Why Birds?

A robin at Kelly Island

My close friend J.R. recently stumbled into my apartment at 10pm and sat on my couch after he told me he’d slammed ten beers. This is not an unusual occasion for my former roommate turned next door neighbor. Already seated on the couch myself, I showed off my new budget telephoto camera lens I’d bought for up-close photos of birds. Before long, he smirked and asked, “Why birds?” Though he was the drunk one, I rambled off an unassured response about “achieving a greater sense of place,” and “understanding my place in the world,” and whatever else I thought sounded clever. While J.R. seemed more than satisfied by what he heard, I wasn’t. 

It’s no surprise he’d asked. A giant jigsaw puzzle of 120 common northwestern birds has turned my kitchen table into a mess; I’ve downloaded a step-by-step smartphone app to help me identify different species; I’m reading various snippets of bird literature and research; and I haven’t shut up about the feathered critters for the past two weeks.

In an attempt at a more coherent answer, I’ve written this post. In large part, I’ve found that my two-week old enthusiasm for birds gathers from a combination of shameful ignorance, newfound curiosity and wonder, and the quarantine-granted free time of a childhood summer.

Shameful Ignorance

In the dead of our most recent winter, I house-sat for my friends Caroline and Katie at the Moon-Randolph Homestead, a public historic site located in Missoula, Montana. The final morning of my stay, I was gathering my things inside when my mouth fell open at the sight of a huge raptor perched on top of a telephone pole. I wanted a closer look. I trudged outside across the thin snowpack that shimmered in the soft morning sun. Huge and cloaked by brown and white shaded feathers, I wondered what it was. It spooked and soared to the next pole. I didn’t find a conspicuous red tail but had a good look of its underside. Dark feathers trimmed its bright white wings and hashed across its abdomen. Short on any knowledge, I guessed and then convinced myself it was an osprey. Entranced, I followed—or more like chased—its morning hunt around a several acres of the property for a half-hour all the while wishing to see my new friend snag breakfast. 

Later that afternoon, the caretakers returned after I had cleared out. I sent Caroline a text explaining that I followed an osprey around the property. “I think it wants those chickens ha!” I wrote. She never responded. 

When I remarked on the experience to my friend Sam on our way out to cross-country ski that afternoon, he only returned a confused expression. “Maybe,” he said, “but I’ve never heard of an osprey in Missoula during the winter.” I was speechless. “It might have been a red-tailed hawk.” 

“Ospreys migrate?” I asked. Identifying a red-tailed hawk always felt like a layup. I often even remark that it’s my favorite bird. When I was a kid, my dad, without fail, became awestruck by the sight of one during our frequent hikes together in my hometown of Santa Cruz, California. “If I could come back to Earth when this is over, I’d come back as a red-tailed hawk,” he’d always say.

“Yea, they’re usually in Mexico this time of year,” Sam said. I silently googled “red-tailed hawk” on my phone. Photos of them perched on tree branches appeared identical to my friend that morning. The cab of Sam’s vintage Carolla grew smaller as shameful embarrassment flooded my mind. I imagined the pitiful chuckle Caroline let out when I suggested it was an osprey. That she and her partner Katie each hold a masters degree for environmental studies from a program that I want to attend didn’t ease the shame.  Perhaps they were more confused than amused. On top of it being winter, there’s also no water at or near the homestead. Ospreys eat fish and only fish, not fucking chickens—dumbass. 

The self-disappointment piled on when I had to break some news to Sam as we were about to park and ski. “I left my boots in my truck.” I’ve had better afternoons.

Newfound Curiosity and Wonder

My fascination of birds started two weeks ago. I’ve learned to appreciate the calls and songs that await my ears whenever I step outside of my apartment during daylight. I suppose I always took them for granted. Within the thirty or so steps it takes to reach my truck, a robin charms me with undeniable charisma as it twitches and scurries along the pavement into the bushes. I see a starling split the sky and land in a tree. What appeared as no more than a typical small black bird a few weeks ago now enchants me with its inconspicuous metallic green sheath it dons only while mating. Robins and starlings are both common, year round habitants of Missoula. I’ll soon be overcome by the abundance of migratory species due for arrival this week. 

I’ll observe birds and research their miraculous migratory journeys of thousands of miles—all out of joy. I’ll also immerse myself in their mysteries—those which we share in common. To this end, I owe thanks to Montana writer Jim Robbins. More than anything, his book The Wonder of Birds has opened my mind to the grace of our winged friends. For instance, we’ve all seen a clouded flock of black starlings wave and wheel in synchronized harmony. But until I read Robbins, I presumed the flocked birds are following a leader. How else would each one know when to dip and rise, let alone at which speed to fly? It turns out, however, that each twists and turns with simultaneous fluidity to their neighbor out of seeming telepathic communication. We’ve hardly begun to understand how this is possible. In labs, for instance, it takes a starling considerably longer to react to a flash of light than to their nearest neighbor’s change in direction while in flight. Nothing short of science is left to surmise that each individual abides by a collective, higher order, a phenomenon called emergence. 

We are baffled by how emergence manifests. While what we have learned has hardly been applied to traffic control and special effects in film—its fundamental aspects will likely always remain a mystery. The truth to emergence is probably hidden within the eons it took for such a trait to develop by way of evolution. From a biological standpoint, we’re at a significant disadvantage to grasp it. Just take a moment to consider the significance of emergence observable within certain species of animals who depend on it—from a flock of birds, to a school of fish, and to the herds of mammals that migrate across the Serengeti. Allow yourself to ponder and enjoy the questions raised. What even is a higher order? Could one really exist? Do we abide by one ourselves? Should we? 

Free Time of a Childhood Summer 

While it takes no more than a walk to my truck to appreciate a bird’s splendor, it takes work to identify new species, let alone observe them in their natural habitat. You have to go where they flourish. What follows is an account of my first deliberate attempt at birdwatching. 

Several weeks ago, I woke up early and drove to Kelly Island, which sits at the confluence of the Bitterroot and Clark Fork Rivers in Missoula, Montana. Equipped with my new camera lens, I knew I could follow the staccato thrums of distant woodpeckers as I approached through an alley of a residential neighborhood. 

I’d soon learn that my lens was only going to get me so far in my quest to capture birds. Though its zoom was a significant upgrade, I had trouble focusing the shot in so little of time on such a small, skittish and lively animal. I also noticed another birder snapping photos with a camera attached to a lens that looked like a bazooka compared to my own. Instantly humbled, I walked around beneath the morning sun as I observed the swift river and listened to the rustling trees towering over the meadow mazed with trails and shallow ravines—all the while cursing at these birds to sit still, dammit! I was without a pair of nice binoculars—the most fundamental piece of equipment for birding, and could’ve done without the budget lens.

I snuck up on a few woodpeckers and managed a few shaky photos. Several robins let me get close. Suddenly, a tiny brown and white bird landed on a branch at eye level, no more than fifteen feet away. It chirped and darted off. Later, I’d discover that this was a song sparrow, one of the most common and widespread sparrows that lives year-round in Missoula. 

A song-sparrow at Kelly Island

Suddenly, an adorable brown and mostly gray bird dog came sprinting up the trail at me. Thick, wiry hair draped its long snout. Lively, it hopped and darted back and forth, stopping to excitedly sniff my hand. Its owner shouted. The man, who looked like he was in his sixties, rounded a corner of dense shrubbery into sight. A pair of binoculars around his neck, Keen sandals, zip-off pants—I know a birder when I see one. We exchanged hellos as he passed by, but I wanted to pick his brain a little. His dog wouldn’t leave me alone, so I struck up a conversation about a woodpecker up in the tree. He lifted his binoculars. “That,” he said, “is a flicker.” News to me.

“Neat”, I said, while I snapped a few worthless photos. 

“Yea, you hear that call?” I acknowledged the intermittent bursts of rapid, high pitch notes. “That’s a downy,” he said. 

I also didn’t know what a downy was, but I noted it alongside “flicker” into my phone. “There!” he pointed at the same flicker still on the tree. The downy was tiny, black and white, and plenty feisty as it gave the much bigger flicker all hell. Also a woodpecker, the downy started rapping his beak against the trunk, the flicker remaining a few feet above. Then another species of woodpecker came into the frame. The man lifted his binoculars. “And that’s a red-naped sapsucker,” he said. I quickly jotted the name into my phone. A little post expedition research revealed that this species was an “uncommon” sight compared to the other two sharing the same trunk. 

We talked for a short while about birding. I told him I was just getting into it, and he talked about the impending arrival of warblers and other cool species. He smiled and looked me in the eyes as he spoke, grateful to share his passion with a novice. I’d just been stumbling through a futile first effort of identifying and snapping photos of birds–without knowing what I was even doing—and then this man walks up and puts me on three different species of woodpeckers in a flash. “You’ll a nice pair of ‘nocs,’” he said with a smile, holding his set up, “and you’ll be set.” Now I had some lingo, too.

