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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Book Review: The Round House, Louise Erdrich

My wife Jen passed this book on to me. It was one of her book club reads and they had all raved about it, so I thought I'd give it a shot. I also just noticed that it won the National Book Award for fiction.

Louise Erdrich is a member of a the Turtle Mountain band of the Chippewa tribe, whose reservation sits in north-central North Dakota. The novel takes place on the reservation and the characters are Native American, both of which (place and Native culture and family relationships) play central roles in the book.  

It seems to me that the greatest works of art are both innovative and accessible. The viewers/readers can lose themselves in a pleasurable experience, and yet are also pushed, challenged, and opened up. The Round House is such a work of art. 

The central incident in the book, that sets the plot tension and pervades the entire novel, is a tragedy that knows no racial or cultural boundaries. The characters respond to the incident through their own Native American cultural and family traditions, but the weight of larger American culture, which incredibly does not allow for justice in this situation, is felt heavily. The issue of justice is the central one for the main character, a 13 year old boy. 

On the other hand, the book is a page turner crime novel and is a pleasure to read. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Recent Listening: A Christmas Mix (with no Christmas music)

Here's a mix I've been putting together over the past couple of weeks, filled with music I've been listening to over the past month or so. I've been trying to broaden my horizons and listen to more than just rap. I've dabbled a bit in some end of the year lists to get inspiration, but also happened upon some of these in other ways, for example, I saw Jim James on Austin City Limits, and Rolling Stone magazine is always a good instigator of new tunes. Here's the mix

Recent Listening: A Christmas Mix, 2013

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!

Friday, December 6, 2013


I turned 40 on December 5. I don't feel ready, to be honest; this birthday has hit me harder than any other. 

30 didn't phase me a bit, and as a decade, the 30's were one of building-up. 40, on the other hand, feels like a threshold, where some things I've treasured are changing, against my will; for example, my body is less youthful and resilient, and my children are steadily marching away toward independence. And I know that this process will accelerate. On the other hand, there's a noticeable softening that I embrace, and I think that I am enjoying life more.

Of course there's still much building to do, and I've constructed a good base upon which to build more. Several have said to me, "Life begins at 40." Well, only those over 40 say this, but I get it. At 40, you must accept a new reality and once you do, a new life begins.

There's still so much to love and do. 
  • At 30, I burned to establish myself in my career, and I knew what I needed to do. At 40, as a Full Professor, I just want to stay passionate about, and engaged in, my work, and I'm not sure how to do this or how things will unfold. I do know that I feel the need for new challenges.
  • At 30, my kids were little (6 and 3), and my duties as a father  and husband were basic: love, provide, and protect. At 40, my kids are big (16 and 13), and lately I'm wondering how to pay for their college, and also how to help them transition into an engaged and balanced adulthood.
  • At 30, I burned to live abroad. At 40, my focus has shifted, and I burn to reach as many summits as I can in our back yard wilderness areas: the Rattlesnake, Bitterroot, Bob Marshall Complex, Pintlers, and Glacier Park. 

Anyway, I say good-bye to the last decade and hello to the new. I don't know what's to come, but I relish the opportunity to live more life. And I feel an urgency, because the years are flying by.

Had a great 40th Bday party at Kadin's warehouse: drinks, DJ, and friends made for an awesome night.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

A few more Missoula horizon summits: Blue Mountain, Jumbo, and Miller Peak

Missoula from Jumbo
It's been a dry November, so the low summits around Missoula don't have too much snow yet. You can still walk to the top of stuff that's 7000ft and below. Over the past couple of weeks, I've hiked Jumbo, Blue Mountain, and just today, Miller Peak. 
Pudge on the walk up Jumbo.

I actually had never hiked the trail that zigzags up the south face of Jumbo. It's my new favorite from-town-trail -- great views, easy walking, and not too busy.

A couple of weeks ago, I took a walk up Blue Mountain, which I had never done before. I drove up the road about 5 miles and started at the first switchback beyond the 'motor cycle trail head'. It was a nice walk, at about 3 hours and 10-12 miles. It's great to explore new areas; I've been overusing the Mount Sentinel trails.
Lookout on top of Blue Mountain.
And finally, today I hiked up Miller Peak. Getting to the start of this is a bit more of a trip, at about 20 miles from town. You drive up Miller Creek, the road turns to dirt, you pass all of the homes, the road changes to single lane dirt, then you take the first road on the left, and stay left at the fork a couple of miles in. You can actually drive this road to within a quarter mile of the top, but I stopped 6 or so miles from the summit and walked. There are radio towers on top and a stick that says Miller Peak. It was a cloudy day, but still a nice hike, if not a bit sketchy with all of the hunters out.

