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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Research and Relationships

I'm sitting at the gate at the Helsinki airport, waiting for the my flight. I'm on to Birmingham, England and the University of Warwick, where I'll give another talk Monday and stay until Friday, at which point I'll return to Missoula.

The conference here in Helsinki was as good as such a big conference (400+ attendees) can be. I was happy with how my talk went and saw several that inspired me. I'm not one to attend a ton of talks at these big meetings. If the topic interests me, I'll go, otherwise, I'd prefer to hide out somewhere and work or think, drink too much coffee, go for runs, and most important of all, cultivate connections with my colleagues/collaborators/friends. 

When I started out in this business, I thought science was entirely about having a good idea, seeing it through to a result, and then communicating the result in a paper or talk. On the surface, this appears to be the case, but after 15 years in the game (I started my PhD in 2000), I now feel that relationships are just as important. Don't get me wrong, good science is not possible without good ideas, but good ideas don't exist in a vacuum, rather they arise from within communities of people devoted to the advancement of their small corner of science. Being a productive member of such a community requires a commitment to a way of life that's not easy, hence the need for the support and friendship of others. Not to mention that it's a pleasure of life to build friendships while creating new science and to create new science with friends.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Helsinki, Narcissus and Goldmund, and Grandma Jane

I’m in the midst of what has become my yearly sojourn to Helsinki, although this year the visit is short, as I’m only in the city to give a talk at a conference. This is the fifth (or sixth?) consecutive summer I’ve come to Helsinki. In previous summers, I’ve come to collaborate with Heikki Haario’s group. Those visits were long (2-3 weeks) and the work strenuous, but what came from them is a small body of research that I’m as proud of as anything I’ve done. But this visit may be the last one for a while, and though I’m glad to see things change, I don’t know what the future will bring. My fear is that I’ll not have any ideas as good as the best ones I’ve pursued in past summers here in Helsinki.

As with last year, on my way to Finland, I spent a few days in Beaumont, Texas with my grandmother, Jane. She will be 88 this August and is bedridden in a nursing home. She still has some of her wits (for example, she knows who I am), but her body is shot and her mind is slowly slipping. Her clearest distant memories, at this point, aren’t of her adult life, but rather are of her childhood in Miles City, Montana. She wants to go back there, to her childhood home, whose address she still remembers.

Visiting Grandma Jane brings a useful perspective: life is short and one day we, and all who know us, will be gone. How does the realization of the transitory nature of life inform the way we live? This question is one of the central ones in Hermann Hesse’s classic novel, ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’, which I read on the flights to and from Texas. I bought the book to give to Alex for graduation, started reading it again, and couldn’t put it down. It’s an important book for me; the first time I read it was when I was 22, when my father gave it to me, and it had a profound impact on me then. This reading, my third, it has also opened me up and got me reflecting on my life.

The story is of a great friendship, between Narcissus, a rigorous intellectual and pious monk, and one of his students Goldmund, who ends up devoting his life to freedom, the love of women, and art.  Early in the book Narcissus is Goldmund’s teacher in a cloister school and helps him to realize his true self – an artist and man of the senses – after which Goldmund embarks on the life of a wanderer. After several years of wandering, deeply moved by a statue of Mary that he sees in a church, Goldmund finds its maker, becomes his assistant, and devotes himself to becoming a sculpture artist. After several years, he becomes so accomplished that his master offers his daughter’s hand and his prosperous studio to him, but instead Goldmund chooses to return to the freedom of the road. After many more trials, including wandering through the death and destruction of plague-ravaged Germany, Goldmund ends up back at the cloister, where Narcissus is now the Abbot. Their friendship and love for each other rekindles, and in the last years of his short life, Goldmund makes several great sculptures for the Abbey.

