Goodbye, Hayden Kennedy

Mountain singe (All rights reserved)

On October 10th, while getting up to speed on a brand-new job, in a new area, and remodeling an old house after 15 years of living and working in Washington, DC, I got a text message from my friend Jason in Alberta who needed to reach out to someone. He wrote “…such devastating news.” After a hasty Internet search, I was nauseous over the news of separate deaths of Inge Perkins and Hayden Kennedy.

I had just read his essay The Day We Sent Progression on Andrew Bisharat’s Evening Sends. I set aside time to read it, when the kids weren’t running around, I wasn’t lost in work or chores getting our lives in our new home in order. It involved Kyle Dempster and Justin Griffin. Two more climbers that died too young. Hayden even acknowledged such in the essay, and now Chris Kalous is all that is left of that group.

Hayden’s father, Micheal, is one of America’s greatest climbers and he’s a talented writer. He also lead Alpinist Magazine for a period while it got itself back on good financial standing. In 2012, after Hayden and his climbing partner Jason Kruk knocked the ladder off of Cerro Torre’s Compressor Route, Michael wrote a public letter to Hayden. There, in the pages of Alpinist, an old man admired his son and shared his angst over being the father of a climber like Hayden. While Hayden wrote many great essays and articles, I think that letter from Michael is what is required reading in reflecting on Hayden’s wonderful, yet all-too-short life.

Hayden left his mark on the climbing world. I’m sorry he had to go and I send warm thoughts and prayers to Michael and his mother and the Perkins family.

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An Open Letter to Secretary Zinke on Bears Ears National Monument

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World class crack climbing (All rights reserved)

This Friday, May 26, 2017, is the deadline for public comments to Secretary Ryan Zinke about the Trump Administration’s notice in the Federal Register on reviewing Bears Ears National Monument. I genuinely believe that the current size and boundaries are at severe risk of being significantly reduced, if it isn’t rescinded (read eliminated) altogether, and the boots-on-the-ground lobbyists I know are saying that the quantity and quality of input during this comment period, for Bears Ears through Friday and all other National Monuments through July 10, 2017, could turn the tide. 

I submitted my personal comments about Bears Ears earlier today in an open letter. This letter is far from my best work, but I wanted to share this today in hopes you might submit your own and add to the volume of comments in support of Bears Ears and public lands in general.

 

May 22, 2017

 

The Honorable Ryan Zinke

Secretary

Department of the Interior

1849 C Street, N.W.

Washington, DC 20240

 

Dear Secretary Zinke:

Thank you for your recent visit to Southern Utah and the opportunity for me to provide input on your notice published in the Federal Register on May 11, 2017 regarding the “Review of Certain National Monuments Established Since 1996.” I will focus my comments on Bears Ears National Monument (BENM). I understand that you can’t possibly read every letter personally, but I hope this one is selected to be a sample for you to review.

I have spent nearly 20 years working in real estate and public policy and have always been passionate about conservation, climbing, and hiking. However, my interest in Southern Utah has swung dramatically from adamant disinterest to a kindling passion. I had long thought of the deserts of the southwest as useless land and perhaps only suitable for providing resources to support the needs of construction and other materials in towns and cities. I also thought it was less useful than the forests, like those in my native home of Upstate New York. However, a business trip brought me to the American southwest and changed my whole perspective. I took in the space, the breeze, the solitude, and the colors and realized this land wasn’t a blank on the map but someplace special. My eyes were opened, and shortly afterwards Utah in particular took on new interest; I learned that the land of Southern Utah was more ecologically diverse than the even the Adirondack Mountains where I loved to hike and climb; in fact, it was more diverse than all of Yellowstone National Park. And the history of the people was richer, and deeper than even the Iroquois. While the Iroquois largely avoided entering the Adirondacks, the area around southeastern Utah, was in and of itself, was not a destination, rather an important place. I suspect that your visit to Southern Utah had a powerful and transforming effect on you.

