Advice to myself before a thru-hike

•2 March 2018 • Leave a Comment

Link to Reddit


A Well-Regulated Militia in 2018

•21 February 2018 • Leave a Comment

RECOGNIZING the increase in the lethality of arms between the years 1789 and 2018;

RECOGNIZING the increase in the frequency of mass shootings continuing through 2018 unabated;

RECOGNIZING the right of personal gun ownership in America;

RECOGNIZING the right to personal safety in America;

RECOGNIZING that the unrestricted right to bear arms, and the commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, cannot both be maintained;

RECOGNIZING that it is the duty of the Congress to establish the minimum restrictions upon the right to bear arms necessary to also guarantee the right to personal safety in America;

RECOGNIZING that a mechanism for the minimum necessary restriction on the right to bear arms exists in the Constitution;

IT IS DECLARED that arms may not be born except by those who maintain good standing within a WELL-REGULATED MILITIA.

BE IT KNOWN that each of the several States be required to establish and maintain a WELL-REGULATED MILTIA.

BE IT KNOWN that each State must enact, oversee, and enforce, the laws of its WELL-REGULATED MILITIA.

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it incorporates every person who bears arms within that State.

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it be open to all persons who are otherwise able to bear arms, as allowed by both federal and local regulations; and that membership not be denied to anyone on account of race, heritage, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, political opinion, level of education, military service, or place of birth.

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it punishes those who bear arms within that State, and are not members of the militia, with a term of imprisonment of no less than one year and one day.

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it punishes those who bear arms within that State, and are not members of the militia, with forfeiture of all their arms.

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it punishes those who bear arms within that State, and are not members of the militia, with forfeiture of their right to bear arms for a term of not less than one year and one day, to be served consecutively with their term of imprisonment.

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it maintains a complete and accurate registry of all its members;

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it maintains a complete and accurate registry of all arms owned, borne, or produced, within that state;

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it maintains a complete and accurate registry of all the arms owned by each of its members;

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it allows law enforcement to have unrestricted access to all aforementioned registries – be it law enforcement of that State, of a sister State, or of the Federal Government;

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it provides for regular public meetings, in public space and at the public expense;

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it does compel its members to attend at least one such public meeting per year;

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it provides that failure to attend at least one such public meeting per year shall result in the expulsion of that member, along with resultant loss of their right to bear arms for a term of not less than one year and one day;

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it immediately notifies both local and Federal law enforcement of any failures by any of its members to obey its compulsions, including but not limited to such failures as result in that member’s termination from the miltia, and their resultant loss of the right to bear arms;

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless the State which incorporates it provides that a bearer of arms, who loses their membership in the militia and thus their right to bear arms, be immediately visited by law enforcement, and compelled to gather all arms registered to them, and turn them over to law enforcement; and the law enforcement shall hold these arms until such time as the person be allowed to legally bear them, and that this holding be at minimum and reasonable cost to the bearer; or, if the bearer prefers, they be sent to public auction, the proceeds of which shall go to the bearer, minus minimum and reasonable fees;

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless the State which incorporates it provides that the registered ownership of an arm, without its owner’s membership in good standing in their state’s well-regulated militia, establish sound and complete basis for a search warrant of the registered locations of said arms; and that, if said arms are not discovered in said locations, there shall be established sound and complete basis for a search warrant of the person’s home; any other properties owned by and accessible to that person; any vehicle owned by and accessible to that person, or known to be used by that person; as well as a warrant of arrest for that person, all to be served immediately.

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it does compel its members to undergo psychological evaluation by a competent and State-certified psychologist, to determine that person’s psychological fitness to bear arms; and that such evaluations be done of all members no less than once per year;

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it considers any question of a member’s psychological fitness to bear arms to be ground for that member’s immediate suspension from the militia, and temporary loss of the right to bear arms, pending further evaluation; and that any declaration of a member’s psychological unfitness to bear arms result in their permanent removal from the militia, until such time as they might then prove their psychological fitness to resume membership in that Militia;

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless the standards for its psychological evaluations, and of accreditation of those who offer them, be established by law, and strive to be as objective as possible to produce their assessment of fitness; but that these standards shall meet constitutional minimums as established by the Federal Government or its delegatee.

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless the results of such a psychological evaluation be immediately appealable to either an intermediate special court, or to the state’s lowest appellate court; and that the decisions of either be appealable to the state’s court of highest jurisdiction.

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it offer courses in firearm safety and use, or information on where such courses may be had;

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless its meetings bar any political activity, nor solicitations for membership in or donations to any organizations, political or civil.

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it refrains from accepting donations, in specie or in kind, from any person, business, or organization, excepting de minimis donations as provided by its members to all other members equally, such as at the militia’s public meeting;

BE IT KNOWN that a MILITIA shall not be WELL-REGULATED unless it requires its members to neither have no display any rank, insignia, or uniform, which could be construed as belonging to the Armed Forces of the United States, or of any state, or of law enforcement, be it federal, state, or local; and that the members of the militia not be ordered to undertake any activities of law enforcement or peacekeeping, nor undertake such activities in the name of the militia.

BE IT KNOWN that each State be allowed to establish any and all additional regulations of its WELL-REGULATED MILITIA that they deem necessary and proper, so long as those regulations do not substantially overburden the right to bear arms.


•6 February 2018 • Leave a Comment

MIRRORBLAZE: The impact of technology on the Trail

by david axel kurtz


The AT is changing. Base weights plummet. Neros get bigger and bigger. Nobos are starting earlier, yoyos are finishing later. Flip-floppers are the new normal. Trail towns are rotting. Drones are coming. The line between supported and unsupported is going to disappear. And maybe I should take a moment to explain what any of that means, so that you can understand what the future holds for hikers and for the trail.

The Appalachian Trail has always​ ​​had its own little lexicon.​ ​​​​Like the trail it changes. Like the trail, it usually gets longer.

​​A thru-hiker is one going from the top of the trail to the bottom. One may hike from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine or the reverse. The former were first called northbounders. ​But hikers will never miss an opportunity to shed a syllable or two – one part a love of insular lingo, one part just a hatred of syllables – and t​his was immediately shortened to ​​nobo. Southbounders are hiking ​​sobo, or are on a ​​sobo, or are ​a ​sobo – you get the idea.

​Nobo and sobo are just the two main types of thru-hike. Some people start at Harpers Ferry – just shy of the midpoint of the trail – and head north to K, only to jump back to Harpers and hike sobo to Springer. This is a ​​flip-flop, and those who hike it, ​​flip-floppers. Whereas some people hike the entire trail, nobo or sobo, and then turn on their heels and hike it right back again. This fine double hike is called a yo-yo; the people who hike it are called ​​insane, clinically; but in the parlence of the trail, ​​yoyos.

On the long cold nights (and, worse, the long hot days), hikers are inclined to talk of all manner of things. Daydreaming about the trail is known to occur. It does take a certain creative spark to see the trail, not as it is, but as it could be. This spark is fairly well prevalent among the hikers, who tend to be young, intelligent, motivated (obviously), good planners (necessarily), and also have this disturbing tendency to be engineers or consultants.

In 2017, a certain hiker (IT WAS ME) suggested a froyo as a variation upon the yoyo – a hike where one would go northbound during the warm hiking months; wait in Maine until the weather became cold; then hike the trail southbound in the winter. This would allow them to experience two distinctly different hikes.

In 2018 the same hiker suggested the​​​ ​cyco​,​ wherein one would hike the length of the trail, and then bike back along the roads which follow it – mountain bikes not being allowed on the trail itself, for much the same reason that thru-hikers aren’t allowed on the interstate.

But these are variations of direction. At their core they assume: same trail, same hikers. With so many hikers – and the ethos of HYOH​, Hike Your Own Hike​ ​- there have also arisen variations of the trail hiked, and the literal act of hiking.

A thru-hiker is one who hikes the entire trail​​. But it’s not uncommon for one to miss a few miles here or there – a wrong turn, maybe, or maybe you get off the trail to the left of a town and then get on the trail to the right of it, walking two aching miles of pavement but missing a mile of soft earth in the process. These people are no less thru-hikers. This is why the Appalachian Mountain Club refers, not to thru-hikers, but to “two thousand milers” – people who have hiked over 2,000 miles, while the full length of the trail proper is actually around 2,200.

This hiker is considering trying to thru-hike this year. He might very well skip Pennsylvania from Duncannon to Delaware Water Gap, having already hiked it, and found it to be *awful*. This would put his thru-hike at a mere 2050 miles. He would still call himself a thru-hiker. As would his feet – and they’d thank him for skipping those awful Keystone State rocks.

A detour which you hike is called a blue blaze – again it can refer to the hike, the hiker, or be used as a verb. This is because such trails are marked with literal blue blazes, in contrast to the white blazes that mark the AT proper. A detour which you don’t hike is called a yellow blaze – a joke referring to the fact that it usually involves a car, which follows the yellow markings in the road – and also incapsulates a judgment of cowardice here and there.

