Recently I bought a $200 pair of designer snowpants. Seriously. I know. Totally not like me, right? As I have written before, most of the stuff I own has been acquired through very frugal means (head nod to dumpster diving here). So what’s behind the recent splurge?
Though I do have a penchant for acquiring things that are pre-loved and homely, I do also have a rabid lust for things that are new and nice. This lust compels me to page through catalogs of beautiful objects and to browse through websites staring at all the enticing images of attractive things. Psychologists are right when they explain how buying things releases a flood of endorphins in the brain, those feel-good brain chemicals. For the most part, the objects of my desire run the gamut of fancy outdoor gear designed for outdoor enthusiasts. As an outdoor industry professional, outdoor gear is at the top of the list of things I pine after, and surely is also the most expensive stuff I desire to acquire. I can easily spend hours in any outdoor sports store mindlessly meandering through all the aisles and tactilely handling all of the gear with imaginations of future adventures running through my mind.
Of all the people who buy expensive items like this, I’d like to think that I’m in the upper-half of the bell curve who actually put this stuff to use. I frequent the outdoors for my job, plus my wild recreation time puts extreme wear-and-tear on my gear. Thus, whatever I buy doesn’t end up just sitting unused in an attic. I put this stuff through the wringer and then some. Just ask my old pair of snowpants: acquired used in a swap with a friend four years ago, they were used and abused until they ended up in their present state full of ember holes, small rips and tears, medium holes patched over with nylon or duct-tape, long rips in the material or at the seams that have been stitched back together multiple times, and the more generalized state of well-worn abrasion. Any other person would have given up on that pair of pants ages ago, yet I kept mending them contrary to my naysayers. And I didn’t even spend any money to acquire those snowpants either—I simply traded an extra bike-pump for them! If I do take that much care of my gear that costs me nothing, then how much more might I value the things that cost a pretty penny. Hence, why I decided to drop so much money on a single pair of snowpants. If the quality of the brand holds up, then I should be wearing that pair of snowpants for a decade at the very least. If you think about it economically averaged, in ten years the annual cost of those snowpants would be only $20. That’s a pretty reasonable investment indeed.
And it’s an investment that I feel is not only admissible but also justifiable. It’s not a sin to own nice things if you take good care of them and use them well. After all, the stuff that I do own I take splendid care of, whether I bought it at full price or pulled it out of a dumpster. And I don’t consume much in the way of new things, either; I will constantly mend and repair the things I own until they are no longer useful. When it comes to actually purchasing new things, I’m a very reluctant consumer, to say the least.
But there is a lot of baggage with owning nice things, and that just doesn’t account for the expense of having to take care of those items. The nice things that I so frequently lust after—those designer snowpants, those fancy outdoor clothes—they project a status symbol, and one that I am not entirely at ease with bearing. Designer outdoor clothes from the major brands are expensive, and are in fact purveyors of status and privilege. I myself am unconsciously brand-conscious, even though I don’t try to be. Other people I interact with are also brand-conscious, and wearing such brands feeds into their perceptions who I am as a person. As an outdoor professional, I should feel like I have permission to wear such clothes with impunity. Especially since, as an outdoor professional, I basically get 40% off retail price on virtually anything with industry pro-deals, on top of my good nose for bargains. But the average, everyday person I meet doesn’t know this about me. They don’t know that I can buy my clothes at a deep discount. To them, it all looks the same, and in a sense it is. The premium you pay at the cash register is not for the garment quality, but for the label. Wearing those brands, I appear as someone who was willing to pay the premium for the status of the label.
I’ve wrestled with this question of brand-image for quite a long time. I didn’t wear designer outdoor brands growing up, though they were quite popular among my high school and college classmates. I, too, lusted for the status that wearing such brands represented. Yet at the same time, I also felt uncomfortable with that status. I was too conscientious of all the baggage.
After many years of deliberation, I finally caved in and bought myself a garment. It was a very nice green Patagonia fleece, comfortable, durable, beautiful. But it also came at a hefty price tag. Being my first piece of outdoor designer clothing, I was very nervous about wearing it. My friends would see it and would notice the change in attire. They would make comments. I would feel uncomfortable with all the attention. It would feel as if I had started walking around with a giant hickey on my neck—an incriminating mark as to my underlying behavior and values.
