Saturday, June 28, 2008

It ain’t rocket science

Since I got back from Scotland I’ve had walking kit spread all over my office—stuff I took, stuff I thought I might take but didn’t, and stuff that was near the stuff I either took or thought I might take but didn’t. The floor has been covered, the extra chair has been unsittable under a mound of stinky polypro and shredded ensolite, and the fax machine and copier have been walled off behind lofted pots, soft goods, and enough first aid supplies to equip a hospital emergency room...if hospital emergency rooms used bandages, fluids, and meds packaged during the 1970s.

This accretion had been pulled out of the file boxes, drawers, closets, random duffels, and trash bags I’d been stuffing things in for years, and it was sitting around loose in my office taunting me because I couldn’t bring myself to put it all back in the stupid places where it had come from.

Last week I went out and bought four 18-gallon (68-liter) plastic bins, organized kit by type or use, put each group in a Jumbo Hefty ziplock (2.5 gallons/9.5 liters), stuffed the Heftys into the bins...

...and realized this obvious solution wasn’t going to work. The problem has never really been putting this mess away. The solution to that is just a closed attic door away—out of sight, out of mind. The problem has always been putting things away so I could find what I need when I need it.

The answer, of course, is to give over one of those bins to items I always take. It’s not that I’ve never thought of this before. It’s just never worked all that well. I’d always be pulling clothes out to wear around town, or in a heavy rain, or when I needed an extra layer in the winter. This time, I decided simply to leave the clothes out, just as I leave out the sleeping bag and the food. I’m keeping a few real basics in the pack itself, most of the usual suspects in the bin, and the clothes either in the closet, the mudroom, or the dresser. This system will break down, too. But in the meantime, I’ll have a summer of easy packing and a relatively clear office. Brief joy, but joy all the same.

Yesterday’s start and stop tunes from the shuffle Shuffle: “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)”/“Cry Baby”. (Honky-Tonk Woman was in there somewhere, too. Isn’t Charlie Watts the best?)

Today: “Tracks of My Tears”/“I’ll Be There”.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


My old training diaries, full of now antique, frequently hilarious, and occasionally appalling obsessive detail on distance, time, effort, weather, weight, pulse, and mood, are peppered with occasional days marked simply, VS2. This was my common notation during recovery from an illness or a minor injury (or in one case a memorable celebratory binge), and it meant Very Short and Very Slow. Bookmark running. Show-the-flag running. Don’t-get-out-of-the-habit running.

I’m now engaged in some Get-back-in-the-habit running which, needless to say, is VS2. It’s also turning out to be unusually satisfying. I am definitely and definitively not training for anything, even some sort of creaking elderly “special mile.” I’m not trying to get faster or go farther. I’m just out fairly early in the morning gently moving around this rather pretty town.

A few years ago, the great Gerry Lindgren, not much older than me but a boyhood hero all the same, was quoted as saying something along the lines of “I have a four-minute brain and a seven-minute body,” and admitted he was always getting hurt. My brain never had to get used to four-minute miles, but like many aging runners I’ve suffered a milder version of the same syndrome (I think it actually has more to do with rhythm or leg turnover than speed per se). For now, though, VS2 is just fine, and as I wrote last time, I’m happy keeping track of tunes instead of times. Yesterday was girls’ name day: “Peggy Sue” and “Maybelline”. This morning, the Shuffle started with “Stand By Me” and finished me off with “Just One Look”. I’ll keep you posted on tunes. Times? Just figure VS.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Da Doo Run Run

Mildly chuffed am I. My first little shuffle since Scotland went all right. Just a couple of easy loops on a lovely morning, but the ankle felt good and everything else seems to work OK.

I’ve decided to try to stay casual about this by keeping track of iPod tunes instead of miles. I eschew jazz for my runs and load up the Shuffle with ’50s and ’60s stuff. This morning it decided to start me out with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and finished me off with “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” (I’m not sure what I’ll do on the morning it tries to rev me up with “Nowhere to Run.”)