A flicker at Kelly Island


It turns out ospreys are often mistaken for juvenile bald eagles and red-tailed hawks, according to the Cornell Lab Institute. They’re also mistaken for turkey vultures, according to the same source, which seems inconceivable. This concludes nothing; I just wanted to say it. What I need to say is that the capabilities of birds literally fly in the face of our cultural notions that we are the center of existence. They’re here to humble and serve as a constant reminder that this world wasn’t created for our capitalistic ambitions alone. Birds are suited for existence with myriad capabilities that we aren’t but which we should nonetheless appreciate. Together, hand-in-wing, we plunge into the mystery of life. The same evolutionary forces that shaped their existence also shaped our own. Our incessant manipulation of Earth’s bountiful lifeforms and natural resources—our shameful ignorance—is due to backfire in extraordinary fashion. It turns out that the well-being of birds directly corresponds to our own. Why not learn from our feathered companions to better sustain their existence and, in turn, our own? 

So next time you see a flock of starlings rise from a city rooftop and undulate before your eyes in a cloud of artistic splendor, take note of its miracle. Feel your spirit warm into a sense of gratitude that their existence—their mystery—is ours.

A Best Friend, a Hangover, and a Mountain

Mt. Sentinel

“What the fuck?” Matt gasped, staring at the top of Mt. Sentinel. We were no more than twenty minutes into our hike. Other than a softball diamond, Matt hardly leaves the pavement when out of doors. It’s safe to say that this was his first time he’d been forced to confront the proportions of a mountain. Mt Sentinel’s summit likely appeared no taller than San Francisco’s skyline to him, when in fact it rises nearly 2,000-feet above Missoula, Montana. Such misjudgment is a common occurrence for the hiker who’s ignored the horizontal distance needed to gain a ridge or summit. This was one such occasion for one of my most dependable of best friends.

I always treat this particular urban hike like a workout, my headphones blaring while I time myself to scale its heights. No matter how I felt at the bottom—hungover, stressed, a little depressed—I’ll feel better at its top with the entire city splayed before me like a map on a kitchen table. No matter where I am in forty years, I’ll always cherish Mt. Sentinel, a most dependable and consistent source of catharsis I could ever ask for.

Matt had flown in for an early-November weekend. He’d booked the flight and said when he’d arrive without consulting me. I picked him up from the airport, and he was shocked by the sight of my long hair. We immediately drove to the Rhino for a late afternoon’s worth of drinking and catching up. 

Matt (right) and I

We wanted to sweat out our hangovers—clear our minds of the general irrational toll we’d imposed on ourselves after a night of carousing downtown Missoula. A hike was also something to do that day other than more drinking, a past time that’s already tricky to subvert in this town, let alone when a best friend is visiting.

We started at my usual, inconspicuous trailhead. We were taking the hardest route I know of—straight up. From the start, Matt, a born competitor, took off like a pissed off mule. Somewhat in shape, he was ready for a workout. Ahead of me he went. I was somewhat confused by his aggression. Though he was exceptional at whichever sport he played, his talents were always chalked up to gifted hand-eye coordination, never to speed, endurance, or, frankly, motivation.

After a few lengthy switchbacks brought us to a junction, Matt clearly wondered what the hell I had gotten him into. This gave rise to his gasping “What the fuck?” I told him he’d better take it easy, as we were probably only about an eighth of the way. He made a quick glance at the peak. “Shit.”

It’s worth noting just how serious Matt’s hangover was. The night before, we’d hit my usual stops with a few of my friends. Only Matt and I were left over by the time we entered the Badlander at 1am. Here, I got to watch the spectacle that is piss-drunk Matt. He proceeded to carve a ten-by-ten-square-foot box for himself smack in the middle of a crowded dance floor. The theme that evening was 90’s hip hop. Aggressive, nonsensical arm movements and hand signals were his ammo, which, along with an unsynchronized relay of 2pac lyrics, signaled for everyone to get out the way. It’s not as if people had formed the space for him to watch and cheer him on; he made it for himself, jumping and sliding between the parameters, not even trying to collaborate with a girl. He’d completely forgotten who he was but was entirely himself at once. It was his moment, and I stood on the periphery, drink in my hand, holding a genuine smile that periodically broke into laughter as I watched. Eventually, I swigged down the rest of the double whiskey-soda I’d reluctantly accepted from him upon entry and joined. “That was it!” he yelled on our walk home. I was hardly amused by now. “That was all me!”; “WHAT!” he yelled… to the river. “You don’t get it!” he said… to me.

Matt didn’t seem to get much of anything the following morning, though, when he couldn’t recall the inside of the Badlander as we drove by, on our way to breakfast.

From the first junction, I opted to move us from the gradual switchbacks and hike along an obsolete wired fence line. This section of trail daunts in its steep, heart-thumping ascent. I was too amused by Matt’s struggle to take it easy on him. We carried on, with him trailing from there on. The peak disappeared behind our immediate rise. Matt threw a tantrum as the trail leveled off and the peak came back into sight, as he’d thought we were about to summit. 

We continued to trudge forth along a narrow trail through the steep high grass fields leading into the grove of trees at the top. 

After a lengthy series of steep to very steep intervals, we started to round the outside of the tree grove. During a short break, Matt took it upon himself to lie on his back and moan. The air was crisp and golden from the late afternoon sun. I took in the view and explained that we were almost there. “Shut up,” he groaned. One of his arms shielded his eyes from the light. It’s fifty yards, I explained. No response. Knowing his habits almost as well as my own, I was afraid he’d fall asleep. 

I could land a baseball up there!”

“Shut up,” he said. “There’s now way. I’m going back down.” I dug my toe into his side. “Stop it… stop… fuck off…” I kept nudging him until he belly-rolled over, lifted his chin to look at the summit only to collapse his face into the dirt. 


Fiiiiiine!” He suddenly leaped to his feet and walked ahead of me, fast, getting it over with.

A view from the top

From atop, I unzipped my bag and handed him a beer. The endorphins, the exertion, and dehydration all combined for a buzz off of one thick IPA. I took in the view. Fog was quickly settling in and I knew our sweat would freeze if we didn’t keep moving. Matt’s elation was evident. I pointed out the Bitterroot Mountains in the south, Lolo Peak announcing their start. That’s Blue Mountain, I said, and pointed out the Clark Fork, which bisected the northern cityscape, explaining to him that it’s an artery of the mighty Colombia. The Rattlesnake Wilderness loomed in the north. “Matt, five valleys converge at Missoula…”

“Mark,” he had cut me off, “you do you, but let’s get off of this mountain.” 

Matt didn’t have much to spare for the natural scenery that’s kept me in Montana. I understood. I was just happy to have squeezed a good hike in with a longtime best friend. That he was willing to visit was satisfying enough; that he did this hike—a memory we’ll always share.

Following his visit, he wrote me a nice email, explaining he had never climbed a mountain before. He was grateful to have done so. Recently, he brought up the excursion in a quarantine-virtual meeting. “We’ll have to do that again next time you visit, man!” I said, hoping he’d return the enthusiasm.

“Hell no… Fuck no!” he said. “I’m never hiking another mountain with you again!”

Fishing in Winter


We found out that Covid-19 had shuttered work two weeks ago. My co-worker Brendon and I had just finished an afternoon of fishing south of the Bitterroot Valley, a ninety minute’s drive from Missoula. Brendo (as he’s called) read the email aloud as I pulled away from the turnout. We weren’t surprised; it was only a matter of time. 

Brendo, a fellow Bay-Area native, is a close friend who I’ve fished and rock-climbed with more than anyone else. We tend to hyper-focus on either activity for extended periods of time. I’ll spend a considerable portion of my net-worth on ropes and quickdraws one summer, on reels, leaders, and streamers the next. We’re willing to drive for hours on consecutive days if we found a stretch of river with enough dumb fish or an escarpment with a line we must send. Somehow, over the course of changing between jobs, our respective weekends have always fallen on Monday and Tuesday. What follows is an account of a Tuesday afternoon of fishing, two weeks ago, for our year-long awaited return to hit two prized holes.

Brendo, last summer.

Class is in session every time Brendo and I hit the water. He especially has a knack for nymphing, that is catching fish with wet flies beneath the water’s surface. It’s not as romantic as landing a fish at the peak of its rise, but Brendo, who worked at a reputable fly shop for five years, will always say, “People who don’t nymph don’t catch fish.” 

It being the end of winter, it’s tough to argue with his declaration, as the cold water all but freezes the fish. I hadn’t the slightest idea how to fish in cold weather until we hit this very spot a year ago. I was days into the throes of an unexpected heartbreak, and having caught nothing the prior afternoon elsewhere, I wanted to land a nice fish so badly it was a physical need, as if it were my only chance to lift the boulder from my chest. At the start of that crisp, sunny afternoon, I hastily postholed through snow and clomped through the water as I hucked line into what I thought were ideal structured holes and runs—the like of which I’d trade my tax-return to have to myself at dusk come May. Brendo hardly paid me any attention. Winter was a ballgame I didn’t know how to play, and the Fishing Gods took no pity on my lovesick eagerness. He kept moving, and his indifference confused me. I was worried I was high-holing him, so I trailed his slow gait. We walked nearly a mile upstream until Brendo was finally ready to fish. He stopped on the inside of a right-angled stretch of water, where a white riffle too dangerous to cross emptied into a deep bend that gently tailed out over thirty-or-so yards. He said where the fish were, and I was perplexed, confused even. We entered and walked across the sandy bed until we were more than waist deep, and he cast into water I’d have never thought to fish. Our nymphs dragged nearly ten feet beneath the surface, slow, very slow, sometimes catching the sand. He kept giving me unfamiliar instructions. And by God did my line finally tug. Elation, satisfaction, distraction—salvation.

