Spring Hit List: Boating

In last week’s post, I wrote about Hit Lists.  Those are the rivers and waterfalls you spend all winter psyching yourself up for and telling your buddies that you’re going to run while you’re drinking beers and it’s -14 out and dark at 5 pm.  Then the snow melts and you throw the boat on the car and start chasing some of those rivers and waterfalls.  Some of them, you just never make it to.  The Linville Gorge was on my hit list for a decade and I just never got there.  Sometimes you do get there but it looks a lot bigger than you thought, and you walk away.  But sometimes it all comes together.  Last week I wrote about some of these moments — some of the most impressive and historic descents in New England kayaking in the last 15 years.

Last week’s post was all about great athletes, careful planning, pushing the limits, high levels of courage and skill, impressive accomplishments in a kayak.

This post is not about any of that.

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The Spring Hit List — First Descents in New England

I have always been a big fan of the Hit List.  Not in the mafia sense (although people who tailgate or clog up the left lane should definitely have their licenses revoked).  I mean having a hit list of goals: places to travel, mountains to hike, foods to try.  Mine usually take shape during winter, when I’m dreaming about what I’ll do when we have more than 42 minutes of daylight and a temperature that’s comfortable for those of us who don’t happen to be sled dogs.  You make a hit list because half the fun is looking forward to something.  The anticipation is the best part.

While it’s always key to put old favorites on the hit list (I want to hike Franconia Ridge every year until I die), the best hit lists have things you haven’t done.  The ultimate is having something that nobody’s ever done.  In kayaking, we call that a “first descent” (sometimes abbreviated — if you’re a really insufferable “bro” who happens to be “stoked” — as a “first d”).

Every winter back in the early 2000s, I’d get it in my head that I wanted to do a first descent.  I wanted to find a river nobody had ever done.  In kayaking, in the early 2000s, it was still theoretically possible.

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Tuckerman Ravine

To hear my grandfather tell it, I almost never existed.  From the head of the dinner table Howard Bird, Jr. would wave one arthritis-riddled hand toward his flesh and blood: my brother, my father, my uncle, and me.  “None of you,” he’d smile, “would be here right now if I had skied in that race.”

It’s a cruel irony that as we mature and can better appreciate our grandparents, they age and become less and less themselves.  By the time I was a teenager, my grandfather was in his 70s.  He’d already suffered one heart attack, and now he had painful arthritis.  He took a lot of medications.  Soon he had trouble getting up the stairs.  But when he occasionally mentioned “that race,” you could see the years melt away before him.

“That race” was The Tuckerman Inferno.  Not the current version, a springtime pentathlon.  My grandfather meant the original Inferno: the most extreme ski race ever held in the eastern United States.

It was something.  Racers kicked off from the summit of Mt. Washington, skied to the edge of Tuckerman Ravine, tried to weigh how much they valued their own lives, skied over the edge, then continued all the way down the Sherburne Ski Trail, to Pinkham Notch.  For those scoring at home, that’s 4 miles and more than four thousand vertical feet.  That’s more than the total drop at Vail, Aspen, or Killington — and much of it’s far steeper than anything you can find at any of those places.  The original Inferno was so unique and so dangerous that even today it would be outrageous and terrifying.

It’s just the type of event that should have had a long and rich history.  But instead it was just a glimmer.  Fickle weather, unpredictable snow conditions, and sheer logistics meant that the Inferno was held just three times: 1931, 1934, and 1939.  Soon after, World War II broke out, and the Inferno never regained momentum.  It made brief appearances in abbreviated forms several times since then, eventually morphing into the present day pentathlon whose final leg consists of a ski down Tuckerman Ravine.  But by the time I was a boy at my grandfather’s table, the Inferno hadn’t been held in its original, top-to-bottom glory in 50 years.

The last time it was, a tall, skinny college senior who looked a lot like me had entered it.

