What I’m Reading (No. 7): popular new memoir and a history of hunting

Educated by Tara Westover


This book has gotten tons of good press the last few weeks (see this NPR interview) and was named an Amazon “Best of February” selection. All for good reason. This is a great book.

Author Tara Westover grew up in a fundamentalist Mormon home in Idaho, and lacked any sense of formal education until she was in her late teens. Her father thought that public education was an avenue for government spying, and while Westover’s parents made some attempts at homeschooling, it was usually self-directed by each of the kids. The book is far less about religion, though, than dealing with a parent with some clear mental illness (and the accidents which that led to in the family-owned and operated scrapyard), and her road to education after coming to that realization.

Of course Westover was aware of college, but gave it no thought whatsoever until an older brother — a sort of independent outcast of the brood — convinced her to study music so she could at least teach and lead a church choir. So she headed to BYU, took up history instead (after learning what the holocaust was, and being appalled that she hadn’t been taught about it by her parents), and ends up as quite a natural prodigy. She eventually heads to Cambridge and even earns a PhD. In the process, she understandably ends up leaving behind nearly everything she had previously assumed about her life.

Educated (337 pgs, 2018) will inevitably be compared to The Glass Castle, and even Hillbilly Elegy, and for good reason, because those are excellent memoirs. It’s on par with those, if not better. The writing is a bit more elegant and just enjoyable to read versus plainly telling a story. This one has more of a lyrical quality.

FYI, there is some abuse in this book, which you should know if you prefer to steer clear from that. No sexual abuse, but Westover has an older brother who beats her up every now and then, and a clearly negligent and mentally ill father whose actions lead to a number of serious accidents. Something to know before going in to it.

The Fair Chase: The Epic Story of Hunting in America by Philip Dray


The title, admittedly, doesn’t portray the quality of Dray’s The Fair Chase (356 pgs, 2018). While “Epic” is evocative, it’s also overused in book titles. That’s exactly what the story is, though. Hunting was America’s first recreation, and has always been embroiled in controversy. What’s interesting, though, is how hunters have always been on the forefront of conservation efforts; even today most wildlife agency funding comes from hunting/fishing license fees and taxes on hunting/fishing equipment. That relationship and tension is a primary theme throughout the book, as well as just how enmeshed in American history sport hunting really is. The cast of characters we run into is a who’s who of America’s most well-known people: George Washington, Daniel Boone, Thoreau and Emerson, Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway — to name just a few.

I appreciate that Dray doesn’t take a “side” amongst any of hunting’s controversies. He says simply, at the end, that he hopes hunters and non-hunters will “recognize the other’s validity and their shared concerns for wildlife.” In that, I think he succeeds mightily.

It’s a good read for those interested in hunting, conservation, and broad American histories that tell a unique part of our country’s story. Doesn’t come out until May, FYI, but you can always pre-order it. I expect Mr. Dray to make an appearance on the Art of Manliness podcast; if he does, I’ll mention it here.

February Recap

Lots of new readers this week thanks to a mention in this article about how to read more books. As always, thanks for reading, and let me know what you think of this newsletter. And I always love to hear what you’re reading and enjoying. Shoot me a reply!

-Jeremy

What I’m Reading (No. 6): classic frontier novels

Somewhat on accident this week, I ended up finishing a couple classic novels of the frontier genre. These are sort of Westerns, but instead of “cowboys and indians” they’re more about life — and usually its hardships — on the frontier of America in the 1800s (usually the great plains of Kansas/Nebraska and the Rocky Mountain region). They tend to tell a really interesting aspect of our nation’s story, and they don’t often come with the blatant stereotypes and/or racism often found in old cowboy/indian stories.

Let’s do this.

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather


Published in 1913, O Pioneers! (161 pgs, and most editions are actually less) has long been considered a classic not just of frontier literature, but American lit as a whole. It’s a short novel, but packs a punch, with superb reflections on the nature of, well, nature (and particularly our human connection to it), and family and community relationships in a harsh and unforgiving landscape. It had been on my list for quite a long time, and I loved it from the first page.