Some people might skip a mountain or two due to inclement weather – sometimes a week goes by without a day where one could safely ascend Mount Washington. A common blue blaze goes around the highly toxic superfund site at the Palmerton Gap, and it must be noted that this “winter trail” actually adds about a mile of distance without losing any altitude achieved. Some people skip small sections that they’ve previously hiked. Many repeat thru-hikers skip Rocksylvania (or wish they had). Some people might jump ahead 20 miles to catch up with a hiker whose trail name is Really Great Butt. None of this is begrudged. But it shows that the definition of “the trail” is fluid​ from hiker to​ ​hiker.

This definition also changes for every hiker from year to year. The trail changes. It moves – a little here, a little there. It always starts and ends in the same place, but most everything in the middle is up for grabs – to the point that less than 2% of the current trail is as it was when it was created.

Why is it changed? Usually it is simply as a response to erosion – to allow the earth to heal here, the trail is moved there for a time. Sometimes it is as a result of changes to the landscape – a boulder falls, a dam collapses, the trees are too damn high. Sometimes the trail is changed to make it easier. And most commonly, when the trail is changed for some other purpose, the new route will be the easiest of the possible routes available. As a result, it is generally considered that the Trail is easier than it was at the outset, and that it gets a little easier every year.

​And that’s just what is hiked; the hikers too are changing. This mainly expresses itself as improvements to a hiker’s gear – their kit – the contents of their pack. Improvements in gear are still happening at a staggering pace, and have had​ a truly mind-boggling impact on the hike. A hiking pack in the 1940s might weigh ​70 or 80 pounds. In the 1980s, ​it probably weighed ​half of that; in the 2000s, half again; until a certain hiker in 2017 enjoyed a base weight of under seven pounds. ​The same hiker proposes that this halving of weight be referred to as Less’s Law. (I’ll hike myself out.) ​

It is worth noting that a base weight of seven pounds does not actually leave much room for decreases. A halving of minimum weight (at same level of functionality) would leave a hiker only 3 pounds lighter than they are now. That’s nothing. That’s about the weight of an extra day’s food, or an extra bottle of water, or a full bladder for Christ’s sake. A 3lb reduction, even if it represents 50% of one’s base weight, will hardly be noticeable. Less’s Law has been identified and immediately it is irrelevant.

(Axel’s Corollary to Less’s Law: when the decrease in base weight is less than the weight of an extra bottle of water, it is irrelevant; when one’s total base weight is less than the weight of a bottle of water, one’s base weight is irrelevant entire).

​It must be noted that, while Weight has always been the devil on a hiker’s shoulders, its sidekick Volume has also been a burden. In general, modern gear is smaller than older gear – there’s a great picture on the top of r/ultralight of a 110L backpack (this hiker has no trouble using a 57L even for winter hiking). Over the coming years, as weight decreases smash headfirst into diminishing returns, volume decreases will undoubtedly continue – but they’ve never been the priority, and we’re already kicking their ass as well.

​I’d file these under “improvements in form.” There have been, and will continue to be, improvements in the function of gear. This includes e.g. faster and more effective water filters​;​​ more breathable fabrics​;​ comfortable shoes​; more gear is now inherently waterproof; more gear, even ultralight gear, is becoming terribly durable;​ ​lead times in manufacture are decreasing; prices are coming down; and batteries are lasting longer, which, thumbsup.jpg.

​The effects ot these improvements to gear have been profound. Outside of the uncertainty and the danger of the early hikes; they were slow. Carrying a huge pack really slows you down. The earliest hikers would often hike 10 miles in a day. Now, in a bit of shape and with proper gear, hiking 20 in a day is not at all uncommon; people, regular people, will marathon (26 miles) or even push into 30s​ -​ every single day​. That would have been impossible two generations ago, and both rare and much harder even in the last generation. In short: these improvements to gear have not made people hike less hard; it has simply increased the amount of hiking one gets done when one pushes oneself. People aren’t hiking easier; they are hiking faster. But it means they are finishing the trail in 4 months (or less), rather than 6 months or more – and that certainly changes the experience.

At the intersection of function and form, a hiker might consider a gedankenexperiment: would they rather hike with a 50 pound pack and a cell phone, or a 5 pound pack and phone-free? The meta-answer is: they would be two very different hikes – both of them different from an AT hike as originally envisaged, and both different from an AT hike as is often undertaken now.

​​It is also generally considered that the amenities along the trail improve every year. There are towns. There are gas stations and convenience stores. Thanks to the internet they are all easily identified. In the 1950s I rather assume that one would have to depart the trail; hike into town; ask around; find a little store; wait for it to open; and purchase whatever canned goods or dry goods were available. Now one can buy dehydrated hiker’s meals at most every little store along the trail – to say nothing of the preposterously calorically dense snack foods that fill every gas station in America, and which one should really only consume if one has just hiked 1100 miles and has another 1100 to go.

It is worth considering that the general wisdom, here, is wrong – that the heyday of AT amenities might actually be behind us. As one hikes, one encounters no shortage of closed businesses. Some of the Trail Towns – towns near the trail, even towns where the trail runs right down the sidewalks of Maine Street – are fallen on very hard times. Some of them don’t have a lot of businesses left open. Some of them are really a little scary. Hostels like the Bear’s Den are probably less dangerous than sleeping in an actual bear’s den. I never encountered a shelter that was less comfortable than The Doyle.

On the face of it, these are universal changes to the trail; they affect all hikers equally. But this brings us to the other variation, which is in the way one hikes. Most hikes are unsupported – if a hiker wants to resupply (i.e. buy Knorrs sides and jars of peanut butter), they have to depart the trail and head for a grocery store. Sometimes this is a matter of walking a few feet; sometimes it’s walking, or hitchhiking, a few miles. Some few hikers are supported; these are people who arrange for supplies to be brought to them along the trail. These hikers are, pretty much exlusively, those who are trying to set some sort of record. Although even here they are robbed of some glory, as the Trail keeps records for both supported and unsupported hikes.

​In the future, however, this is going to change – I bet my poles on it. In my life off-trail – in the cotton life, that most poetic of phrases – I no longer drive to the grocery store; I get food deliveries. These are assembled by people in the grocery store; driven to me by human drivers; brought to my apartment door by a human deliverator. Amazon – my delivery service of choice – is already in the process of replacing the human factor at each of these steps. The grocery stories are being replaced by warehouses, where, as with all other Amazon warehouses, workers are being replaced by machines (robots, if you will). The cars are beginning to drive themselves. Rolling drones – little more than dumber Roombas – are being rolled out to bring the groceries from curb to doorstep. Amazon is already testing aerial drones for the delivery of food and packages. And they’re doing all of this only because it’s cheaper to use robots than minimum-wage employees, and faster to use a sky-darkening horde of VTOL craft than it is to drive in urban traffic.

​There will be a trickle-down of this technology. At the easiest, current logistical innovations – GrubHub, Uber, Amazon Prime, Fresh Direct – make it much easier to get to and from a trailhead; to get resupply of food or gear; to get a pepperoni pizza delivered to certain shelters (I’ve done this) (it’s better than a weekend in Amsterdam). On the other hand, if one could get pizza delivered every night, one would never have to worry about resupply. This would eliminate the entire idea of an unsupported hike. It would be wonderful in many ways – but would it still be a thru-hike? Would the Trail still be the Trail?

Let us daydream for a moment. It is now 2018. There are already drones delivering mail, and (in three states) self-driving cars on the roads. In 2023 they will be becoming common; in 2028 I expect they will be ubiquitous, the rule rather than the exception. As a result, I firmly expect that – within ten years – one will be able to order a complete food resupply and have it waiting for you, in the back of a self-driving car, at any of the frequent points where the trail crosses a road. It would not surprise me if one will be able to order a drone delivery, and then not to road intersections, but upon the trail itself.

Imagine how wonderful it would be to hike a 20- or even 30-mile day, collapse by a little wooden shelter in a small clearing by a babbling brook, pull out your phone, and soon thereafter a whirring little drone will drop you down a six-pack and a 20″ with extra cheese. Perhaps you cannot imagine the wonders of this until you have been a long-distance hiker. I can assure you that it is paradise enow.

Undoutedbly it would be expensive. Most hikers cannot afford to eat a pizza every day, even if one were available. But on the other hand, the possibility of drone resupply would mean that hikers would not have to carry food – or not much of it – in their packs. That would eliminate a large amount of weight from the hiker’s back, allowing them to hike longer, faster, and in greater comfort. Hell, there were times when I would be carrying more food weight than gear weight. Drone ressuply could make that a thing of the past.

Also, it could allow one to get deliveries of real food. Not just pizza. Protein. VEGETABLES. A thru-hiker is usually at a calorie deficit, and almost always is lacking in at least one macronutrient (protein) if not others. The extent to which a thru-hiker, on an average day, is lacking in micronutrients (vitamins, minerals) or phytonutrients (fruits and veggies) borders on the comical. It must have an impact on the hiker’s overall health. It must impact their ability to hike. Drones could eliminate this problem.

The problem, here, is that it could allow the average thru-hike to go from unsupported to supported. It would remove the need to resupply, to plan resupplies, to plan – well – anything. It would remove the logistical and tactical elements from hiking. Would that be a fundamental degredation of the nature of the hike, or a fundamental improvement to it – allowing one to push oneself harder, and therefore cover more miles in a day – in a nutshell, just letting one hike better?

