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

In Memoriam, Mike Moore

I had a friend who drank too much
and played too much guitar – 
and we sure got along. 
Reel-to-reels rolled across the country near and far 
with letters poems and songs…. 
but these days he don’t talk to me 
and he won’t tell me why. 
I miss him every time i say his name. 
I don’t know what he’s doing 
or why our friendship died
while we played the poet game.
- Greg Brown, ‘The Poet Game’

 

“Why Mountain Gazette? Why not?”

That’s the way Mike Moore introduced the first issue of a new magazine “generally about the mountains” in the fall of 1972. Exactly what Moore had in mind, no one really knew.

For example,  here’s Barry Corbet, a noted mountaineer, skier and filmmaker in the 60s and 70s, sounding puzzled: “I have in hand a letter from Mike Moore, editor and manager of this journal. My assignment, should I choose to accept it, is to write ‘from one to sixteen pages about the mountains….’”

He accepted the assignment, of course, as we all did, all the writers who got that letter—Moore’s stable, writers living above 8,000 feet elevation if only in spirit. Mountain Gazette. Why not?

Now, it’s a long way from 1972, and word just came in a roundabout way that Moore died November 20, in Vermont where he has lived most of the past quarter century. This is not an obituary—he wanted none of that: no funeral, no memorial, no eulogies, said the notice making the rounds. Okay, but he can’t stop old friends, old loves from remembering him. Trying to re-member (sic) him through what he brought to our lives in what was the relatively brief but very intense first five years of the Mountain Gazette.

The Mountain Gazette wasn’t actually a startup; it was an acceleration or expansion, or maybe a digression, from another magazine, Skiers’ Gazette, that had entered the field of ski journalism in 1966, a newsprint gadfly journal that was the Village Voice to the ski industry’s array of earnest four-color Wall Street Journals (the romance of ski capitalism).

I became part of Moore’s SG stable of writers while I was running the Crested Butte Chronicle in the Colorado resort town of same name. He occasionally reprinted something I’d written in my gadfly newspaper; and when I left the newspaper business, where the ratio of business to writing was too high, to try to pursue a career freelancing, he offered me a chance to write a column for the SG.

That was great: I invented a mythic ski town, and over the course of that winter unloaded half a decade of observations that would have lost me all the Chronicle advertisers I hadn’t already lost. Moore made sure we writers didn’t worry about the impact of our biting of the hands of the advertisers that fed the SG and our meagre checks; still, we might have hypothesized that Moore’s motivation for expanding the Skiers’ Gazette to the Mountain Gazette was a need for access to a larger body of advertisers to offend.

But that was not Moore’s motive; he wanted to find, nurture and give voice to the 20th-century literature of the mountains, and the strange post-urban cultures springing up in the mountain towns like new mushroom species. Skiers’ Gazette had made him aware that there were lots of articulate and over-educated misfits, malcontents and de facto expatriates slinking around the mountain towns and beyond, trying to piss a line in the snow—dirtbag hippies, burnt-out suburbanites going exurban, lawyers undergoing a Saul-Paul transformation, Lord Jims in orderly retreat, all of whom knew, sort of, what Robinson Jeffers was trying to say: “When the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.” He wasn’t beating the underbrush of the mountain valleys for advertisers but for writers, whom he could lead, push or otherwise nurture or seduce to some greater level…. He didn’t want to just do a Village Voice for the mountain regions; he wanted to do a high-altitude New Yorker: the socio-economo-politico-cultural voice of a place and a time whose writers he believed might have something interesting to say.

Paradoxically, Moore was not a “mountain person” himself. He grew up in Colorado’s Front Range cities— cities that are to the mountains what Boston and San Francisco are to the ocean. He didn’t ski, didn’t climb, didn’t even hike much except on golf courses with a mountain view. As MG editor he mostly came to the mountains to visit his stable of mountain writers, visits that seldom moved beyond the bars of those places.

And by extension, the exemplars he carried in his heart were—I think—the great urban editors and publishers of the mid-20th century – people like Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, the man who “found” and brought to full bloom Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner, Erskine Caldwell, James Jones and others. That was what Moore wanted to do, the life he wanted to live.