There were some very simple observations I hadn’t made. I knew we had to fish beneath the surface, but I didn’t know why fish aren’t as hungry in cold weather. Which is to say that I never paused to comprehend that because they’re cold-blooded, their metabolism falls with the temperature; and fish who aren’t eating aren’t energetic, which explains why Brendo only wanted to fish the deepest slowest water he could find, the laziest possible shelter for a fish to hold position. 

I also could never have imagined the subtle nuances of nymphing, which is even frowned upon by purist dry-fly-fishermen. For example, we secured strike indicators (a pretentious term us fly-fishermen use to call a device that adds up to nothing more than a bobber) 8-9 feet above our wet-flies, which dragged slowly above the river-bed. At one point, Brendo gave instructions so subtle as to move my bobber a half-inch down the line, and however relevant you believe his advice was, I caught a damned trout by my next cast. 

This year, we arrived at the same river as shown on a map, but which looked far different at its banks. The water was lower, so the few holes we had driven 90-minutes for wouldn’t be as deep. The afternoon was grey and bleak, but the cold didn’t bite as hard. A few Canadian geese intermittently squawked away the silence as we slowly chased them upstream. The prospects for tugged lines weren’t very strong. At least we brought beer, I thought. (A cold-to-slightly warm beverage, or three of them, are always well received on a day of not catching any fish).

We fished first at the same bend of Brendo’s first stop the year prior, but the entrance riffle wasn’t very aggressive, the inside pocket as big nor deep. We caught nothing.

A little humbled by the goose egg at stop one of our year-long awaited and much discussed return, Brendo and I would have to adapt to a different river. We crossed a gentle ripple and headed upstream, the river on our left. We couldn’t find our prized hole from the year before, the one Brendo had said housed “every fish in the river.” We studied the eroded bank across from us. The branches and fallen wood that dipped into the water last year now hung high above it. We searched but couldn’t find the run. But then I spotted a drift log a hundred-yards upstream, resting on the gravel some fifty feet off the bank. “Didn’t we sit on that log last year?” I asked.

“Maybe,” Brendo said. It was at the water’s edge last year, and we had sat on it to switch our flies and enjoy the occasional smoke while we took turns fishing. Last year, this run was obvious. Now, there was only the slightest color change to detect, not enough to draw in the passive angler, but due to our knowledge, we had a feeling there were some trout in there. “Let’s go for it?” Brendo asked. 

“Sure, I mean why not?” I said.

We stepped out into the river, around twenty feet apart. We both drifted our lines along the subtle color change, fifteen feet in front of us. I got ahold of something big. As soon as it was visible, though, we both saw a white-fish. I netted it after a good fight. “There still in there!” I yelled, elated by the eradicated smell of skunk. Brendo pulled up a white fish himself, and I another one. Then he landed a nice cutthroat. We let the hole calm down while we each had a smoke but had no more luck when we threw our lines back in.

DSC_7496 copy
Fishing the slight color change at our prized hole.

We walked back to the other side of the first bend we fished. There was a small eddy on its outside, pressed up against the steep bouldered bank, a small swirl of foam in its middle. “It’s worth a try,” Brendo said.

“You want first cast?” Brendo asked me as we stepped over the icy boulders.

“No, I’m good, man. You take it.” Brendo was silent at my response. I thought about the trout he might pull out of there before my eyes, how stupid I’d feel for the entire ride home. “No, man, fuck, I’ll take the first cast.”

Brendo chuckled. “I was wondering why you wouldn’t.” 

I stood on a small boulder directly above the narrow, six foot wide pocket of foam skirted by the fast current. I threw—or more like dropped—my line through the foam and watched my strike indicator slowly meander toward a drift when suddenly it disappeared. I thrust the line and felt violent jerks at its end. “Uhhh yea, bud,” Brendo said, dragging his cigarette. Whatever was on the end was pissed off. “A brown!” he said when it came into view. I dragged it into Brendo’s net. I took in its red spots along its brown back that faded into its gold belly. Nothing too sizable, but beautiful.

Brendo removed the strike indicator from his line and sunk his nymphs deep into a narrow skirt of slack water above the foam. It drifted far underneath the foam and before long he had a fish on. A whitefish. We hiked back to the truck. A half-dozen fish between the two of us, along with a half-dozen beers—not a bad day for an afternoon in early March. 

Nothing to do but Nothing?

Most of us are dismissed from work and free of familiar obligations. We are alone with ourselves. My place of work, a restaurant, has shuttered, and I’m aimless without it. I don’t think I’ll ever miss waiting tables, but I miss how the job structured my life. Also now without the gym, I’m often unsatisfied by the free time I once craved while I was clocked in. While I’ve fished during four of the past five days, I also sit around my apartment anxious and unpresent. I visit the same web pages over and over to read the onslaught of BREAKING news that only seems to worsen. I’ve even started to read most of the messages of a group-text between my immediate family. In need of something to get me going, I’m going to write more than usual over the course of the coming weeks. The discipline will provide direction; the posts will bring satisfaction. 

I’m humbled by the little attention I afforded the virus until recently. We very well may find out what it’s like to lose upwards of a million people in our country alone. This is extraordinary. It should flutter your stomach the first time you attempt to comprehend it. So, it isn’t something I’m taking lightly anymore, and it’s really important to follow one simple direction: Avoid other people. Right now, you may want to help, but all you can do is isolate yourself. It’s a strange phenomenon: There’s nothing to do but nothing.

However, for those of us who are outside of the industries that are essential to tame the pandemic, we have a lot of free time to accomplish something we’ve always wanted to. That dusty guitar you still haven’t learned to play, that classic tome on the shelf, that online javascript class, those empty planters in your backyard, that insanely intricate quilting pattern—whatever endeavor you’ve talked about, the opportunity to act is now. And if now isn’t the time, just understand it never will be.

My thing I’ve talked about but haven’t acted on? Over the past year-and-a-half, I’ve said I am going to resurrect my blog. Talk isn’t enough, though, and from my experience, it actually lowers the odds for any results. However, I hope this announcement will pan out differently. That it’s for the sake of my sanity amid social isolation definitely increases the odds. 

What to write about? What I always write about: Being outside. Fly-fishing, hiking, and exploring. Compared to the trails and beaches of my hometown of Santa Cruz, California, where you’re bound to run into folks you know, let alone those you don’t, the mountains and rivers of Missoula, Montana are relatively empty. There’s plenty of open space to isolate oneself in. This place feels more and more like home the more I explore it. I’m not a native of Missoula in a casual sense. I wasn’t born here. What’s more, I’m the dreaded Californian transplant. While some don’t hesitate to call me the worst, I have plenty of hope and reason to feel like a native. I’ve been reading local writer David James Duncan’s book The River Why, which speaks to how:

“A native is a man or creature or plant indigenous to a limited geographical area—a space boundaried by and defined by mountains, rivers, or coastline (not by latitudes, longitudes, or state and county lines), with its own peculiar mixture of weeds, trees, bugs, birds, flowers, streams, hills, rocks, and critters (including people), its own nuances of rain, wind, and seasonal change. Native intelligence develops through an unspoken or soft-spoken relationship with these interwoven things: it evolves as the native involves himself in the region. A non-native awakes in the morning in a body in a bed in a room in a building on a street in a country in a state in a nation. A native awakes in the center of a little cosmos—or a big one, if his intelligence is vast—and he wears this cosmos like a robe, senses the barely perceptible shiftings, migrations, moods, and machinations of its creatures, its growing green things, its earth and sky.” (72)

Having worked summers in Glacier National Park and in the Gallatin Canyon, I’ve been fortunate to experience the natural wonders of Western Montana. However, I’m afraid my “intelligence” of the natural machinery of Missoula is too low. I’m outside plenty, but I have a ways to go before I can gauge the nuances of its area with native-like precision. 

I never gained a true sense of self until I arrived in Missoula alone. A half-decade has elapsed, and I still want it to feel even more like home. My sense of Missoula, that which “evolves as the native involves himself in the region,” can only be defined by the mountains and rivers that shape its being as well as my own. Throughout the process, I will document some of my experiences, observations, and random thoughts for you to read. My two-folded passion for writing and being outside can keep me busy amid this increasingly strange and unfortunate time. I better start taking advantage. 