​It is an ontological question: what is the Trail? Is it the easiest possible path between Point A (Springer) and Point B (K)? Or is it necessarily hard? Is it a long hike aided by the best technology of Now, or the best technology of 1930? Is it necessary that it require planning, thatthere be an element of adventure? Or is hiking all day hard enough, thank you very much, now where’s my drone pizza and six side salads?

I would illustrate this point through a few examples.

-Alice is a hiker. She is carrying a backpack containing 57 pounds of gear and equipment. She is living off of peanut butter and Knorr’s pasta sides. She can only carry 3 days worth of supplies at once, so she is having to plot her resupplies carefully. She gets to go into every town. She hitchhikes a lot. She meets tons of people. She burns through two pairs of heavy over-ankle hiking boots. She makes it to Katahdin in 200 days, and is a thru-hiker.

-Bob is a hiker. He is carrying a backpack containing 10 pounds of gear and equipment. He is eating the same as Alice, but he can carry two weeks worth of food without really weighing himself down. He goes into town a bit less than Alice. He hikes a bit faster in his trail runners – burns through four pairs but that’s to be expected. He makes it to Katahdin in 160 days, and is a thru-hiker.

-Chuck is a hiker. He is carrying a pack that weighs 4 pounds soaking wet (which it never is, because it’s waterproof). He gets all his food delivered by drone. It costs him more but boy is he healthier and happier. He only stops in town when he needs a shower, and then doesn’t bother sleeping there. He makes it to Katahdin in 120 days, and is a thru-hiker.

-Drew is a hiker. She does not carry a backpack or food. Every night a drone brings her, not only dinner, but a sleeping bag and hammock. Every morning she packs it up and the drone takes it away. She never goes into town at all, never sleeps in shelters – she even sends her hiking clothing out with the drone some nights, and in the morning it comes back freshly laundered. She eats well and healthfully every single day. She makes it to Katahdin in 90 days, and is a thru-hiker.

These are four different types of hikes that, I expect, will be available to average hikers within the next decade. As it is, the early AT hikers had it much harder than Alice – they had no cell phones, nothing comparable to a modern guidebook, much less development along the trail, far fewer resupply options, and even heavier packs. Whereas Bob is now the average, Chuck is fast approaching, and Drew is really not that far away. Technology is significantly impacting the way we hike. Soon it will be to the point that it has changed what the hike is itself – if, indeed, we aren’t at that point already.

Personally, this hiker would much prefer to hike as Chuck. He thinks that hiking as Drew would be going too far – but on the other hand, he thinks he might be deluding himself. The difference between Chuck and Drew is minuscule, and hiking with a 4 pound pack just to say that one is carrying one’s gear is a pretty weak imitation of the thru-hikers of yore. Certainly the difference between Chuck and Drew is nothing compared to the difference between Alice and Bob, and that is a distance we have already traveled. And still we think ourselves thru-hikers. (Are we?)

It might even be worth considering that the next generation’s improvements to “the Trail” could focus, not on trail or pack, but on the hikers themselves. Improvements in sports medicine. Better painkillers. Safe steroids. Over-the-counter EPO. Nanotechnology. Stuff that is barely on the horizon now. But one day or another it will start to arrive, and when it does, we will look back on the days when we worried about cutting a few grams from our base weight as the Dark Ages – when feet don’t hurt, when muscles don’t ache,  when average people start doing ultras every day.

This hiker might wonder whether a distinction might be made, not between types of hikes, but between trails. For example: maybe the AT would allow drone resupply; the PCT would not, but would allow cell phones and ultralight base weights; the GDT would ban drones and mandate a minimum base weight, much as a drag race might disqualify a car that is too light. This way a hiker could still “old school” it on the AT, but would have to fight the pressure against it; whereas a hiker on the GDT would know that they were similarly situated, that those they met would be HEOH – Hiking Each Other’s Hike.

This hiker wonders whether, in the future, “slack packing” will not be taking off your pack in exchange for a lighter one, but will rather be dumping your light pack in exchange for a heavier one, so that you can experience what hiking used to be like – and appreciate, deeply, how good you now have it.

This hiker wonders whether increases in the ease of the Trail will allow more people to take up “lifestyle hiking,” whereby they incorporate long-distance hiking (or biking) into their daily lives – a dozen miles, a little siesta, an afternoon of work on a little laptop. Doesn’t sound like a bad life. Not for a semester, not for a year. Not, perhaps, for a whole lot longer than that.

The Trail is always changing. So are hikers, so are the way we hike. It is important, at the very least, to understand this – to remember what the Trail used to be, so that it can inform what we want it to be. This humble hiker likes his seven pound base weight. He would not turn up his nose at anything which got him more food on the trail. If hiking gets easier, he’ll hike faster. He’ll hike more, not less. He’ll hike longer, cover more miles, climb more mountains, see more shining seas.


•6 February 2018 • Leave a Comment

I have always had a thing for pattern-welded steel. Regular steel is simple. Damascus steel is complex. Plain steel is boring. Damascus is interesting. Steel is common. Damascus is rarified.

In the same vein I’ve always been drawn to quartersawn oak over simple pine, or spalted maple over simple white. Following suit I have begun to see the appeal of textured leather such as crocodile (and abhor a patent shine). In watches I’ve grown to appreciate a cornes-de-vache over a simple straight lug, a guilloche dial over a simple monochrome. To say nothing of the joys of a decorated movement – this or this or this.

I often imagined replacing the things I use every day, the simple things made of simple materials, with these more beautiful materials. After all, day to day, I don’t use that much. I could replace my kitchen knives with damascus knives – I could do so at any nicer kitchen supply store. I could replace my kitchen shears with damascus scissors, even if I had to make them myself at the forge. One day I could trade in my $15 Ikea end tables for something Stickley, my $300 microbrand dive watch for something lovely, my old dress shoes for a pair that really shine. This wouldn’t be much different from the traditional American pasttime of “replace Stuff with Better Stuff” – just suffering the flavor of my particular aesthetic.

Then I was offered a counter-example, in the form of Dufour’s horns. And now I am quite close to rejecting this philosophy entirely.

Philippe Dufour is a watchmaker. The dials of his watches are elegant and simple. The movements are considered by many to be the absolute height of haut horologie. Each individual piece is made by hand. It is finished by hand, from the surface abraisions on the plates (Côtes de Genève) to the way that every single piece has beveled edges, hand-polished to a mirror shine. There is a reason it takes him months to make a single watch. There is a reason why one of these simple time-only watches fetch about a quarter of a million dollars at auction – we’re using the word reason rather loosely, but such is the world of horology.

The epitome of M. Dufour’s watchmaking – if not of watchmaking entire – are his horns. Not them in the center of the image, to left and right. They are a purely decorate flourish. They are shaped and finished entirely by hand. They are extremely difficult to produce – M. Dufour claims that no machine could adequately recreate them. As they are part of the watch movement, they are only appreciable through a crystal caseback (a decadence itself), and then only when the watch has been removed from the wrist to be ogled. They are small enough that one must look carefully for them – and to appreciate their true beauty requires a jeweler’s loupe of high magnification.

They are minute, delicate, and unnecessary. They are a decadence. They are silly. But it is easy to see why a watch collector, or simply a watch enthusiast, would arrive at them.

You could tell the time quite well with a $10 digital Casio. But you want something dressier so you get a $50 analog Timex. But you want something that doesn’t tick like a quartz hammer striking a quartz anvil, so you get a $300 automatic Seiko. But this is the watch that you’re going to wear every day, that people are going to see, that your kids and grandkids are going to think of as His Watch, so maybe you want to get something a little bit fancier. Plus the Seiko’s movement is not exactly gonna get you laid at Baselworld. So you spend $3000 on a Grand Seiko – a Peacock or Snowflake – with its finer finishing, higher accuracy, and decorated movement – and suddenly you’ve got something you can be proud of, both in horological and Veblen terms. Over the course of sixty or seventy years, three thousand dollars amortizes out pretty well – about a penny a day, and that doesn’t include resale value. So you think, if I double the amount I spend – $6000 – I’m still at about two cents per day. If I spend $13,000 I could get a perpetual calendar with killer insides. Another few grand and I could get it in gold. Then there’s the gold bracelet. Then there’s the handmade movement. Then there’s the tourbillon or squelette. If you were to spend $100,000 you could get a nice gold perpetual calendar chronograph by Patek Philippe. You’d have the wrist equivalent of a Rolls-Royce – all for about a thousand dollars a year. Not including resale value. Which, historically, has been well in excess of one hundred percent.

And what do you get for the really, really rich person who has everything? A $250,000 Simplicity.

Sure it has less functionality than the $10 Casio. Sure it probably tells time just as well as the $300 Seiko – and objectively less well than the $30 Timex. But there are over two thousand people in this world who are billionaires. It’s hard to expect them all to wear G-Shocks. The marginal improvements of a Dufour are still improvements. At each step from Casio to Dufour a buyer encounters diminishing returns – but they’re still returns. If you’ve got so much money that it doesn’t matter, why not get the best?