I never noticed before how many good runners’ titles there are in my list, beginning, of course, with “Get Ready”: the atmospheric “Lonely Avenue”; the cocky “Come Go With Me”; the aspirational “Rip It Up“; the existential “Cry Cry Cry”; the supportive “Lean On Me”; the directive “Get up, Stand Up”; and the plaintive “Maybe”.

“Stagger Lee” would often fit me well, too.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Looking at my last post reminded me of a funny thing. I’d start that walk at the end of a dirt road within the township of Twin Mountain, New Hampshire. Many years ago, I was stopped for speeding on Route 3 in Twin Mountain, by a local policeman who was clearly on the lookout for “foreign” cars and had spotted my Connecticut license plates. He had to follow me for quite some time, because I slowed and pulled over to the side but kept rolling, assuming he needed to get by me to chase someone who had actually done something wrong. It took me long enough to realize I was his target that he was more than a little peeved when he strolled up to my window. I’ve actually been stopped three separate times in the Granite State (unironic motto: “Live Free or Die” — take that you Brits) by policemen who were—what shall we say?— enforcing the law in a selective manner. I love it up there all the same, and eventually may myself be living free until I’m pulled over at that final speed trap in the sky. (Living out Vermont’s calmer and more optimistic “Freedom and Unity” might be a little less stressful.)

[Time out: Connecticut’s motto, “Qui Transtulit Sustinet”— “He Who Transplanted Still Sustains” seems like a suspiciously unpatriotic reference to Britishness and what those vile dogs of Tories called “the freedoms of Englishmen.” However, a 19th century worthy suggested instead that it comes from the 80th Psalm: “Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it.” Which, of course, is much better. There’s an episode in my town’s history of a minister in the 17th century walking out his back door, seeing an Indian “skulking” in some nearby bushes, and shooting him dead. What else would be the Christian thing to do if you were busy casting out the heathen so you could either Transplant or Sustain?]

Anyway, a year or two after this experience, I was at the funeral of the parent of an old friend, whose eldest brother had come down from St. Johnsbury, Vermont, for the service. As we were chatting, he stunned me by saying, “So, you were stopped for speeding in Twin Mountain a while back.” I, of course, replied, “How the hell could you know that?” Turns out that because St. Johnsbury is on the Vermont-New Hampshire border and there aren’t all that many people in Northern New England, its newspaper included the police blotters of even distant New Hampshire towns in its coverage. And as he said, “I didn’t think there could be more than one Mark Alvarez in this part of the world.” So I was busted. Twice.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Prospective loop

As I’ve written before, the trails in the White Mountains, where I do most of my walking, are mostly below treeline. They are also almost always clearly marked by blazes on trees or rocks. Route-finding is seldom a problem.

I’m planning a walk in three weeks or so, and I’m thinking of one that will incorporate a long-abandoned route off the top of Mt. Hale, a path known as the Firewardens Trail, that observers used decades ago to get to and from Hale’s long-gone firetower. The trail is unofficially maintained by backcountry skiers (there are some wonderful glades to play in), but gets a bit overgrown during the summer. I wouldn’t expect it to be a navigational challenge, even for me. Using it would make my two-day walk a loop and save me a dreary combo walk-hitchhike.

Much of this walk would actually be above treeline. The last mountain of the route, Hale itself, is 4,054 feet, and just pokes above the trees. I’d start with a stiff climb up North Twin (4,761), and from there would stay mostly above treeline as I wandered generally south to South Twin (4,902), along to Guyot (4,580), and onto the spectacular ridge that encompasses the Bonds: West Bond (4,540), Mt. Bond (4,698), and Bondcliff (4,265). I’d probably spend the night near Guyot Shelter, preferably in the beautifully-sited overflow campground above and behind the shelter proper. (There shouldn’t actually be an overflow...I’d be doing this mid-week.) On the second day, I’d retrace my steps to Guyot, then turn east along the Twinway, bypassing Zealand Mountain (4,260) and taking in more great views along Zeacliff until I dropped down toward Zealand Falls, connect to the Lend-a-Hand trail up Hale, and found the unofficial path back down to the trailhead. Totals: about 23 miles, ascent about 5,300 feet.