As you know, perhaps better than me, the Antiquities Act of 1906 was created in order to protect objects of historic and scientific interest. Since the law’s enactment, presidents have named well-over 100 National Monuments, some of which have gone on to be National Parks. I believe that the 1.3 million-acres of BENM is quite worthy of its designation for various reasons. The region around BENM holds a significant quantity of preserved and intact Native American structures and artifacts. In addition, BENM is one of the most admired outdoor recreation destinations in the U.S. Its landscape has a deep impact on those who spend time there rock climbing, mountain biking, paddling, hiking, hunting, fishing, and canyoneering. In fact, the rock climbing is truly world-class and annually attracts tens of thousands of visitors from around the world to climb at Indian Creek, Valley of the Gods, and many other walls throughout the monument.

A friend and well-known economist at a real estate finance trade association once discussed with me why communities choose affordable housing versus developing a shopping and business center, and the lesson applies to all kinds of land use. He said that land ought to always be used for its highest economic value; in the Midwest that mostly means using it for farming; on the other hand, in Manhattan, this means using land for mixed-use high rises. Except in Manhattan, there is the anomaly Central Park. He went on to explain that communities must decide what else is a worthy use, and thereby valuable purpose. This applies to affordable housing, farmland, and even how the land is zoned, managed, and controlled, as is the case with National Monuments; in the case of BENM, there is no replacing it.

The region in and around BENM holds 100,000 archaeological sites of preserved and intact Native American structures and artifacts. Unfortunately, these artifacts have been not been treated with due respect, and the protections that come with the designation of a National Monument comes too late as local Utahans, including local officials, have looted the sites. At the same time, local officials complain of perceiving a dominant federal government control. In fact, in 2014 San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman lead an ATV ride up Recapture Canyon, where off-roading was not permitted because of the antiquities throughout the region. (This region in particular, unfortunately, was not included in the final BENM proclamation.) He was jailed for his violation in 2015, yet was “honored” for his actions by being nominated “Commissioner of the Year.” For such abuses, and in the interest of reassuring public appreciation for the area’s cultural and historical roots alone, appears to be what the authority under the Antiquities Act was created to protect.

In addition, the vertical landscape itself is unique, and climbers like me want to ensure it’s protected for all of the reasons and mentioned as well as this: In his special-jury mentioned book at the 2001 Banff Mountain Book Festival, American Rock: Region, Rock, and Culture in American Climbing, Adirondack climbing guide and author Don Mellor wrote, “If there ever comes a time when all the routes are done, all the climbing areas on earth explored, climbed, and documented, Indian Creek [in BENM] will probably still top the list as crack-climbing Mecca to the world… Few places on earth have such parallel-sided, featureless cracks.” It’s also no wonder that in the declaration for BENM that rock climbing was specifically enumerated as a permitted recreational activity. I urge you to please preserve rock climbing as a permissible activity as well.

I believe BENM must never be shrunk nor repealed. In fact, BENM does not adequately cover the additional historical sites and recreational areas of Utah covering nearly 600,000 more acres. It is a remarkable wilderness landscape. Beyond the monument’s namesake twin buttes are world-renowned wilderness treasures like White Canyon, Indian Creek, and Comb Ridge. Myriad plant and animal species thrive in its varied habitats. And you’d be hard pressed to find the solitude provided by these areas elsewhere else in the lower 48.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

Sincerely,

Andrew Szalay

CC: Senator Mark Warner, Senator Tim Kaine, and Rep. Don Beyer

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Why Mountains Were Cool Before Climbers Climbed

The Retreat. (All rights reserved)

We’ve been told that prior to 1681, mankind thought of mountains as unpleasant boils on the surface of the earth or heaps, or at least some unsightly feature that we were likely to avoid or dismiss altogether. We’ve been told that after 1681, opinions began to shift. This was when Thomas Burnet published The Sacred Theory of the Earth, which we’ve been told that this was the moment when mankind began looking at mountains not as inconvenient land on which to farm but as clues to earth’s past. If something in you rebelled at the thought, because something in believed mountains have always been beautiful, then I have something to tell you.