Miller Peak in clouds.
Miller Peak summit.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Review: Brewster, by Mark Slouka

This book reminded me of the movie "Standy by Me" in the sense that it's a baby boomer 'coming of age' story. I enjoyed basking in the golden glow of nostalgia for a lost era (late 60's/early 70's) and for youth. But also, there's a dark current through the book, most prominently in the form of one of the character's relationship with his violent father.

It was a very pleasurable read, but at the same time wasn't mind/soul expanding. So if you're looking for a well-done escape, I recommend it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

OutKast and Arcade Fire: my current musical obsessions

Through the 90's, I aggressively avoided rap music, preferring instead folk and bluegrass. Little did I know that I was living through a high water mark for the art form, similar to the late 60's and early 70's for rock and roll. It's awesome to discover this music now, since time and perspective have clarified who the greats are. One of the greats is the duo OutKast, consisting of Big Boi and Andre 3000. This month a fascinating retrospective article on OutKast was published on Pitchfork. I've been listening to OutKast a lot over the past couple of weeks. Here's a Spotify playlist of their first 4 albums, all of which are considered classics.

Another album that I'm playing a bunch lately is Arcade Fire's new one, Reflektor. It's gotten great reviews and really holds up to repeated listening. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Baggin' a few low Missoula horizon summits: Woody, Mitten, Dean Stone, and Black Mountains

Bad cell phone shot of the Missions (left) and Rattlesnake (right) from Black Mountain.
Over the past week I've been getting out into the lower mountains visible on the horizon from town, which still only have a couple of inches of snow. Last weekend was Woody Mountain, which is the mountain you see straight ahead when you're driving on I-90 from Missoula to Bonner. To climb it, just head into Bonner, drive toward the mountain, and look for an access from the neighborhoods at Woody's base. The hike is straight up and strenuous, and the weeds are bad, but it isn't much more than a mile. However, Woody is at 6218 ft, so it's about 3000+ feet of up.

Woody Mountain
I also took an early morning and bagged Mitten Mountain (6004 ft) and Mount Dean Stone (6204 ft). Dean Stone is the mountain with the radio towers south of town, above the South Hills, and Mitten is the high point along the ridge 1/2 mile to the northeast. To get there, drive past Pattee Canyon trailhead, down Deer Creek Road 1/2 mile or so, and then turn right up the Forest Service road at the big switch back. Follow this road a few miles to the divide between Deer Creek and Miller Creek, park the car, gain the ridge, and walk out to these two high points. It's not too long a trip from the divide (~2 miles to Dean Stone), is moderately strenuous, and I think an upper Pattee Canyon trailhead start is totally doable.

Mitten (left bump) and Dean Stone Mountains
Finally, this weekend, I bagged Black Mountain (5951 ft), which is one of the prominent mountains on the west edge of town, just north of Blue Mountain. Actually, this was the most enjoyable of the three outings mentioned on this blog. I figured it'd be another bushwack, like the above two, but you head up O'Brian Creek, a mile or so beyond the end of the pavement, park at a trailhead, and have nice trail to walk, along south facing, open, grassy, and very Missoula-esque slopes, until the last strenuous half-mile bushwack to the summit. Actually, this is a really nice hiking area, suitable for late season walks. The views from Black Mountain are spectacular: Blue Mountain and Lolo to the south, and to the north, the Missions and Rattlesnake.
Black Mountain on the way up.

Blue Mountain and Lolo Peak, looking south, on the way down.

The Missions and Rattlesnake from Black Mountain summit.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Book Review: The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West

This is the last of a trio of books I've been plodding through for what seems like months.

As the title suggests, this book, written by Andrew Graybill, focuses on a family, in fact three generations of a Montana family, beginning with Malcolm Clarke, an early white settler who entered the picture at the end of the 'buffalo days'. Malcolm married a Blackfoot woman, Coth-co-co-na, with whom he had several children. In those early days, there were few white women on the frontier, so mixed race marriage was a common and accepted practice. Malcolm became very successful, owning a large ranch north of Helena, which is now the Sieben ranch owned by the family of Senator Max Baucus. He was even among the individuals that started the Montana Historical Society. Nonetheless, these were also the years in which the Blackfeet lost their traditional way of life due to white encroachment. So it was a stressful time that included Malcolm's murder by a Blackfoot Indian whom he had offended, and the Marias Massacre of a Blackfoot band by the U.S. Army.