It ain’t the Challenge, but it’s great walking...and I’d take along a small flask of the Macallan for the memories.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


I’ve written about my only real rooting interest in sports these days—the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team. I’ve been a big fan of this admirable program for well over a decade. In 2002, the squad was perhaps the best in the history of the game. On their way to the national championship that year, they played a famous “perfect ten minutes” against another annual contender, Old Dominion University.

I just read here that ODU has recruited Maire Buchan, of Dunipace, who will be the first Scot to win an athletic scholarship (I know it’s a contradiction in terms, but she sounds like a good student, too) to play women’s hoops US. She must have a lot of potential to interest the Monarchs—ODU has won its conference championship every year since 1992.

She undoubtedly will find the experience intense and challenging, perhaps at times a little overwhelming. I expect she’ll also find it welcoming, encouraging, and stimulating. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for her. Very best of luck to Maire!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Hot stuff

The weight of my pack had nothing to do with the ankle problem that required my retirement from the TGOC. Nonetheless, I’d like my pack weight to approach zero, and I’ve been noting the best ways to edge in that direction. One of the obvious areas is cooking gear.

Actually, I don’t really cook. I boil water to rehydrate prepared meals in plastic bags. This year on the Challenge I carried a JetBoil. It boils water really fast, which saves fuel, which in turn can have a variable short-term effect on load weight. Natural sloth makes me a fan of the piezo ignition. The Jet’s a well-engineered system, breaks down and stores efficiently, is not as unstable as it looks, and was designed by Dartmouth-connected guys from Northern New England. It weighs 15 oz (425 g.). Its little canisters register 3.5 oz. (100 g.) when full. Not including my long Ti spoon and plastic mug, the total package is 18.5 oz. (525 g.). I like it. I’ll certainly continue to use it often But it is much heavier than alternatives that would be reasonable for a walk like the TGOC, specifically the new breed of homemade and cottage-industry alcohol (“meths” in Britain) stoves.

I’d used the traditional small, brass, Swedish Trangia alcohol burner a few times, and recognized its attractions, but over the past few years, inventive outdoor people have been creating lighter and lighter stoves using soda cans, juice cans, cat food cans, tuna cans, and seemigly anything else mommy brought home from the store. There’s been debate over wicks vs. no wicks; size and location of ports; pot holders; windscreens; and other arcana that has given hikers excuses to touch off balls of fire on their kitchen counters. Burners have been weighed to the fraction of a gram, and boil times have been published, with much dispute about what “boiling” actually means: When do you stop the clock? How cold was the water when you started? How much wind was blowing? If any, did you use a windscreen? If so, how did you deploy it? And wonderfully on and obsessively on.

This stuff is all over the internet. (Start on WhiteBlaze and bpLite, then follow your nose) For the past few weeks I’ve been cruising the web, looking at all sorts of alcoholic offerings. Among those I found most appealing were the Caldera Cone system, the Ion Stove, and the Blackfly and Coolfly stoves from the ingenious Tinny at MiniBullDesign. The one I’ve chosen, though, is the StarLyte, from Zelph’s Stoveworks at bpLite. Very light (well under an ounce, including pot stand); simple to use, even in temps well below freezing; and spill-proof, which makes it reasonable to use in a tent if weather forces the issue. (This is useful to me, because my Stephenson Warmlite doesn’t have a vestibule.)

To boil the water in, I’ve decided to go all the way and try the wildly popular modified 24-ounce Heinekin beer can. There’s lots of info on this do-it-yourself project and possible results at the wonderfully named “Pimp my Heine” forum at bpLite. The appeal? The cool factor: it will give me the trail cred I so urgently desire, but that the size of my belly keeps denying me. Actually, it’s just the fun of joining all the other guys who are pimping their Heines...but I also wind up with a pot that comes in well under 2 ounces. Add a heavy foil windscreen, and I’ve got a personalized cooking system that saves me almost a pound.

that trail cred.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Dr. No, yes? Maybe.

More Brit stuff in another New York Times article. I remember Dr. No from when we lived near London in the early ’70s, and I was vaguely aware that there was a new version, but I’d never heard of Russell Davies, let alone the claim that he has “changed the face of television in the U.K.” (Has he? But I rather liked Ludovic Kennedy, though I was mostly a Magic Roundabout man.)