It is insane, but not unreasonable (a most American phrase!). One might say that it suggests a lack of imagination, that one cannot find any better use of one’s money. One might say it displays a lack of altruism – or a condemnation of the society which allows a person to be in the position to make such a purchase, whether or not they choose to do so. But it’s no stupider than a sports car – or a luxury car – or a bigger house, or a better apartment – or a bigger wedding – or a longer vacation. If you’re going to throw the money away, a watch is as good as anywhere. Some people prefer Ferraris, some Ferragamos, some Laurent Ferriers. De gustibus non est disputandem.

A better argument would be that the existence of those who have so much disposable income is problematic itself.

And yet, while a Dufour could only belong to the ultra-rich, the logic against its purchase applies just as strongly to a “mid-range luxury” timepiece in the window of a mall or jewelry store. For example: there were one million Rolex watches sold last year. Is there any real reason to buy a Rolex (average price: $8,000-20,000) as opposed to a Seiko Cocktail Time (about $300)? Does a Submariner do anything a Prospex ($399) cannot do? Does a Daytona outperform any one of the hundred Seiko chronographs? And Rolexes are not real luxury watches! They are not handmade – do not have decorated movements – are lacking many complications (no perpetual calendar!) – are not scarce by any stretch – are not, in this society of wealth and wealth inequality, really all that conspicuous in their consumption.

Sure a Dufour is absolutely indefensible. But so is a Rolex. And really, so is a Seiko. Really we should all wear Casios – and hiking boots and heavy jeans and shirts of rough homespun to last a lifetime. We should all bike everywhere, we should all live in small apartments, we should (as we currently envision it) never go out to eat. But of course this extreme isn’t really reasonable either. It is dull and it is ugly; it is brutalist in a world that can be beautiful; and, if this kind of puritanism were fully followed, it would leave an average person in the same position as a rich person – wondering I’ve got extra money – why shouldn’t I blow some money on something pretty?

I don’t want to live in a nation of Mao Suits any more than I want to live in a nation where people fail to condemn those who blow five grand on a Gucci tiger shirt. A middle ground is appropriate – and achievable.

But I am not here to pen a scree in favor of bougie moderation-is-the-key. I am not here to suggest that even the very rich refrain from purchasing the superior things in the world. I am here to suggest that some of those things are not actually superior. They should not be avoided because of absolute cost or diminishing returns; they should be avoided because they offer no returns at all.

Why are Dufour’s horns thought beautiful? It is not due to any innate attractiveness. It is because they are very hard to make. The resultant scarcity is why the watch is so expensive. But the reason it is very hard to make is not itself of any use, or interest, or beauty. It is expensive because it is hard to make. It is hard to make because people like things that are hard to make.

It is not M. Dufour’s fault. His horns are the inevitable result of accepting a correlation between cost and complexity. People accepted that a $3,000 watch was worth more than a $300 watch. They applied that logic to a $30,000 watch. A $300,000 watch was inevitable. The logic that gave us the Rolex, then the Royal Oak, then the Richard Mille, inevitably gave us the horns of Philippe Dufour.

Why should there be a limit? Why should horns that take days to manufacture, and a 10x jeweler’s loupe to view, be the end of it? Why not geometric complexities that take weeks to manufacture? Why not fill a watch with such minuscule glories that a microscrope is required for their appreciation?

With a small enough tool, a watch’s movement could contain a density of things comparable to the density of information found in a computer hard drive. Which seems very silly. Why would someone want to ape a hard drive for millions of dollars – why not just buy a thumb drive for five bucks and change? But we have already established that a Seiko is just a Casio which someone, for some strange reason, prefers to be mechanical instead of digital. A grand complication, with perpetual calendar and minute repeater and chronograph, is just a mechanical G-Shock. Given enough time, it is inevitable that someone will produce a mechanical smartwatch. With the development of techniques, with training, with time, such a marvel as Dufour’s horns could come to be seen as crass and coarse. I see no reason to believe that this will not occur.

…and that’s assuming you believe they haven’t already – the Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers contains 23 complications. (The 52760 pocket watch contains 57 complications; but smartphones are still more powerful than smartwatches, so I guess we can give VC a break). In that same vein, a Patek Philippe 6300G could be yours today for a conveniently logarithmic price increase of $3,000,000.

As a species, I do not believe we should walk this path. This regardless of the opportunity cost of that money – one rich person buying a ten-million-dollar watch is not any greater injury to humanity than ten million ordinary people each buying a pint of beer. I believe that we should refrain from praising complexity for its own sake because complexity for its own sake is boring. Density is not by itself interesting, any more than an empty hard drive is more interesting than a full floppy disk. In assessing the cost of something, its difficulty to manufacture is a reasonable factor; in assessing whether something should be made, its difficulty of manufacture is not.

What happens if we continue to praise the addition of more and more detail to smaller and smaller things? What does the visitor from another planet do when they come to the Earth and find that we are watch geeks? “Here lies Humanity,” the headstone might say. “Oh, sure, they’re still alive. But they just spend all their time polishing their micro-rotors. If you walk up to one and poke it with a stick it will just keep on hand-polishing. May as well ignore them; they won’t harm you. They may as well already be dead.”

What happens, indeed, as we get wealthier? What happens as the average joe has more and more of a disposable income? Does he go from Seiko to Rolex? Does he go from Vulcain to Voutilainen? What happens if we actually achieve greater wealth equality – if the rising tide does raise all boats? Is this what average people are going to spend their money on? Is this how humanity rewards itself for its endeavors?

…once again, I would argue that this is exactly what is happening. Last year there were a million Rolexes sold. And three quarters of a million Omegas and Tag Heuers. And over two million of the other brands – of luxury Swiss watches alone. (250,000 Breitlings. The world is doomed.)

I believe that it is necessary to disassociate difficulty of manufacture from value. I believe that complexity without purpose is not aesthetically superior to simplicity. I believe that there is room for great variety in wristwatches, quite possibly justifying watches costing over a thousand dollars – but in general, a $300 Seiko or microbrand diver is not only sufficient for the cost, but that it is superior in the metal, and this regardless of price.

By the same turn, I cannot defend the use of materials which are more complicated simply because they are more complicated. I cannot defend the replacement of plain items with more baroque items; I cannot defend the purchase, or the manufacture, of more baroque items, regardless of cost. As a result of the ad absurdum example of Dufour’s horns, after much consideration, I must say: quartersawn oak is not superior to white maple; crocodile is not superior to cordovan; and damascus steel is not superior to VG-10.

This does not mean that I embrace minimalism. It is important to want things. I just have to find other things to want. This does not mean that I embrace simplicity. It just means I must look for other forms of complexity – those which allow utility – those which are justified.

The Dirty Inn

•19 January 2018 • Leave a Comment

Curran bought the place at a county auction. No one else had bid. The county had gotten it for back taxes from the estate of a dead drunk. He’d owned it and run it for forty-three years. Seems he hadn’t paid taxes on the last ten of them. According to the guidebooks, he hadn’t cleaned the bathrooms in twenty.

The day Curran showed up there were mice, leaks in the roof, raccoons in both sheds, broken windows, peeling paint, and plumbing like something out of Dickens. Even the hikers had complained. Even when they only had to pay five dollars a night for a bed.

Curran waited for a rainy night to get the grass good and soaked. Then he splashed gasoline all over the inn and lit it up. He sat at the edge of the clearing, watched it burn and drank a six-pack of beer. Took six hours for a cop to make it out there, by then it looked like an ash-tray after poker night.

The cop asked him what happened. Curran said he spilled some gasoline and it caught fire. The cop asked him if he’d ever heard the term ‘insurance fraud.’ Curran said he didn’t have insurance. The cop couldn’t think of a response and went away.

Took him a few weeks and a few guys to get all the char cleared away. Took longer when there wasn’t a road, when all they had was four miles of rocky ATV trail through the pines. They could have widened the path to admit a truck but it would have cost money, taken time. But more than that, Curran didn’t want a car path. He wanted this place only for the hikers.

The Trail was just a quarter mile away. It was a beautiful stretch of trail, wooded and lonely. For the northbound hikers it was thirty miles since they’d last passed anything, for the southbounders it was fourteen but the last town was little more than a crossroads and a boarded-up church. This was the perfect place for an inn.

So he built an inn. Nothing fancy, nothing storybook. Four little buildings, with small windows and peaked roofs. Ten bunk-beds to each of them. Then a main building with a half-dozen showers, a big kitchen, a cozy dining-room. A basement with supplies for sale and four big laundry machines. And a second floor for Curran. That was it.

The price went from five bucks a night to fifteen. Nobody complained. The water was warm. The bathrooms were clean and modern. A couple solar panels and a shed full of batteries and they never ran out of juice. That first year he put in two hothouses. The next year he added three more. The third year he planted three dozen apple trees. Ten years later and they started baring fruit.

It was easy to keep it clean – he offered people a second day’s stay if they took the rest day to clean and scrub. Not two days went by that someone didn’t take him up on it. Eight out of ten scrubbed the place until it shined.

He’d wanted to keep the old name. It’s rep was so bad that he knew he couldn’t. So he called it The Dirty Inn. The next year’s guidebooks said it was manna from heaven.