The story then turns to Malcolm's daughter Helen, who navigates the changing world in which those of mixed ancestry begin to be discriminated against in Montana. Moreover, as a woman, opportunities are even scarcer yet. Nonetheless, she spends time on Broadway as an actress, serves as the superintended of public schools in Helena, and works as an allotment agent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Midwest. She finally settles for the remaining decades of her life with her brother in East Glacier, on the Blackfoot Reservation.

The book ends with the story of John Clarke, Helen's nephew and Malcolm's grandson, who also leads a remarkable life. John loses his hearing after getting sick as a young boy. He has some good breaks in the schooling he receives at various deaf education institutions, becoming fluent in sign language, but never actually learning to speak or read lips. He returns to East Glacier at around 20, and never leaves, becoming a nationally known carver/sculptor, a craft he plies until the end of his days. His love for hunting and fishing in Glacier Park are also a major part of his life.

This is a very interesting and readable book, even if it is written by a historian. It shows how much things change over time. When you're living it, change seems slow, sometimes even non-existent, but looking back over three generation of this remarkable family, you can see the immensity of change, and also the resiliency of the human spirit. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Red Mountain, Scapegoat Wilderness: Tallest Peak in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex

On the way up.
Gaining the ridge: the southern ridge to Red. The summit is just behind the peak in the upper-right.
We've had a good long stretch of gorgeous chilly/sunny late October weather here in southwest Montana. I took one of those days - pre-injury - to bag a peak that's been on my list for a while: Red Mountain in the Scapegoat Wilderness. Red Mountain is the tallest peak in the Bob Marshal Wilderness Complex, which includes the Bob, the Scapegoat, and the Great Bear, stretching from Highway 200 in the south to the southern boundary of Glacier Park in the north.
Rocky Mountain Front and Scapegoat Peaks on the way up.
I've been anxious to get in some more high country time, but the cold and snow we had in early October resulted in most of the high country in southwest Montana being snow choked. So I sent a  message to peak bagging guru and Geology Prof Steve Sheriff asking if he knew of some peaks with south facing ridges on which he thought I could still get up on top of something. He mentioned Red (as well as some others), so I went for it.
View west from the summit.
If you take the route to Red's summit that I did -- drive as far as you can up Copper Creek Road, which leaves Highway 200 heading northeast about 10-15 minutes north of Lincoln, then gain Red's south ridge and walk it to the summit -- it's very doable from Missoula in a day. It's an easy 1 and 3/4 hour drive and then the hike is about a 10 mile round trip. I left at 8.30 am and was home by 4.30 pm.
Looking south from the summit, back the way we'd come.
Looking north, deeper into the Scapegoat and Bob Marshall.

Book Review: Teach us To Sit Still: A Sceptic's Search For Health And Healing

It took me a while to get through this book. Nonetheless, it had an impact on me, so I recommend it if you relate to the subject matter.

The book is about the quest of the author, Tim Parks, for health and well-being, as unexplained physical ailments (in his case lower abdominal pain) plague him, and he seeks a cure. The author is a well known novelist, so the writing is great, and he's also a sceptic, as the title suggests, so it's not an advertisement for a certain path to health. Rather it's a driven man's circuitous journey from physical pain caused by stress to wellness.

I related to the book on several fronts. First, I've recently suffered from the same ailments as the author describes - it's why I bought the book - and for the same reason: too much tension in mid-life. I also related to the author's choice of Vipassana meditation in the end. In my 20's I had a relatively serious Vipassana (a form of Buddhist meditation) practice. For several years I meditated every day and then as grad school, children, and work eventually overwhelmed me, my practice petered out, and finally went into hibernation when I moved to Missoula in 2003. Ever since, I have tried to pick it back up several times, but it would never take. However, in reading this book, I've gotten my practice back pretty consistent for about month now, which makes me happy, and my own abdominal pains have also gone away. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Livin' and Crashin'

broken again

My 40th year on the planet has been one of livin' and crashin'.

I've had some bad mojo this cycling season: a bad crash and collarbone break in May; a crunched cross frame, after driving into a garage with my bike on the roof, when I had finally recovered in August; and finally a crash and rebreak of my collarbone at Rolling Thunder (cyclocross race) yesterday, following hot on the tail of a competitor who went down in front of me and took me with him.

This string of incidents does make me wonder what the heck I'm doing. Whether or not at my age I should be competing in a young man's sport, pushing myself to my own edge on a regular basis. On the other hand, I'm good at bike racing, and it brings me joy. And I was competing against other 40+ racers, so I'm not the only nut-job out there.