In April of 1939 my grandfather was a founding member of the Yale Ski Team better known for failing in big races than for winning them.  That spring, with New England enjoying an outstanding snow year and the Inferno set to be held on the last day of his spring break, my grandfather signed up to race in it.  To practice, he spent his two weeks off from school camping at the AMC lodge in Pinkham Notch and skiing in Tuckerman Ravine.  This was his view each morning.  It’s Tuckerman Ravine in April of 1939.  Look at that snowpack!

I’d like to pause here and remark on what a bad-ass Howard Bird Jr. was.  Let’s start with the fact that he was skiing Tuckerman Ravine in 1939.  Let’s start with the fact that anyone skied Tuckerman Ravine in 1939.  For one thing, Tuckerman Ravine is scary.  Period.  In any era.  The first time I looked over the edge, I was 21 and skied five days a week at the Middlebury Snow Bowl and at Mad River Glen.  I’d skied at Squaw Valley and in Alaska.  I looked over the rim and almost shit myself.

And I was on modern equipment.  Have you ever seen the skis those guys were using back in the 30s?  They look like something you buy at Home Depot and nail to your patio.  And the boots?  If you ever want to feel bad about yourself, try skiing down a gentle slope on cross country gear.  You’ll be windmilling like a drunk guy in an earthquake.  Now try skiing down the side of a building on them.  That’s what those guys were up to back on Tuck’s in the 30s.  Those boots had less support than Air Jordans.

Then there’s the little matter of my grandfather’s workouts, which floor me.  During those two weeks of spring break, he and his buddies would hike from Pinkham Notch to the summit of Mt. Washington and then turn around and ski it without stopping to practice for the Inferno.  Then they’d do it a second time.  In the same day!

But my grandfather never got to race in the Inferno.  A big storm blew through that morning, as big storms often do on Mt. Washington: totally without warning.  My grandfather was already halfway up the Headwall when word came down that the race was postponed.  He put on his skis, turned around, and skied to the bottom.  There would, he must have thought, be other days.

Except that there weren’t.  The Inferno was pushed back two weeks.  My grandfather, who didn’t have a car, tried everyone he knew, but couldn’t get a ride up from New Haven.  To hear him talk, he wasn’t sad to have missed it.  Instead, he’d joke that none of us would be alive if he hadn’t — because he might have done something stupid trying to win the race.  Still, I have to believe he was at least a little regretful.  Especially because by missing that race, me missed being a part of history.  The 1939 Inferno is legendary in American ski circles for one reason: Toni Matt.  That morning during his run, the nineteen year-old Austrian and future National Champion lost sight of where he was somewhere in the upper snowfields.  Although he’d planned to check his speed before he got to the Lip, before he knew it, the ground was dropping away.  Thinking that if he did try to turn at that speed, he’d surely crash, Matt did something that continues to awe anyone who’s ever stood at the top of the Lip: he skied straight down Tuckerman Ravine without turning.  As Matt himself said later, he schussed it.

Not only did Matt win the race, but he scorched the four mile course in just 6 minutes and 29 seconds, an absolute astonishment to anyone who has ever skied over this same distance.  The previous record, set by Olympian Dick Durrance, was over 12 minutes.  Matt’s top speed was estimated at 85 miles per hour.

For my grandfather, who was fond of telling this story about Toni Matt, that run from halfway up the Headwall the weekend before turned out to be his last run ever on Tuckerman and his last run on skis for more than twenty years.  It’s funny how these things work.  You think to yourself that there will be plenty of time.” And then — there isn’t.  The years get away from you.  My grandfather lived a remarkable life.  He thrived in international business.  He had four children.  He got to live and work in Columbia, Geneva, Mexico, and New York City.  He once talked Jesse Jackson out of a protest.  He wrote a book.  He lectured on campuses across the country.  He even got to ski again, during 18 months of living in Switzerland.  He taught my father to ski.  They took a few ski trips to Vermont after they moved back to the States (including one trip to Stowe at which they saw a Warren Miller film at the town hall narrated in person by Warren Miller).  But by the mid-1960s my grandfather stopped skiing and never skied again.  By the time I started skiing in the 1990s, health problems had forced my grandfather to give up almost all of the sports he’d loved as a younger man.  As far as I know, he hadn’t been back to Tuckerman since 1939.