But that was four years ago. I still have that green Patagonia fleece, and it still is my most frequently worn item of clothing. Sticking to the intentions I had when I purchased it, I aim to get at least another six years of heavy use from it to make the purchase justifiable. And since that day it still has been the only piece of outdoor designer clothing which I had purchased for myself, until the snowpants. I still am conscious of the impression I give off on people when they see the brands I wear. But the few holes and increasingly pilly texture of my fleece are things I am proud of—signs that I have been putting my clothing to use in the manner it was designed—in the rugged outdoors. The wear and tear, especially on my nice outdoor clothing, gives the purchase of the item some more credibility and eases the conscious just a little.
But still, I remain somewhat uncomfortable with these items and the image it presents of myself. Wearing Patagonia and the like brands are hallmarks of the affluent white culture. By purchasing and wearing such garments, I am making a statement that I am part of that culture. But what about relating to other people, from different, less affluent cultures? Is the clothing one wears a barrier to connecting and empathizing with the less fortunate? Especially those who can’t afford a pair of pants, let alone a pair of $200 snowpants?
As you can see, I enjoy owning nice things, but sometimes I wonder if I can afford to live with the baggage such privilege comes with.
I’ve been playing some tricks with time by capturing scenes with time-lapse photography. Here are some results to share after a few months of trial and error. Most scenes taken near Camp Widjiwagan outside of Ely, Minnesota.
My first time-lapse ever. Icebergs floating past Big Red Lighthouse, Holland Harbor, Michigan.
Sunrise and moving shadows, Burntside State Forest, Minnesota
Sunrise over Burntside Lake, Minnesota
Sunset and full moon rising over Burntside Lake, Minnesota
Rotating stars with fleeting glimpses of the Northern Lights
Starry and Cloudy Sky at Camp Widjiwagan
Sigurd Olson Center at Camp Widjiwagan
Hanging out around the campfire
“This is a free country,” was his terse response.
This all unfolded recently at my local public library, while I was quietly working on some writing projects. Around the corner of the room another patron started up a loud, profanity-laced phone call.
No longer able to concentrate and firm in my conviction that this was not the appropriate venue for such a call to be held, I calmly approached the man to inform him of my grievance and offer the radical suggestion that he should, in fact, take the call outside.
“Who are you to tell me what to do,” he bristled, “this is a free country.”
No, this is not a free country. This is a public library. You do not have the right to be an asshole to those around you. At least that’s what I had wanted to say to him, but lacking quick wit and impulsive retorts, I merely reminded him that he ought to be respectful to the other patrons. This diffused the situation, but I was left fuming over his cavalier attitude.
‘This is a free country:’ the battle cry of the libertarians. Who are you to tell me how to live. Leave me alone and let me do what I want.
It’s all evocative of talk we hear in America quite frequently. Ours is a nation that highly values its liberty. The very founding of our country, in fact, as laid out in the Declaration of Independence, was built upon the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But of those unalienable rights, liberty has become the most proudly flaunted, not to mention the most fashionable. Think of all the t-shirts and Americana tchotchke you’ve seen emblazoned with eagles, red, white, and blue with the big word ‘FREEDOM’ written in bold capital letters. Liberty, understandably, is a quite attractive value.
Liberty indeed has been a vitally important core founding principle of America, and the resulting American psyche of being able to choose one’s own destiny factors greatly into our national pride and identity. However, there becomes a problem when liberty is touted above all other American values, such that even other rights enshrined in the constitution including justice, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare take a backseat to liberty. When this occurs, we lose sight of the reality of America as a nation. For, contrary to Americanized myth, we are not a country composed of rugged individuals best left to our own devices. We are instead a multitudinous society comprised of a diverse cross-section of humanity struggling to live out all the founding values of our nation. Though the founding fathers valued liberty, they themselves also came together to practice the compromise of their desires in order to form a more powerful nation capable of generating more of the common good for more of its citizens. We cannot operate for the greatest general welfare of all citizens of this country with an unabashed ‘leave me the fuck alone’ mentality. We need to transcend the simplistic thought of this being a free country—as in free of obligations to other people—and realize that it takes more than just liberty of conscious to promote other American values like fairness, equality, and protection of the minority. It takes a collective effort of knowing the limits to your freedoms and practicing the extent of your responsibilities.