Southern Utah Road Trip pt. 2


9am, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. I crawled from my tent ready to fish. After a bowl of granola with yogurt and fruit, I asked a campground facilities maintenance man for directions to a certain waterfall. He explained a gravel turnoff from the highway marked by an oddly shaped boulder. I hopped in my truck and drove to the canyon’s rim, more than 500-feet above the tiny creek I’d fish. 

Four cars were parked at the trailhead. I figured they were hikers, not anglers. The weather was temperate—an ideal, late-Spring morning for exploration of the Canyon Country. The sun warmed my back as I loaded my fishing gear, lunch, wet weather clothing, and plenty of water into my backpack. The balmy weather relaxed me, and I was in no hurry. My mood was in stark contrast to that of the morning before, when I woke to hail storm lying down in my exposed truck bed.

From the ridge, the trail started down a steep continuous slab of stone. Stout Junipers and Pinyon Pines scattered the arid landscape. Cairns guided the way whenever the sandy trail leapt onto stone. 

The trail eventually hooked upstream near the bottom. The sound of moving water grew louder. I battled a hallway of brush to emerge beside a narrow ninety-foot plume of water that fell into a deep jade pool. Continuous water runoff had zebra-striped the horseshoe of cliff, and a hanging garden of vegetation decorated the walls within reach of the fall’s misty spray. 

Around the size of a domestic swimming pool, the deep, slow water looked exceptional to fish. A friend of a friend said I might find “a healthy brown trout population” in these depths. The thirsty hike in, however, along with the creek’s minuscule flow, indicated otherwise. Now I believed him, due in part to the deep water, but also to a sense of obscurity. I felt no pressure to throw a line. No one else would fish here today, if not all week long. 

The scenery alone warranted the hard hike in-and-out, but I was here to fish. I slid into my wading boots and rigged up. I secured five-feet of fifteen-pound tippet and tied on a white minnow streamer I’d named Scout. Bright white and more-or-less an inch long, Scout was partially wrapped in a metallic sheath to simulate the scales of a baby fish. He was even equipped with a set of artificial eyes to fool a cannibalistic predator. 

A ledge more-or-less a foot deep ringed half of the pool. I stepped onto the shallow shelf and dabbled Scout until he was soaked. I cast him back-and-forth along the bank and splashed him ten-yards upstream, around two feet inside the ledge. He sunk for considerable time before I started to strip him in. He came into view, around four-feet beneath the surface, his scales shimmering in the darkness. Moving slower than one walks, he began to close the distance. The relaxed water put the majority of directing Scout into my hands, a responsibility that would prove troublesome. After around the fifth strip, the ground beneath my feet shifted. Startled, I glanced down to see a beautiful, heavy female Brown Trout dislodged from the wall. Bright red shaded the entire bottom half of her body, uncharacteristic of her specie’s spawning cycle, but perhaps of her location. Meanwhile, Scout’s performance was subpar to say the least. He nosedived as I comprehended his predator before he was whiplashed back into position. Though a stranger to artificial flies and fish, the Brown did not oblige and tucked herself back into the shelf.

I lit a smoke and walked clockwise to the end of the pool. I splashed Scout into the hole’s center. He cruised around two-feet beneath the surface as I stripped him in. Another Brown flashed but didn’t strike.

I circled farther around the bottom until I stood in the pool’s mouth. I threw Scout to my left along the side of a small grove of reeds. The line curved Scout from the bank toward the pool’s center depths. Submerged a few feet, I watched him swim. Suddenly, there was a vibrant flash of red and a heavy jaw line so big and colorful the sight recalled a salmon. He opened his mouth and either missed Scout completely, or I took away lunch with an anxious hook set. It was over in a split-second.

Stunned, I began to laugh. I’d moved three browns without anything to show for it. Still overcome by satisfaction. I needed to let the spot chill a bit. I thought I’d fish dries downstream in the small creek to pass time. I stashed my bag in a bush and brought my sling pack along with me.

Dense shrubbery and trees caved the creek. An inch-or-so of water flowed across a continuous slab of brown and orange sandstone. It occasionally gathered into bathtub-sized pools and carved slow, deeper channels. The fish in these aquarium-like areas saw me early and bolted into cover.

I tied on a size-12 yellow-humpy pattern. I couldn’t throw much line without snagging the walls and ceiling of impermeable foliage. I eventually gave up and continued my hike downstream. The lower canyon walls would sometimes break the foliage to wall the banks. The water and shade refreshed me. Plants up to a few feet higher than the water lied flat from flooding, which unsettled me. In the event of a flash flood, there was nowhere to run. The water was around a half-foot higher the the day before, and everything began to feel real small. 

I was anxious to meet that Brown. I hurried back up to the pool.

I climbed from the creek into the sun. I switched back to the bulky leader and tied Scout back on. I knew where I was headed, right back to the mouth. I stepped in as silent as I could and knew I had one shot left at the brown, who for the purpose of storytelling, we’ll call Caesar. I sailed Scout into the reeds near the bank’s edge, what I figured to be his throne. Scout snagged the bank for a brief moment but broke free after a few tugs. I let him sink before I started to strip him in. He soon came into view as he rounded a brilliant, accidental curve from the bank through the middle of the pool. Doubt settled in as he shimmered, alone. But then a shadow moved from the bank, a good five paces behind Scout. My stomach turned as I watched Caesar shape into discernible form and close the distance with graceful, predatory fury. 

I was without said aplomb and nearly overcome by a shaky effort to not fuck up. Scout was no more than fifteen-feet from the end of my rod pointed straight at him. I maintained this stance for no apparent reason other than it felt right. He was minuscule in comparison to the leviathan on his tail. Caesar slowed himself near his prey for a better look. I stripped what little line was left until I moved my rod to maintain Scout’s swim. 

Caesar’s hook jaw dropped as he angled his head and chomped Scout’s ass. I jerked my arm so hard I’d have sent a ten-inch Rainbow into the weeds. Caesar whipped himself into a frenzy before he zipped line from my reel for several long seconds until I slammed the brakes. Lucky for me the leader was too burly for it to snap. The giant had its way with me for a while as he darted to every corner of the hole. I fought him for seven of the most enjoyable minutes of my fishing career.

I left the net lying in my truck bed. As a result, our time together would be brief. While this was a bummer for good photos and my ego, it was ultimately easiest for my catch. I still managed a few photos and to feel his heavy weight in my hand. His belly glistened red. Scout’s de-barbed hook easily slipped from the inside of Caesar’s mouth. I managed a screwy video of his sprinted release across the shelf and into the pool.


Endorphins lifted my mood as winds began to move dense clouds across the sky. Rain seemed imminent. I threw on my coat and began to pack up for my hike out. I was breaking down my rod when a couple in their mid-thirties showed up. The man was surprised people fish here and asked if I’d had any luck. Sure, I said. They were from southern Alberta, Canada, where he fished as well. I quickly showed him a few photos of Caesar while trying to hide my pride. With effort, I maintained no-big-deal look. Holding my phone for him, he raised his sunglasses and squinted at the screen. “Whew, a brown,” he said. I raised my eyebrows at him with a nod. No shit, pal. “Hon, come take a look at this.” Her reaction was more-or-less the same. 

I took a seat nearby to chat. We both talked travel, the usual “How long is your trip?” and “You ever been here before?” They were friendly but tired.  I held Scout in my hand. “Fish eating fish,” I said. 

“I’d like to see you pull another Brown out of there,” the guy eventually said. 

My ego brought me to my feet despite my conviction that another fish wouldn’t move after Caesar brought the ruckus to every corner of the hole. But here I went, my backcast in motion as I walked toward the lip of the shallow shelf. My audience remained seated on the grass surrounding the bottom of the hole.  I was upright, my wrist stiff as I swept my arm back and forth in a futile effort to convey competence. I began to accelerate my final cast in the middle of my final step when a funny thing happened. The ground was no longer where it had been. I jerked the rod straight above me for balance and to not crush it beneath my fall. The streamer swung violently behind me. The gal gasped as they both took cover beneath their arms. “Nooooo!” I said, already in submission to my fate. I spun myself back toward the shelf as I fell in, but now both of my feet had slid over the very ledge I’d avoided with diligence all afternoon. My body folded my face forward into the water as I had nothing high enough to grab onto. Water cascaded down my raincoat when I stood back on top of the ledge. My drenched shorts suctioned to my thighs. “Well that wasn’t good,” I  said through laughter. But instead of laugh with or even at me, they shared a countenance that asked What the fuck is wrong with you? They said nothing, only stared. The gal finally managed to speak. “Are you alright?” 

“Yea” I said. “This is less than ideal.” I laughed more, not knowing what to say or do to fight the awkwardness. They didn’t say much. “Alright,” said the man with a slap on his kneecaps. They stood and hardly managed to say goodbye as they made a hurried exit.

Caesar must have been darting back in forth in laughter.

I was soaked when rain began to fall. I changed into some dry, water-proof pants I’d packed. The ascent out of the canyon would warm me plenty, so I knew I’d be fine. 