During Christmas break I reread Robert MacFarlane’s landmark and mesmerizing book Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit (2003). MacFarlane brought our generation’s attention to the shift initiated by Burnet through this book. My wife noticed that I had underlined passages and had notes throughout in ink. I was rightly chastised. My only defense was that this was how I took notes in college to help me write papers; I didn’t need to copy every line and make a citation, it was just here. She did make me feel a bit guilty, though I could find key passages with ease.

On the last page, I found a note I wrote after reading it the first time. It was a mild dissent, though without any concrete foundation. MacFarlane’s thesis was that how we experience mountains is all in out imagination. I agree, even today, that how we perceive nature is driven by how things are framed, but I didn’t share his conclusion entirely. I never bothered to try to prove it, but I felt like there were many examples of wildness (which mountains are a part) that were necessary components for finding enlightenment. I mean, think of all the times some character in the Bible went into the wilderness and saved whole populations of people… Moses, Abraham, Jesus, and even Paul to an extent. I even think Daniel would have climbed a mountain, except he was such a city kid; it’s all that he knew.

Mountains of the Mind

Robert MacFarlane’s book has been one of my favorites over the years. I regret that I didn’t read it sooner than I did, which was five or so years after it was initially published. MacFarlane tells the recent history of how mankind has looked at mountains and how our contemporary game of mountaineering and climbing has evolved under the lens of previous literature and adventurers. Here’s his thesis statement from the opening chapter:

This book tries to explain how this is possible; how a mountain can come to ‘possess’ a human being so utterly; how such an extraordinary force of attachment to what is, after all, just a mass of rock and ice, can be generated. For this reason, it is a history which scrutinizes not the ways people have gone into the mountains, but the ways that they have imagined they were going into them, how they felt about them and how they have perceived them… It isn’t a history of mountaineering at all, in fact, but a history of the imagination. (MacFarlane, 22-1)

Among retelling his own climbing stories, MacFarlane does a marvelous job at connecting the dots, starting at the end of his book where he recounts in pointillism-detail George Mallory’s intense obsession with Mount Everest (and there is no doubt that the great climber was obsessed, according to MacFarlane or most other researchers,) and tracing back through time contemplating how Europeans, and Britons in particular, viewed mountains. MacFarlane’s key juncture, where his book begins is with Thomas Burnet in the 1680s. While rudimentary, Burnet was the first to suggest how mountains came to be, which kicked-off a scientific look at the mountains. What followed was science, and romantic poets offered wondrous descriptions of the landscape spurred a movement in search of the sublime.

Fundamental to MacFarlane’s view, and retelling of Burnett’s view, is that the mountain landscapes were unwanted tracts of land to be avoided and ignored. A later view offers clues to a conspiracy theory. And we’re all victims.

Mountain Gloom that Wasn’t

Thanks to Alpinist, I discovered Dawn L. Hollis, a graduate student at the University at St. Andrew’s. She contributed to issue 57 in spring 2017. And she’s offered a few reasons why our belief that Burnett was a visionary was wrong.

In the Wired column, Hollis wrote a piece titled “Rethinking Mountain Gloom.” She said that three years ago she gave a speech to the Alpine Club (the original one from Briton,) “to put forth an alternative story — a narrative of mountains that were full of activity and written of in terms of the deepest admiration — long before the development of modern mountaineering.” And this included long before the pivot around 1681.

Hollis demonstrates that there was actually some disagreement around Burnet’s dismal characterization of mountains. Herbert Croft, an aged Bishop, countered Burnet that mountains were great, which Hollis quotes. Others also dissented, and Hollis concluded:

Burnet was an unusual early modern figure… but not because he occasionally found mountains to be wonderful. Rather, he was strange precisely because he shuddered at them, and suggested that they were not God-given.

The article is well worth seeking out and paying full price for a back-copy if necessary, particularly as she goes back deeper in time to uncover numerous examples of praise and adoration of mountains from literature to art.