The star of the novel is the tough and headstrong — in the best way — Alexandra Bergson. She’s teenaged at the start of the novel — caring for her dying father and learning how to run not only a Nebraskan farmstead, but her brothers as well, who are headstrong in the worst way. When the elder Bergson passes, Alexandra takes charge, forsaking her personal life and making unconventional choices in a land that’s being deserted by most of its inhabitants. And for even more reader enjoyment, there’s some romance and surprising plot twists thrown in. Alexandra instantly became one of my favorite, most memorable characters in classic literature.

O Pioneers! is the first of Cather’s “Great Plains Trilogy,” followed by The Song of the Lark and My Antonia. The stories and characters aren’t connected at all, just the prairie landscape and the badass women who live and work there. I of course plan on reading those, and a few others of hers outside the frontier genre that are also considered classics — namely Death Comes for the Archbishop and the Pulitzer Prize-winning One of Ours.

Willa was a fascinating woman in her own right, spending 13 formative years of her childhood in Nebraska, but then moving to Pittsburgh, and eventually New York as a working, writing adult. Those times on the frontier were obviously vividly remembered though, and made enough of an impact for her to pen some great American classics on the topic.

Fun fact: The title is said to have come from Walt Whitman’s famed poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” I’m not much for poetry, but it’s always been one of my favorites. Give it a read if you have a chance.

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams


Amongst the almost two dozen classic Western/frontier novels I’ve read in the last 6 months or so, Butcher’s Crossing (297 pgs, 1960) easily took a place in my top 3.

Considered one of the first of the genre to de-romanticize life on the frontier, the story is set in the 1870s and follows young Will Andrews, who has ditched Harvard, and been inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson to come West in order to find . . . something. Meaning? Purpose? Himself? All the above, I suppose.

Butcher’s Crossing is the small Kansan town he lands in, but shortly thereafter joins a buffalo hunting expedition that heads into the mountains of Colorado. They deal with everything the Old West has to offer: extreme dehydration and thirst, early snowfalls, feisty animals (both domestic and wild), and raging spring-time rivers — all set within a merciless buffalo hunt (slaughter, really). The pages flew, and I finished it in just a few days.

It sort of ends up being a classic coming-of-age story. Will Andrews just happens to do so by escaping to America’s frontier and trying to prove himself amongst the hardiest group of men he could find. Like any protagonist in a coming-of-age novel, he learns some hard truths not only about the land, but about his own make up. But, he also does find something meaningful, and ultimately has to choose between going back East, or venturing even further West. I legitimately didn’t know what he’d choose to do until the very end (and I won’t tell you, of course), which I think is a sign of a superbly-written character.

This book reminded me a lot of Robert Olmstead’s Savage Countrywhich I mentioned about a month ago. Namely because they’re both about large buffalo hunts. Butcher’s Crossing was far better.

Bookish Notes

  • I’m about in the middle of Tara Westover’s Educated. It’s been getting a lot of good press, and for good reason. It is inevitably compared to Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, but I like this one better. Should be able to finish it by next week’s newsletter.
  • February is coming to a close, so also next week I’ll give a rundown of my reading for the month, including my 3 faves.
  • I know there’s been a lot of Westerns here in the first couple months of this newsletter; only another month or so of those before I’ll have that reading project finished up, and I’ll be in a far more diverse mode.

Thanks for reading, and let me know what you’ve been enjoying this week!

-Jeremy

What I’m Reading (No. 5): Jesse James and a conservative hero

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen


Published in 1983, The Assassination of Jesse James (304 pgs) has become a bit of a classic. While the book is part of my Westerns project, it’s really more historical fiction, which verges on true-to-life biography of the (in)famous bank robber Jesse James, and his assassin, young Bob Ford. Overall, it’s a good book, though admittedly not a real easy read. The pages don’t really fly by, but the story is superb.

Growing up in Minnesota, just over 30 minutes from Northfield, I was well aware of James’ Midwestern heists, including the 1876 debacle in Northfield, where the gang was turned back (and many of them killed) by hardy Swedish townspeople. To this day, the town celebrates Defeat of Jesse James Day, which is one of the biggest annual festivals in the state. It’s really a marvelous tale in its own right.

Hansen covers that incident, but somewhat briefly. It’s mostly a character study of the eccentric James, and his obsessive, devoted minion, Bob Ford. It was only when Ford was convinced that James would kill him (and when the reward money became too high to ignore) that the 20-year-old killed James in his own home, while his back was turned and his gun holsters removed. Ford figured he’d be a hero, and while he was pardoned by the Missouri governor, became a bit of an outcast. He was a terribly interesting figure himself, and in fact the final quarter or so of the book covers Ford’s life after the murder (which, interestingly, largely took place in Creede, Colorado).