I drove to Bryce Canyon National Park the following morning after I decided to ditch my permit to drive the White Rim Road in Canyonlands. I wanted to maintain my westward progression to make it home by Friday to celebrate my birthday. I planned to stay in Bryce for the night and head to Zion National Park for the next night. I planned to leave for Santa Cruz on Friday.

I was lucky enough to snag a camping spot in Bryce. It was very crowded with tourists left over from Memorial Day weekend. Despite the crowds, Bryce didn’t disappoint. Along its rim, one sees a labyrinth of shadowed canyons beneath ridge lines crowded by innumerable windswept spires called hoodoos. White sedimentary strips decorated the burnt-orange cliffs. But the crowds at the viewpoints were nearly suffocating. Coming from Montana, I also hadn’t grown accustomed to the heat. It was the early afternoon, and I needed a solitary hike. 


I left the viewing platform down a wide, developed trail. The swift descent left the crowded noise and heat behind. The trail mazed through a hefty portion of the canyon before climbing out the other end. I saw plenty of hikers, and it was fun to strike conversations with some of them. The hike was by no means exhausting, but still plenty long and wore me out. 

The sun was on its way down by the time I hiked out of the canyon. It grew windy and somewhat chilly. I rode a shuttle back to my campsite where I prepared a monstrous taco salad. The following morning I’d move onto Zion, where I knew it’d be even more crowded and harder to snag a campsite. The park had absorbed record Memorial Day weekend crowds, but I was hopeful that most had left. 

Though is was Thursday, a far above average number of visitors happened to be at Zion. Its unique, jaw-dropping beauty and proximity to Southern California overwhelms its capacity. It felt like I was in a nature theme park. No campsites were available. I found myself waiting at a picnic bench in line for any cancellations. After sitting around for an hour and talking to other hopeful travelers, a ranger showed up, and I attained a nice campground.

I wanted to hike to Angel’s Landing. It was closed during my last visit in the dead of winter a few years prior, and I couldn’t miss it this time around. There was one problem: Crowds. There had been a three-hour wait to enter the trail over Memorial Day Weekend. While I knew there wouldn’t be any wait for this day, hikers of every sort, from beginner to advanced, thronged the vertiginous ridge to the top. A chain spaced by steel pools spanned the final half-mile stretch, and people headed up-and-down would hold on above cliffside drops on either side. I was both annoyed and surprised by the amount of people on the trail. It It also made me feel unsafe.

I made it home in time for my birthday. My brother Pete invited my friends out for a night on the town to celebrate. I felt good all weekend long. I finished my road trip with a long, single-day drive back to Montana, the highlight of which was driving through Hells Canyon along the Salmon River at sunset.

Thanks for reading.

Southern Utah Road Trip pt. 1


In late May I embarked on an eleven-day road trip from Missoula, Montana through southern Utah to my hometown Santa Cruz, California. I visited four national parks—Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion—as well as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. From Utah, I made it to Santa Cruz in time for my birthday.

My plan didn’t really exceed an idea. No more than three days before I left, I aborted a fishing trip through Idaho and Oregon, also ending in Santa Cruz. I figured the rivers were too high from snow runoff, so I rerouted for Utah. Two days before I left, I bought a recreational atlas and met at a brewery with my friend and former professor Dave, who’s had lots of experiences in the Canyon Country. We plotted a few points in the atlas, and he gave me contact info for a few of his friends familiar with the area. He pointed out the White Rim Road in Canyonlands, a 100-mile drive that follows the cliffside rim of the Island in the Sky district. Constructed by ambitious but hapless uranium miners in the mid-20th-century, the scenic drive now requires a permit, along with a four-wheel drive, high clearance vehicle, which I had in my truck. Dave had to run, but I stayed behind and continued to study the maps, and tried to secure permits for few nights on the Road. 

In general, I knew I wanted to get to southeastern Utah and work my way west. Constant improvisation as I journeyed brought forth excitement and surprise, but not without anxiety and indecision. In any event, my attention was always in demand. I was alone, and the focus held aimless thoughts at bay. It distracted me, in part, from a lingering heartbreak that brought unpredictable bouts of loneliness, anger, and pain, only to ricochet off feelings of gratitude, empathy, and love. All of these feelings needed to be felt. Left alone, they’re a reason, if not the reason, for the trip to begin with. I needed something to get me going, so I winged an odyssey across the West. 

— — — — —

On advice from Dave, I left Missoula in the morning and drove south as far as I could. I made it to Price, a small city in Eastern Utah, at nightfall and booked a cheap motel room. I went to Walmart to grab some last second items: mustard, sandwich bags, tupperware, Advil, and so on. These items were added to the already stuffed cooler and crates wedged inside the bulging cab of my truck. Before leaving Missoula, I got high off a materialistic binge at REI and ACE Hardware. Among other items, I bought a hatchet, a foldout tarp, a Steripen water sanitizer, a seven-gallon water container, a Coleman Grill, plastic eating utensils, and a fold out rocking chair. Of course I chalked my consumerism up to a desire to connect with nature. But on night one I found myself wandering the fluorescent aisles of Walmart.

Back at the motel I drank a beer over some maps and a guide book. It was difficult to cram through so much information in so little time. If anything, it made me anxious. I wasn’t certain on a place to stay the next night by the time I hit the rack at around one. I hadn’t any idea if I’d landed the permits for the White Rim Road. I decided I’d drive to Canyonlands National Park the following morning to find out. 

I woke at around nine and quickly ate some granola and yogurt before I took off. Canyonlands was three-hours due south. It was Memorial Day weekend, and I anticipated traffic and crowds. Campsites were likely packed, but I knew I could pull over in an isolated spot and sleep in my truck bed.

I turned from the highway toward the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands. Sheer, colorful sandstone walls enclosed the road. Then I spent more than an hour in line at the front gate. I studied the atlas over my steering wheel as I inched closer and closer. 

I drove to the visitor center when I made it inside. I’d found some luck with the White Rim Road. Scott, a young, wiry park ranger, was amused I’d managed to reserve a permit in high demand with so little time to spare. Surprised, I explained I pulled it off buzzed at a brewery a few days ago. He laughed as I paid him the twenty bucks in fees. 

The permit wasn’t active for another few days, so I had time to kill. I brought all of my fishing gear, but all I’d only seen muddy rivers in the area. I knew the mountains nearby had fishy water, but the lakes were likely still frozen over. I figured I’d drive into the Needles district and camp and hike around. I’d already been there three years earlier, but the bizarre, otherworldly rock formations warranted another visit. 

I walked out of the visitor center, made myself a salami sandwich on my tailgate, and drove off without taking any photos. I’d be back in a few days to drive the Road, anyway. I drove into Moab, only thirty minutes away, and was irritated and disheartened by the traffic and crowded sidewalks. The town was gridlocked by the onslaught of Memorial Day weekenders. It was hot outside. I began to cook in the traffic. I had second thoughts on visiting Needles. It’d be overcrowded, and I’d been there when it wasn’t. 

I finally put Moab behind me and was driving south for Needles by mid-afternoon. I was low on energy and somewhat unenthused by the prospect of this visit. Then I saw I was low on diesel. Shit. I could’ve stopped in Moab’s already stopped traffic to fill up, but escaped instead. I decided to drive down to Monticello, forty-five-minutes beyond the entrance to Needles. The afternoon began to wane, and I was screwed on finding an open campground in or outside of Needles. 

I missed a call while fueling up. It was from George, Dave’s old friend who could talk fly-fishing Utah with me. I’d been expecting his call for more than a day. George is a literature professor and fishing guide in Oregon, but is from Utah. He turned over a wealth of information with enthusiasm as we flipped through our respective atlases. He said that water around Moab was muddy and would remain so. Conditions were different out west in the center of the state. “Any stream flowing off of Boulder mountain right now should be clear,” he said. Boulder Mountain was near Capital Reef National Park and Escalante, a three hour’s drive away. I told him I secured a spot to drive the White Rim Road in a few nights. “Why don’t you drive out and fish a few days and head back over if you still want to do that drive.” Suddenly, I was excited. “Make sure you take 156 over there, through Hanksville. It’s gorgeous.” 

I peeled away from the gas station onto the open road. I was going places. 156 was empty and the scenery was indeed gorgeous. Sweeping canyons would appear out of nowhere. One in particular, Fry Canyon, was so massive that I thought the Colorado was carving its depths. I stopped my truck and walked to the rim to hear nor see any trace of water. I pondered what could’ve shaped the collosal depression and how long it took. 

There wasn’t any traffic. A falling sun began to soften the warm air as the surrounding cliffs, mesas, and distant mountains shimmered gold. I was blown away by the vastness of the country. The canyon landscape spanned the horizons of every direction on a scale I tried to comprehend on my drive through it. 

I wasn’t prepared for the majesty and magnitude of the Colorado River. I could do nothing but stare at it for almost a half-hour by first sight. I was on a two lane suspension bridge between two rocky bluffs, some 100-feet above its surface. I’d parked my truck in the lane and hopped out and peered over the guard rails and took photos. It’s enormity amid the arid country baffled me.  