I was lucky enough to make it onto the short list in his stable—those not just called but those maybe chosen, after a little serious work and tuning. He was the kind of editor who edited from the front, pre-manuscript, as well as what he called “pissing in the manuscript” after it was in. This often involved 12-to-7 “working lunches” for throwing ideas around that got better as the afternoon deteriorated, in the event that either he or the writer was capable of remembering the ideas – especially since the working lunch usually deteriorated further into just going out and overindulging for the rest of the evening. Moore also worked the phones with writers – and being an insomniac himself, a 3 a.m. call was not unusual.

But most of Moore’s interaction—at least with this writer—came in letters, those things we used for communication before email. I have a whole file drawer of letters from him—and I wrote as many to him. I reread the folder of his letters from the Gazette years the weekend after he died, and some of them would begin, “Responding to your two letters from last week….” What were these letters about? Well, about one to sixteen pages. They might be about a piece I was working on, or he wished I was working on; but they were also ongoing conversations about things he’d read or I’d read or we’d both read (it was Spengler for quite a while), discourses on what was happening in our lives, and –… But that sounds so damn – literary.

I need to downshift and get honest here about re-membering Moore. The letters, the long meetings were a love affair, is what they really were: we were both in love with my potential. That sounds terribly egomaniacal, but I think it is true, and the affair was conducted through this mad blizzard of letters about writing, with a focus on my writing. There was nothing sexual about this love affair – but something he said in one letter about his sex life kind of explains something about his relationship with the writers he worked with.

He said that he took a lot of his self-identity from the woman’s physical satisfaction—“She comes; therefore I am,” was how he put it. So it was with us: if, with his suggestions, support, critique, wheedling, stimulating and stroking, we might finally write something generally about mountains (and what isn’t?) that communicated a little Wright-Brothers-type hopping flight of the soul—then he existed too. I knew of course that he was profligately twelve-timing me with all the other Gazette writers; we all knew that, and jealousy occasionally intruded, but basically we loved him back as profligately: our Max Perkins, shepherd, custodian, editor, lover-of-our-potential.

If you were one of his short-list writers, he would—eventually—publish just about anything you sent him. Even in complete disregard of the “one to sixteen page” parameter stated in that first letter. Between stages in my own life in the summer of 1975, I cranked out a 90-page manuscript in a two-week burst of desperate something-or-other—in many respects, just a longer letter to Moore, but more generally about mountains. I sent it to Moore, with a letter asking him to see if there were any salvageable fragments in it, anything to take out and work up; “I can’t imagine what you could do with the whole mess,” I concluded.

I got a letter back a few days later that began, “We’ll print it, of course; we just have to figure out how and why”—then went into a description of how he had alarmed patrons at the bar where he went to read it, with noisy outbursts of laughter, backtalk, and other manifestations of his tendency to be a very active reader…. We define love too narrowly, too pedestrianly, if it can’t include this – not just “brotherly love,” but loverly love, a kind of shared intimacy involving mutual penetration of each other’s minds and hearts, and the kind of trust that enables that.

Eventually that outpouring became the final part of a four-part series that involved a lot of back-and-forth calls and letters, a couple emergency work days in Denver, and some serious stress on both of us. When done it occupied more than 50 pages of the magazine over four months, and was very well received in the mountain world. For us: how was it for you, did you…? Yes, the peak intensity, climax of our love affair with my potential, through which his potential was realized. We came together on it; therefore we were.

He thought the “Part of a Winter” series should become a book, and started calling in or begging favors from every big leaguer he had ever encountered in the rarified realm of New York publishing. But this was also a time when he was going through a lot of personal trauma—a failing marriage, financial troubles at the magazine, a lot of heavy drinking and the indiscriminate bestowing of random female orgasms. I got a contract eventually, with what turned out to be the wrong publisher—my fault, not Moore’s.

And not long after that, in 1976, Moore left the Mountain Gazette and Denver, to set off on an extended tour of Europe with his family in what even he could see was predestined to be a futile effort to salvage the marriage. The book was edited by a young woman in New York who knew commas but didn’t know what either she or I were doing; suffice it to say that Part of a Winter wasn’t the Look Homeward, Angel or Farewell to Arms that Moore had made us both believe it could be, in the intensity of our affair.

