The Lone Ranger (Backcountry Skiing in the Beartooth Mountains)


The Lone Ranger
Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, 2004

I’m a sucker for final scenes of old western movies.

You know, the one where the cowboy’s riding away from the camera on some dusty desert trail with a tired horse and bandaged head?

Montana backcountry skiers know this feeling well.

It comes after a long day of ducking tree branches, scraping edges, breaking bindings, and wondering if the slope is going to hold.

However, most backcountry skiers will be nursing their wounds at the Ale Works by 8pm.

It’s when you add the weight of gear, the hostility of weather, deeper remoteness, and apres-ski held in a tiny nylon pyramid when you start to feel what the cowboy’s might have felt if their mode of transport was two sticks rather than four legs, and the dust was white instead of tan.

The Wilderness Day Planner

The Wilderness Day Planner
Uinta Mountains UT, August 2009

In 2003, Chase and I were about on the same plane with respect to our obsessive-compulsive tendencies about organization. Once, he lined up about 200 Matchbox cars in a big sweeping curve across the living room. When he left the room to go pee, I snuck into the middle of his catenary highway and made one minor adjustment to a car – I flipped it around. I knew he wouldn’t notice.

But when he returned, the bad vibe hit him like a wave of katabatic air, and he knew instantly that something was awry. It took him 6.4 seconds to scan the chain of cars and find the problem. “Dad, please don’t do that anymore, OK?”

Since 2003, however, we’ve diverged. He’s still very organized, but is a little too relaxed about it, and I’ve continued to refine my techniques.

It’s really hard for me not to crop the above photograph. Even this kid’s wilderness room is a mess. Out of the photo, is my side of the tarp. My clothes are folded neatly, thank you, and the rest of my gear is arranged in order of increasing distance from the head of my sleeping bag in response to the probability that I will use an item at any point in time, and rearranged in response to passing time to reflect my changing needs, which go in diurnal cycles. I could write a book about it, but it’s probably not necessary, as the whole thing can be described by a simple set of differential equations. I once even approximated the process with a Fourier Transform.


When I’m on a wilderness trip, it takes a few days before I break the habit of wondering if I have to check my email, voicemail, twitter, blog comments, forum replies, post office box, or windshield wiper when I wake up (I once scored a 25% off coupon from REI in 1987 under my windshield wiper, and I’ve been eager ever since).

It takes another few days to stop worrying about what might be going wrong at work, what piece of my house might be breaking, what gear sale I might be missing, what family member might have died, and how the remaining shreds of my retirement security I might have might be dwindling further.

This is why I like to be in the wilderness on long trips. It takes four days just to detox to the point where the wilderness can actually start to cleanse.

And, when that happens, my side of the tarp starts to look more like Chase’s, and I like it.

I always fool myself into thinking that I can snap my fingers, or say some sort of Wilderness Prayer, or choose my gear more carefully so that the transition is shortened.

But instead, I’ve learned that it just takes however much time it takes, and that patience, and waiting, is usually the best strategy.

For Chase, the transition happens fast. Ten minutes from the trailhead, he’s in, he’s in deep, and he ain’t looking back. It’s crazy – how does he do that?

Then I remembered when I used to be able to do that. It was before we learned how to worry about stuff we can’t control, and general awareness of how sucked into the Big World we are.


When I went to Alaska in 2006, I printed 22 maps covering 700 miles of trekking distance, with detailed resolution, precise grid lines, and optimized coloring done in Photoshop. A few days before I left, I meticulously impregnated each map with a home-brewed concoction to make them waterproof, because printing them on waterproof paper was … well … too easy, you know, something an amateur, or at least, somebody less obsessive-compulsive than I, would do.

Since then, I’ve gone mapless on a number of treks, or otherwise just hacked out quick maps on the fly. Once, I hand drew a map based on what I saw in Google Earth.

On our trek into the Uintas last summer, we printed only one tiny little map of a huge area on a piece of 5×7 photo paper, and shared it. We couldn’t see individual contour lines, read place names, and we didn’t really have a reliable method for estimating distances on the map. We cut off the margins so as not to leave room for silly things like to do lists and appointment schedules.


Part of simplifying, from a backpacker’s perspective, is taking less stuff (fewer things to track) and lighter stuff (easier things to carry) and simple stuff (easier things to use).

Perhaps, as important, we probably don’t hack off the margins as much as we should, or at least, let go of the structure of our lives that allows us (demands us) to be obsessive-compulsive about managing that structure…

Wild Places Here and Afar


The Brooks Range from the Western Arctic
Photo by Ryan Jordan, June 2006.


I really miss the Alaskan Arctic because it’s a Big Wild Place.

I don’t know that I’ve trekked anywhere else where I’ve discovered as much about who I am. Some of that was related to the challenges the Arctic delivered to me, but much of it was related to the magnitude of its sheer remoteness from the clutter of modern living in a first world country.

And so, although I haven’t been back since 2006, I still dream Arctic Dreams. Big ones. And I even have a pal who can live them for me!

I think one reason why I love trekking on plateaus surrounding the Yellowstone Caldera, and in the Absaroka Range, is that they remind me of the Arctic. They too, are Big Wild Places. The difference is that the Big Wild Places Down Here are surrounded by Stewards of Greed.

Fortunately, there are Wilderness Boundaries, and within them, something sacred and quiet.

The challenge is recreating that quiet within the constraints of where those of us other than Andrew Skurka live.

Perhaps I don’t see the fight for a wilderness boundary in the backcountry to be much different than the fight for a psychological wilderness boundary in the frontcountry, like the walls of my home, the people and companies that I write checks to, or even my internet router.

This is why in 2009, I gave up Facebook, my Blackberry, and freecycled our family’s second car, and why our family has been unchained from TV for several years. You’ll have to trust me when I tell you that each of these decisions has resulted in freedom, and a more quiet, wildernessy state of living.

But these were experiments – test cases if you will – and now it’s time to get serious.

Remember earlier in this post that while in the Arctic, I learned more about who I was? My hypothesis is that this introspection is translatable to daily living, via simplicity.


So 2010 will be our family’s Year of the Purge: Backpacking Light for modern living.

With the simple of goal of creating a Little Wild Place for everyday living. Not something that we need to “escape to” like the Big Wild Places of the Alaskan Arctic or the Northern Absarokas, but something we live, and work, within.

In other words, the norm…

…rather than the exception.


A Little Nordic Skier Among Big Aspens, Red Lodge Montana (Photo)


A Little Nordic Skier Among Big Aspens, Red Lodge Montana (Photo)

Panasonic GF1, 20/1.7

Our family spent last weekend at a cabin in Red Lodge, Montana, on sort of a family retreat. We played games, skied, snowshoed, took pictures, soaked in a hot tub, sat in front of the fire, watched Little House on the Prairie, baked cookies, slept in.

In other words, we slowed down a little bit.

The beauty of doing this is being able to declutter the mind and soul, for clarity.

It’s the simplifatico approach to making decisions, and our family has a few biggies to make right now.

There is something to be said about doing nothing, and hearing quiet, and relating to each other under an environment like this.

Being away from home here – it’s sort of like wilderness, and provides similar benefits, but warmer!