On somewhat of a time crunch to claim a campsite in Capitol Reef, I turned into an elevated designated viewpoint for the river. I hate when I stop for photos when low on time, but I couldn’t help it. I needed to get back in my truck if I was going to make it to Capital Reef by nightfall. 

I made it by the end of dusk. I could make out mere shapes of cliffs and mountains. All the campsites were full. Now 10pm and pitch black on a windy, rainy night, I didn’t know where I’d sleep. Adrenaline kicked in. I knew I’d find somewhere, though I wish I had already. 

I left the park’s west entrance and pulled into a parking lot of a luxery, western themed hotel. I looked in my atlas as light rain hit my windshield. I wanted to sleep in my truck-bed on the side of the road, but everywhere in the park was off limits. I felt there were plenty of BLM roads in the area. They were, in large part, not displayed in my atlas. Without much of a sense of direction, I walked into the hotel, hoping for some help from the front desk. 

I told the staff I didn’t have 300-hundred bucks to spare for a room in a vintage covered wagon. Nice enough folks, they told me where I could find a good BLM road for the occasion. I left and turned down an unmarked dirt road I would’ve never seen on my own. I pulled into an undesignated but marked campground. The drizzling was due to let up, but not for another few hours. It was windy, cold, and damp, but I was excited for my first night outside. Now 11:30 pm, I set the stove up and cooked a few bratwursts while I sipped a cold beer. 

I woke up in my truck bed to light rain. Not my first time sleeping beneath a drizzle, I wrapped the blue tarp around me and tried to doze off. The drips grew heavier and rapid. Shit. Then came hail. Fuck. I looked out from under the fold of the tarp to see white pellets bounce everywhere and drift against the bed walls. I took a deep breath and jolted from my bag as quick as a snake strike. I threw my sleeping bag into my cab first. The sleeping pad went next. I threw the firewood into the bed and tied the tarp over it. Everything else, from my down jacket to my sweats, was soaked by the time they were inside. I draped my wet clothes over the passenger seat in front of the heating vents. I rotated different items as I drove throughout the day. To my surprise, it was a success.

At around 8 I drove into the small nearby town of Torre in search of a fly shop Mark mentioned to me. I wanted to attain some local perspective on the fishing learn if any had shaped up. Two men, one in his thirties, the other in his fifties, were behind the counter when I walked in. A fledgling shop, they were all smiles and happy to help me. I had some spots to mention from my conversations with Mark, some they probably wouldn’t have revealed to an itinerant fisherman like me. 

The younger one and I talked for a bit as we flipped through my atlas. A few of the spots were indeed worth a visit, he said. I spent around fifty-bucks on leaders and an assortment of flies. Rain was forecasted in spotty showers throughout the day, fine for fishing.

I drove south on a two-lane highway that wound me into the mountains. Unanticipated snow began to fall. Its volume increased with elevation. Near the pass, I turned down a dirt road to a lake I planned to fish and spend the night. The snow blanketed the road’s bumpy surface. I soon found myself in steep descent on sharp, single lane switchbacks. There was little traction for my tires. My heart raced as I contemplated whether I could make it back up. I turned around when I could. The ride up and over went better than expected, but spooked me enough. The defrost blared louder than the music, which I eventually turned off to focus as snow crashed into my windshield. I realized I’d made a wrong turn, but I was done with this place. I drove back to the highway and turned onward south to Boulder.

I soon reached the pass to see vacationers stuck on the highway. The wheels of their RVs and rental minivans spun in place on the compacted snow. By now, I was more than grateful for four-wheel drive. The falling snow turned into rain as I lowered into Boulder. No longer aware of where I’d spend the night, I kept moving through town, my eyes peeled for a campsite. 

After Boulder, the two-lane highway ascended to a thin ridge that straddled the lip of two vast canyons that fell from either side. It made for a dramatic entrance into the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. 

Awestruck, I pulled over along the ridge to take photos. Sheer walls enclosed the creek bottom of the western canyon. I’d soon learn the rushing water was the sound of Lower Calf Creek Falls. Sheer cliffs and verdant vegetation enclosed the distant stream. I wondered what it was like down there and whether I could visit.

I wanted to locate a place to sleep before I reached the town of Escalante, another ten-miles down the road.  A steady descent took me into the canyon’s bottom. Here I saw a sign for a campground that read “Lower-Calf Falls.” I knew I wanted to fish the upper falls, so I dipped in for a look. 

Little more than 10-feet wide, Calf Creek split the campground in two. You could drive across a paved portion of its bed to reach the other side, but the water was a bit high from the rain for my liking. Fortified by a wall of dense trees and shrubs, the narrow, murky creek moved fast and didn’t invite the angler. I parked in the main lot and walked the footbridge to find an open campsite. I quickly settled on one and set up camp. I decided I’d hike to the Lower Falls. 

The falls were a mild two-to-three hour round trip hike into the section of canyon I’d just wondered was even possible to enter. It was six by the time I left. The trail cut into sandstone colored in varieties of yellow, pink, orange, and red. I saw plenty of hikers, but it didn’t feel crowded. Sheer multi-colored cliffs, often zebra-striped black by continuous runoff, enclosed the trail as I neared the falls. In spots, the walls concaved enough to create amphitheater-like spaces. The creek came in-and-out sight, its banks revealed by dense shrubbery. 

The creek pooled and moved slower as I closed into the falls. It looked fun to fish, and I wished I’d brought my rod, but I didn’t really have enough time to begin with. I was excited nonetheless.

I reached the waterfall. A 126-foot cascade spilled over smooth stone into a deep pool. Hanging gardens of foliage decorated the horseshoe of sandy cliffs that enclose the area. Trees supported by exposed, gnarled roots sat on the beach, high water and floods having swept the ground from beneath them. The haven recalled a tropic ravine in Thailand, not the stonescaped, thirsty country it’s nestled in. 

I hiked back in a hurry. In dusk, I cooked tacos while enjoying a few beverages. I chatted for a while with other campers. I knew where I was headed the following morning: straight to Upper Calf Creek falls to fish.

Thanks for reading. To be continued in part 2 in a few weeks!



The Bob


Recently, Emilie and I visited Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, a place where beauty and enormity combine to defy a concise explanation. At 1,500 square miles, it’s the largest wilderness complex in the lower 48. Countless towering peaks form a number of different ranges that remind one of their minute stature in the face of Nature. I was most confounded by its remoteness despite its size and proximity to Glacier National Park, where more than a million people visited during July of last year, alone. The Bob’s grandeur — which measures to Glacier’s own in every respect — remains isolated. Before we even entered, driving north along its eastern corridor, I was dumbfounded by the jagged ridge line of peaks that strung the entire horizon. I wondered: How could I not know this place?

We car-camped for two nights on the West Fork of the Teton River, in the Lewis and Clark Wilderness area of the complex. The water was as clear as I’ve ever seen, anywhere. The area was stripped bare by a fire that burned nearly 30,000 acres in 2007. We were hardly inside the northeastern area of the complex, little more than an hour’s drive from GNP, yet saw almost no one for our entire stay. Only one person shared our campground over the course of two nights. We attempted to hike Mt. Wright to view more than a hundred peaks stretching over every which horizon, but were turned around by a thunderstorm. But the views, even from little more than halfway up, still impressed.

When I returned to Missoula, a neighbor and videographer who travels to outdoor havens across the globe told me the Bob is one of most beautiful places in the world. He called it “undervalued.” But I now realize that its obscurity speaks volumes to what makes Montana so special. Though relatively unknown, it’s best the Bob remains WILD.



“Lacerating Self-Doubt”: My Interview with William Finnegan

finnegan photo

In April 2016, William Finnegan won the Pulitzer Prize for his memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. Following his award, I wrote a six-sentence brief for our campus newspaper at the University of Montana, where he had studied creative writing more than a generation ago. I sent a handful of questions his way via email, and he kindly responded with a note I turned into a follow up story on his years in Missoula.

The semester’s end was near, and I was exhausted between obligations for class and the paper. Barbarian Days is a long, rich book almost devoid of humor, and it doesn’t make for light reading. I listened to it on audio read by Finnegan himself. His voice made for an intimate experience during the many hikes I took to relieve stress from the waning semester. I was moved most by chapters concerning his mid-to-late twenties. At my age, he was amid a half-decade surf odyssey in Asia, Australia, and Africa. But persistent, “lacerating self-doubt” shrouds a lifestyle I might easily romanticize.

I identified with his “lacerating self-doubt” and was inspired by how he withstood it. He made his own way while enslaved to an inordinately high standard he held himself to. He was on his own, halfway around the world, seeking his voice and becoming a writer, something I want to be myself. As far as I know, this endeavor involves struggle more so than anything. Thoughts like “I can’t write” or “I’m not smart enough” pervade my already contemplative mind. Finnegan is a celebrated international reporter who’s resided at the New Yorker for three-decades and had just won the Pulitzer. Though hard to admit, he is the idyllic version of my future self. Which is why his humility and honesty in Barbarian Days hit home. It brought his lofty achievements down to Earth. His progression toward becoming a writer was an immense struggle, one I must take on myself.