Hansen noted that he didn’t stray from any known facts or even dialogue; he merely inserted conversations and episodes into previously blank periods of time. It feels as though Hansen is trying to write us an account of that time period, from that time period. Some folks will love that, some likely won’t. Again, a worthy read, but know going into it that you won’t fly through it.

Reagan: The Life by H. W. Brands


You should all know by now that I’m really into history, and of late, presidential history. So when Reagan: The Life (737 pgs, 2015) by esteemed historian and biographer H. W. Brands hit my doorstep a couple weeks back, I dove right in. Despite being over 700 pages long, it’s one of the easiest reading biographies I’ve ever encountered. That helped, because honestly Reagan as a figure slightly bored me. Despite that, Brands manages to make the book incredibly interesting. It’s so easy to see how Reagan sowed the seeds of what the modern Republican party has become (he was, however, infinitely more honest, kind, and optimistic than our current iteration).

From a very young age, Reagan had wanted to be famous. He wanted a stage, and more importantly, the affirmation that came with it. While he made it to Hollywood, he was never the A-list leading star he wanted to be, forever middling in B roles. He was the president of the Screen Actors Guild, though, and got a taste for politics. From there, well past the prime of his career, he fell into the role of conservative spokesperson for GM, which ultimately launched his political career, starting with the governorship of California. That leads to the grandest stage of all, the White House, and of course eventually into the conservative hall of fame.

The story of Ronald Reagan is the story of the 1980s: the tail end of the Cold War (and fears of communism’s spread), the genesis of Middle East tensions, and the closing chapters of political cohesion. While the parties were certainly divided, Reagan was the last great negotiator president (despite what our current one claims), knowing it was better to get most of what we wanted — or really even just some — rather than standing pat for ideological purposes and gaining nothing in the process. While I don’t agree with most of his politics, Reagan was clearly a genuine, honest man who wanted the best for the American people, and acted accordingly. That’s not something that can be said for many politicians since.

Like any good biographer, Brands gives keen insight into both the strengths and weaknesses of his subject, and provides plenty of fodder for devotees and detractors alike. There’s too little time spent on Reagan’s early life (he’s through college in the first 30 pages or so), and too much time spent on transcripts of conversations between Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Beyond that though, I really have no complaints. This is a great read for anyone who seeks to know more about how the foundation was laid for the modern political landscape.

Short on time this week, so no extra bookish tidbits, but as always, thank you for reading.

And of course, let me know what you’re reading. I’m always interested.

-Jeremy

What I’m Reading (No. 4): Alaskan royalty and a look back at 2013

Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth


Kings of the Yukon (286 pgs, 2018) doesn’t come out until May, but I received an early copy to review and plowed through it. Given the subtitle of the book — “One Summer Paddling Across the Far North” — it seems like the narrative would largely be a travelogue. And while that’s certainly part of it — author Adam Waymouth canoes about 2,000 miles down the famed Canadian/Alaskan river — it’s mostly about the Chinook (or “king”) salmon, and the people in the villages along the way who rely on that fish for sustenance, both physically and economically.

The Chinook salmon is undoubtedly in decline, and so Waymouth ventures to find out why. You’d think that climate change would be the ultimate culprit, but he comes to find that the real reasons are much more complicated, and go all the way back to the discoveries of gold and, later, oil.

While a book about a tasty fish may not seem, at first blush, to be a terribly exciting read, Waymouth himself notes that “this is a story, above all else, of relationships, of the symbiosis of people and fish,” and keeps the pages somewhat inexplicably turning to the very end. Check it out and put it on your list if you’re into frontier reading, or environmental stuff. And also maybe if you’re just bored with what you’ve been reading lately; it’s certainly something different, and if nothing else, very well written.

What Has Stuck With Me 5 Years Later

I did finish another book this week — The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie (400 pgs, 1947) — but I didn’t much enjoy it, so I won’t bore you with the details. It was for my ongoing day job project to find the best Western novels. This book will not be included in my list, even though it is often found on other “top Westerns” lists. A bit too depressing and generally racist. Granted, a lot of old Westerns are, but not with the level of vulgarity of this one.