The classic litmus test for the limits of liberty is that your rights end where my rights begin. Your rights to swing your fists freely end where my nose begins. Your right to speak freely ends where disorderly conduct begins. There are inherent limits to our liberty in this country, and that is designed for the better of society as a whole. But beyond basic limits to freedom, there is a certain respect and civility in public life that libertarian ideals don’t aspire to. The live-and-let-live philosophy makes little impetus to improve society for us all. The belief that everyone left to their own devices would make an ideal society ignores the systemic and structural inequality we have in America, let alone doesn’t compel us to become better citizens of our country.
The English philosopher Alain de Botton makes an observation that Western political theory prizes liberty as the ‘supreme political value,’ and that libertarian ideals have infiltrated all political parties, not just the namesake Libertarian Party. In his book Religion for Atheists, de Botton explains how libertarian thought, in political life, seeks to cast no moral judgment on citizens and offers no vision as to how best to live together; in other words, that the greater welfare of the group is not a sufficient warrant to necessitate interference from the state upon the individual. The libertarian ideal, de Botton argues, is that moral behavior is a question for the conscious of the individual alone and should not be subject to judgment from a committee of governmental regulators. In America, any moralistic push of the state is viewed as paternalistic at best (nanny state), and suspect of a devious agenda at worst (fascism). But the downside of all this liberty is that we no longer know how to handle ourselves properly with all of our freedom. We often find ourselves in want of some moral guidance for how best to live our lives in relation to others. Here, de Botton argues, is where civil governments can take a cue from religions and not be afraid of being seen as paternalistic, but instead work to foster qualities, like harmony and forgiveness, which often run counter to our basic human nature. In a pluralistic society, it would take just a little nudging from the civil government to get us to behave on our best behavior.
Let’s think about how libertarian ideology can be harmful in this analogy:
A large group of individuals are traveling on a massive ship. They don’t all know each other, yet they share the same vessel. One day, the travelers begin to notice that the ship has started to list to one side, that is has started taking on water. They employ a sudden search to find the source of the leak in order to save the ship. Upon searching the lower decks, they find a stateroom that is the source of the water. They pry open the door to find a man standing over a hole in the boat. The man yells aggressively at the others who have found him: “I paid for this stateroom. I can do whatever I want to it!”
America, it could be said, is a giant ship, the home to a diverse multitude of people. As citizens of this country, we cannot do absolutely whatever we please and still expect to form a prosperous and civil society. There are limits to our freedom put in place to promote the common welfare, just as there are civic duties that it is our obligation to uphold for that same welfare. We are all in this together. The libertarian philosophy, unfortunately, often blinds itself to this interdependence to others in society.
Though we must value our liberty as Americans, we must also exercise that liberty with constraint. The freedom of speech does not give one the right to falsely yell ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theatre. The right to bear arms as part of a ‘well-regulated militia’ does not imply that there should be no restrictions on civilian firearms. The norms for behaving properly in this country have been developed as practical limits on our freedom in order to promote a compatible society of diverse people. Once we can embrace the fact that indeed our liberty is not the sole virtue of our American society, we can move on to creating a better government. For, even in the text of The Declaration of Independence, with its intended purpose of severing ties with the English Crown, the abolishment of government altogether for the sake of increased liberty was not an end in itself. Rather, the alteration and re-institution of government mentioned was expressly intended to protect the rights and welfare of the people—not just for the sake of increasing personal liberty alone.
In my room, hidden way back in a drawer behind some inconspicuous items of clothing, I keep a few shoeboxes full of a spattering of mementos: old ticket stubs, tattered maps, random photographs, past letters, and much of the standard sentimental bric-a-brac. It’s a collection of worthless trinkets and scraps of paper, mostly. The contents of my box are all items I have collected here and there over time, relating to things I have done or places I have visited. I keep them because they remind me of all the inputs that have gone into my personal development.
This habit of mine was started earnestly in college, as I was beginning to collect all these new ideas and experiences through the course of my formal education. I desired a way to keep track of what I had been part of, and thus the genesis of the shoebox receptacle. Summer internships followed college semesters, and my collection continued to grow. Graduate school saw the start of my second shoebox. Souvenirs from rambling travels and post-graduate jobs are now filling up a third.
It’s not often I go back and look through these shoeboxes. Mostly they just wait in silence, ignored by their own creator. But sometimes I do go back. Sometimes I remember something small—a scrap or a brochure—that I stowed away in there and will rummage around in search of it. Oftentimes in the search I will get sidetracked, mesmerized by little tokens I had once set aside and had since forgotten. I’ll sit and reminisce for a spell. These little tokens in the box help remind me about what has shaped me.