Finnegan was coming to Missoula for a reading a week into my summer vacation, around a month after my articles for the school paper. I wanted to meet him for more than an autograph. A face-to-face interview for the school paper was my ticket, and I resolved for it to happen. I analyzed his book in several exhaustive emails. To the last he replied, “Thanks for thinking so much about my book!” I was in. We scheduled to meet the morning after his reading.

I was very uncertain and exited on my way to pick him up for the interview. He was staying at the home of his longtime friend Brian D’Salvatore, who’s pictured aside him on the cover of Barbarian Days. My car was stuffed with luggage for my upcoming summer job at Big Sky Ski Resort, a four-hour drive I needed to complete by early afternoon. I had staid off the job for as long as possible, and Finnegan was kind enough to meet me for an early-morning interview. Finnegan was holding his eyes open when he answered the door. I drove us to the Break on Higgins, where we started our chat over pastries and coffee. I tried to sound smart and competent but was scattered and, at times, I verged on incoherence. I was star struck, looking into the eyes of someone I admired. He wasn’t the handsome, well-dressed man I saw at the meeting the night prior, nor was he the extremely handsome man in the photo he sent me for an article. Rather, he was wearing a weathered flannel and faded blue jeans. His face was leathered, how a lifelong surfer’s ought to look.

finnegan 3
The portrait Finnegan sent my way after he received the Pulitzer.

A recording clip from our interview, in which Finnegan speaks to his battles with self-doubt in his youth:

Often, those close to me remark, in one variation or another, “You think too much.” I never expect the observation, but it never surprises me. I tend to ponder things into perplexity more so than others, perhaps far more so than others.

My tendency to overthink has hindered me in the past, especially with sports. I started at quarterback for my high school varsity football team. Apart from my height and arm, I wasn’t cutout for such a demanding position. A QB must be assertive and able to command his team—I was shy and painfully self-aware. He must be an astute performer, aware of not only his responsibilities, but of those for every player on the field. While I could hit the books when I desired, I wasn’t football smart, let alone QB-smart. My athletic-IQ has never been strong. The smart athlete’s ability to disengage the audience and focus on the task at hand—winning—is a trait I’ve never had, and one I admire in others.

I was entrenched in a quarterback controversy for the duration of my junior season, and I overthought every perception of me, whether it was from friends and family, my coaches, campus peers, or the newspaper. Never able to give myself a break, I quit the team before my senior season, a decision I never regretted in contrast to the warnings I received when I made it. Ten years removed, I still battle a “lacerating self-doubt” over my football years. I brood over hypotheticals, such as What if I could start over with all I know now? But still, I don’t regret how hard on myself I was, for it’s made me into the person I am today.

Self-doubt afflicts my writing like it did my tenure at quarterback. But contrary to the sensory overhaul I survived beneath the Friday night lights, writing narrows my focus and slows my racing mind. I can ponder things to a productive end, rather than to perplexity. Not that this is pleasurable—no struggle is. It’s an endeavor rife with exhaustion, humility, and uncertainty, afflictions Finnegan articulates with Pulitzer-grade precision in Barbarian Days.

finnegan photo 2

Finnegan surfing Cloud Break in Fiji

Finnegan visited campus for a craft lecture in late October, more than a year since our interview. He remembered me when I extended my hand over several stacks of books he was signing. We caught up over the course of a mere three sentences, within which he acknowledged my email I sent him a few days prior. Chuckling, he said it was an email subject line like no other he’s seen: “Hi, Lecture,” it read. I said I had to grab his attention amid the daily flurry of emails he must receive. Then I said I had one question, to which he said, “Fire away…”

“Your book isn’t nostalgic,” I said. “Your depiction of your surf-odyssey is filled with what you call ‘lacerating self-doubt.’ Now, do you regret being so hard on yourself? Or do you feel it was instrumental, as something that propelled you forward?”

“Instrumental,” he said…“paid in full.”

Wild Fish, Wild Country

We took to the road at 9pm on a smoky evening in Big Sky, MT, my friends Eric, Marcus and I had an idea to drive into the unknown, in search for big fish. Surviving the 12-hour drive through the night, we arrived at a trailhead lost by most, and far from anywhere. We then descended the few thousand-foot hike into a rattlesnake-infested, inferno of a canyon where we would fish hard for three days in a location an outdoor enthusiast can only dream of. The several hours’ worth of winding, heavily logged roads seemed to whiz by as our anticipation of inception grew. Backpackers seeking unimaginable isolation and stupefying beauty are said to frequent the stream more than anglers, whose annual number is fewer than a hundred, according to Eric. The fish were plentiful, indeed, the threatened Bull Trout our target. The hook-jawed, prehistoric looking species thrive within the farthest-reaching portions of territory that humanity has yet to touch. The species demands clean substrate, and cold, clear water as their habitat, while unnatural sediment from nearby development, and the ever impending warming effects of climate change are detrimental to habitat loss and ultimately their survival. De-barbed hooks and strict, expedient catch-and-release tactics allowed us to catch this diminishing apex predator. Their beauty was immaculate, their pink, cheetah-like spotted bellies, which are characteristic of their spawning cycle, gave stark contrast to their tiger-striped foreheads and backs. Pulling such endemic, aquatic life out of water so far from civilization was a much-needed dose of immersion into a pristine environment. We did not see a single human during our entire stay, all the while fishing 15-miles of stream. Although I do not think many are willing to work for the opportunity to target them, I am still abiding to Eric’s command: “If anyone asks you where you caught these fish, you say… ‘In the water’”. And that’s nearly all the info you’ll get from me. I’m blessed to have ridden along with two excellent fly fishermen—one’s a guide, the other a pro–who educated me on not only how to fish, but how to be a steward of the environment. We have another trip planned for Yellowstone later this month.

Thanks for reading. I haven’t written nearly as much this summer, as keeping pace with my new climb-happy, fish-addicted, ale-inhaling friends has proved a writing-starved endeavor, but a rewarding one nonetheless.

Yellowstone National Park and Beartooth Pass

My summer of waiting tables is underway in Big Sky, Montana, home of the biggest ski resort in the country. Located in the Southwestern corner of the state, around an hour’s drive below I-90 and Bozeman, the resort drapes the picturesque, freestanding Lone Mountain, which is neighbored by the Spanish Peaks to the North, and by the Gallatin and Madison Ranges to the East and West, respectively. Big Sky is in the middle of prime fly-fishing country, with the Gallatin and Madison Rivers nearby, along with the fishing hub of Ennis around the corner. But the gem of the region is about a thirty-minute’s drive south, that of Yellowstone National Park.

And which is where my friend Joey and I went a few weeks ago for a one night stay in its backcountry, followed by a caffeine-ridden road trip around the Northern end of the park and into the Beartooth Mountains. My Warriors had just finished their implosion the night prior, ceasing a 3-to-1-game-lead to Cleveland in the Finals, and I was in dire need of the wilderness to refresh me on how inconsequential sports actually are. That Joey is a die-hard Florida State Seminoles fan and has suffered a spate of suicide-inducing losses over his fan-career did help (Wide Right I and II), as he offered consolation.

When Joey isn’t roaming parks, he’s editing films for his Youtube channel My Own Frontier, which has garnered more and more steam since I first met him around a year ago in Glacier.

I drove away from Big Sky at nearly 2pm after shaking a headache left from the night prior. After snaking Southward along the Gallatin River for around 15 miles, I entered the park’s Northwestern corner, staying within its boundary for much of the way south until the town of West Yellowstone, where I met Joey.

I was optimistic after obtaining permits inside the Ranger Station for an easy, flat hike in and out. It was already four in the afternoon, with an hour’s drive into the park still ahead.

I loaded my gear into Joey’s white van, which he’s roamed the West with for the better part of three years now. Everything he needs is inside—a bed, organized bins and compartments, food, maps, etc.

We walked to a supermarket before leaving and bought a few six-packs, one good, one not.

We headed for the park entrance, cracking two pales after waving goodbye to the Ranger at the check station. I had never been inside the park aside from driving in and out earlier that afternoon. Last summer, Glacier National Park’s stupefying alpine scenery and baffling geological wonders persisted to overwhelm me. The dramatic scenery Glacier has to offer dwindles the stature of Yellowstone to many of its visitors’ eyes. Joey, himself, used to be one of those people. “It’s just not scenic enough,” he used to say of Yellowstone.

Now Joey likens Yellowstone to a girl who doesn’t attract you with her beauty outright, but who pulls you in the more you get to know her as you “start wondering what it is that makes her so amazing, you know?”

Joey often backpacks the park for 10-days at a time, deep into the backcountry, far from thronging crowds to where he says he feels alive. “Yellowstone has personality,” he said. “Glacier is for guys who like fake-tits and nose jobs.”

We drove East into the park along the Madison River before turning north along the Gibbon River. Roadside geysers and a few straggling bison kept us company, along with our six-pack of pale ale.

We pulled into our trailhead and set foot toward Gardner Hole, which was over a hillside forming the western slope of the valley.