It wasn’t until three years after he died that I finally made it there myself.  My friend Chris and I drove over from college one Saturday morning.  I still remember how improbable it felt: much, much too late in the season to be skiing.  But sure enough, there it was: snow on the side of Mt. Washington, and there was Tuckerman Ravine, a giant glacial cirque way up above the valley.  It looked impossibly steep.  Chris, having forgotten his hiking boots, made the trek up Left Gully in loafers — just the sort of old school gear simulation my grandfather would have smiled at.  We put on our skis and instead of skiing the gully, we drifted across to the top of the Lip, right where my grandfather would have skied.

My first thought was: “Holy s-*t, this is steep.” But my next thought was something I didn’t expect: “I can’t believe Grandpa did this.” It was odd.  I hadn’t gone to Tuck’s with him in mind, but suddenly I was face-to-face with the same rite of passage — totally unchanged — that he’d faced 70 years before.  That it was still so scary, even on my modern equipment and with all of my experience, only made his accomplishments speak more loudly.  It was as though for a brief moment all the time between us disappeared and I could see what a man he had been.  It’s not often we get to do that.  Many of the generational rites of passage — graduating from school, getting a job, buying a house — seem so different now from when our parents and grandparents did them that it’s hard to feel a kinship in these moments.  But there was Tuckerman before me — and it had been just as steep and exposed back in 1939.  I have to say, I felt a lot of pride as I skied over the edge in his proverbial ski tracks.

I felt the same pride last spring when I made my second Tuckerman trip.  This time it was even better, because I was with my brother, who’d sat at that same table with my grandfather and listened to his ski stories.  It was beautiful out — sunny, 60 degrees, no wind — basically the perfect day on Tuck’s.  There were thousands of people.  The air was festive.  We made conversation with strangers on the trail, at the hut, on the floor of the Ravine.  I traded sunscreen for a beer.  Everyone was giddy.  It was all of our last runs of the year, and it was easily the best.  My brother and I stood at the top and I looked out across all of New England as across all of the 76 winters since 1939 and I knew that my grandfather would have approved.  “It doesn’t get any better than this,” I thought, and pushed off over the edge.

Happy spring skiing in Tuck’s.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

“In the frosty December dusk, their cabins looked neat and snug with pale blue smoke rising from the chimneys and doorways glowing amber from the fires inside. There were delicious smells about: chicken, bacon frying crisp as the twilight air.”
–Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Where we live says a lot about who we are.  I’m thinking a lot about this right now.  Not just because, at 34, I’m hoping to buy my own first house this year.  But also because every spring I find myself thinking about what our homes and our neighborhoods say about us as I prepare to teach Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to my ninth-grade English classes.  Of all the famous passages by the venerable Ms. Lee — who passed away last month at 89 — it’s the one above, a relatively obscure few lines describing the homes of the African Americans in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama in the novel, which haunts me most.

There’s a been a lot of debate in the last five years about the role of fiction in American classrooms. The Common Core calls for 70% of a student’s literary diet to be comprised of nonfiction. But in all the talk about skill development and critical thinking, I think we often forget one of the chief aims of teaching fiction: to encourage empathy. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” Atticus Finch tells his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird. And every year that I teach this book, I find myself empathizing more and more deeply with Tom Robinson, the African American man falsely accused of rape in the novel. It’s not merely the injustice of his conviction that stops me in my tracks each time I reread. It’s that symbol of the American Dream that Robinson can almost have but never quite touch. It’s that cabin he lives in.