I feel much the same way about my journals as I do my shoeboxes. I have kept a semi-regular journaling habit ever since graduating from high school, an anthology of thoughts and words instead of a collection of paper bits. Often I don’t look back at what I had written either. Most of it no longer concerns me. But I still cherish my journals dearly, and would feel deeply grieved if they were lost. And, when I do look back into the archives of my old entries, I am able to see myself at a different stage in life. It’s a personal historical record found nowhere else. It is often helpful to remind ourselves of who we once were in order to see who we are becoming.
I think of my shoeboxes full of keepsakes and my journal compilations collectively as my ‘paper trail.’ They are the acquired evidence of the life I have lived. While in other aspects of my life I tend to be reserved and cloistered out of a penchant for privacy, I have been very intentional about maintaining my paper trail evidence. However, I don’t show anyone my paper trail—at least I haven’t yet. They exist for my own perusal only. Though it is a collection of intentionally kept evidence, it is evidence that is not ready to be released to inquisitive eyes.
Yet, I don’t anticipate this always being the case. Call it conceited, but I live with the background imagination running through my mind of being important enough that a biographer will one day write the story of my life. From what I have read about the lives of my personal heroes, most of them left a lot of traces of their passing in life—even the most enigmatic of the bunch. I want to be kind to my future biographer by leaving them this paper trail, this life-long collection of scraps that leads them to discover insights about who I was as a person and how I got to be there.
My shoeboxes slowly continue to fill and my completed journals gradually pile up. My secretive paper trail gets cumulatively larger as I build this life for myself. I am quite fond of my paper trail. Do you have one of your own?
i keep asking God why, but he just laughs
Am I standing on Holy Ground?
Amidst the corn stubble, dusted in snow, sits an antiquated country church. Abandoned to both time and the elements. Forgotten. Little more than a weather-beaten beacon of unexamined scenery lost in the agrarian milieu.
For only God knows what reasons it remains empty. Or, if some humans do, they are not around to speak of it. What has come of them?
The solitude and decadence of this scene now seems ungodly. Was this place ever holy? Does this sacred gathering place now lie forsaken?
Ages past, the faithful once congregated here. This was a gathering place. A space for worship and community, a living, breathing fellowship. The Bible says that ‘where two or three gather in my name, I am there also’ (Matthew 18:20). But no one gathers here anymore. Or, if they do it is surely not in the name of God. It is in the name of vandalism, or a dare taken. The name of rural teenaged angst looking for a secret reprieve, perhaps. Is anyone who happens by seeking God in this place?
I came myself in the name of curiosity, beckoningly lured by the mélange of sacred and profane. I am a seeker of sorts, a seeker of understanding, but with many questions left unanswered. I peer into the broken windows at the peeling paint, the debris scattered on the floor. I am inquisitive of the story of this place. What has transpired here that this building now rests irreverent and forlorn?
Can God still be found in this place? If you ask directly, no reply is received—at least not one that you can understand. Maybe the rustle of the wind through the cornstalks or the occasionally passing car calls out for your attention. Was this God’s answer, or just his laugh?
keep asking why, and maybe someday you will understand
There is nothing like stepping away from the road and heading into a new part of the watershed…. “Off the trail” is another name for the Way, and sauntering off the trail is the practice of the wild…. But we need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them. You first must be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.
—Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild
The explorer sets foot into deeply drifted snow. His foot sinks in drastically. Step after strenuous step, disappearing into the piled white drift. He has been breaking ground for miles. No human traffic has ever plodded this course before, it appears to him. No tracks lead the way, no trail is to be found. He is a pioneer, a trailblazer. The explorer pauses and glances behind him. A meandering line of post-hole marks reveal the way he has traveled. He has broken new ground, leaving tracks for future others to follow. But at this moment he is profoundly isolated, deeply embossed in the awareness of his lonesome situation. No human has trod here before. It is a spiritually awakening experience.
Except that this is not the real story of our explorer. The deep snow covers over the facts of the situation. Our intrepid voyager is not actually far from civilization, nor is he navigating somewhere no one else has been before. In reality, he is on a well-used path, a popular trail. His feelings of solitude and accomplishment are the result of the recent snowfall across the landscape, which has erased all marks of this path being a well-traveled route. Though he may not be as much of a trailblazer as he imagines himself to be, the sentiment which the situation has produced is what’s truly significant. He mythologizes his status as an explorer in his psyche.