It was easy to run. Practically ran itself. That’s when he turned his attention to the food.

Curran had been a cook for twenty years. Put away a little money. Put away a lot more vodka but that was behind him now. He’d cooked a lot of places, eight years at Czárdás in LA and three at Mì Fú in Miami. The kind of places where people came to be seen and nobody had eaten a filling meal since they were old enough to stand in front of the mirror. Now he was at a place where the only diners were seventeen hundred miles into a twenty two hundred mile hike. They would have eaten whole pigs without stopping to cook them first. And most of them didn’t have the money for much more than another jar of peanut butter.

He’d serve something different every day. Waffles one morning, pancakes the next. The next day omorice or ful medammes. Quick lunches for those passing through, arepas or pita sandwiches (and always ice cream). But dinner was his big meal. Sometimes for thirty or forty people. Always for starving hikers. Always for weary travelers. Always for the fuckin’ hungry.

One day he’d make dumpling soup, with leafy greens and bitter roots floating in the broth. One day he’d spend five hours making pasta dough to serve forty dishes of ravioli with butternut squash and ricotta and fried sage. One day he’d fire up all the ovens and cook twenty loaves of bread, four at a time. He’d throw fresh herbs on everything and anything. He made food rich with fat and oil – and the hikers would come back for seconds. If not thirds.

He didn’t call it Hiker’s Food. He called it Traveler’s Food. Because when he tried a new recipe he imagined what a traveler would eat. Back in the day when they were just passing through, tired and hungry and they wanted to be happy and be warm. Close-to-the-earth food. Nothing fancy, something beautiful. If you asked him nicely he’d even bring up a few mugs of homebrewed beer. He made more money on the beer than on everything else combined.

Sometimes he got the distinct impression that people had hiked in from the road just to get to eat his food. He didn’t mind. It was the flattery of a lifetime. After a few years he wrote a cookbook. After a few years, he heard someone on a different Trail had opened a proper inn.





•19 January 2018 • Leave a Comment

One of my perennial get-the-wheels-turning exercises.





We heard on the radio that hunters in northern Canada kept finding dead deer. They thought maybe it was just a big year for grizzlies. Then they started finding dead grizzlies. Eaten.

Hunters started saying they’d seen what looked like huge wolves. Some people said polar bears. Most people said mass hysteria. Everyone made the same Bigfoot joke. Then hunters started disappearing. Then the news stories stopped. We lived in New Mexico so we forgot about it.

There were five of us. Six, my son, Daniel, but he was away at school. He was studying abroad in France. I tell myself he’s alive. He’s holed up in some bunker or some castle in the mountains and he’s found a nice French girl to marry and have kids of his own. I’ll never see him again because everything’s so fucked, I’ll never hear from him again, I’ll never know. So I tell myself he’s alive and well because if he’s dead I’ll never know it.

We lived in a house on a cul-de-sac, in a subdivision outside Los Alamos. Gerry, my husband, taught engineering at the college. I was an engineer for the city. Katie was in her senior year of high school, Jackie was a junior, and Jane was in the eighth grade. I really wanted my girls to not have names that ended in “a”.

We lived in New Mexico so we forgot about it.

The first videos came out of northern Finland. The government tried to pull the videos down. I don’t know which government. Doesn’t matter. The videos got shared, they couldn’t keep up with it. We saw.

They were huge. Are huge. They… tower over you. And that’s when they’re walking. They move hunched over, their back legs long and bent like monkeys, but they have grey fur like wolves, and long jaws lined with teeth. Teeth like shovels. And then they rear up, and spread their arms to swipe. They block out the sun.

We kind of knew something was going on but we went on with our lives. What else could we do? What should we have done? The government was silent. When that didn’t work they tried to say it was a new species in the far north, in the polar regions. They were telling people in Alaska to be careful. Within a few days Alaska was overrun. Then Montreal. Then Moscow.

The National Guard got called up. Planes started landing at the Los Alamos airstrip. People came, people left. The new dorm at the college got taken over and filled with soldiers, mostly middle-aged men who looked as much like soldiers as my husband did. The college announced they were sending the kids home. Then they announced that they were to stay in place. Then they said that everything was fine.

The wolves breed like rabbits. They swept down all across the country. City after city, town after town. They were huge and they multiplied and so they had to eat.

The government started saying that the problem was contained, that we were helping our Canadian allies north of the border. They kept saying that. It was propaganda. That was when we knew that things were really wrong. The news focused on cheery stories. Politics disappeared. Then they tried to bring back politics because people like focusing on that. Nobody cared.

Cars started coming south. Terrified people. Some with cars packed with everything they had. Some with nothing. One car I won’t forget had scratches on the side. It looked like it had sideswiped a pair of giant circular saws. When it drove by you could see into the car, see the driver’s legs. I thought it was a nightmare. Now I realize he must have been the luckiest son of a bitch in the world.

Everyone who’s still alive is lucky.

They have thick hide and hard bones and all they do is run and kill and eat. They can take hundreds of bullets and keep coming. They can flip over a car. They can leap right over it. They can track by smell like dogs. They run. They can cross a football field in seconds. It’s almost beautiful. It’s so overpowering, seeing them move, just seeing them, they’re so much bigger and stronger and hungrier than us. It’s almost beautiful. It’s the way I used to feel when I was a little girl in church.

The cars from the north stopped coming.

Planes flew in. Refueling. Flying south. They’d show up half-empty but they’d leave full. The base evacuated. I think everyone who could headed for the southern hemisphere, thought maybe they wouldn’t get that far. Maybe they went to islands. Or ships. Maybe they made a stand at that tiny bit of land that connects North and South America. Or maybe the wolves made it to Patagonia – and South Africa and Tasmania and every island. I don’t know how many people are left in the world. I don’t know if wolves can swim.

My husband came home at noon. He had the kids with him. He’d pulled them out of school. He had a smile on his face but it was fake. I could see that. So could the kids. Didn’t matter.

“The radio’s jammed,” he said. He meant his CB. “Every channel. Three guys have gone south to see if the road’s clear and promised they’d come back and tell us. None of them have. I don’t know, maybe they just kept going. But I don’t…”

He struggled. Jane started crying. We ignored her. She just stood there and listened and cried.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” he said. “I don’t think we have much longer. I think we go north, they won’t be expecting that.” He meant people. We were being wiped off the fucking map and he was afraid of people.

“We can’t go north!” Jackie said, her voice already almost hysterical.

“Just to get out of the mountains. Then we turn and go into the desert. We’ll head for Chaco Canyon.”

“Why there,” asked Katie. She was trying to sound calm. It didn’t work, but I was proud of her for trying. I remember thinking how much she’d grown up. Jesus Christ that was a different world.

“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “It’s just desert. There’s fifty miles of desert in every direction. A hundred to the north – almost, almost a hundred. It’s a buffer.”

“And there’s nobody there,” I said, I think just out of a desire to support him. “Maybe-”

Maybe they won’t think to go there.

Maybe it’ll take them longer. Maybe we’ll live a little longer.

Either way.

“You don’t know that!” Jane shouted. “You don’t know anything about that!”

My husband opened his mouth and closed it. I knew what he was going to say – nineteen years of marriage will do that. He was going to talk about imperfect knowledge and risk. He didn’t.

“If we stay here, we’re dead,” he said.

In the silence that followed, I said, “He’s right.” Not because I wanted to support him. Because I realized that he was.

All three of my girls were crying. Silently. I thought I probably was too. I forced myself not to think about it.

“Packing!” he said, clapping his hands. We jumped. It broke the tension just a little. Every little bit helped.

“Every piece of camping equipment,” he said. “Hot weather gear. Cold weather gear. Everything. Bring sensible clothing. Exercise clothing, anything wool. Pretend like we’re going on an airplane – everyone gets one big suitcase full of clothing, and one little carry-on where you can bring whatever you want. Don’t bring any electronics, I doubt there’ll be electricity there.”

His eyes started to glaze over. He was thinking of possibilities. The enormity of it was coming to him, but that was just causing him to think harder. I loved him very much then – in a way I hadn’t for a long time.

I took the girls upstairs to their rooms to pack. Then I locked myself in our bedroom and cried my eyes out into a pillow.

I packed. We packed. We did our very best. In half an hour I went to everyone and said, alright, ten minute warning. Twenty minutes later we were putting suitcases in the minivan.

We put in the two toolboxes from the garage, half the contents of the kitchen and everything from the medicine cabinets. We hooked up the trailer. We stopped at the market and bought water – that was about the only thing they had left – and at the gas station we filled up twenty gallon cans with gas. Nobody was driving so gas they had. My husband stopped by the university and came out with three big boxes, his knees wobbly underneath them. They were full of granola bars. I didn’t ask where they came from. He drove away very fast and didn’t look back.

We went up into the mountains. We passed some road cyclists, probably scientists from the labs. They flashed us a thumbs-up as we passed them. They always do that. We drove up switchbacks. My ears popped, Jackie dug around in her bags and came up with bubble gum for us. Gerry’s face said why did you bring bubble gum? But he took a piece and chewed.