And OK, OK, you whining complainers, I won’t keep writing about what I read in the paper or bring home from the library. Stay tuned for hair-raising posts about blood-chilling adventures full of tension, danger, and orgiastic pleasures (especially gear—especially stoves!—especially small light stoves!!). Guaranteed nothing in the next few posts to do with books, culture, current political events, or finer feelings of any kind (except the occasional Yes We Can).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

“Scottish Play Gets Polish Makeover”

Hee hee. (No, John, not you.) This New York Times article gives me the giggles in light of the (often charming) pub-and-hotel staffing makeover I encountered during the TGOC. My favorite part is that, in New York, “[t]he show is performed in Polish with English supertitles.”

But what a production this sounds like. Stupendous. Audacious. It’s odd, but although I’m a cranky old fart in most ways, the older I get, the more taken I am with the idea of of energy as king.

Hmm, maybe that’s not so odd, is it?

[Edit: I’ve just had a question about “Scottish Play.” Macbeth.]

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Booky joy

Big evening at the library yesterday. We went out for dinner at an easy-going local spot (two icy-cold Becks after the stunningly hot day), and afterwards went to return some books that were overdue. I wandered over to the “new books” rack and hit the jackpot: four books I’ve really been looking forward to reading: the new Alan Furst, Spies of Warsaw; new efforts from Sue Henry and Dana Stabenow, with their female Alaskan protagonists; the new Alexander McCall Smith Precious Ramotswe, The Miracle at Speedy Motors; and—slightly less exciting but still promising pleasure—the new James Lee Burke, Swan Peak.

I’ve always got two or three books going, turning to each based on cheap random propinquity. (All of us read all the time: at table, brushing our teeth, fixing dinner, while we’re theoretically watching a ballgame.... H can even read in the car without getting sick, a skill her mother and I deeply envy.) One is usually history or biography (Drew Gilpin Faust’s brilliant This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War is my book of the year so far), one is often politics or political philosophy (Gary Wills is a favorite), one is almost always a mystery or atmospheric thriller (Furst is superb).

We have a much loved, very fine, public library, way too small, but extremely friendly and well run and staffed. My final (believe me: Final) public office is acting as the chair of its Board of Trustees. We have one profoundly serious ongoing goal: to promote and eventually secure and oversee the building of a badly needed new facility. I have one other goal that is a bit less serious: to entertain, whenever possible, a motion to adjourn within a half-hour of calling our meetings to order. We take care of business, but I hate long meetings—I’ve sat through more than my share and they’re almost never necessary—and when I’m in the chair, I’m ruthless. After all, there’s a good book waiting at home.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Drowning in heat ...

... and it’s not that nice dry high-rollin’ Vegas heat. It’s in the high 90s (36°C) and the viscous humidity is soaking everyone and making us all sour. They’ve been sending kids home early for the last few days, because New England schools don’t have air conditioning—and do have helicopter parents.

Relief is predicted—in the form of violent thunderstorms, welcome in the circumstances—and tomorrow will be in the mid 80s (30°C). Better yet, on Friday, we’ll be heading again for Vermont and New Hampshire. H is taking a quick weekend to attend her 5th college reunion, and we are having the joy of picking her up at the airport and taking her north. When we’re together in Hanover, she and I usually have a good run on the gorgeous cross-country course, but at 7 months pregnant, she’ll probably be afraid I could beat her. (And I could make it close, I’m pretty sure.)

(Next year will be my 40th. During my four years, I spent way too much time in locker rooms, training rooms, field houses, and on various tracks, courses, and roads ...

... and way too little on ski slopes and high ridges, so I think I’ll pass on the flabfest. Perhaps my granddaughter and I will take a walk. She’ll be ten months old by then and ready to roll.)

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Looking north, thinking north

Some time ago, I posted a shot from New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington looking toward the Northern Presidentials in the White Mountain National Forest. Today is especially beautiful up there: A tropical 62°F (17°C) with light 14 mph winds from the west. In this shot you can see the line of the Cog Railway (a 19th Century coal-burner) crossing horzontally and, beyond it, at the edge of the unseen Great Gulf, part of the Carriage Road (also a 19th Century construction). The Observatory’s website identifies the mountains in the distance as Clinton, Jefferson, and Adams. I think that’s wrong. I’m pretty sure we’re looking at Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. At any rate, the walk along this ridge is a highlight of New England walking, and is perhaps the best stretch of the AT as well.