We continued to write letters for a number of years after he left the Gazette, but with increasing infrequency, while he went through a number of editing jobs, and eventually a partnership in a Vermont publishing house. Finally, he stopped writing entirely—not just to me, his partner told me, but to everyone from his “former life”. For almost two decades I heard nothing from him, until out of the blue he called one afternoon a year or so ago—“to say goodbye”: he’d received his death sentence from the doctors.

Well, no eulogy then, Moore, per your instructions, no obit, just this effort to re-member you in my life, keep you a member in my life, and remember how you changed my life, for better or worse. I think we both eventually realized that I lack something—the ego, discipline, drive—to really realize fully whatever potential I have or had in the running for the Next Great American Writer, and that may be why you stopped writing letters. But I thank you from whatever depths I have for your seemingly boundless love for us all during those first intense and exciting Mountain Gazette years, which like all love is given, just given, and not for what we are but for what we might become. Unsustainable, love like that, but how gray life would be without ever having had it.          —George Sibley

Postcard: St. John in fall

I was lucky enough to grow up on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, though at this stage of my life that simply means I have an island to visit where I know the nooks and crannies. Maho Bay is not necessarily one of those nooks, but it still sees less traffic than more famous beaches like Trunk Bay, which is often named one of the top 10 beaches in the world. This was a lazy mid-November day at Maho, in the middle of the pristine VI National Park, which covers about 70 percent of the island, treading water, figuratively and literally, before the winter faucet turned on at home.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

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.

Bob Marshall: A Wilderness Original

A Wilderness Original: The Life of Bob Marshall, 2nd Edition (Mountaineers Press, 2014)

By James M. Glover

Reviewed by Cameron M. Burns

My wife and I lived in Montana in the early 1990s, and I always wondered why this guy named Bob Marshall was so heralded. Not many people get a million acres of wilderness (fifth largest in the U.S.) named after them. Heck, I’d like to name a few million acres after people who deserve the credit but will never see it.

Well, this 2014 reissue of a 1986 biography—A Wilderness Original: The Life of Bob Marshall—explains it. Bob Marshall was and remains arguably the biggest advocate for wilderness the United States has and will ever see.51MzbvhMWvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

His feats in wilderness areas proved his obsession with the natural world. He explored the Brooks Range long before most, and studied the local population that lived there. He rambled in Montana’s mountains for three years while studying trees. And he had a massive thirst for hiking—up to 40 miles a day. When he was just a youngster, he and his brother George and Herb Clark were the first to summit all 46 peaks in the Adirondacks over 4,000 feet.

This book, first published nearly 30 years ago, tells the story of Marshall’s forebears’ move from Bavaria to New York in the mid-19th century and much about his father’s life, which ultimately influenced Bob’s (loving wilderness, community involvement, and no interest in the trappings of wealth, etc.)

When this writer’s family emigrated from Australia to the US in 1978, we landed in Syracuse. Some of my first climbing experiences were in Tasmania. Then, weirdly, starting in 1978, in the Adirondacks. My father and I did a 4-day tromp through the “Dacks,” and it was one of the best things I ever experienced.

This was Bob Marshall’s land. He loved (as we all do) and wanted to see it preserved as well as it could be preserved.

In 1935, Marshall formed the Wilderness Society with Benton McKaye to “battle uncompromisingly for wilderness protection all over the United States.” And the Society went on to do many great things in many great places.

This book is a fairly straightforward narrative—Marshall’s family history, his father’s devotion to wilderness and ethical concerns, and his academic and professional career—but what comes through and stands out in Glover’s tome is the unbridled love of wilderness that Bob Marshall had. As a youngster, he hated being outside after dark. But he pushed himself to go out and wander the forests near the family compound in the Dacks. If he’d only hiked 36 miles on a certain day, he’d often go out for an after-dinner walk to make it an even 40.

