Keep me out of the bow if there's paddling to be done. I think that's the lesson here.
This past weekend was Trout Camp.
It's an annual gathering, the first weekend in May, in the driftless region of SW Wisconsin. And yes, although temperatures routinely get below freezing at night, and my traditional Saturday swim is a cold one, this trip is the one that officially kicks off summer in my mind. So here we go.
I spent the last few days alone in the woods.
I was camping on a rise of conifers in northern Wisconsin, a spot I discovered years ago while grouse hunting. It's an area I call the Cathedral. I borrowed the name from one of my favorite writers, Gordon MacQuarrie. He called a rise of conifers that he discovered in northern Wisconsin while grouse hunting the same.
If you're making your way by foot this time of year, snowshoes are required. As are a good amount of resolve and a layering system that allows for the quick ditching of clothes. Put simply, pulling a sled through heavily crusted snow is a bitch. The progress I made was largely thanks to increments and incentives of my own invention: Counting my steps in groups of 17, for example, seemed to speed things along, as did "Make it to that next birch tree, Johnny, and it's Snickers bars for everybody!"
Well, I made it to that next birch tree. And the one after that. And so on. Until finally it was time to turn off-trail and push through a rolling pincushion of sled-snagging maples. Eventually, they gave way to the rise of fir and balsam and pine. To borrow again from MacQuarrie, the Cathedral took me in.
Camp sets up quickly in the winter; meaning your tent, your situation, your supplies. For the first few hours, anyway, there's little time for dicking around. Stomp out a spot for the tent, get it up, get your gear inside. You do it as quickly as you can so you can move on to a more important matter: the business of fire. Although actually, the busy-ness of fire might be a more accurate description.
They say you should gather three times more wood than you think you'll need before striking a spark. I say that's cutting it close. I collected some dry birch and cedar bark from fallen trees on the trek in, so getting the fire started wasn't a concern. But man, keeping it fed! A new fire, especially in the winter, is a hungry fire.
Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
But eventually. Eventually. You'll find yourself with a good bed of coals. You'll have dried your gloves. You'll have a pile of wood and a place to sit and a single bottle of Dogfish Head 90-minute IPA that you sledded in, weight be damned.
On the edge of the fire's glow, you'll see your tent protecting the barest of necessities: a tiny camp stove, tomorrow's breakfast, an embarrassment of goose down. You have tropicalia music that you'll play through your phone speaker at dawn like a transistor radio. You have a candle lantern and a bag of jerky and the solitude of the outdoors.
Everything you have with you has a purpose. Everything earned its spot on the sled.
As we move into a new year, I'm hoping to carry that mindset forward. I don't need more things – I just need the right things. I don't need more undertakings, more accomplishments, more checks added to my list – I just need the right ones.
Taking a look over my shoulder, I've come to realize that I've been pulling an unnecessarily clumsy load. It's time to tip the sled and start over. It's time to think in terms of fewer, but righter, things.
Happy New Year everyone.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present our camp facilities.
Passed down from generation to generation.
But the tube socks get replaced every seven years whether they need it or not.
You never know what you'll find on the river. Although details are hazy, on July 18th, 2014, I evidently found this little fella.
So let's see here. It's Sunday morning. What should I write about?
Maybe something about the first day of Day Light Saving time? Or the freakishly warm weather? How about some thoughts on my country's vulgar decent into the meanest, basest aberrations of human instinct?
No wait! Bandanas!
I really like bandanas, you see. While I've never "collected" them, I realized the other day that I ended up with a stack of 'em anyway. Most of them I've acquired randomly over the years, going back to high school. Others have a very distinctly remembered provenance: the shop in Hillsborough, Carriacou, for example, stacked to the rafters with boxes of cheap electronics and sarongs... the lilt of the shopkeeper's voice as he took my $4 EC... the stiffness of the new brown fabric as I rolled it and tied it around my head... wearing it fishing the next day...
