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.

On Consulting

•7 January 2018 • Leave a Comment

I’ve been a business consultant for about a decade (three years of that full-time). Sometimes a consultant gets hired to solve a problem. Most of the time we aren’t so lucky. Usually we get hired to find a problem; to take a team or a product or a company that is doing just fine, and find some way that it could be doing better. We are haters gone pro. We are constructive criticism at the gates. To the untrained eye we are the avatars of “if it ain’t broke, still we gotta fix it.” The truth is far worse: we believe that everything is broken, so long as you look at it right.

(And most of the time when we get hired to solve a problem, it turns out the problem isn’t actually what the client thinks it is. But that’s a whole other ball of wax.)

The industry buzz word is problematization. We try to make something into a problem – because only by calling something a problem can you look for a solution. “How can this be done cheaper?” “How can a person do something they couldn’t do before?” “How can this use 3% less aluminum per unit?” Ad infinitum.

Most of the time we’re incrementalists. We don’t invent rocket cars; we look at the cars we have and try to give them one mile per gallon better fuel efficiency or half an inch more leg-room. From one day to the next, it isn’t sexy. Not even from year to year. But zoom out to decades and incrementalism looks a lot more like innovation. (Which is why one can be forgiven for thinking that the electric car sprang fully-formed from Elon Musk’s forehead.)

It’s a hard job in a business setting. It’s harder still in one’s everyday life. Part of this is just that most of our lives – products and processes – are the result of, at this point, decades of research and development by millions of professionals. And those numbers are conservative, possibly by orders of magnitude. Problematization has a high bar of entry. But that shouldn’t stop us. In as little as a decade, we will look back on our lives of today and marvel at everything that could have been improved – and how easy it would have been – all the low-hanging fruit.

But another barrier is psychological. People tend to play the hand they’re dealt.* And that’s fine. It’s hard enough to figure out the rules of the game and try to win it. It takes a certain sort of someone to step back a further step and look for ways to change the rules. It’s a risky move. When one is trying to improve the game, one is not playing it. And no shortage of rule-breakers – successful and otherwise – were simply those who were bad at following rules. There’s a reason that there’s a fine line between the entrepreneur and the ne’er-do-‘ell. Or, y’know, no line at all.

This results in a certain amount of social pressure as well. Person A (and B and C and most people, really) are just trying to play the game. Along comes the consultant, orthogonal to them all, and tries to change the rules of the game they’re playing. It is natural for those people to be defensive, to try and conserve the existing status quo. It doesn’t help that the consultant’s disruptions might enrich the consultant – in the modern world, enrich them beyond all measure. You came, you saw, you criticized… and now you can afford to buy Norway. Feathers: it can ruffle them. And not unreasonably so.

Also – and not for nothing – but bringing constructive criticism to bear on one’s life can look an awful lot like just being a constant roving dick. In this, as in everything, moderation is the key to happiness – yours, but more particularly that of those around you.

But it is a necessary exercise. It is the “perspiration” that results in ninety nine percent of human advancement – and for my money it’s the “inspiration” too. And since I don’t at the moment happen to have any people around me, it’s an exercise in which I will indulge.



* Google’s much-ballyhooed entrance exam (no longer given) once contained a question that has stuck with me. “Why,” it asked, “are all manhole covers round?”

My answer was, in essence: “Ontological blindness. The first manhole cover was round. It worked, so they made the second one round too. Pretty soon ’roundness’ became part of the definition of manhole cover: it wasn’t ‘a thing that covers manholes,’ it was ‘that round thing that covers manholes.’ A square – or triangle or trapezoid – might cover a manhole, but it would not be ‘a manhole cover.’ Any more than a vehicle with six wheels would be ‘a car.’

It is necessary as inventors that we rise above these ontological entrenchments. That we look at things as what they accomplish, not as how they happen to accomplish them. That we break through, not just design, but definition – only they can we redesign, and redefine, and fine truly new approaches to existing problems – and answer questions that nobody has even asked before.”

…of course the real answer was “because you could turn a square cover on its side, tilt it, and drop it down the manhole.” I guess there’s a reason I didn’t get to work at Google.


•3 January 2018 • Leave a Comment

When I turned 18, the ever-lovin’ Gillette company sent me a free Mach III razor. Unsolicited. No idea how they even got my birthdate. It looked, y’know, razorly. It had a sturdy handle and those little disposable triple-bladed cartridges that you shoot out when they dull. Like any good recipient of capitalist largesse, I began shaving with it. And never stopped.