Although I call this book a “fairly straightforward narrative”—from a reader’s perspective—it has the three qualities that are a must to the art of biography and something that many biographies lack. One, the guy (Marshall) is a real character. Too many biographies are of the ilk that up-and-coming politicians write (“I’m here and this is what I believe” even though they haven’t done sh*t to deserve the public’s attention). Marshall’s definitely worthy of your eyes. Two, Glover’s writing is carefully crafted. I’ve read too many things in magazines and books where it’s quite apparent the author didn’t understand grammar, syntax, typography, and pretty much everything else (hell, I cringe when I read my own work from 30 years ago). And three, it’s an enjoyable story. In many bios the plot gets simply lost, as the expression goes, and a memorable character gets overrun by bad storytelling.

Glover, a writer’s writer, told me he hadn’t zeroed in one Marshall at first.

“When I was around 30 or so I was casting around for something substantive to write about,” he told me via email. “I was teaching college courses in outdoor recreation [at Southern Illinois] and was (and still am) an avid wilderness adventure enthusiast. Anyway, around 1978 or ’80 or so, I happened to read an article about Marshall in Backpacker magazine by Roderick Nash, and also read about Marshall in Nash’s famous book, Wilderness and the American Mind. So I began to dig around for more info on Marshall, with the vague idea of maybe writing a book about him. I didn’t realize, when I first began, quite what a compelling personality he had, and how important a historic figure his father had been, and how strongly committed Bob was to what we sometimes now call “social justice.”

Sure, Jim, his father was important, but mostly because he produced this great soul who was absolutely addicted to wilderness and willing to do everything in his power to preserve it.

It’s a remarkable tale about a remarkable man that, if you’re like me, has hovered in your hazy subconscious for years. This book brings him to light.

“I have to thank Marshall himself for making the book however interesting it is,” Glover told me. “He continues to seem to me one of the most compelling personalities in American history, even though he’s not well known outside environmental and wilderness adventure circles.”

No kidding.

Respect the writer, respect the subject, respect the words.

Read the book.

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.

Postcard: Bermuda barracuda

The barracuda, a long, sinister-looking fish commonly found in warm ocean water, meets its demise when its predator instinct lures it into biting a bait fish with a large hook inside it. Such was the case for these five fellas during a deep-sea fishing trip off the south coast of Bermuda this week. JR Bean, who captains Paradise One, sliced them into filets shortly after returning to land. As he did so, an old-timer walked by and began chatting up a tourist. “Every day is a good day above ground,” the Bermudian said, “but when you get out on the water, it’s better. You get away from all this madness, all this stress.” Man’s gain is the barracuda’s loss, I suppose.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: My Morning Work

Every morning the collie puppy and I go for a walk around Paradise Hill. It’s all woods out here, so he gets to run free—who knows where—sniffing game trails, poking into porcupine ledges, or romping aimlessly for sheer joy. I do somewhat the same. My habit is to take along a book of poetry—today it’s a new volume by my old pal Joe Mills—and, while the collie puppy is afield, I plant myself on one of the many erratic boulders strewn across this landscape. Perched so, I kill time reading in one of nowhere’s many middles.

I also carry a steel pen and a little notebook to jot down my bright ideas. Whenever the collie puppy spots me scribbling, he breaks off the chase and comes bounding over and jumps up on me. His muddy paws inevitably leave their mark, sometimes on the page. Thus he records, for the umpteenth time, his one bright idea: “Give me cheese!” Yes, the collie puppy is a far more consistent thinker than I am—and he does not require the services of a therapist, imaginary or otherwise.

The other day on our walk, I lost my pen. I’m forever losing pens. And sunglasses. So I’m always buying new ones. I finally gave up replacing the sunglasses. It got too expensive and I don’t live in California anymore. But try as I might, I can’t give up the pens. I know, some of you dearly wish I might try a little harder, but I can’t help myself from writing down words like these. It’s a compulsion that has cost me more than one good job, not to mention respectability.

Anyhoo, I’ve been looking for that lost pen for two days. My buddy Craig Childs gave it to me in Alaska a couple years ago, so sentimental value is at stake as well. That pen had to be somewhere along the path around Paradise Hill, a path that is mostly my doing. The collie puppy travels elsewhere. He does his free and easy wandering off-trail and out of sight. Today, though, he did something different.