Hollis goes on to explain that there appears to have been a sort of cover-up, or revisionist take that used Burnet’s view to promote the value and significance of mountaineering. Through the Alpine Journal, members entered their historic ascents and presented perspective, through a revisionist lens to deliberately cast pre-mountaineering activities in the mountains as antiquity and unenlightened, essentially. More interestingly, Hollis demonstrates evidence that successive writers were influenced by these subtleties and followed suit, perpetuating the myth.

I wish we could take a second crack at MacFarlane’s take. Perhaps we’d have to reach back farther than Burnet’s work to make it complete. The story is still true, but as Hollis showed, there’s more to the story.

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10 Ways I Cope with the Big City

City living. (All rights reserved)

I once tried to leave Washington, DC, uproot my family, change jobs, and settle permanently among the Green Mountains of Vermont. Ultimately, I called off the effort and decided to stay (at least for the time being,) and I can happily report that I am at peace about it. I talked about this experience in June as part of my post How Your Mountain Dreams Might Be a Trap, and it spurred a lot of comments and a few direct messages.

The biggest question was how did I make peace? Well, after a lot of introspection, I identified some things that work for me almost like therapy. Coincidentally, it came to 10 things. The list could have been eight or nine, but without trying it’s 10. However, there are two things about my situation that might give them a little more context…

City’s Wilderness

When I was younger, my Uncle Tom brought me on adventures hiking and climbing in the Adirondacks. Those trips make up many of my formative experiences. When he passed away from cancer, too young, shortly after I moved to Washington, I lost the only person I knew who understood wilderness from experience. I moved to Washington for my career, and for the first 10 years, while I was fulfilled in my job (and still am,) I felt lonely except for my wife and work colleagues. Nobody I knew shared my interest in the outdoors like I did with my uncle.

During that time, I was frustrated by what most people I met thought of when they thought of outdoor recreation. In fact, saying you love the outdoors or mountains means a lot of different things to different people:

  • Camping. When I say I love camping someone might want a road-side camp involving a stereo, cooler, charcoal grill, and a big motorboat. I want the backcountry with quiet, a small stove, and having walked in.
  • Trails. When I say I love trails someone might want to be on an ATV or dirt bike. I love trails for walking in the backcountry free from motor vehicles, and sometimes free from mountain bikes and horses too.
  • 4WD. When I say I love my four-wheel-drive vehicle someone might mean that they love off-roading, mudding, and driving for thrills across big, open landscapes. I mean that I love my Subaru and that it gets me through the snow to ski country and down dirt roads to the trailhead, and once it gets me to the big open area, I prefer human-powered activities like hiking, climbing, kayaking, cycling, and so forth.

So just like in Upstate New York, there were a lot of people around me that didn’t share my values or experiences. Without making city living an “us against them” game, which I was doing, I had to be blunt with myself about what I valued. I think, fundamentally, this is why I have always identified more with climbers than someone who calls himself or herself a hiker. When I did find people of similar interests and values for the outdoors, they were typically climbers with a naturalist bent. And most climbers on social media and the events that I have made friends with typically are.

Since I realized this, I worry about millennials that came to climbing through a gym and have none or little background in respect for climbing outside, but that’s a conversation for another time.

Access issues outside Nat Geo HQ.

Access issues outside Nat Geo HQ.

Who are You Without Climbing?

In Alpinist 54, Hayden Kennedy shared in his article”Light Before Wisdom,” how climbing and climbing-success consumed him, and after an injury, he was forced to face a question similar to mine: “Who am I without climbing?” He came to realize that there was more to alpinism than climbing.

Adam Campbell, an Arc’teryx ultra-marathoner, lawyer and reader, helped illuminate this idea a little more. He wrote an essay in the 2015-16 fall-winter issue of Arc’teryx’s Lithographica publication titled, “The Passionate Divide”.  I shared the importance of this to me back in April:

Campbell loved three things: running, legal challenges, and reading. They are his passions and while he considers himself fortunate, as many people don’t have even one passion, he is simultaneously cursed by having more than one. His ambition made him want to do well at both. Except improving at one meant sacrificing time that could be used to improve on the other.