Anyways, in light of having just one book to feature this week, I thought I’d take a look back to 2013 and share the books that have really stuck with me 5 years later (I’ve been tracking my reading for about 10 years now, so this is easy to do). These aren’t necessarily just my favorites, but those whose characters and main themes are easily recalled — the ones that have imprinted themselves permanently into my memory. In no particular order:

  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Written in 1615, and considered the first modern novel. It’s long, but really quite funny. Some of the more memorable scenes in all of literature. Plus, you’ll forever be able to actually know what the word “quixotic” means.
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. One of my favorite books to this day. It’s truly a frightening book, but also intimately revealing of what it means to be human. So so good.
  • Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. The first Steinbeck I ever read, and I think still my favorite among the handful more I’ve read since.
  • World War Z by Max Brooks. Pure zombie fun, but written much better than your average undead thriller. This 2006 classic (yes, classic) really jumpstarted the entire genre. Feel free to ask me for more zombie recs if you’re interested.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I only understood about half of this classic pop philosophy text, but the parts I did get were oh so good. Pirsig, in the midst of a cross-country motorcycle trip, explores the meaning of quality. I plan on re-reading this one again soon.
  • No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. I’ve read most of Cormac McCarthy’s books, and this is easily my favorite. It’s like if Hemingway had written a really gritty Western. (And while it’s violent, it’s nowhere near as gruesome as Blood Meridian. Couldn’t even finish that one.) While the movie holds up really well, you’d be well served to read the book too.
  • Quiet by Susan Cain. This book was popular when it first came out about 5 years ago, and continues to be today. Eye opening not only in regards to the particular strengths of introverts, but also how the way society operates clearly favors extroverts. Both types of people should read it.
  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Another one that remains an all-time favorite to this day. Dickens is a master without rival, and this was the first I read of his. I’ve read it a couple times since (at about 100 pages it’s really quick), and I’m sure I will again in coming holiday seasons.

It’s pretty interesting to look back and see that this was a period where I was catching up on my classic lit self-education. I wasn’t a great student in high school, so I skipped out on a lot of assigned reading and missed out on many of the world’s great books. They really are considered classics for a reason; they’ve stuck with me, and I’m sure I’ll read most of ‘em again. (Someday I’ll write about why it’s so good to re-read books; it’s like watching a favorite movie or TV show again and again.)

Do you remember any books you read 5 years ago? Anything that has stuck with you to this day?

As always, thanks for reading!

What I’m Reading (No. 3): the WWII edition

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

“Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”

My goodness. What a book. Devastating; beautiful; gripping. All the adjectives, folks.

Before publishing The Nightingale (436 pages, 2015), Hannah was better known for writing stories that had a heavy romantic element. With this book, she dives into classic historical fiction territory and hits the ball way outta the park.

Set in Nazi-occupied France in WWII, two sisters — Viann and Isabelle — grapple with the realities of a war that will change everything for them. When war breaks out in 1939, Viann is an established family woman nearing 30, while Isabelle is a young and often reckless teenager who desperately, if quite naively, wants to play a part in the resistance efforts. I don’t feel right telling you more, but this book is stupid good, so just go read it. (I in fact plan on making our book club read it.)

The various plot points are based on accounts of real women’s experiences in France, including that of Andree de Jongh, who helped establish an escape route for Allied soldiers who’d been trapped in Nazi territory, as well as countless tales of women whose homes were requisitioned by German officers while their husbands were fighting for freedom.

If you enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (550 pages, 2014), which I bet you did if you’ve read it, you’ll also love this one. When you look up the best historical novels of WWII, these are two that show up again and again. Do yourself a favor and make sure you read both.

P.S. The Nightingale also made me excited to dig into recently released The Saboteur: The Aristocrat Who Became France’s Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando by Paul Kix, which has gotten rave reviews, and is patiently waiting on my bookshelf.

P.S.S. Kristin Hannah has a brand new book out that’s getting good reviews: The Great Alone, set in 1970s Alaska.

The Accidental President by A. J. Baime
Of any single 4-month period in U.S. history, perhaps none was more fraught than mid-April through mid-August of 1945. When beloved Franklin Delano Roosevelt died on April 12th, Harry S. Truman was thrust into that highest office, and handed the following major world events: German surrender and Victory in Europe Day; the development, testing, and use of the only two nuclear bombs ever used as wartime weapons; intense negotiations with Churchill and Stalin about the restoration of Europe (which FDR had been part of first, and didn’t fill in Truman on at all); the founding of the United Nations; and to cap it all off, Japanese surrender and Victory in Japan Day.