I've been tying on a lot of bandanas lately due to my burgeoning yoga habit. Per tradition, the yoga room is kept at a comfortable 247 degrees. Since I misplaced my prized 1977 Harlem Globetrotters headband, I've taken to the bandana instead. I tie it on every morning, nervously, like Christopher Walken in the russian roulette scene from The Deer Hunter.
But there are lots of reasons for owning an unreasonable number of bandanas. A few for consideration:
- Looking awesome. Tupac and the dude from Loverboy can't be wrong! Axl is also a noted bandana enthusiast. But Axl can be wrong.
- Sun protection. Over the head, do-rag style. Over your face Buff/cowboy style. Or hanging out the back of a hat – all the protection of one of those sun-flap hats without the embarrassment of wearing one of those sun-flap hats.
- Bug protection. I'd much rather spray down a bandana with bug spray and tie it around my neck than spray down my neck. Especially if I'm going to be in a sleeping bag later.
- Water filter protection. A bandana won't make unsafe water safe. But it'll let you filter out the bigger crud before you run it through a proper filter.
- Tied to a cord with a rock inside, to throw the cord up over a limb (when hanging tarps, bear bags, convivial piñatas)
- As a makeshift tie down, strap, guy line.
- As a "container" when collecting berries and nuts (or whimsical pebbles and twigs for your new etsy craft shop).
- For first aid: tourniquet, wound coverage, eyepatch, other gnarly shit.
- Tied to a stick to carry all your possessions when you finally say "screw this" and change your name to Utah Bindle Bill and live out the rest of your life happily riding the rails.
And don't worry, I didn't leave you hanging. I know you want some Loverboy right now. You can check out the video here. They did it with a silly skit in front. The cowbell (and the rawk!) kicks off at 2:22.
When is the last time you took a trip that was entirely for you? A trip that wasn't about the people you were traveling with, nor the people you were traveling to see? A trip with no agenda except your own?
I just got back from exactly such a trip. And holy shit.
Before I get started let me say that I generally don't have anything against other people. It's just that they're not always my cup of tea. To be clear: I love my family. I love my friends. I love the people I work with. I'm the luckiest bastard in the world. I know this. But sometimes it's just... you know?
That's where I was back in August when I booked this trip to St. Croix. I needed some time alone.
Over the course of this year, I'd been feeling a growing need for Less. Less constraints. Less time commitments. Less of those goddamn ICS meeting invite chips people keep sending me which basically say "I didn't get a chance to pee on your granola bar this morning, so instead I'm sending you this unrequested obligation."
What I needed was a good long meander. With the emphasis on "me."
As the departure date neared, my basement became a staging area where I'd determine what to pack and what to leave behind. I decided that the aesthetics of this trip were important: I'd be taking a minimalist approach. A one-man tent. Very basic camping, fishing and diving gear. Just two t-shirts: green and grey. Two swimsuits: grey and green. A bluetooth speaker. A book. A ukulele.
Just as important were the things I decided to leave behind. No laptop. No extra clothes for "a nice dinner." No schedule of events or list of things to see.
None of these decisions required second opinion or sign off. They were entirely my own, as were any repercussions. This realization felt so freeing. Down in my basement with King Tubby blaring, it seemed like some kind of transformation was already underway.
One of the huge upsides of traveling alone, to my way of thinking, is that you can be exactly who you truly are. Or exactly who you'd like to be. You're free to try on enhanced or entirely different versions of yourself and nobody is the wiser. My enhanced version of me? It's a guy that's unencumbered (mentally, physically, and spiritually) and entirely engaged in every moment.
I know I can hit those notes on occasion at home. We all can. But in St. Croix, I was going for the long sustain. In a place I knew very little about. I basically created a situation where I'd be forced to leave my natural introvertedness behind – down in the basement with all those unnecessary pairs of underwear.