Campbell talks about the quest so many people talk about everywhere: elusive work-life balance. Natalie has learned, and sometimes reminds me that balance doesn’t mean 50-50; balance can be 70-30 if it makes sense and you accept it. She’s right. But I haven’t figured out what the right arrangement is either.

The conflicts Campbell faced broke up his marriage and ended his time at the law firm where he worked at the time. And he stopped racing. He worked to find his motivation again. Then he realized that the idea of balance is all wrong — which is more to Natalie’s point to me. Campbell wrote, “balance means that two things are in opposition with one another; they are counterweights with nothing in common.” But we both know that isn’t true. Campbell’s passions are part of his whole. My passions are part of me combined. As Campbell also wrote, “Integration was the path to less internal conflict… Be gone guilt.”

For me, separating my career in Washington from my love for the outdoors and mountains, I realized was a problem. I could be in one place and love the other. Because I did and that was the truth about me. If that doesn’t quite make sense, I had to mull over this notion for months until I even started to put it into practice. But the guilt (or frustration with myself) is nearly gone now.

Escape route. (All rights reserved)

Escape route. (All rights reserved)

10 Ways to Cope in the Big City

For those of us in a densely populated urban area, some interests and hobbies are more easily fostered than others. Baseball, like all pro sports, for instance is easier to come by. It’s broadcast half the year, ballparks are almost everywhere and people of all ages can participate, even if it’s just softball. While on the other hand, a passion for mountain life must be conjured-up and summoned in different ways.

These are the things that I have learned to practice that help me cope with my unsettled need for the mountains and outdoors.

  1. Gyms. Embrace indoor rock climbing. I’ve always climbed indoors, but I never really embraced it as legitimate climbing and a place to enjoy. The gyms are almost everywhere these days. There you can go and keep practicing your footwork and knots with purpose. Once I got over being the old guy at the gym that boulders alone, I started visiting regularly and loving it. As a general principle, the act of climbing (hiking or whatever) is more important than reading and discussing it.
  2. Visit. Visit isn’t actually the right word; rather make pilgrimages to the mountains and treat them as such. Keep the time special and disengage. Really disengage. Even if it’s only once a year.
  3. Sanctity. Have some sacred things. For me it’s a fleece pullover, my boots, and my tin camp mug. They only come out when we go outdoors, even if it’s just Cactoctin Mountain.
  4. Reminders. Buy souvenirs when you’re at the places you love. They’re only tacky in the shop. When you get home, people see that hat or mug from your destination and strike up a conversation and boom: You’re talking about your trip.
  5. Subscribe. Subscribe to your favorite climbing magazine. For me, it’s Alpinist. Having something fresh arrive in my mailbox periodically about climbing awakens my senses, at least in my daydreams after reading.
  6. Clubs. Join the American Alpine Club, Access Fund, and whatever local conservation group is in your area. Then show up to the local meetings or special events when they come through.
  7. Advocate. I do advocacy and government affairs for a living, but my favorite work is when I am volunteering to support the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Alaska Wilderness League, or responding to whatever call-to-action the Access Fund or Patagonia sounds. Speak up for what you care about, even if you’re just signing a petition or persuading a friend (without fighting) to change their position.
  8. Gear. I don’t mean getting new gear. New gear without being put to action empties the wallet and doesn’t fill the void in your heart. I used to buy gear and gizmos (I have a backpack fetish, it seems) to fill the void of actually going outside and playing. So resisting buying things I don’t need was important to put money into the gym and the pilgrimages. In the end, I got way better value.
  9. Read. I have always been reading climbing books, from classics by Dave Roberts, to long forgotten like books by John Long. Reading books nominated for the Boardman Tasker Price for Mountain Literature or Banff Mountain Book Competition never disappoint either. You have to be careful when you get jealous over the subject’s dedication to the climbing or vegabond life sometimes. If that happens, take a break and look at yourself as a whole again.
  10. Wheels. If you can, drive a car that suits you. A Jeep, a Subaru, a Mitsubishi, or (gulp) a Land Rover. Natalie, the kids, and I love our Subaru
    Working for Banff on the subway.