All of that happened in a single 4-month period. I can’t imagine the stressors Truman felt in those months, especially because FDR and HST weren’t close at all; he was the VP choice because FDR was sick of his old running mate, and Harry was the safest bet among a number of mostly unsavory choices.

The Accidental President (346 pages, 2017) briefly covers Truman’s biographical details, but it’s primarily a close look — sometimes minute by minute on especially important days — of those four months. If I had to give a critique, I’d say I wished there was more about the ramifications later on of some of Truman’s decisions from that time period. The story pretty much stops come Japanese surrender. To get all of those details, and more about Truman’s life before politics, I plan on someday reading David McCullough’s mammoth Truman (1,120 pages, 1992), which is not yet on my shelf, but surely will be soon. That title won a Pulitzer and did quite a bit to restore Truman’s reputation as President.

P.S. There’ll probably be another presidential bio next week — I’m currently in the middle of H. W. Brands’ Reagan (~750 pages, 2015); sorry in advance, but I can’t get enough right now. Don’t worry, though, I’ll still keep things interesting for you and there will be at least one other good book that I finish in the next week.

January Recap

  • I ended up with 11 finished books in January, though two of those were rather short (The Cricket on the Hearth and The Affections).
  • The longest book I finished (though I’d been working on it for a few months) was Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci, at just under 600 pages. I always find particular satisfaction is finishing a big book.
  • What did you read this month and enjoy? I’d love to hear from you.
  • My favorites of the month, in order, were:
    1. The Nightingale 
    2. Far Bright Star (covered in No. 1)
    3. The Accidental President
  • If you’re enjoying this newsletter, I’d sure appreciate you sharing with someone you think may also enjoy it! The easy URL is tinyletter.com/jeremyanderberg.

Thanks for reading everyone!

My Writings Around the Web

Been doing a lot of writing in the last month. Here are the links if you’ve missed anything!

 

My 6-Word Memoir

Angel's Landing hike in Zion National Park.

Angel’s Landing hike in Zion National Park.

I’ve recently gotten back into regular journaling. Or maybe I should say that I’ve gotten into journaling, period. I’ve always tried, but never really been all that successful. For some reason, in the last couple months, the habit has caught on more so than it ever has before. I think it’s the right combination of circumstances (working from home, having a more flexible schedule) and motivations (my strong desire to write more).

In light of that, I wrote up an article for the Art of Manliness that is a 31-day journaling calendar. I think a lot of people would like to journal more, but just don’t know what to say. That calendar/guide won’t be posted until January, most likely. However, I’ve decided that I should go through the exercise myself. Duh.

So today I’m on day two. The prompt for day two (you’re getting a sneak peek!) is to write a six-word memoir. This supposedly started with Hemingway, but has caught on to be a little bit of a movement. As a painter paints within constraints (the canvas), so a writer can do with prompts like this. It forces you to think creatively and purposefully, especially when trying to sum up an entire life. It can quite easily point to and reveal what your values truly are.

I honestly wasn’t expecting much in completing this exercise, but I ended up on the other side of it being totally enlightened. That may be a bit too strong of a word, but at the same time, it may not be.

Blessed by life of ordinary adventure.

I really thought I would go through many iterations before arriving at a “memoir” I was pleased with. But this jumped right off the pen, almost instantaneously of me thinking about what I’d write. I thought and thought about how to change it — there’s no way I could “get it” on the first shot — but I just couldn’t come up with anything to modify. I loved it. I do love it.

Blessed. To say my life is blessed is the understatement of all eternity. My parents/in-laws/family/loved ones are incredible. I love my wife more than anything in the world. My job gives me satisfaction and enjoyment — something that not enough people get to experience. I don’t ever want to forget the unbelievable, innumerable blessings in my life.