Where we live says a lot. Visiting the South, Bill Bryson once wrote, “It struck me as notably ironic that Southerners could despise blacks so bitterly and yet live comfortably alongside them, while in the North people by and large did not mind blacks . . . just so long as they didn’t have to mingle with them too freely.” I was always struck living in Washington, D.C., how starkly the city was divided by race. On the west side the schools and neighborhoods were predominantly white. But cross over Rock Creek and immediately everyone on the street was black.

But it’s just that interracial neighborhood that Harper Lee — who died last month at 89 — uses to show the bitter reality of racism during Jim Crow. Tom Robinson lives just down the street from the white woman — Mayella Ewell — he’s falsely accused of raping. What’s more, Robinson lives better than his accuser. The Ewells live in utter filth alongside the town dump, from which it is implied that they scavenge food. Meanwhile, Robinson lives in the cabin described above — neat, modest, cozy. Each year I press my students: how does this feel for the Ewells, especially for Mr. Robert E. Lee Ewell, the family’s ne’er do well patriarch? The answer of course is that while his own grating poverty concerns him not in the least, a black man like Tom Robinson living better than he does just down the road stirs him to a wild bitterness that spawns the unjust trial at the heart of the novel. Of Ewell’s bitterness Lee writes, “All the little man on the witness stand had that made him any better than his nearest neighbors was, that if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white.”

But even more than detecting the seeds of bitter racism, when I think of Tom Robinson’s tidy cabin, I think about a man who wants very much — just as I do — to buy into the American Dream.

Look at the homes they live in — Tom Robinson and the other blacks. Their homes are modest, surely (many of the cooking smells emanating from their chimneys are from cooked possum), well-kept and loving. The fire glows inside, representing warmth and family. Tom Robinson embodies the classic hardworking American who wants to provide a better life for his children. He’s young — still in his twenties — and he’s surely poor, but he gets up every morning and walks to work. He goes to church on Sunday, and he’s such a respected community member that his boss, Link Deas, will later give an impassioned (if ill-timed) speech about his virtues during the court case.

This country tells its citizens, “Work hard, live modestly, and pay your taxes — and you’ll get to enjoy all the benefits of being an American.” Tom Robinson wants nothing more than anything to buy into the promise of America. He’s done everything this country asks of its citizens. He’s held up his end of the bargain.

But America does not hold up its end. Any agency Robinson seemed to possess by being a contributing member of society and a homeowner vanishes at the drop of a hat — or at the whisper of a white woman. That’s all it takes to show that he never really had any agency. He never had any authority. The laws didn’t protect him. The American Dream for Tom Robinson was nothing but a sham, a dead-end, a promise that was never real.

Ironically it’s the fact that he’s a good neighbor — helping Mayella with extra chores — that is his undoing.

This is especially appalling precisely because he has done everything right. Unlike his neighbors the Ewells, who subsist on welfare, Robinson never asked for handouts. He never asked anything from anyone except the chance to succeed in America according to its terms. Ironically it’s the fact that he’s a good neighbor — helping Mayella with extra chores — that is his undoing. He’s been hoodwinked. Not even Atticus Finch, the most powerful lawyer in literature, can outmuscle the racism of the Jim Crow-era South and save Robinson from playing the very role that society that has picked for him: not homeowner, but criminal.

That’s why the image of his tidy cabin — tranquil and peaceful and hard-won before all of the trouble goes down — stays with me. That cabin (which, let’s be honest, was probably sold to him, or rented to him, at an exorbitant, exploitive rate) is as close as Robinson, or any of the African Americans in To Kill a Mockingbird, will ever get to the American Dream.

Part of Harper Lee’s genius, of course, is to show precisely that it can all be plucked away from an upstanding man like Robinson by even the most worthless of whites: the Ewells. Robinson’s industry and thrift are sharply contrasted with the indolence and filth of his white neighbors. Unlike Robinson’s clean, well-kept property, the Ewells’ yard is littered with trash. Unlike Robinson, who works for every penny, Mr. Ewell lives off government relief checks and the local government’s tolerance toward his hunting and trapping out of season. Unlike Robinson, Mr. Ewell is a neglectful, even abusive father who spends his relief checks on whiskey rather than food for his kids, none of whom attend school for more than a day each year. Even though no one in town — particularly Atticus Finch — respects the Ewells, yet because their skin (after a firm scrubbing) is white, they’re still waved into the tent of the American Dream.