With my ankle feeling better, I’m getting antsy to redeem myself in some way for my Scottish flameout, and the Whites are calling. Instead of the Presies, though, I feel a Bonds traverse coming on. I just need to find a few days during this happily crowded summer. Perhaps mid-July. Pre-baby, of course.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


In what seems to be my never-ending journey, I'm now at a very old-fashioned, quite wonderful resort hotel in a beautiful part of upstate New York, as partner-not-participant at a professional conference. Internet connection is sporadic, but I have one thing I want to say:

Yes We Can!

Monday, June 2, 2008


As H wrote yesterday, I’m in Arizona. It’s stupefyingly hot to a New England boy—mad dogs and Englishmen weather—but I couldn’t be happier. My jet lag is finally fading (this must be an age thing...I don’t remember week-long jet lag before turning 60), and the ankle is feeling better, even when flexed. Life is good. Actually, one of the basic facts of the last 27 years is that my life is always good when I’m with H.

Like all docs in training, H is putting in long hours both at the hospital and at the books. This ability to focus and work hard is something she shares with both her husband and her mother. Her dad, on the other hand, prefers a less demanding regime, which is one reason he enjoyed the TGOC so much. He realized even after his few days on the trail that the Challenge is essentially a two-week party interrupted by occasional strolls for recovery. (A runner would recognize this as a sort of interval work.)

I wasn’t with these charmers all the way across, of course, but it is true that I never saw Phil Lambert or Alan Sloman without a glass or tin in hand.

I’d never been a whisky (or whiskey) drinker, but at Sourlies on the first evening, Martin offered me a dram of Glen Morangie. And it was good. At Kinbreak the next evening I found myself holding a mug of hot chocolate in one hand and a cup of whisky in the other. Here, Mike Mitchell, David Gray, and Michael Maloney are drinking either David’s Highland Park or Jules Eaton’s McCallen. And they were both good. (And not half bad with chocolate!)

At the banquet, I sat with walking mate and benefactor Jules, later joined by Darren Christie, and Kev Baldwin. We all had a great time (everybody did—a wonderfully cheery event), and despite what the photo seems to indicate, I can too handle evenings out like a gent.

So, although I’m not about to give up my lifelong pursuit of truly good, truly cheap wine, I’m now a devoted whisky drinker, too, and the cabinet now boasts a bottle of The Macallen (just one more thing I owe Jules thanks for). I’ll be remembering and toasting all my new Challenge friends with every pour. Cheers, all!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

A Guest Post From Arizona

This is H here, reporting on my weekend with Dad in Arizona. Normally, when we visit a place, we do a lot of walking, but with me 7 months pregnant, Dad recovering from his sprained ankle, and the temperature holding steady at 100 degrees (about 38 C) and sunny, we've mainly been indoor creatures. Dad has spent many hours patiently watching me study for my surgical rotation, and then taking me out for great vegetarian meals for sustenance!

We did visit Taliesin West today, Frank Lloyd Wright's "camp" outside of Phoenix. It is still a working home, and the associated architecture school is here all winter (they decamped to the Wisconsin Taliesin last month). When Wright built the place, he was miles and miles from anyone else. Now, the suburbs have come right up to the front gates, and Phoenix sprawls for miles in every direction! The house is sited to have beautiful views of the mountains, however, so all of the urban encroachment is forgotten.

Here's Dad in front of the drafting studio and dining area:

The umbrella was handed out for shade!

And here I am in the living room, which has this built-in seating that looks like an airline but is actually very comfortable.

We had a very knowledgeable guide who talked a lot about Frank Lloyd Wright's philosophy of architecture, which I knew very little about. It was fascinating, especially since my husband and I are eventually hoping to design and build a house...though the possibilities in the mountains of New Hampshire are certainly very different from those in the desert of Arizona!