Ordinary. On the outside, my life could seem to be quite ordinary. I went to college, am married, own a cute little brick house, have a steady job, etc. In many ways those really are ordinary things. But I’m totally okay with it. Lots of people want to be “world changers,” but real change in our world often comes from ordinary folks with ordinary lives who have a little bit of courage. In the midst of the ordinary, however, there is also…

Adventure. Even if things appear ordinary, they most certainly aren’t. Adventure is part of the DNA of our marriage. Our weeks are usually fairly “normal” – but our weekends are often spent in the mountains. We love to travel – more than just about anything else. Doing new things and enjoying life with food and drink and everything in between is just who we are. But even in the midst of the normal stuff, we live a life together that is overflowing with love and laughter. And there is something magical in that which makes every ordinary moment an adventure.

Without really realizing it, this little journaling prompt may have turned out what becomes a/the guiding vision or principle of my/our life. How wonderful and unexpected.

What would your six-word memoir say?

On the seizing of days.

carpediem

A snippet I wrote in my journal this morning as the sun was rising:

Not a great day yesterday in terms of productivity. It was fine, and enough, but not great. The good news is that it’s beginning to glow outside. A hint of orange is starting to fall on the Earth — my little piece of Earth, that is. The darkness is shirking away; a new day has arrived.

And with it, a brand new opportunity to do something great. Don’t let the cosmic routine of day and night lull you into thinking it’s an ordinary thing. Don’t let this ancient process of a rising sun keep you from taking the fullest advantage of daylight.

There’s something magical about the sun. J.R.R. Tolkien knew this in his writing. Daylight always brought a sense of newfound hope and optimism, but above all, newness. Each day is a brand new thing. Let that sink in.

Each day, you can erase the failings of yesterday or build on its successes — and often, it’s both. You have a chance to be new, to start new, to take hold the opportunities that are just waiting for you to grab them.

Carpe diem. Don’t let the familiarity of the phrase strangle its power. Carpe diem.

Seize the day. Seize this day.

Must. Harden. Resolve.

Me, occasionally.

Me, occasionally.

I’ve written that in my journal a few times lately. “Must. Harden. Resolve.”

Honestly, it’s strange to write, because it feels like it goes against what society at large advocates for today.

Do what you love… Go for it… Follow your passion…

The books and articles eschewing these beliefs are too numerous to count. We often don’t get past that initial motivating sentence, though. What we don’t see is that the vast majority of people who are successful have worked their butt off for what they have.

Doing what you love is a really great thing. Believe me. I’m not saying anything contrary to that. But I also think that these new norms are having an unintended consequence for my generation. We’ve gotten a little soft…mostly on ourselves. I think we need to toughen up a little.

The problem, as I see it, is when laziness interferes with the things we love or care about. I thoroughly enjoy writing. I like the feeling I have as I’m writing, and usually have some kind of inner satisfaction when I’m done writing. I enjoy getting feedback on my writing (I’m bein’ honest here, folks). The problem is that I’m sometimes just too damn lazy to actually do it. In that sense, I need to toughen up, and have the discipline to just do what I love doing. It seems a bit of a paradox — why should I need to “make” myself do something I enjoy? — but it’s true nonetheless.

Another example (they are many): I like the feeling I have when I’m running. I like the way my body feels when I’m done running and I can feel myself breathing hard. I like the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve pushed my body, even if just a little bit. I like the way I feel when I eat healthy. But again, sometimes, I’m just too lazy to follow through on these things. It may just be a part of my own personality, but I do think there’s a cultural aspect as well. We live in a new digital world that is quite accepting and often lives by and teaches a mantra of “Do what you want!” It’s sometimes a good thing, and sometimes not.

There are times where we just need to harden our resolve and do something we don’t want to do in the moment because the end result is better for us. It seems like we (and I) have lost that to a degree. We just aren’t being told to get it done or to put in the hard work. Well, some people are saying that, but they seem to get a bit drowned out.

Here’s to hardening our resolve, and doing what must be done. I’m writing this because I’d rather be on the couch reading a detective novel. Now that I’ve written this, however, I’m quite happy that I took the 15 minutes to sit here and process (only slightly, mind you) a thought. With every 15 minutes of doing that, my willpower grows, and I’m able to better do a thing that I love doing.

So get to it. Do the work. Get it done. Harden your resolve.  

Okay, back to reading The Maltese Falcon.

Hiking in Sand Dunes: A Traveler’s Guide

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[I wrote this a few months ago, after a trip Jane and I took to Great Sand Dunes National Park. All photos are ones I took on the trip.] 

