned into a side road 300 yards ahead and parked. He’d heard me.

My cycling partner yelled, “No Bear! Not worth it. He could have a gun.”

I crossed the highway and pulled up behind him, knowing that he’d have to get out of the car to be a threat.

“You are an ASSHOLE!” I needlessly reiterated. I could see arms flailing and the passenger wrestling with this guy. Maybe I’d gotten in the middle of a domestic, or maybe he’d gone for a gun and his wife was trying to stop him. I didn’t know. But somewhere in my small brain, the abandon ship klaxon was going off. I spun my bike and peddled off to rejoin my partner.

“You’re an idiot.”

“Yeah.”

“You could have gotten killed. Worse, you could have gotten me killed.”

“I know.”

 

Last night Blue Eyes was checking news websites before shutting down for the evening.

“Oh damn,” she said.

“What?”

“A guy was killed by a semi on Valmont this morning.”

“What happened?”

“Unclear, but apparently the he was caught under the real wheels of the truck.”

I rode out this morning and stopped at the white ghost bike. Here in Boulder County when someone is killed riding a bike, a white bike appears at the site the day after. Often family, friends, and total strangers leave flowers. After a week or so the bike disappears and is replaced by a bike wheel wired to nearby sign or post as a reminder. Sometimes flowers appear in these wheels. I think this is done all over the country, and if it isn’t, it should be.

I took off my helmet and sweat hat. I think I shook as I said a prayer for this guy. I’m not religious. I believe in rocks and trees and maybe some sort of a greater being (who is most likely female), but I had to say something. I think I said, “Sorry this happened to you. Goddam trucks.” Thus doing the poor cyclist no good at all and breaking the third commandment, all in one short prayer. I stared at the white bike for a while and involuntarily shook again. There are people I love who regularly ride bikes. This guy who was killed could have been anyone of them.

Vehicle cyclist contact results in one of two things: the cyclist is hurt or killed. The only protection we have is our vision, experience, and reaction time. But here are some ideas to curtail this carnage on the highway. Add your own ideas with a post.

Could we agree on a cycling code where we simply don’t react to provocation? Think Martin Luther King. No more yelling “Asshole” and flipping birds or pounding on hoods. It simply doesn’t get us anywhere. Remember, there are people out there who endanger cyclists just to see us react in anger.

Let’s not give a driver any reason to think we are arrogant or above the law. We are subject to the same traffic laws as drivers. Yeah, I know it’s easier to look both ways at a stop sign and blow through it, but let’s start unclipping. When we turn to look behind us at a stop light, make eye contact. Smile, engage the driver. Stay in your lane, don’t ride double causing cars to maneuver around us. You know the drill. And the anarchists among us? Simply quit riding with them. They have an agenda that could get us killed.

Support your local bike organizations. There is a concept called green bicycle routes or bike lanes separated from the road by a barrier. Whatever the concept, make it a plan to support the riders who work with city and county government to make cycling safer.

One other thing—helmet cams are now featherweight, high resolution, and fairly cheap. There are some bad people out there who really do try to hurt cyclists. Don’t fight them. Simply keep you camera running and use your video to file a complaint with the sheriff.

As to the ghost bike? Let’s have some years in Boulder County, and your county too, where the ghost bike never appears.

Alan Stark is a freelance writer and a member of the Buffalo Bicycle Classic Committee. He splits his time between Boulder and Breckenridge.

Mountain Passages—Why Are the Limes in My Margarita Brown?

In this life there are some risks worth taking and there are some risks to be avoided. It is only by careful analysis and investigation that these risks can be properly evaluated.

It is a fine spring day and to celebrate the season I sit down at a well-worn stool in my favorite mountain bar and order a Margarita, without salt.

Gunner, my regular barkeep, slides a frosty glass at me with a couple of wedges of lime that have brown spots all over them. I pick-out the lime wedges and on closer examination, the brown is probably some sort of rot. I carefully squeeze the juice out of them and put the limes aside.

The ‘rita is fine, it will head me in the direction I want to go.

The next time Gunner comes by I ask, “So how did you manage to get brown spots on the limes?”

“Whut?” he asks. Gunner has a GI Bill degree from CU in something esoteric like that odd place between physics and biology, so he’s not as dumb as he pretends to be, but I think he reads lips because he doesn’t hear worth a damn. He also says “Whut?” when he doesn’t have a smart-assed response to a question. He claims that it gives him time to think.

The bar isn’t crowded. Gunner is thinking.

“The brown spots on the limes Gunner? Where did they come from?”

Gunner looks at me like he probably looks at anyone who tracks mud into his bar or leaves the door open to the just marginal John. He avoids the question by reaching for a bottle of whiskey with a long silver cap on it and a really odd label.

He plunks two shot glasses down on the bar and pours Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey.

We make eye contact and he says, “Gunships.”

We click the glasses and I say, “Welcome Home.”

We smile—a grunt and a draft-dodger can be friends.

“About those gnarly-looking limes?”

Gunner was a crew chief and door-gunner for two tours. His methods of handling adversity have significantly improved since then. He moves over real close and sort of whispers to me, “They coulda come from the bottom of the garnish tray.”

“The what?” I ask.

“The garnish tray, that thing on the bar where we keep the fruit and olives for drinks. The thing with the plastic top on it.”

“So let me see if I’ve got this right. My limes had brown spots on them because they spent too much time in the garnish tray?”

“Yeah, that’s possible, look, after last call I put it in the fridge,” he says sort of apologetically.

“Great, so the garnish tray comes out for first shift at about 11 AM, sits on the bar unrefrigerated for maybe 14 or 15 hours until you serve last call?”

“Right,” says Gunner, “some refrigeration is better than no refrigeration.”

I walk over to the garnish tray and carefully lift the scuffed plastic lid. In front of me are recently cut pieces of lime on top, some lemon and orange rounds, candied cherries and green olives. As I look in the box Gunner hacks up another couple limes and tosses them in on top of the pile.

“So you were mad at me for something and got down to the bottom and found a brownish lime for me, right?”

“No, there just weren’t many limes left when you ordered,” he said.”

Gunner wanders down to the other end of the bar and I stick my finger in the limes. The bottom of the lime section is as I expected—soft, mushy and slimy. You would not be wanting anything in your drink from the bottom of the garnish tray.

Gunner comes back down the bar.

“I saw you stick your finger in the limes. That’s unsanitary,” he suggests.

It’s my turn to look at him as if he came from someplace where Moms and Dads are often brothers and sisters.

“So when was the last time your garnish tray got cleaned?” I ask.

“Dunno,” says Gunner, “The help is supposed to clean everything.”

“Same help that cleans the Johns?”

“Ah, yeah, them.”

Alan Stark is a Boulder-based freelance writer and a recovering book publisher.