He interrupted his romp in the wild woolly-wags to come sit down on the path a couple hundred feet ahead of me. There he waited. When I arrived he spotted the notebook in my hand and jumped up to express his one bright idea. He inscribed it across the front of my threadbare but freshly laundered field jacket. My critique of his muddy thinking was preempted by the glint of something in the drab leaves carpeting the forest floor. It was the lost pen.

So I picked it up and started writing these words. The collie puppy ran off barking happily after something or another. And enough time was granted to finish this.

The Peaks of Otter

Peaks of Otter

Finding a little respite in a Blue Mountain Lodge

By Katie Souris

When I was a little girl, I had good parents. On family vacations, more often than not, we’d go camping in North Georgia or stay in a little one room cabin at a State Park and I would tromp around hunting for salamanders and playing on a freshwater sand bank.

One year we decided to take a big trip. We loaded up the Pontiac with hiking boots, maps, a camera, a basket and tarp for rugged picnics, and a cooler full of yoo-hoo’s and deli meats. We were headed on a Southeastern road trip up the Parkway from North Georgia into Virginia.

I still love the Blue Ridge Parkway and dream of the times we had back when I was seven years old. One place we stopped to rest was Mt. Pisgah, another was Doughton Park. Both of these hiking hubs are marked by iconic lodges (or were, in the case of sold Bluffs Lodge) where travelers could stay a night or two, get a gourmet meal, and have the chance to get lost in the scene of the Blue Ridge without pitching a tent.

We didn’t make it to Peaks of Otter on that trip, although my mother wanted to. She loved Doughton Park because of the herds of deer and the quite misty mornings. She loved Mt. Pisgah for the skunks that visited the grass in front of the rooms in the night (my mother loves atypical things, which is a blessing). So this year, on her 69th birthday, we made it up to Virginia once again via interstate for most of the way and then weaved back South on the Parkway 80 miles from Charlottesville to the lodge nestled between two peaks in the valley of Otter Creek.

The main building contains a dining room, gift-shop, and the ‘Bear Claw Lounge’, which sells coffee and confections. There are three units that house guests, each two-storied and every room with an uninterrupted view of the expansive Abbott Lake that captures Sharp Top Mountain’s reflection, this time in brilliant autumn golds. In the rooms there are water saving tips and socially conscious reminders, like the program Peaks of Otter participates in by collecting leftover soap to be recycled, made new, and sent to communities in need around the world. In the shower, a waterproof stop-watch challenges guests to use less than the average 12 gallons of water per shower. I hit 11 gallons before realizing I’d been clean for at least the last 4.

Although typically guests book rooms for two evenings, we called and were able to stay for just Saturday. The winding expanse of hiking trails that leave directly from the lodge and lead to old settlements like Johnson Farm and geographic wonders like Balance Rock, made us wish we had more time. We did a short 1.8 mile loop trail Sunday morning, passing under a stone bridge and climbing gently across a soft green meadow and into a golden forest of flaming Hickory, Tulip Poplar, and Maple trees. At Johnson Farm the trail was marked with a few wooden placards that explained the history of what was once a thriving community nestled into the rugged mountains, and had a view of the lake and peaks below that made me long to stay awhile.

At the dining room the night before we had watched out the window as the day turned to dusk and the sun played its sharp rays of light off the mountains. The colors dimmed into muted orange and purple while we feasted on pecan encrusted trout and prime rib. Ducks bobbed up and down in the chilly water, searching for dinner. Walking back to our room that evening, a streak of tan caught my eye as one deer led the charge, joined by six or seven others: grazing and watching, grazing and watching, on the other side of a wooden plank fence.

Many lodges and bed and breakfasts close during the off-season, but Peaks of Otter will stay open on weekends during the winter and will serve a Thanksgiving Day buffet. Whether you stop by for a night’s rest, a meal, or a reverent walk around Abbott Lake, Peaks of Otter is a place to, “Come to unplug,” as guests are encouraged to do, and enjoy the panoramic accommodations of planet Earth.

Check out what the Blue Ridge Parkway Association has to say about Peaks of Otter by clicking here or visit the website directly:  peaksofotter.com.

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.