Narcissus and Goldmund is among my very favorite books, and as with other of Hesse’s work, it’s easy to read, but also deals with deep philosophical questions about how to live. Narcissus and Goldmund represent two archetypes of the well-lived life at opposite ends of the spectrum. For me, they both serve as a mirror, reflecting back my own choices and asking, “Are you living life as well as you’d like to be?” 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Jefferson River Valley Peakbagging: Ruby Benchmark and Table Mountain

The Jefferson Valley. The Ruby Range on the right background and the Tobacco Roots on the left. Taken on the Hells Canyon Road. (More pictures below.)
This past weekend, my PhD student Kevin and I took a trip to the Jefferson River Valley, southeast of Butte, for a couple of days of peakbagging and then on to Butte (where our mothers both live) for Mother's Day.

It was a great trip. On day one, we drove to Alder, Montana, which is about three hours from Missoula and is located just west of Virginia City, Montana. The high point of the Ruby Range, called Ruby Benchmark, is just west of Alder. We followed the loop route described by Cedron Jones in Peakbagging Montana, adding Laurin Peak to the outting. It ended up a long and strenuous day at 7.5 hours and 12 miles according to my GPS route, which you can find here

After the hike, we grabbed a shower in Alder, some groceries in Sheridan, and a burger in Twin Bridges, then drove the spectacular Hells Canyon Road up the back side of the Highlands into the Hells Canyon Cabin, which is maintained by the Forest Service. I highly recommend a trip to this cabin. The drive is spectacular and the cabin nice.

After spending the night in the cabin, we hiked Table Mountain in the morning. I had figured that this day would be easier than Ruby Benchmark, but it ended up being about as challenging, due in part to the route I chose, which was not the most direct. Table is a spectacular mountain, as the pictures below show. It can be seen from Butte, but is mostly covered by Red Mountain. From the south, however, it completely dominates the views of the Highlands. 

After summiting Table, we were back to the car by 2.30 pm, and so we had the time to hit Renova Hot Springs, on the Jeffereson River near Whitehall, before heading into Butte. It was the first time that I'd been to Renova, and I now hope to make it a semi-regular stop.

Pictures from both trips are below:

Getting ready: we went up the Laurin Canyon (right) and came down Pourier Canyon (left)

Lower meadows

We dropped our packs and headed over to Laurin Peak

Near the summit of Laurin. Ruby Benchmark is under clouds in the background.

Pudge on Laurin

On the way to Ruby Benchmark.

Kevin walking the summit ridge.

Getting close.

summit shot

summit shot looking into the Beaverhead Valley

Next day, before we hit snow on the way to Table.

On the summit ridge. Pioneer Range in the background.

Leaving treeline.

Kevin on the final push to the summit.
Pudge summit shot. 

The clouds broke on our descent.

Lower still, it got downright sunny. 

Table Mountain

Hells Canyon Cabin.
Table Mountain from Hells Canyon Road.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Morrell Mountain and Lookout, Swan Range

Pudge and the Missions (left), Swan (middle), and Bob Marshall (right).
I've spent little time in the Swan Range, though I have plans for that to change, as it's gorgeous and close to Missoula. Seeley Lake, where the Swan Range begins, is similar in distance from Missoula as Hamilton, so accessing the Swan requires about as long of a drive as the central and southern Bitterroot. I can look out over my remaining active years and know that the great ranges of the Missoula area (the Bitterroot, Mission, and Swan) will keep me occupied.

Recently, I took the dog up to Morrell Lookout and beyond to Morrell Mountain. In summer, you can drive to the lookout, from which Morrell Mountain is another mile or so. The peaks of the southern Swan Front seem close enough to touch, and the views into the Bob Marshall must be some of the best anywhere: you can see all the way into the South Fork of the Flathead drainage and beyond to the summits of the Rocky Mountain Front. 

On this day, I drove to a drift about one mile from the lookout, so the outing (at 5 miles round trip) was one of the more mellow of the year, and I was back in town by 2pm.  
Looking southwest from Morrell Mountain.
Morrell Lookout
Looking south at Morrell Lookout from Morrell Mountain.
The Swan and Bob Marshall -- South Fork of the Flathead in the distance.