We passed the Valles Caldera, the great grass field that used to be the mouth of a volcano. There was a tiny wooden hut in the center. I always wondered if it was a survivalist’s cabin or a weather station or the world’s smallest B&B. On the edge of the field were a dozen helicopters. I thought I saw men moving about them. It didn’t surprise me. Nothing would anymore.

The road turned sharply north. There was a dirt trail to the west. Gerry stopped, consulted his big folding atlas. He decided to take the dirt road. It wasn’t a pleasant drive. It took us hours, bumping along, all of us waiting for the trailer to come detached or tip us over. It never did. Then we were descending. Then we were on a paved road, and the mountains were behind us.

If we’d stayed on the main road, I expect we would have hit a roadblock. I expect some nice men would have shot us dead.

We were on the high plains. Yellow scrub to every side, setting off the blue of the endless sky. We passed a few farms, a few little houses. A small pueblo, some houses and a water-tower. We stopped once for a res dog to limp across the road. As soon as it was out of the way we kept going. Gerry shook his head at himself.

It was a desolate road through desolate country. That’s how it always was. Nothing moved. The map said we were coming up on Pueblo Pintado.

The sky made streaks.

Gerry leaned forward to look up. There were white streaks across the sky. Then more. Then another set, coming from another point in the sky. Lower down the sky. No, closer. They were-

Planes? Helicopters? Firing missing? Firing-

There was a great noise. The van shook. Jane screamed, but it got caught in her throat. Gerry swerved the van but kept it on the road. Were they shooting at us? Were they-

Another explosion. We saw it out the right window, blossoming, forming, rising. Then another. A mile away? A shadow passed over us. We held our breath. It was a helicopter, heading north.


Another explosion.

There. There they were. Against the burst of fire, we saw their shapes.


Gerry saw them. He put the gas pedal down and gripped the wheels. The van jerked. It struggled to get to 80. The road was flat and straight and dry. He bore down on it. I held my breath. I prayed.

I looked straight ahead. We all looked straight ahead. Then we were tumbling. Jane screamed. I think I screamed. The van was on its side and skidding. The sound of metal scraping. Falling. Falling inside, falling while moving. Flying. Shuddering and scraping. Screaming.

Something hits us. Spinning around. A dark shape. Spinning. There it is again. Giant. Towering over us. Blocking out the sun. Darkness.

We skid to a stop. The trailer bounces and rolls passed us, keeps going. We’ve stopped. I’m hanging from my seatbelt. I look around wildly. The girls are there. Gerry’s there. Everyone’s looking. Moving. Breathing. We’re fine. We’re all fine.

Darkness above us. The van rights itself. A claw through the broken window. A great arm. All we can see is empty road ahead. Then light. The van’s roof is ripped off. We look back and it’s… towering above us. And it is the clearest memory I have of my whole life.

We hear a noise. Half a roaring, half a sound like sleet. It’s body looks dusty, like blurred video. Black blood starts bursting from it, from a hundred places. It roars. It rears back and kicks us and we shoot ahead. The roof falls back with a thud. I look back and the creature’s running, almost out of sight. There’s an explosion. We’re picked up. The roof flops up and down like the lid of a tin can. The creature roars. I see its legs engulfed in flame. It grows larger. It’s moving towards us. Then another noise and I’m deaf and I’m blind, then half-blind, everything is blurring. The van’s on its side, the roof is open. I think I black out for a moment. I don’t know.

I look at my husband. All I remember is that I saw blood. I don’t remember what I saw. I thank God for that. I remember I saw blood, and I felt nauseous, and I had to get away. I unbuckled my seatbelt and fell, and pulled myself out through a hole in the roof. Then I was outside.

There was a fire on the desert road. A thing was burning. The pavement around it was broken and black. A helicopter flew overhead, then another. They were heading north.

I remembered my daughters. I am ashamed to think there was a moment in my life when I didn’t. I turned and ran to them, only a few feet but I was filled with madness. Jackie was pushing open a door straight up into the sky.

I screamed her name. I tried to climb up the exposed bottom of the van, I couldn’t, I got my feet into a wheel-well and climbed up, fought to keep my balance on the smooth metal. Jackie held the door out and Jane pulled herself up, her face covered in vomit and the black of smoke. She pulled herself out and got free and then fell from the van, landing on her arm. I scrambled down and went to her. I thought she was dead. She was just dazed. I don’t even think she’d hit her head. Then Katie was above me and helping Jackie through. They were on the ground beside me.

Jackie ran around the van, then a few moments later walked back around. Her eyes were dead.

Her father was dead.

I bolted up and looked all around. I saw no movement. I saw movement, my life ended, it was just the helicopters moving north. Nothing else. I stared and stared. I half tried to will something, to make more of them, to end it. Nothing.

I stumbled to the trailer. It was smashed. I ripped the door open, put my shoulders into it until it got jammed into the side of the trailer and stuck in the broken metal. I reached in with both hands and pulled things out like a dog digging. I wasn’t thinking very much.

My girls were next to me. “Pack up,” I said, or screamed, or think I screamed. There were six backpacks. Someone had brought my son’s. We filled four of them. Just took what we had. Then I started walking up the road. The girls followed me.

The sun was blistering overhead. It didn’t matter. Nothing would have stopped me from walking – nothing that would have left me alive. I don’t remember hearing anything. Not my girls, not our footfalls. The empty desert has a loud silence. Maybe it was the explosions. I don’t remember hearing anything.

We walked for hours. My mouth felt dry. I looked back and the girls were just walking. Jane had a limp. We weren’t walking very fast. They were wearing hats. I realized that I was wearing a hat. Someone must have put it on my head.

I stopped in the middle of the road and broke down and sobbed.

The pavement was so hot. It burned me. I looked around but there was no shade. I went to the side of the road but the sand was so hot. I threw myself into a creosote bush. I cut myself all over. I didn’t care. I didn’t notice.

My throat hurt too much to keep crying. The girls were huddled around me. I said “Do we have water?” and the words were so loud in my ears. That was the first thing I remember hearing.

We had a bunch of bottles of water. Little Poland Spring bottles. Four for each of us. We each had one. It barely cut the thirst. I wouldn’t let us drink any more.

We were all sunburned already. Our skin would be shredded tomorrow. If we survived until tomorrow. And if we did, who cared.

“We have to keep moving,” I said. The girls didn’t argue. Katie wiped Jane’s face of vomit, her shirt was still covered in it. Jackie’s hands were covered in dried blood like gloves. I forced myself not to throw up the water.

We kept walking.

I saw something in the distance. After a while Jackie said, “It’s a water-tower.” I was filled with hope. My feet were killing me. The sun was still far from set. I kept jumping and scanning the horizon. Then going back to ignoring it. Just watching the road, and waiting to see what would come.

The water-tower grew bigger. I realized I wasn’t getting sunburned, it was just sweat and heat. I smelled like sun screen. I stopped and we sat on our packs in the middle of the road. I asked who had the sunscreen and we all did. We put more on. I said nothing.

We came to the water-tower. It was in the middle of a little pueblo, a few houses, a dozen trailers. They were destroyed. The trailers were ripped apart and scattered on the ground. The houses were caved in. They had been through here and destroyed it and moved on. Would they be back? It didn’t matter. They would or they wouldn’t. We couldn’t protect ourselves from them. We couldn’t protect ourselves from the desert.

I broke down and wept.

I think I fell asleep, there on the ground. I woke up and Jane and Jackie were with me. Katie stood a few feet away, holding a knife in her hand. I think she meant to go down fighting. Or slit her wrists if she saw one coming.

I told her to stay, but my voice woke the girls. It was dark out but the stars were bright and clear. We walked to the water-tower but there wasn’t a spigot. Suddenly there was a light on us. It blinded me. I froze. We all did.

“Hey there,” a man’s voice called.

And waited.

“Hello?” I tried. Then louder, when I realized I’d barely whispered.

“Who are you?” it asked. Then: “Are you alright?”

I opened my mouth but couldn’t find words to the first question. So “We’re okay,” I said. “There’s four of us.”

I realized the voice was coming through a speaker. A little portable laptop speaker, lying on the ground, next to a little solar panel. The light was welded to the water-tower, looked like it had been there a long time.

“Is there anyone else around?” the voice asked.

I looked around. It was a ghost town in an endless dark.

“No,” I said.

“I’m about three miles north,” he said. “Stay there about ten minutes, I’ll send you a guide.”

The speaker went dead.

We stared at it. We stared at each other. “Go and hide,” I said to them. “Somewhere where you can see me.”

“You said there’s four of us,” Katie said.

I cursed myself.

“Go and hide,” I said.

They did.

I waited for ten minutes. Drank another bottle of water. Went behind the tower and peed a little. Then I saw a light in the sky. Another helicopter? No, it was small, and very close. It hovered just in front of me, maybe thirty feet up. A little whirring drone, with a light on it.

The speaker on the ground came up again. “Follow the drone,” it said. “I’m only a few miles away.” Then: “If it starts to run out of batteries, it’ll zip home. Just follow it. I’ll send another one out to grab you.”

I motioned the girls out of hiding. We put on our packs and walked.