    Working for Banff on the subway.

    and it’s our getaway car for reaching quiet places where we can skip stones. Just don’t cover your new ride with stickers if you’re over 30. And if you’re not living in it, which I’m guessing you’re not. Save those stickers for your laptop.

If all else fails, move to the mountains. Get the support of your loved ones. Transfer the job or find a new job. If it doesn’t work, then you tried. I tried; the timing wasn’t right, and I’m more at peace for trying so damn hard.

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Inside the Real Fight Over Bears Ears

Straight lines. (All rights reserved)

Once, only vertical columns of ice and knife-edge alpine ridges enraptured me. Then a brief visit to the American southwest started to change that. Soon after, photos of the crack climbs around Indian Creek grabbed my attention.

It has also been impossible for me to ignore the pleas for us to write President Obama to create a new national monument around the Cedar Mesa Plateau, roughly where Indian Creek is tucked away: Bears Ears National Monument. This proposal comes from an Inter-Tribal Coalition in Utah, and conservationists from across the U.S., including the Sierra Club, Access Fund and the American Alpine Club, among many others, have supported. I recently sent my own note to the President and I joined another organization, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, to support the ongoing advocacy efforts. Here’s why:

Game of Tug-of-War

The future of climbing in Indian Creek is now in the midst of a political game of tug-of-war. U.S. Representative Rob Bishop of Utah is proposing a bill that, among other things, would preclude any executive order by a president to name any further national monuments in Utah. He points out that the whole Utah Congressional delegation opposes the Inter-Tribal Coalition’s proposal.

That last point is important, because, as I know from my days as a Congressional aide, the President is well aware that he should not take action affecting a particular state without support from the state’s elected representatives. If Obama uses his executive authority and designates Bears Ears National Monument without due process, without input broader than the Congressional delegation, then Obama’s actions could be contested, overridden, and ridiculed as poor governing.

Bishop has cleverly complicated efforts by introducing legislation that involves how federal public land in Utah would be managed in the future. (An updated version of his “Utah Public Lands Initiative” bill comes out today.) So long as this proposal is under discussion, the President has to tread extra-carefully; Congress has the power of oversight, spending, and authorizing. And most of Congress is staying on the sidelines, for the most part, in order to leave Utah’s delegation to have its say about its home turf. In addition to prohibit designating a new national monument, the bill alleges to “balance” industrial development and conservation efforts, but in reality it conserves new land in Northern Utah, not the canyon county in the south of the Cedar Mesa Plateau.

Key Moment

This is why a meeting on Saturday, July 16th at 1:00 p.m. PT in Bluff, Utah is so important. The Obama administration has called a public meeting to hear input from the region on whether there is sufficient public support for Bears Ears National Monument. It’s a critical test, if not just more input, for whether Obama can and should use his executive authority. Or is there enough input to render the Bishop PLI bill dead in committee (a harder thing to do.)

As a lobbyist with a large national nonprofit, I recently attended a similar public meeting, on a different subject (payday lending), in Kansas City in June. But the reasons for the meeting were similar. It was about the Obama administration wanting to take action it felt was shared popularly by the public, but opposed by Members of Congress. The meeting documented the statements from ordinary people and people with a direct stake on the topic on both sides of the issue. The forum also generated press, which made people speak up and take sides. It was a critical moment to drive and expose public interest and support for where it genuinely lies.

From my perspective in DC, this is the highest profile public lands fight right now. And it has ramifications for other proposals, like turning back larger swaths of federal public land in multiple states back to state government control that could turn it over to industry for resource extraction, rather than the recreational and conservation purposes Americans from coast-to-coast rely on.

There will be more key moments in the effort to make Bears Ears National Monument, but this is the time to either show up and speak in Bluff (RSVP here), even if just to say you support the Inter-Tribal Coalition’s proposal, or write to President Obama by clicking here. And join the Access Fund, American Alpine Club, and/or Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, because the work won’t end here.