But if I keep breaking bones, the suffering certainly outweighs the joy. So I'm left wondering what the correct balance is between caution and doing what I love, between not-crashin' and livin', given that there's plenty else to love in the world.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Steamboat Mountain, Rocky Mountain Front

During one of the last weekends of September, we headed up for some camping at our property on the Dearborn River. It was Jen's dad's 60th birthday. On Saturday, I made the drive out from our land and up to the southern end of the Rocky Mountain Front, where the upper-Dearborn leaves the Scapegoat Wilderness. 
Steamboat Mountain reefs. The summit is behind the cliffs out of sight.
My goal was to bag Steamboat Mountain, which is the large massif you see on the last miles of the drive in (picture above) and is just across the Dearborn River from the trailhead. About one mile from the car, after passing several cabins, you'll cross the Dearborn, and a mile later you'll come to a sign on the trail that says, Lewis and Clark National Forest. A quarter-mile or less after this, you'll see a cairn on the right marking the hiker trail up to Steamboat. The trail isn't maintained and will peter out in several places along the way, but you'll get there simply by following your nose. On top are large open meadows, and the summit sits in the middle, not all that close to the edge of the reef that you see from the valley (see the below pic). It's a very rocky and desolate summit. The trip up is definitely worthwhile and is not terribly long. Views from the top are spectacular, especially of awesome Scapegoat Mountain (on my bucket list) to the northwest.

Steamboat is in the background. The peak is to the right of reef/cliff (photo taken from outtherewithtom.blogspot).

Another outtherewithtom.blogspot photo. This one of Scapegoat Mtn, long on my bucket list. 

Book Review: Young Men and Fire, by Norman MacLean

I love this book, and not because it's an easy and relaxing read (it's not) but because in my opinion, MacLean achieves greatness in writing it. Like any great book, it's about many things.

First, there's the story of the tragedy of the Mann Gulch fire, which killed 13 elite smoke jumpers in 1949. When MacLean began his research, there was much that was unknown (or lost) about the incident and even evidence that some details had been swept under the rug in order to protect the Forest Service during the lawsuits brought on by family of the deceased following the fire.

Really though, the book is equally about MacLean himself as he searches for the truth of what happened. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the story is as much about MacLean and his search as it is about the Mann Gulch fire itself. The dead firefighters remain ghosts as characters in the story. It is only MacLean and those who enter the story as aids in his quest that come alive as characters on the page.

And on an even deeper level, the book is the story of a spiritual quest of an old man nearing the end of his life. I believe that it is a meditation on death. On the first page is the following quote of MacLean:

"As I get considerably beyond the biblical allotment of three score years and ten, I feel with increasing intensity that I can express my gratitude for still being around on the oxygen-side of the earth's crust only by NOT standing pat on what I have hitherto known and loved. While oxygen lasts, there are still new things to love, especially if compassion is a form of love."

So, at the tail end of his life he takes up the new hard work of writing. And what wonderful works he creates. For his last book (published after he died), he tells the story of the tragic deaths of the Mann Gulch smoke jumpers, not only to tell their story, but to face death: his own death as well as those of his loved ones who've gone before. The book ends with the following paragraph:

"I, an old man, have written this fire report. Among other things, it was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature. In addition, I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy, where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky, but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death."

This is a great, moving book.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Fall, a Season for Cycling

On the way to Three Larch
This is probably my favorite time of year for biking in Missoula. The temps are a bit cool, but the leaves are changing, and even more spectacular in my opinion is the turning and falling of the larch tree needles. 
larch trees in Pattee Canyon
Last week, a research colleague and friend of mine, Jim Nagy, from Atlanta and Emory University came to talk math and mountain bike. We were successful on both fronts. I took Jim on the Dear Creek Sneak, then down through the Cox Property and the Zig Zag trail to town. The next day we did Three Larch from town. Jim mountain bikes a lot in Georgia and is a tough rider.
Georgian, mathematician, and mountain biker, Jim Nagy getting a taste of Missoula trails.
Cyclocross season is also now in full swing. We race Wednesday nights and it's great fun. I'm not in top shape, having had missed the summer cycling season, but I'm getting better each week.
I'm in there. The only one with teal in my jersey, three rows or so back. Tom Robertson photo I believe.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Boulder Point, Rattlesnake Wilderness

Swan Range from Boulder Point
The Rocky Mountaineers have a few peak lists on their web page: Missoula Valley Peaks, Rattlesnake Peaks, Bitterroot Peaks, Mission Peaks, Swan Peaks, and Glacier Peaks 9500ft+. Here's the Rattlesnake Peak list:

Rattlesnake Peaks
  • McLeod Pk 8620’
  • Murphy Pk 8167’
  • Mosquito Pk 8057’
  • Stuart Peak 7960’
  • Point Six 7929’
  • Sheep Mtn 7650’
  • Mineral Pk 7482’
  • Boulder Point 7293’
  • Triangle Peak 7800’
  • Gold Cr Pk 7207

I've now done the first 8 on the list, Boulder Point over Labor Day.