We walked through the night. Heard nothing. Saw nothing. Three miles? Seems about right. There was hill, with sheer rock walls maybe forty feet tall. The drone followed the wall to the left. There was a set of stairs, sitting on stilts, starting a hundred feet out into the desert and going right up the wall. It looked like a modern art project. The drone went straight up and then disappeared over the lip of the cliffs.

We went up the stairs. I went first. It wasn’t much wider than one of us but it was stirdy, with rails on either side. I didn’t look down. I walked with purpose so my girls wouldn’t be nervous. I wasn’t nervous. I tried not to be giddy with hope.

At the top was a gate. It was open. We went inside. I closed it after us, and it locked with a heavy shudder.

There were no lights. It was hard to see by starlight. We were high off the desert floor. High enough? What was this place? I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I saw structures and I walked towards them.

The drone came over us, hovered. It turned on bright lights that lit the night We all winced and shaded our eyes.

The drone just hung there. Was it watching us? I was suddenly filled with fear, at bringing three young girls-

I missed my husband.

I couldn’t let my mind go there. Not anywhere near there. No. I set my jaw so hard I thought I’d break it.

“Sorry,” a voice called. “This thing only has two settings, Bright and Too Bright.” I had no idea how to respond to the joke in his voice.

I heard footsteps. A guy entered the light. He was clean-shaven but his hair was rough and getting long. He looked alright.

“I’m Vera,” I said. “These are my daughters, Katie, Jackie, and Jane.”

“Pleased to meet you,” he said. “You’re welcome to stay here long as you want. There’s room for plenty and it’s not getting used. It’s all yours.”

He pulled something out and we froze. It was a tablet. He moved his hands over it and the drone came over, then landed next to us, then went dark and turned off its rotors. He went over and picked it up.

“I’m sure you’re tired – probably can’t imagine – so, right, we can talk more tomorrow. Let me show you a place to sleep. This place has three carriage houses, I figured you’d probably want to stay together so I only made up the one. There’s water from the faucet and you can shower, but don’t waste it too much. And there’s food out on the table. Help yourself.”

The carriage-house was just a small adobe building. He went inside and hit the light-switch. The room filled with warm light. It was the loveliest thing I’d ever seen, that light. The room was like some simple hunting lodge, a big fireplace, big windows. He’d drawn the curtains tight. I knew not to open them, to let out the light.

I fought down the knot in my throat again. They were out there. Killing. Running free. Ravaging. I fought-

I ran to a door, threw it open. It was a closet. I saw another. Ran to it and barely made it to the toilet before I threw up.

“You guys get settled,” I heard him say. “Shout if you need me.”

He was gone.

I don’t remember going to bed. I woke up on a pull-out couch. Jane and Jackie were in it too. Katie was on the other couch, curled up under blankets. The curtains were thick and black but I could tell it was light outside. My feet hurt and my legs hurt and my back was sore. I went to the faucet and drank three glasses of water. There were bags of granola and pouches of milk. There were cabinets. There were bowls. I set the table for the girls, then went outside and ate cereal under the morning sky.

The main house was two stories with a cabana on top. There were three little carriage houses. In the middle was a courtyard of blue and white tiles. Off and behind were glass hothouses, maybe a dozen of them, too foggy from condensation for me to see inside. The roofs were all made of solar panels.

The whole top of the mesa must have been four or five acres. It felt like an island in a drowning sea.

I went to the door of the main house and knocked.

It opened pretty quickly. The guy was standing there. “Morning,” he said.

“Can we stay here?”

“Sure,” he said. “You live here now, as far as I’m concerned. I’m guessing that out there isn’t a healthy atmosphere.”

I just stared at him.

“That bad, huh?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s…”

“We’re safe up here,” he said. “This little mesa’s got sheer walls that are 48 feet at their lowest, 60 at the highest. Fuckers can’t get up here. I know, they tried. Tried for three days. Didn’t get anywhere close. They gave up and ran away. Fuck of a long couple of days, but… well, anyway. We’re safe out here.”

“We don’t have anything,” I said. “We didn’t bring almost anything-”

“That’s okay,” he said. “I think we’re okay here. There are twelve hothouses, the idea was to grow a big part of the food – eat local and all that – this was going to be a getaway spot, private parties, very exclusive – I was an investor – guess I’m only kind of trespassing – anyway. Two wells, both run sweet. Greenhouses are all planted, and there’s a lot of food in the store-rooms too – but hose greenhouses will feed five adults no sweat at all. Nobody else is coming, are they?”

“No,” I said. “We were going to Chaco Canyon.”

“Not that far from here. Though I guess it might as well be a million miles away.  It’s really fucked out there, isn’t it.”

I nodded.

“Alright. Well. There’s no cell service and the radio’s just bad jazz and talk about how everything’s fine. But I figure this is as good a place to be as any, and probably better than just about anywhere. So there are three hundred and twelve books in the library – I counted – and my thoughts are, we should probably read ’em nice and slow.”

I went back and woke the girls for breakfast. We ate and we cried and we cried our eyes out. I had us get dressed, best as we could, and I walked us to the edge of the cliff. Nothing but endless desert, nothing moving, nothing. I said a prayer for their father, my husband, and that was that.

A few hours later we joined the guy for lunch. I didn’t tell him we were in mourning and so he cracked jokes and that was what we needed. He was a real estate developer – had been – down in Phoenix. Now we might as well be the only people in the world.

We split up chores. Every day we checked the bacteria levels in the wells. Every day we rinsed clothing and dried it in the sun, then beat it until it wasn’t stiff and baked-feeling. Every day we checked the plants, picked potatoes and arugula, bell peppers and eight kinds of beans. We did yoga to the sunrise and the sunset. We lifted weights in the building’s little basement gym – Jane didn’t, the rest of us did. We read books. We talked, even when we didn’t have anything to talk about. We cooked together. We ate together. We cleaned up together. We listened to the radio until it went silent.

He never tried to touch us. Not me, not the girls. He’d thought about it – he’d told me later – he said only a eunuch wouldn’t have thought about it. But he wasn’t about to ask us. Maybe we weren’t guests in his house. But we couldn’t go anywhere. Could we have said no? Maybe? It would have been dangerous, and he understood that. And he didn’t even try.

At length, we tried.

The radio never came back on. We never saw wolves but we never saw people neither. Never saw planes or helicopters. Nothing. When the kids got old enough we had no choice. We started roaming out into the world. First to the water-tower. Then to the road. Then beyond, out into the world.

Consulting @ Touring

•7 January 2018 • Leave a Comment

I am a cyclotourist and a long-distance hiker. I’ve ridden my bicycle 1000 kilometers (over a week) and lived out of my panniers. I’ve hiked 1000 kilometers (over six weeks) and lived out of my backpack. I’m not bad on snowshoes or in a kayak neither. I enjoy it. It motivates me. It fills me with confidence. And the exercise doesn’t hurt – except when it does.

I’m not a professional. I’m not even an accomplished amateur. I aspire to bike across the US, to thru-hike the AT, to kayak up the coast of Maine, to go on a multi-day snowshoe and camp out in the snow. I dream of biking up and down New Zealand or Japan, or circumnavigating Iceland or Australia, of hiking Te Araroa or the PCT or the Great Divide. Some of these dreams might become reality – some this year, some when I retire (if I make it that far) (if I ever get to) (MILLENNIAL HUMOR).

But I’ve gone touring just enough to have a few ideas about my gear. In the spirit of consulting, I thought I’d look at my Hiking Stuff and see what I think could be improved.

First things first: let’s frame the issue.



In general, shoes are what I will refer to as a ‘mature technology.’ I don’t mean that they can’t be improved; I just mean that most of their improvements will come as the result of new innovations in materials science, rather than the grouchy gripings of a consultant.

There is also such a preposterous variety of shoes out there, far be it for me to assume that any lack on my particular boots could not be addressed by me simply buying some other boot.

I will say that I personally love the BOA laceless closure system, and very much hope to see it on more shoes – or, even better, as an option on more shoes. If I found the shoe I wanted, and there was a box entitled “$15: change to BOA!” I would tick that box. On a hiking shoe? Absolutely.

One thought does occur to me. I recently purchased a pair of Korker snow boots. They have detachable soles. This way you can hot-swap between snow-specific soles, and studded ice soles, et cetera. Even more than that, this way, wearing out the soles doesn’t require and expensive trip to the cobbler; it requires a quick order on Amazon and nothing more. It’s a hell of a technology.

This might be nice on the trail – both to let one carry a little slip-on traction sole for winter hiking, and to replace worn soles (cough Pennsylvania cough).


I just ordered a pair of barefoot sandals, which weigh a bare 4oz each – less than half the weight of my last camp shoes – less than just about anything. I haven’t tried them yet, but I expect that they are going to be right up close to the ‘mature technology’ label. My biggest thoughts will be “make ’em a little lighter” or “make ’em a little more comfy for the same weight” – that is to say, materials science, not consulting.

In the spirit of the Korkers mentioned above, I have to wonder whether a hiking boot with detachable soles might be able to turn those soles into light sandals, suitable for wearing as camp shoes. That would, in one stroke, save 8oz of pack weight from even an ultralight hiker. Not bad.


I do not really see how a pair of Darn Toughs could be improved upon. “Mature Technology” doesn’t quite cut it; “apotheosis” sounds more like.