This not only shaped my shaving habits, but it shaped my internal ontologies: it never even occurred to be that there was another sort of shaving. At best I was dimly aware that old tyme barbers used to strop straight razors and such. But I assumed that this was an ancient practice, unlikely to be found outside of theme parks like Old Sturbridge Village or Deep Hipster Brooklyn. Not for mere mortals. Silliness.

I still have that same razor handle. In the intervening decade and a half I have spent hundreds of dollars on razor cartridges. The only reason I haven’t spent thousands is because, as you know, I don’t shave very often :-)

About three years ago I started eyeing an upgrade. I wanted something prettier – a handle upgrade – maybe something made out of wood. It never occurred to me that it would be anything more than an aesthetic improvement. Which is why I filed it away under “stupid uses of money that I don’t have” and didn’t pursue it further.

A few months ago, when wandering around the dim recess(pool)s of Reddit, I discovered a shaving subreddit. And, like… Charlene’s beard paper from Cryptonomicon. Holy shit. People posting long meandering YouTube videos comparing different brands of razor blades. Unboxing sequences for jars of shaving foam. Serial exclamation points following announcements that West Coast Shaving, Inc., was offering a 10% discount on alum blocks. (As an aside: the saddest aspect of modern culture is how we’re taught to look down at childish enthusiasm.)

The central tenant of this (and related) subreddit was: shaving with a safety razor – a double-edged, or DE razor – is objectively better in every way than using a ‘modern’ cartridge razor. And like everything on Reddit that doesn’t relate to politics: fucked if they were not right.

I have switched to a DE razor. And, ah, I am a bit mad at myself for not doing it sooner. For not doing it from the get-go, point of fact. One might even surmise that I am angry angry angry at the Gillette company. I tip my hat to them, I suppose. But also would not pee on them if they were on fire – and otherwise, would merrily pee away.

Here are my observations:

1) The learning curve involved in making the switch is minimal. My second shave with a DE blade was as good as my general shavitry. My third was better. I am still seeing improvements

2) It hurts less. A lot less. Like, the physical act of shaving is more pleasant. Which, wow.

3) It’s a better shave. My face – the portions of it that I shave, at least – is more hair-free 24 hours after DE shaving than it was immediately after cartridge shaving.

4) It’s cheaper. Crazy cheaper. Each blade is about a tenth of the price of a March III cartridge. Also, each blade lasts longer.

5) The initial investment cost is not large. It’s obviously no free-razor-in-the-mail, but it’s not high. You can get a set-up for thirty or forty USD – razor handle, shaving brush, lather bowl, and stand for them all. (I don’t know how much they cost in Britannia. For all I know the NHS provides a free kit to every man-jack on the isle, that he may better grow a mustache for the Empire. If anything it’s probably cheaper, since most razors of this sort are made – shockingly – not in East Asia, but in Germany. Land of steel and chins, after all.)

6) It produces far fewer cuts. Because you’re angling one blade, rather than trying constantly to find the center-point of three blades, which I assume that even a topologist must struggle to accomplish – especially at 630AM on a Tuesday.

7) It produces far less irritation. I’ve always struggled with razor burn. I’ve basically done away with it.

8) It does come part-and-parcel with a bit of greater shaving knowledge, much of which could – to a lesser or greater extent – be adapted to use with cartridge shaving. But, like, I took ten minutes to watch a youtube vid about how to properly create lather with a brush. I spent fifteen minutes ‘beard-mapping’ – determining the direction of hair growth so that I could shave with the grain. Both of those things are proving powerfully useful to me. And that was about the extent of the time investment required.

9) Also I bought some fancy hipster shaving soap and now my bathroom smells like an apothecarist’s fuck-dungeon on Tangerine Tuesday.

In conclusion, I am very happy to have made the transition – and have only to wonder at what other aspects of my life, large or small, might be made better. Here’s to finding out in 2018 – and every year thereafter.


•11 December 2017 • Leave a Comment

Another pigua in NYC.

I made a post to Reddit:

As a New Yorker who was real close to the explosion site, of course I’m rattled. And pissed the fuck off.

I also remember what my grandmother used to tell me: in the 1920s and 30s, every time there was a newspaper story about a criminal, her father would check if the criminal was Jewish and thank God if he wasn’t. Because they were fresh-off-the-boat Jewish immigrants and they felt like they lived on top of a big tinderbox and one little spark could set it off.