We drove and drove.
Maybe it was four hours. Maybe it was five. Or perhaps two and a half.
The whole episode has a Narnia-esque feeling of losing all sense of time.

The road was curvy.
Through small mountain towns.
Picturesque; straight out of a postcard.
The mountains surrounded us as we traveled through a green valley.
Grass-fed beef was plentiful.

Until…
Up and over a small pass in our little white car.
Seven or eight thousand feet at the most.
Nothing compared to the 14ers around us.
And into a new valley.

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The San Luis Valley.
One hundred miles long.
Fifty miles wide.
We drove straight down the middle on 285.
And then on 17.
Twenty-five miles to the east were mountains.
Twenty-five miles to the west were mountains.
One hundred miles to the south were mountains.
But in between? Where we now drove on?

Desert.
A high desert is what they call it.
Sitting at eight or nine thousand feet above the sea.
It was the definition of desolation.
Small towns that barely qualify as small towns.
More like villages of people who happen to live somewhat close to each other and share a diner.

I remarked, “We could start Colorado Pickers down here…”
“Jeremy, what did you bring me to?”
“I don’t know. The pictures looked nice.”

That’s what we clung to.
A picture of something beautiful.
Something otherworldly.

I decided when I first saw a picture of Great Sand Dunes National Park that we should take a trip.
I asked friends what it was like…“Well, it’s a bunch of sand…”
They sure sold us on it.

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And yet we went.
Any adventure, no matter how grand or ungrand, is still an adventure.
We kept driving.

It felt like forever.
The Dunes could be seen, and yet never reached.
They were a spec of beige clinging to the gray peaks behind them.
Ever just out of our grasp.
(Of course, “ever” means about an hour and a half.)

Now if you remember, we were driving down the middle of the valley.
This happens to be the largest valley in Colorado.
We took a left.
On 6.
Now the Dunes were straight ahead.
Although a mere 20 miles away, it felt like forever.
I guess driving in the desert does that.
(Just like driving across Nebraska does.)

As we approached, we could see these mythical Dunes getting bigger.
Nestled right into a backdrop of granite behemoths.
“I thought the Dunes would be bigger,” she said as she squinted out the windshield towards them.
“Well, I think they’ll get bigger once we get there.”

And get there we did.
And get bigger they did.
(I promise, I’m not entirely trying to be Yoda here.)
All of a sudden, after being just a speck on the horizon, we were right in front of them.
And they were magnificent.

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You’ve never seen so much…sand…in one place.
Rolling hills of sand that mimic the rolling hills of western Iowa.
You stand there, gawking a bit, not sure if what you’re seeing is real or just an elaborate mirage.

To the west (your left), desert.
To the east (your right), a mountain range, and a magnificent one at that.
In fact, one of the tallest, on average, in Colorado.
And in front of you, thirty square miles of sand, rising up to 750ft above where you are standing.

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It defines surreal.
Like a scene from another planet.
Or maybe just a dime sci-fi novel.

We parked the car.
We got out of the car.
We put on our hiking shoes with confidence, like we always do.
We were ready to tackle and conquer these damn Dunes.
It didn’t look so hard.

I didn’t strap on my hiking bag, thinking it would be a walk in the park.
There are no trails in the Dunes.
You are free to wander as you please.
More accurately, we learned, you are free to wander as you are able.

And so we started walking…hiking…trudging.
For a hundred yards – maybe two hundred – it’s flat.
But flat is deceiving.
Because it was still sand.

With every step, you sink a few inches.
And then as you lift your other foot to take another step, you sink a little more.
And you go backwards.
You quite literally take a half-step back for every step forward.
And that’s on the flat part.

Halfway across this even terrain, our breath is already a little short.
And we’re a little embarrassed.
So we look at each other.
But don’t say anything.
Uttering even a whisper of being tired is what makes it true.
A tiredness left inside is but a shadow of its crushing spoken reality.

The clouds are a saving grace.
The sand is hot, even in the moderate-to-cool 50-degree air that surrounds us.
Flickers of sun made themselves known from time to time.
But the clouds are a saving grace.

It does not take long to arrive at your first incline.
That’s when it really hits you.
After ten feet of elevation gain, you look up at the remaining 640 feet and wonder if you’ll ever make it.