On the AT, I wore pants. First heavy pants with zip-off lowers. Then, a pair of light shorts.

For my next hiking, I will be wearing a hiking kilt – a Utilikilt made of ripstop nylon. This mostly because of ease of swapping base layers.

First thing in the morning, you are cold. You start hiking cold. So you’re wearing all your warm and fluffies. Three minutes later, you’re warm. So you have to stop and strip. Which, when you’re wearing leggings under pants or shorts, means stopping; getting off trail; taking off shoes; taking off pants; taking off leggings, so you’re probably ass naked; putting back on pants; putting back on shoes; and oh by this time you’re cold again.

With a kilt, you can take off leggings just standing there, without having to pause and sit and strip – and without much worrying about flashing people, either. It’s much more efficient.

I haven’t much hiked with the kilt yet. I can guess at some improvements I could make to it. I doubt I’ll ever use the seat pockets. The side pockets – which are external, more like pouches really – are a little lower than they should be. They could be longer and deeper – no real reason not to make them so. I also wonder if they could be plug-and-play, so that you could put on different shapes/sized of pockets to suit your needs of the moment – or of the hike.

It might be very cool to have snaps on the bottom of the kilt, situated such that it could be converted into something resembling pants. Not sure how feasible this is, but it could be useful – especially in places where you don’t necessarily want to strike a blow for skirt-kind.


My only gripe is that I’m shocked they don’t come in multiple colors. I’m lucky in that the winter mattress is gray, which matches my aggressively monochromatic hiking kit. But my summer mattress is, without option, marigold yellow. It stinks. It’s terrible. Give me gray!


Seem pretty close to awesome. Doubly so when you add in the little cuben-fiber rain mitts that go over them.


Haven’t tried my new Hoodlum on the trail yet. It seems fabulous – even if it does, half-unsnapped, look like Dark Helmet cosplay.


The Enlightened Equipment quilt is essentially perfection. I cannot think of a damned way to improve upon it, outside of the invention of (say) 1100FP down.


Heat Holders. Hail to the king, baby.


Materials science.


Ditto, squared and cubed


I carry the Leatherman Style CS – their smallest tool, it lives on my keychain day-to-day. It contains a 1″ blade, a scissors, a diamond file, a tweezers, a bottle opener, a flathead screwdriver (the tip of the file), and the clip functions as an emergency backup carabiner for PCT-hanging bear bags.

It would be great to also have a tiny saw; a small ferrocerium fire striker; to mark the tool, or the knife-blade, with ruler measures; and to move the scissors to the fold-out and make the central tool a pliars instead.

Would also be nice to incorporate a nail clipper. People always say “just use the scissors!” Or even: “Use the knife!” I don’t know how they do it. They must be better men than I, because, jesus christ.


I wrote a lengthy monograph on a tool watch for bike touring. The salient conclusion was “good watch good.” For myself, a sturdy and none-too-expensive automatic with a dive bezel is A-OK. If it also had an annual calendar module – preferably day-date – it would be amazing. But it’s worth noting that this would also be my ideal wristwatch. HE SAID, PLEASE-TAKE-MY-MONEYINGLY.


Suunto Clipper, goes on my watch-band. Poifect.


Mature af.


I wore ultralight waterproof gaiters from MLD. I just purchased snow gaiters from the same.

No complaints. Hard to think of a way they could be much improved.


MLD “Exodus CF” – 57L, waterproof, weighing under a pound.

It’s a phenomenal bag. Period.

I recently added two water bottle mounts on the chest straps. Haven’t hiked with them yet. They sure do look ridiculous, but other than that, I think they will be excellent.

Might be nice to have the outside pockets be optional – or have them plug-and-play-able, say by having a nylon cinch cord going around the pack, to which could be attached or removed things, using the same system as my bottle pouches. But I’m not sure if this would change them all that much.


I have a tiiiiiny little Olight on my keychain. Barely used it.

Could replace it with the brighter, and rechargable, Nightcore Tini. But I don’t think it would be much of an improvement, if any.


It is aggressively minimalist, which, to me, is perfect. If I think of any ways to improve upon it, I’ll let you know. But jesus do none come to mind.


The Halulite Minimalist, and Ubens titanium stove. 700ml pot, with thermal sleeve; smallest stove in the universe; tiny little silicon pot gripper (with magnet inside, to stick it to your fuel canister when you’re not using it!); cap with pour spout. It’s pretty much perfection.

Idea: put a bright orange warning – just an X would do – on the bottom of the thermal sleeve, to remind you to take it off before putting it over the flame. As I’ve done. Y’know. Several times.


Why doesn’t someone sell these bottles without the Smartwater branding – or with custom decals? I ask you!


Mine are amazingly high audio quality, very sturdy buds, and have 1″ spring-protected metal connectors. I do wish that the cords were knit for extra protection. But these area available – this was just my purchasing error.


I’d like one that has two USB outs, so that I can charge two devices at one. But, like, these are $10 on Amazon. I will just buy one, if I care that much.

I love the idea of a charger that has built-in USB cables. But since some of my devices are still on older USB standards, this wouldn’t make much sense.

I love the idea of one that has a built-in international plug adaptor. But for touring in the US, I wouldn’t use it – extra weight. So :P


Abject perfection.


Can’t wait till I get thinner so I can justify buying one that weighs 6oz less. Beyond that, it’s fine.


I did not use such a device.

This big reason I did not was “not necessary.” I already had a cell phone. I also already had a watch. It provided nothing not provided by the former; even the watch is really redundant, but – well – I like watches. Redundancy of (some of) the cell phone attributes was seriously diminishing returns.

The other big reason was: battery life. Having yet another thing to charge is bothersome. Having anything which can’t hold a charge for at least seven days is at best not to be relied upon, and at worst (or as such) dead weight.

For a smartwatch to be useful to me, it would need:

  1. the ability to display time – including perpetual calendar – at a glance, or, at most, at a button-press
  2. nighttime lume – and the ability to minimize said lume at bed-time
  3. the ability to pop up and scroll through the guidebook, quickly and easily
  4. a reliable minimum of 7 days of use between charges. preferably 10. and that includes constant or instant display of time, and instant – and frequent – display of guidebook

This may be currently available, or at least, not that far away. In that circumstance it would become a matter of money – the ability to instantly check the guidebook on the wrist is actually worth a little investment. How much? Not all that much – not what a smartwatch costs, as of yet.


One of the problems with hiking is that the goal is not “to get from Point A to Point B.” The goal is “to get from Point A to Point B using only one’s feet.” There’s also an element of “and going over mountains – either as many as possible, or at least, a fair allotment.” In short: it is supposed to be hard.

Bicycle touring can be a little bit more about A-to-B-ing – but not always. And the goal is still to get there as easily as possible under one’s own power. Otherwise you’re not touring, you’re just traveling. Otherwise it’s a cover to a manhole, but not ‘a manhole cover.’

As a result, “making it easier” is somewhat of a troublesome problematization. The people who hiked the AT in the 1950s did so with gigantic heavy packs, they were wet and cold all the time, they built fires and ate berries to stay alive, they couldn’t call 911 at any moment of day or night. Really, they hiked a very different hike than most modern hikers do. There were also many fewer of them. They also averaged 10 miles or less per day, whereas a hiker (who’s got their legs underneath them) will usually average 20, and quite a few will do 30s day after day.


This follows our Manhole discussion above. Improvements to oneself – one’s kit, at least – would seem to improve one’s abilities to ‘conquer the trail.’ But – how about the trail getting easier? That seems troublesome.

While on the trail this summer, my great complaints were the infrequency and inaccessibility of resupply. In short: I wanted more trail towns. And more convenience stores. And closer-to-the-trail convenience stores. Hell, I wanted a Country Kitchen Buffet every fives miles – and on every mountain summit – and twice on the weekends.

On the other hand, if such things existed – if food trucks parked at every road crossing – if there were vending machines selling freeze-dried meals at every shelter – I think some of the spirit of the trail would be lost. There is an element of Roughing It that is already somewhat tenuous, at least in the mid-Atlantic where I was hiking.

I might wonder if the AT (say) could be designated the “supported” trail, where there were more such amenities… and the PCT would have less, and the GDT almost none. Or some such division of anti-labor. But that seems, to me, rather unworkable.

Still… what I would not have given for a better selection of Mountain House freeze-dried chicken teryaki camp meals. I love me some MouHous. Axel smash.


In 10 years – in 30 – perhaps the equipment we use on the trail will have all of it much improved. No doubt 30 years ago they thought things were about as good as they could get. But a 7lb base weight in a waterproof pack is, I’d think, pretty damn close to the arena of ‘diminishing returns.’ Christ, my base weight was lighter than the carry weight of some people who were slack packing!

I am sure that material science will improve in the next 30 years, shaving off grams here and there. Perhaps we’ll get synthetic down (or ~) that is lighter, or even waterproof. Perhaps the same things will just get that much cheaper. But short of drone-assisted slackpacking (which is undoubtedly coming, but… see manhole supra), hiking tech is pretty damned advances. A person with a 50% reduction in base weight would not have a substantively easier time hiking the AT – hell, I’m not sure they’d even notice.

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