Well, I hit the ground running in STX. My first night in Christiansted (the only hotel stay of the trip), I was hellbent on talking to as many people as possible. I continued my course while camping and diving around Fredriksted and Cane Bay. This, I realize, is a weird thing for a guy to do who consciously decided to visit an island during the off-season to live in a one-man tent. But conversations lead to connections. And connections make the difference between observing a place and engaging with it.
This approach, combined with an open-ended agenda, meant that I got to know more people on this trip than I would in several months back home. All kinds too: Locals, expats, and wanderers. Hanging-outters and hangers-on. It wasn't long before I ran into people I knew almost everywhere I went. They would introduce me to their friends and their favorite haunts. We'd share drinks, dive sites, and hazy late-night hijinks.
This rarely happens when traveling with others. Why? Conversations are easier with old friends. When we travel with others we eat huddled around tables (instead of out in the open at the bar as God intended). We move in clusters like middle schoolers. We have plans and other places to be.
If you want to go fast, says the African proverb, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. Well, I couldn't agree more. For this trip though, I wasn't looking for fast. I wasn't looking for far either. In fact, those are the exact kind of measurements I was looking to avoid. I knew I'd have plenty of fast and far waiting for me when I got home.
What I was really looking for was freedom. Freedom to seek. Freedom to see. Freedom to make a fried egg sandwich over an open fire while shittily playing a ukulele naked at dawn.
If you're interested in the same, or your version of it...
I'd definitely suggest going alone.
I'm going to be on an island in a tent in the rain for a while.
I'm putting things on hold here until my triumphant return (aka mid-November). In the meantime, check Bring Limes on insta if you're so inclined! I'll be posting there while I'm away.
Back in August, the tunnel I was in really needed a light at the end of it.
Work was kind of crazy, as work is on occasion, and I could feel what was left of summer making plans without me.
Over the years, I've come to realize that August is my favorite month. It's when I finally figure out summer is winding down and, damn it, if I'm going to do all the sunsplashy things I planned to do, I better get cracking. As a result, I cram more good stuff into August than the rest of the summer put together. More time on/under/alongside water specifically.
To my rickety way of thinking, summer is like one those big hurricane glass/test tube concoctions you get on Bourbon Street. Bright AF and it looks like it'll take forever to finish. But son of a bitch. Before you know it the first two-thirds is gone! Just when you're starting to think you've been had, however, you get to the last part. The fattest and bestest part. You know the big round bottom section that holds the majority of your sugary schlocktail? That's August. It's a gloriously bulbous glug of a month.
But this year, August didn't work out that way. It wasn't that my glass was half-full. Or half-empty. The entire thing was just freaking gone. The upcoming Fall was looking to be M.I.A. as well. (Meaning: It was looking to be Missing In Action. It wasn't looking like the Sri Lankan singer of Paper Planes. I'd have been quite okay with that.)
I was contemplating all this one night at my desk when, right around 2:45am, an e-mail arrived from Orbitz.
Subject line: Great Deals Now! St. Croix $383!
Holy uncannily timed spam, Batman! To the google machine!
They got camping in St. Croix? Yup. Diving? Yup. Fishing? Yup. Rum? Yup. Double check on rum? Yup.
This trip is planned!
I wasn't actively planning a getaway at the time. Since then, though, I've been watching flights closer and there are some ridiculous deals out there. I'd suggest you go spend an hour on KAYAK. Snoop around. Set a few price alerts, random or otherwise. Maybe something works out, maybe it doesn't.
Either way, it feels good having a few balls in play.
Everybody's tunnel could use a little light at the end.
With Labor Day behind us, my head shifts to camping (car camping, backpacking, float trips, whatever ya got). That's because camping, while an entirely reasonable summer activity, is an entirely kick ass fall activity.
If this video doesn't make you wanna get out there, I don't know what will. Just the sights, sounds and sweetness of camping with no extra filler added nor required.
It's from Hipcamp which is an Airbnb-style concept for finding and reserving campsites. Although I haven't used it yet, the site looks solid. And this video, to me anyway, is damn near perfect.