The walking was flat, perfect for after beer. We knew it wouldn’t get much tougher so we stopped and cracked another. The trail was two split tire tracks, and Joey was voicing park knowledge on how lodges and roads that scattered the park at random, but for which hardly a trace exists anymore. Perhaps we were on an old road to a chalet. I realized how little I know about the world’s first National Park.

Electric Peak towered from the Northwest, with more of the Gallatin Range falling away, stringing the Western horizon. The wind kept the mosquitos from landing. All was going pretty well. I had a nice buzz settling to my bones, and Joey was Batshit as ever, telling stories and sharing his unique existential reflections he doesn’t know he possesses.

But then we found out that hillside on the other side of the valley was more than the loaf it appeared from across the way, and the sweat started coming faster than usual. I definitely didn’t need that last beer I was now finishing. Then the wind died, and we were busy swatting at mosquitos like madmen. Now you may think we’re irresponsible and disrespectful, but I was hiking with the best. Batshit Joey has you beat in the backcountry in every which way, from skill to authenticity. If he want’s some beers on a relatively quick trip, he gets them.

We crested the slope (not the ridge, for we sort of rounded mountain’s mid-section) to an awesome view of the Gallatins. We walked in and out of scattered pine clusters into Garden Hole, weary of a lurking Grizzly.

We arrived to our campsite and set up our tents on top of the Gardener River, which resembled more of a creek this far upstream. I collected a bunch of firewood far up the hillside, as most had been used nearby. Joey gave me hell because I didn’t have my bear spray. We ate a bunch of ramen and polished another six-pack while talking over the campfire until well-past mid-night.

Joey makes for good campfire banter. While his peculiar van-side lifestyle fuels endless story-telling, his outlook on life—what he lives for—is what really holds my attention. He isn’t your stereotypical vagabond lashing out against society over a joint, but rather someone who, in his words, “isn’t scared to not do what he’s told to do.” Makes for some good wisdom, especially for a twenty-six-year-old lad like myself, who has no idea which direction life is taking him in. Who knows, maybe I’ll join him next summer for a tour of the West.


I slept horrible from the booze inside my fluorescent tent under the morning sun, which showed itself at around 5:30. Joey woke with a little bit of hangover himself. We ate oatmeal and were off for the van at around half-past ten.

Sleep-deprivation coupled with dehydration made for a punishing walk back to the van. The sun was warming my neck above my heavy pack, and I just wanted to get the damn hike over with. I recalled the hangovers I’ve sweat out roofing under a hot California morning sun. I wasn’t really reflecting on the immediacy of the moment as one should while escaping civilization’s dust, as the Ancient Taoist poets dubbed it, other than the fact I wanted it to end—immediately. We had a Yellowstone road trip in mind, and windshield sight-seeing over a cup of Joe sounded stupendous.

As soon as we hit the van, Joey handed me a department store branded energy packet, which I shook up in my bottle. The powder turned the water into an orange acidic syrup that tasted delightful. Suddenly, I was perked up like a damned rabbit, hopping in and out of Joey’s van at turnouts, leaping boardwalk railings and onto guardrails to snap photos.

We drove north from the trailhead, downstream along the Gardener River, which was now swollen in a narrow canyon. We arrived at Mammoth Hot Springs, a spot crowded with tourists, who elk gather around for shelter from predators and for food handouts. Seeing such large mammals—but not such wild ones—mingle with so many people amid the old styled buildings makes for a bizarre sight, but a cool one nonetheless. It was hot, and Joey’s van doesn’t offer the best ventilation, but I maintained my caffeine buzz through it all as we turned east across the park’s Northern half.

Again, we crossed back over the Gardner, which was roaring north toward the Yellowstone River. We stopped in the town of Tower-Roosevelt for coffee but bought ice-cream instead. We headed farther East, crossing the Yellowstone before entering Lamar Valley, which opened up into a sort of Serengeti, with the Lamar River running through its middle, and thousands of bison herded on the meadows, looking like ants dotting the grassy mesas in the distance and like the beasts they are up close and personal along the river and road. It’s invigorating to see such an eco-system playing out before your eyes, especially seeing it for the first time, and one that’s in your own country.


I entered a fly-shop in Big Sky a few weeks prior to this excursion to pester its employees for nearly two hours about the lay of the land. I bought a few maps and circled some spots they recommended for fishing, and the conversation carried on about rides and hikes. But they recommended one drive in particular that is a must: that of Beartooth Pass. Joey was game, and I promised him more gas than he needed to do so. All we had do is stay on the road out the Northeast entrance and carry onto Highway 212.

The drive to the gate was exhilarating. We followed Soda-Butte Creek upstream at the bottom of deep canyon shadowed by Barroette Peak (10,404) to the West and Abiathar Peak (10,928) to the East. People were stationed roadside with telescopes searching for Big Horn Sheep and Mountain Goats on the aforementioned mountains.

We made it through the gate and passed through Silver Gate and Cook City, towns you could miss with a blink of an eye. Soda-Butte was still flowing, although barely, on our right side.

The fly-shop employees told me what was ahead of us is a top-ten drive in the country and is comparable to the Glacier’s Going to the Sun Road. I sort of let the lofty assessment fly over my head, as I try to do with most scenic observations I’m about to experience. Not knowing what to expect makes for a more baffling surprise. I had my reservations as we made our way to pass.

But the Absaroka Range already imposed itself from the South within miles of the park entrance. I had to lean my head close to the window to glance the peaks, which continually exceeded 10,000 ft. Peaks from the Beartooth Range could be seen on our left, in the North, as we snaked our way through the valley between the two chains.

The Absaroka Range now strung the sky behind us after turning Eastward to ascend the Beartooths. I told Joey I hadn’t seen such an impressive ear-to-ear horizon span of peaks since viewing the Himalayas while hiking just outside Kathmandu, Nepal, several years ago.

The drive through the high alpine of the Beartooths was plenty rewarding, with pristine lakes, one after the other, sitting within jagged rocky terrain. The environment was alien, and the highway started snaking into switchbacks, propelling us to the pass in a hurry.

We pulled over to snap some photos of a jagged mountain dropping into a lake glistening blue, and I revamped my caffeine level with some more of Joey’s orange acidic, but delightful, concoction.

The switchbacks pulled us above the alpine lakes toward the ridge. Once we crested, Earth fell away into an abysmal lake-bottomed, U-shaped valley; its Northern wall, uneven, plateauing or quickly giving way to a neighboring valley; its open Western end dropping into an even more vast valley in the distance. The canyon/valley landscape is shadowed by the Upper-Beartooths, where Joey and I, now at nearly 11,000 ft., were now amid. We drove along for few more serene miles and turned back around to enjoy it all again, the unnerving switchbacks suspending us over the valley. I knew that Joey, who had done this drive before, was having a hard time keeping his eye on the road. The actual Beartooth itself came into view, its salient pointy peak nestled in the broad, snow-capped expanse.

Beartooth Pass

Comparing this drive with the Going to the Sun is a worthless endeavor. Both can be categorized as jaw-dropping alpine beauty, yet are still unique. Concerns over such trivial matter can take away from the experiencing it for all it’s worth.

We started to wind our way out of Beartooths, back toward the entrance of the park. The Absarokas were now on our left, the Beartooths on our right. We stopped at a roadside waterfall for some pictures, where I would take another dose of caffeine as well.

Daylight was thinning, and the pointed peaks, along with the roadside pastures and cabins, had me feeling like I was in Switzerland. We reentered the park at around 7 pm with the hopes of seeing some more wildlife.

We drove back down Soda-Butte Creek and on through the Lamar Valley until the town Tower-Roosevelt, where we turned south toward Canyon Village, the town adjacent to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We passed Mount Washington in the East, and crossed over Dunraven Pass. We could see the Absaroka Range in the distant East on its deep Southward progression.

We stopped at a few turnouts on the ridge of the canyon, with the Yellowstone River roaring so far below, you had to crane your neck outward to glimpse it. We watched the massive Lower Falls in the distance, admiring Yellowstone’s landmark versatility. The canyon walls were of an array of colors—pink, yellow, brown, resembling the cliffs at Zion National Park.

We walked to a few other view spots and hopped back in the van. Daylight was now dwindling, but we still had time for a quick drive into Hayden Valley, which a relatively tamed Yellowstone River crosses before dumping into the canyon. Light forested hills rolled from the valley’s edges. We watched a herd of elk meander the trees across the river and passed a buffalo herd on our right, almost hidden within a fold of hillside. It was almost dark when we decided flip the van back around North. That herd of bison we saw in the hillside just a few moments earlier was now causing a traffic jam, sauntering by head on.

The fifteen minutes we sat for in traffic was minimal compared to when herds hold cars for several hours. Batshit Joey was trying to get me to pet one, but I thought better of it.

It was now dark as we made our way back to West Yellowstone. Joey was telling some good small-town stories about some crazy family members, and we discussed future plans for the summer. We pulled into McDonalds at half-past ten, where I would buy Joey a meal to pay off some gas debt.

Thanks for reading.