I remember that every time there’s a terrorist attack. My first thought is always, “I wonder if the terrorist was Muslim?” My second thought, right behind the first, is “I hope he wasn’t Muslim, because that’s all my Muslim friends need right now.” I really do, it’s just where my mind goes. But I always remember my grandmother’s story and I force myself to think: “Even if the murderous shithead asshole was a Muslim, that doesn’t matter for other Muslims. It doesn’t matter.” Because I’m not going to be one of the people that my grandmother grew up afraid of. I’m just fucking not.

Anyway, I think about that on days like today. Everyone stay strong, stay vigilant, and חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ

Someone responded:

Honest question: was there a major worldwide movement of violent Jews in the 20’s and 30’s? I’m just wondering if we’re comparing apples to apples here.

I replied:

Yeah, there were quite a few Jewish terrorists at that time. They kidnapped, robbed banks, and used bombs to target civilians, both in the US and Europe. They were mostly part of a loose network of terrorist groups allied around a common ideology that wanted to destroy countries as we know them and set up a single worldwide government that imposed absolute ideological purity. They called themselves Communists, or Anarchists, or Social Revolutionaries, but in many ways they were the ISIS of their day. And lots of people at the time called them a “major worldwide movement of violent Jews.”

Calling them that wasn’t entirely incorrect, but still it wasn’t right. Radical anarchism and communism were major worldwide movements, they had violent factions or tendencies, and a lot of their members were Jews. But they weren’t Jewish movements. They had nothing at all to do with mainstream Judaism. These terrorists represented less than one percent of one percent of the millions of Jews in the world. Most of whom were just regular people, like my great-grandfather who worked in a clothing factory, or his daughter – my grandmother – who was just a little kid.

It would be like if I said the Lord’s Resistance Army, or the Posse Comitatus, or the CSA, are movements of violent Christians. They are movements, they are violent, they are Christian, and given half a shot they’d be happy to be worldwide. But they’ve got nothing to do with the vaaaast majority of Christians. It’s an important distinction – and one that lots of Christians are still forced to draw (cough China cough).

The Muslim terrorists of today are the same. There are lots of terrorists in the world. Many are Muslim – in America and Western Europe, it’s possible that most terrorists are Muslim. They are violent. They are (or aspire to be) a worldwide movement. BUT. But they are a tiny fraction of the billion Muslims in the world, most of whom are just regular people who go to work and who want their daughters to grow up to be grandmothers one day. They are as Muslim as the Bolsheviks were Jewish, or as the Falangists or Provos are Christian, or as the 969 are Buddhist, or as Les Assassins en Fauteuils Roulants are Quebecois.

I am a Jew but I don’t stand with Lehi or the Irgun. I am a white American but I don’t stand with Tom Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry. My friend Mohammed who cleans my clock at poker every week doesn’t stand with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. We are comparing apples to apples, and one bad apple says NOTHING about the bunch.

Homo Solvens

•9 December 2017 • 2 Comments

I have a little pile of essays – half-complete, or little more than topics – and since I am overburned with free time I thought I should turn my attentions to them.

One of these was a blog post from two years ago, saved in my draft folder, containing nothing more than the title: “Microtransactions in Games.” Well, as they say – there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

For those of you blessed creatures who don’t know about this, here’s the skinny:

Some games – computer, console, tablet or smartphone – you pay for. You buy the DVD, or the cartridge, or you just pay to download them. Some games cost more, some cost less.

Some games are free. These are mostly games that you download or play in a browser. Either they were meant to be free, or they sold so poorly that they’re now being given away, or they are so old that it seems quite silly to charge for them.

Of the games that were meant to be free, some were just made by someone for fun and are released as such. Some are meant to showcase the creator’s talent, in the hopes that this will lead to other opportunities for them – one man’s free game is another’s free advertising. Some are so bad that nobody would ever ever charge for them.

And then there are some which are only mostly free. Games like World of Warcraft, which costs $0 to install but requires that you pay a monthly fee to play – the free game is like a free needle and spoon, but the smack they’re selling will still cost you. (I would draw a comparison to why Amazon’s ereaders are always on sale; even if they lose money on the sale of each Kindle, they make money on the ebooks that they are then able to sell through the Kindle Store.)

There are variations on the mostly-free model. There are games where the single player is free, but to play with strangers you have to pay a little extra, either as a one-time or as a monthly cost. Or there are games where the initial game is free, but the expansion packs cost money – which seems perfectly reasonable until you realize that there are also many games where the purchase of the base game entitles you to all future expansions and updates for free.