Perceiving oneself as a trailblazer is an elevating experience, giving a sense of one’s own agency and accomplishment in navigating this world. Wilderness travel frequently produces this mentality in individuals. The wilderness, or even merely unmanicured nature, is a setting where the marks of modern civilization are absent, or at the very least harder to notice. To spend time out in the wilds is to put yourself into a situation where you are disjoined from your routine life, a place where the tracks of any forbearer’s presence goes unobserved. You go there to be pushed out of your normal element, to challenge yourself and come back a different person. You go there to break new ground.
The wildlands of America have tracks and trails abounding. Our wilderness is a well-traveled place. Yet millions of users visit these lands every year, and still leave them without revealing a trace as to their passing. Sharing a responsible use ethic of wild lands is what preserves the illusion of isolation and pioneering for future travelers. It is near impossible to say that you have encountered a place where no human has ever stepped foot before, and quite debatable if there remains any place on earth untouched by human presence. But whether you are the first to visit or the millionth, these wild places leave you with the feeling that you are perhaps the first. The wilderness setting invokes a sort of primeval satisfaction deep within you that you alone are independent, that you are indeed a trailblazer.
This is one of the feelings that keeps bringing me back to wild places. I am not the first to pass this way. I know that. But out in the backcountry, out in the forests, out on the rivers, out in the mountains, out in the deep snow it sure seems like I am the first.
The rural landscape around where I grew up, in Ottawa County, Michigan, never seemed exceptional or particularly noteworthy. The real sites, for me, always laid at the coast, along the sandy wooded shores of Lake Michigan. Only recently, after spending much time away from my hometown, has the rural heritage of my landscape gripped me in a way it hadn’t before. The agricultural scenes that once seemed commonplace and went blithely unnoticed by me now stood out in a conspicuous fashion. I became captivated by my once overlooked surroundings.
Barns, as a subject matter, have long drawn me to capture their images in photography. Now I have felt compelled to turn the cameras towards the barns that I may have seen regularly since childhood, but now notice again with fresh eyes. Winter adds an extra element of beauty to them, lying dormant, coated in a thick veneer of white. They come in many different styles, sizes, and colors. Gambrel roofs, lean-to’s, reds, whites and weathered wood. Some are still working barns, others long since abandoned to the elements. Though common, their ruggedness and utilitarian aesthetic provide an unnoticed kind of beauty.
“There is no such thing as bad weather…only bad preparation.”
* Outdoors Proverb *
It’s %$@&£! cold up here in northern Minnesota in January.
But really, it’s not that bad.
The secret, of course, is preparation. With a healthy dose of realistic expectations. It’s no beach holiday up here.
Winter is not winter the same everywhere. Even though I grew up in the northern tier of states, west Michigan’s persistent 30*F winter temps and perpetually falling wet humid snow is no analog for the -20*F clear sunny days here in northern Minnesota.
The cold here is unparalleled in most of the lower 48 states. Characteristically clear skies during the day sparkle light and shadow brilliantly across the landscape. The Minnesota sun, however, is an illusion; though shining bright, it provides almost no warmth to the day. Clear skies at night open up a fantastic theater for star viewing, yet with no cloud cover, what little daytime heat accumulated readily escapes into the upper atmosphere. Temperatures plunge easily to 30*F below.
With the proper equipment and preparation, these polar temperatures can become a comfortable winter playground. With clothing, layering is key. Long underwear, pants, snowpants, sweaters, fleeces, jackets, coats, liner gloves, outer gloves, waterproof boots. All layered one on top of another, overlapping, in a style known as “shingling.” Exposed skin is a recipe for heat loss, especially at the juncture of clothing…not to mention the possibility of getting errant snow down your shirt or in your boots. Even with all these layers of clothes on, the frigid cold still seeps in quickly once you step outside. It’s best to keep moving. Stay active and have your body generate its own heat. When I’m dressed up in all these layers and trudging through a foot of powder snow, I feel like a storm-trooper marching to battle. Bracing for winter is preparing for a war with the cold.
But don’t expect everything to be easy in the cold. Low temperatures have their own way of letting you know they’re around. Frost readily forms on your hair and beard. Your eyelashes start to freeze together. An unprotected water bottle freezes shut. Batteries drain. Lighter flames grow weak and disappear. Knowledge of the extreme cold and its effects goes a long way in prolonging your own survival in these circumstances.
So even though it’s cold outside, go out and enjoy the day. A beautiful winter wonderland awaits for those who are prepared.