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An incline of sand is different than an incline of rock and dirt.
An incline of sand is different than a flat plane of sand.
Remember how it was a half-step back for every step forward?
Now it’s a full step back, sometimes two or three.
Now you sink four or maybe six inches into the fine grains instead of just a couple.
Your calves burn almost instantly.

And we’ve gained ten feet.
Ten out of six hundred and fifty.
Thankfully our current task is just a small hill.
But an awful glimpse as to what lies ahead.

We continue, though.
We trudge and trudge and trudge.
(Look up the definition of trudge – this is exactly what we did.)

There were people around us in all directions.
Granted, they were generally just dots on an infinite tan field.
And yet, we barely heard a noise as we walked…hiked…trudged.
There was an occasional hiss of wind.
But no sounds from people.
The Dunes are great buffers of noise.
Like being in an outdoor recording studio.

We go down a little bit.
Then up a lotta bit.
And somehow the “peak” – the top of this unmoving and unchangeable Dune – gets farther away.
We secretly wonder if we’ll make it.
It must be kept secret, for now, or we surely won’t.

Over another ridge.
Then, all you see is sand.
It’s overwhelming.
All around you except for one little window, through which you see a 14,000-fot mountain rise up.
And suddenly, very suddenly, you see a vision of what it would be like to be stranded in the Sahara.
Really.
That seems dramatic, I know.
But when you see nothing but sand, you become terrified at that thought of the Sahara.
And you have a microscopic sense of what desert wayfarers have felt and feared through the ages.
Even though you know your car is just a mile away.

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“Let’s not ever get stranded in a desert.”
“Okay. Deal.”

We trudge and trudge and trudge some more.
We are more than halfway to the top.

We sit down.
Water is needed.
Rest is for our calves is just as needed.
“Can we make it?”
(I’m the weak one – always the first to ask.)
“I don’t know…I don’t really care anymore.”
(The first time she’s ever said that.)
And like she always says, “Just one more ridge, I want to see the other side.”

And so we trudge on.
At times the sand is a little damp.
This comes as a breath of fresh air.
It doesn’t give as much when it’s damp.
It’s back to a half-step lost instead of a full step lost.
But inevitably, the dry sand returns.
And you feel like you’re on a Stairmaster.

Then, just like always when hiking, you’re there.
Not at the top, mind you.
But at that point where you can see the top.
And you can see the other side of this thirty-square-mile field of Dunes.
Ahhhhhhh.

In front of us is a drop off.
We’re at the high point of the front edge of the Dunes.
You can see sand for miles and miles, and mountains rising up from behind them.
Stunning.

We go left.
And continue trudging up the ridge.
It’s not much farther from here.
Thankfully, this trudging isn’t so bad.
It’s a well-traveled ridge, so there are footprints to follow.
The task is always easier when you can follow someone else’s footprints.
Those pioneers had the truly difficult path.
Especially in the sand.

It would be nice, for the story, if we made it to the very top.
But we didn’t.
There were dark clouds rolling in, and we didn’t want to take the chance.
It was probably just 250 feet of horizontal trudging, and another 20 or 30 feet up.
So close.
It’s okay, though.
Getting to the top isn’t everything.

In fact, the way down was exhilarating.
I imagine it is what walking on the moon would feel like.
You can slide.
You can leap.
You can roll.
No more trudging.

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You jump three or four or five feet down the Dune.
On solid ground that would be a very scary thing to do.
Except this time you end up nearly to your knees in sand.
And you slide a few more feet as you land.
It is weightless.
So you keep jumping.
And sliding.
And in about ten minutes you are back to the flat sand.

Ten minutes.
Truly.
That’s it.
Almost two hours up.
Ten minutes down.
Incredible, huh?

We look at each other.
And smile big smiles.
It was fun coming down.
Really fun.
And then we look back up at where we just came from.
It is impossibly far away.

“Were we really up there?”
“Yeah.”
“That’s a long ways.”
“Yeah.”
“Well that didn’t seem too bad…”

Back to the car we trudge.
Another adventure had.
We’re quiet for now, but I know we’re both thinking how much fun this life is that we get to live together.
Among the Great Sand Dunes.
And even if we don’t get to the tippy-top, we’ll smile on the way down.
For it’s in trudging that true life is lived.

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The Dunes are on the right-hand side. This was from a hike a few miles away.