Boulder Lake with Missions behind from Boulder Point.
The hike to Boulder Point is on trail, and it's only about a 3.5-4 mile trip one way. As peaks go, it's pretty mellow. The hardest part is getting to the trail head, which is about 20 miles back on an increasingly rough Gold Creek Road. Gold Creek Road leaves Highway 200 about 10-15 miles up the Blackfoot from Bonner. Although the road gets rough and narrow, there are signs for West Fork Gold Creek trailhead at every major intersection. That's where the hike begins.

One of the neat things way back on Gold Creek Road, before the trailhead, is a big, beautiful meadow with giant old growth ponderosa pine. It's known as Primm's Meadow and here's a Missoulian aritcle about the lady who helped save it. Primm's Meadow is apparently there because there were some hold-out homesteaders who wouldn't sell to Plumb Creek. Every other hill side in sight is barren from clear cutting. I don't have a picture of the meadow, so you'll have to make the trip. I wish I'd had time to walk the meadow a little bit.

Mineral Peak with the lookout barely visible.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Trapper Peak, Bitterroot Wilderness, Father-Daughter 2013

A couple of tough chicks.
My neighbor Kevin Dohr moved into the neighborhood at the same time we did, with his wife Kim and her daughter Elan. The girls have been good friends ever since, and over the past several years Kevin and I have taken them on overnight trips up the Rattlesnake corridor. This year we decided to backpack. I suggested that we retrace the Gem Lake route up to Trapper Peak that Jen, the kids, and I had done 5 or 6 years back.

Gem Lake with the saddle up to Trapper in the upper-left.
Baker Lake is about 1 & 1/4 miles from the trailhead. It's a steep walk, the trail having been built in the pre-switchback era of trail building. About 3/4 of a mile further, just beyond Middle Lake, is the beautiful Gem Lake, where we camped.
Kevin at the fire ring, Gem Lake.
From Gem Lake, you walk straight up a chute to a saddle and onto the face where the main Trapper Peak trail is located. The trip up the chute is steep and filled with loose rocks and boulders. Care must be taken when you walk through it, especially with a group.
Starting the walk up the chute.

Boulder hopping.

And more boulder hopping.

Resting near the top of the chute.

And finally at the top.
After leaving the chute, the walking is easy for about 1/4 mile, through high, rocky meadows above trealine.
Taking a break from the wind.
And then there's the 1/4 mile scree slope up to the peak.
Kevin near the top.
Views from the top are spectacular.
me on top.

the girls on top.

Walking down on scree.

long-time friends.
We headed back down the way we'd come up, taking care through the boulder fields in the chute.

Dropping back into the chute down to Gem Lake.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Saint Joseph Peak, Bitterroot Wilderness

I'm addicted to the high country lately, and the weather is holding, so I've been able to keep getting out. Last weekend, I took a morning and headed just a bit down the Bitterroot, to Bass Creek and on up to the trailhead to Little St. Joseph and St. Joseph. It's only about 2.5 miles from the trailhead to Little St. Joe's, but it's a straight-up trail gaining 2500ft+. Not a bad outing in itself, but I wanted to keep going on to St. Joseph, which requires another 2.5 miles along a ridge that's challenging walking/scrambling, and then the final push up to the summit, which requires a bit of follow-your-nose route finding. Here's a few pictures from the trip. It was tough and punishing and took me around 6 hours, but it's non-technical. I was worked at the end.
Bass Creek spires on the way up

On the top of Little St Joe's with Pudge, St. Mary's in the distance.

Looking off to St. Joseph from Litte St Joseph--had to tie Pudge up not much further on.

St Mary (left) and the Heavenly Twins (right) from the ridge.

The ridge, looking back at Little St Joseph, which is the bump--a strenuous bugger.

A cool shot of subalpine larch on the damp north slope and white bark pine on the sunny south slope.

Just north, the ridge from Sweeney (out of view on the right) to Lolo Peak, which I scrambled with Al Parker years ago.

View south from St. Joseph, with summit Cairn. Less than 10 people had signed the summit register in 2013!


And a long ridge walk back before a knee punishing descent from Little St. Joe to the truck