Then we get to the microtransactions, which I would define as “any opportunity to purchase, not a game or the ability to play it, but something within the game and the ability to play with it.”

The oldest example, I would argue, is the 900-number help line. Got stuck playing King’s Quest IV? You call a number and some kindly operator tell you how to get unstuck. You pay $.99/minute for the privilege.

Supporters of the paid help line noted that it let people solve puzzles that they couldn’t solve on their own – things that would otherwise prevent them from finishing the game. Detractors noted that you were basically paying for a game, and then paying more for the privilege of not playing it. Sierra’s directors were content to note that they were making more money from the help line than from sales of the game itself.

This was, essentially, paid cheating. This concept was advanced, particularly in free-to-play browser games, with the idea of purchasing treasure chests. Sure you could play the game, all the way through, and all for free… but if you wanted a little boost, a little shortcut, you could pay for it. Say it’d take you a week to earn a thousand gold. Instead, pay a dollar, and: presto! For some people, the exchange of real money for fake saved them time, aggravation, or both. It was a rational use of their money. Not the smartest, perhaps, but rational.

Then someone somewhere came up with the bright idea of making things in the game available only if you paid for them.

The first of these microtransactions were purely cosmetic – ‘aesthetic microtransactions’ – or, colloquially, ‘hats.’ The idea being: hey, you’re going to spends hours (if not hundreds) (if not thousands) playing a multiplayer game. People will see your avatar. They will see it every day. Is it worth it to you to spend a dollar to customize your avatar? Quite possibly. If it’s worth thousands of hours of your life, it’s worth a dollar, right? Some people spend a hundred dollars on a shirt that they won’t wear for a thousand hours. Some people spend a thousand dollars on a dress they’ll wear once. Sure this is just a pile of 0s and 1s, inherently nonscarce: but someone had to take the time to design the thing, implement the code, make sure it works in the game. And beside, this isn’t a thousand dollars. It’s just a buck. You can afford a buck. Right?

But there are some things that are more than hats. Some items or powers within a game make you better at the game. Ask any one who’s ever played a roleplaying game, digital or tabletop: Items Matter. Sure you could spend hours and hours camping a rare drop. Or you could spend a dollar and use all those freed hours to go outside and get fresh air and cure diseases and sleep with attractive people. That’s totally what you did, right? Right?

These weren’t cosmetic hats – these were ‘unlocks’. They actually let you be better at the game. They were cheating – they were cheat codes where you swiped a credit card instead of typing a phrase. “This big gun isn’t necessary to kill people, but it sure does make it easier” – as true in video games as it is real life.

And then we came to the final act: unlocks that were necessary to advance the game. A weapon that you needed to win, and to get it you needed to pay. “To open this door you must buy the Red Key!” – this is common, right now, in games. And not just in free games, either: to add insult to insult to insult, there are ‘necessary unlocks’ incorporated into AAA games which cost $69.99 to purchase. Making the purchase price of the game reflective of only a fraction of the necessary expenditure required to complete the game: meaning that the price you pay in the store is actually just a fraction of the true MSRP.

This is not only unnecessary, and unscrupulous, but it is also underhanded. You may well not know that the game you’re buying is only half the game until you’ve already bought it, gotten home, and maybe even played dozens of hours. This is absolutely no different from buying a new car, driving it for 10,000 miles, and then learning that you’ll need to pay half the purchase price to keep driving. And then, in ten thousand miles, half the purchase price again. Until you… get bored with driving?

There is one further egregiousness that must be mentioned: loot crates. You don’t pay for the thing you want; you pay for a crate which has a (say) 1 in 3 chance of containing the ‘hat’ or ‘unlock’. Or 1 in 10. Or 1 in Whatever They Say. This is artificial scarcity three layers deep. This is gambling, pure and simple.

Personally, I would never spend one thin dime on any of these things. But I’m not a good person to ask, since I haven’t paid for a game – or any other piece of software – probably in my entire life, come to think of it. And yet, if I paid full price for a game from the store, and found that it wanted more money from me, I would be very skeptical. If it wanted more money before I could complete the game, I would consider this highway robbery. I would be angry. I would demand my money back.

Enter EA.

This matter has recently come to a head in the case of Star Wars Battlefront II, made by Electronic Arts. This game contains pretty much all the elements listed above, from the fact that you can’t play as most actual Star Wars characters until you’ve paid preposterous amounts of money, to the fact that loot crates turns the whole adventure into Las Vegas unregulated by the Gaming Commission.