Speak up for Indian Creek, Bears Ears National Monument, and conservation, because there is more at stake than just Bears Ears.

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How Your Mountain Dreams Might be a Trap

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Suburban sprawl. (All rights reserved)

Death from a climbing or skiing accident is hard to swallow. Suicide, by anyone, let alone a climber or skier, is more difficult because, well, it wasn’t an accident.

Which made Kelley McMillan’s piece in National Geographic’s Adventure Blog, “Why Are Ski Towns Seeing More Suicides?“, alarming. The piece is focused on the ski towns, yet the data presented didn’t demonstrate that it was unusually higher in those communities than others, but I agree that the suicides were higher profile anecdotally. And it had an extra dose of being unsettling: How could people in paradise, living the dream, want to end it all? Was paradise killing us?

North to Vermont

My whole life I have wanted three things: A family, to be involved in politics and policy, and playtime in the mountains. With the first two down, several years ago I committed myself to make a big change.

With every ounce of my being, shortly after Natalie and I had our first child, I tried to relocate us up north to the land of mountains and snow. I dreamed of snowy days like in a Patagonia catalog where my kids and I would cross country ski after I finished work, and where chopping fire wood would be my favorite chore.

I networked like mad from our home in the Washington, DC metro area for eight months and traveled to Montpelier and Burlington to do informational interviews with Vermont housing organizations, the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, and some mortgage companies. I even submitted applications to Ben and Jerry’s parent company and Green Mountain Coffee.

I began to have back pain that came only in the night. I would sleep for a few hours and had to sit up, or better yet, stand up. Even being up at 2:00 a.m. with Wunderkind, feeding a bottle, brought pain relief, but then I suffered from sleeplessness.

I had X-rays. I went to physical therapy. I thought the pain was from not being strong enough. I though it was from the stress of being a new father. If the job hunt was the cause, it never occurred to me. I got interviews for open positions. It excited me; I felt that I was in control.

But during the last day of my “informational interview tour,” I literally made a wrong turn. I saw some neighborhoods with some young Vermonters and they didn’t look happy. They didn’t look like skiers or even boarders. They were in a different Vermont, where it was cold, and dreary, and the urban music scene they craved didn’t exist.

Days later I quit my job hunt. I knew I could call Vermont home, but would my kids find it as fulfilling? I didn’t want to test it now. Hardly noticing, my back pain faded away, at first, inexplicably.

We Want a Change

I still think that regularly ice climbing in Smugglers Notch or hiking sections of Long Trail would make me happy. Not to mention stopping in at the Alchemist in Waterbury for a Heady Topper whenever it was freshest; it sounded too good to be true. Yet I’ve recommitted myself to the Washington metro area — and I’m good with that for now.

While I love the things I go to Vermont to visit, the reality of the day-to-day might be different than I imagine. The job market is weak, and even then I know people move to the state and buy a house near their job in one neighborhood only to change jobs and be forced to commute an hour one-way. And what would the length of winter and mud-season do for my family being inside more; would we really play outside as often as I think we would? Would we feel cabin fever?

Vermont’s suicides have risen in the last two years. In fact, the suicide rate has risen to a 30-year high, and it is the leading cause of death for young Vermonters (among those aged 10-24).

Since settling on — or, perhaps better put, re-committing to — Washington, DC, I’ve been diligently accepting it as home. It has taken some work; I had to embrace the humidity of summer (baseball games help). And I finally think of the subway as a luxury. I also started planning more regular getaways to New England despite the long-haul drive up north.

My family and I might, one day, still move to the mountains. If we do, it will be because of the mountains are the “bonus” to so many other things that we want, including good schools, an affordable home, steady income, and healthy lifestyle options for all of us. For now, I’m working on making it work here in and around the big city and visiting the mountains in almost sacred pilgrimages during breaks spread out in between.

While we might want a change, the change of surroundings isn’t always what we need. Sometimes the change we need is all in our head.

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