When asked about this, an EA employee gave the following response:

“The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment[…]”

This is what games are supposed to offer – but by the playing of them, not by the pissing away of money.

It is thus not surprising that the comment quotes above is the single most downvoted comment in Reddit history; or that EA has lost (by all accounts) millions of dollars in cancelled preorders and promised boycotts; or that ‘loot crates’ are being investigated by some EU nations as a form of illegal gambling; or the fact that maybe, just maybe, people are beginning to wise up, and will voluntarily refrain from so poorly disposing of their money.


And yet, I could not call myself a business consultant without asking: is there such a thing as a good microtransaction?

After some skull-sweat, I have come up with the following types of microtransactions that I might consider to be worth the money:

-Undeveloped content. You like the game? Pay us more and we’ll make more of it! This is simply paid DLC in a nutshell.

Purely aesthetic content (‘hats’). They do not affect gameplay, nor do they unlock new elements of gameplay. They are cosmetic, and nothing more.

-Directed development. In a nutshell, this is the Kickstarter model grown within a game. Want to pay for the DLC? That’s fine. Knock yourself out. Want to determine what is in the DLC? If you pay for the privilege of choosing spaceship over submarine, or having a character named after your childhood iguana: throw us a few bucks and we shall make it so. These changes might be more than cosmetic; the differences are that, A) nobody would have to pay for them; B) they would, in the end, give everyone the same gameplay experience – no special treatment, no cheating, nothing unfair.

I should point out that there is limitless potential within these three areas. The only real problem is, it places the game designers and developers at the mercy of the players. However, if you consider this a problem, I would beg that you refrain from working in the gamespace – go out to pasture with John Romero and never program again.

Nonscarce content.

This, I think, is the most interesting idea. This would give people the opportunity to pay for things which are objectively worth paying for, insofar as they are of limited quantity and require actual cost to produce.

These things are traditionally known as ‘feelies’. These are the things that come in a game box, alongside the manual and the disc. These might include a booklet, with higher production values than a simple manual; a map of the game world; a little plastic such-and-such to keep on your desk; in short, any little tchatchke which an avid gamer might wish to purchase and keep; in short, a feelie is just a hat irl.

Most of these items are crap. But some are not – and there is no need for them to be. For everyone who has spent a thousand dollars on a hand-made copy of a sword from the Lord Of The Rings, there is no reason why that could not be associated with the Lord Of The Rings video game that they also assuredly play. Or a sword from Skyrim. Or a sword from WoW. Or a sword from whatever game you’ve just made. Life imitates art… or at least, something real is modeled after something that the game developer has already modeled.

Yet these are all examples of a real-world item being based on the game developer’s choice. The true potential, here, lies in the real-world item being based on the player’s choice.

The earliest example of this that I can think of are the photo stickers from Pokemon Snap. The game was about taking pictures. You chose your favorite, went to Blockbuster, and had them printed out.

This was recently aped by Firewatch, a stunning indie video game that is one part murder mystery and one part hiking simulator. The aesthetic seeks to answer the question “What if a 1940s National Parks poster were three-dimensional and you could walk in it?” I think the game is simply beautiful. And like Pokemon Snap, the game includes a built-in camera system: you bring the camera to your eye, you focus, you take the shot, and you even then spin the little wheel to advance the film. After you beat the game, you can print out any of the pictures you want – at a high definition, and for a reasonable fee.

But this, I say, is just the tip of the iceberg. There is no reason that it need be limited to something so passive as appreciating the scenery. Let’s say there’s a game where you can customize your character’s facial appearance. No reason you couldn’t order a printout of your character’s face – or a computer-assisted oil painting – or a hand oil painting – or one of a hundred types of 3D models, to scale, full-size, from hot out of the MakerBot to chiseled from Catarra marble to… well, I’m not going to suggest ‘inflatable,’ but I expect that such an option would be as profitable as a loot crate. If not more so.

Anything that you can make within a game, could be available outside of the game. The more customization allowed by the game, the more fun it will be, and the more profit potential exists. A Lego set for your Fallout 4 settlement? A blacksmithing mini-game that yields an actual sword? The sky is the limit – and if you’re not careful, you won’t have just improved upon the microtransaction; you’ll have trained a bunch of people to use AutoCAD, and they will have had fun doing it.

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