What’s particularly striking is that while Tom Robinson is shunted straight into jail without so much as a shred of evidence, whites such as Mr. Ewell are given incredible latitude by the law. Everyone in the town — including the authorities — bend over backwards to look past Mr. Ewell’s crimes. And it’s not just hunting out of season or spending his handouts on booze that’s overlooked. It’s much worse. For example, the implied incest between Mr. Ewell and his daughter Mayella is the worst-kept secret in town, but it’s something everyone is content to look right past. (So, for that matter, is the small matter of Mr. Radley, who is also white, locking his son, Boo, in the basement for 15 years!) Incest and child abuse are fine — just don’t try to help out a white woman with her furniture. The white Ewells are, despite their transgressions, given every chance to prosper provided they ever show (to paraphrase Atticus Finch) “the faintest hint of desiring an education.” Meanwhile it’s just too much for the town to consider the men and women who once worked their land as slaves to be granted the American Dream.

A common response that students have is: “Sure, but that was the Jim Crow South. It wasn’t like that up here.”

But, I tell them, the Tom Robinsons who moved north during during the Great Migration — who looked for their own tidy cabins in Chicago, Baltimore, and Detroit — found little more than further discrimination in the form of redlining and blockbusting.  The ghettos of today in those same cities play out that legacy.  The American Dream was no less an illusion there than in Maycomb, Alabama. Tom Robinson’s cabin was about as good as it got.

Great books not only help us understand people who are not like us, but they help us understand our own society in clearer light. With To Kill a Mockingbird, you’d have to be dense not to see the same issues at play everywhere in our society now: in the courts, in the economy, in the stories of young men like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and, this week, Gregory Gunn, and of course in the kinds of houses we’re allowed to live in. It’s all still around us, surely different in many ways, but strikingly similar in a lot of others. That’s what great literature shows us.

And that’s why the image of Tom Robinson’s house stays with me.

Jamie McEwan: A Remembrance

This past summer I wrote an article that was published in American Whitewater Magazine called “Jamie McEwan: A Remembrance.” This article is about Jamie McEwan — the whitewater canoeing demi-god who won an Olympic bronze medal, once paddled the “Mt. Everest of Rivers” in Tibet, and even managed to teach me how to kayak.  His death from cancer was the occasion for this article.  I’ve uploaded it to this site under “Books and Articles,” but I also wanted to post a link to it here.

Enjoy:

Jamie McEwan: A Remembrance of New England’s Most Famous Boater (American Whitewater Magazine, 2015)

“Jamie McEwan was handsome.  That much I remember thinking.”

Lake Morey Skating

Skating for a Fall

If there’s one thing that’s fun to do in your spare time, it’s things that you’re already good at.  During the winter, that thing for me is skiing.  I have skied almost since I could stand, and if there is a hobby I could be said to be competent at, it’s downhill skiing.  Although I don’t hunt for small cliffs to ski off anymore, or throw backflips in the terrain park while trying to keep my sagging pants from falling down like my teenage students, I’m still pretty good at skiing.  It’s comfortable.  I can show up at a hill and know what to expect.  I can get myself down most any white-colored incline.  I can rest fairly assured that I won’t do anything that will cause lasting embarrassment, such as losing control of my skis and taking out a giant inflatable can of Red Bull near the base lodge, or forgetting to dismount the chairlift and needing to be coaxed down by the liftee, or crashing and losing my hat and mittens in front of an entire women’s ski team.

Of course, all of those scenarios are back in play now that I have taken up snowboarding.  Last season I fell more times in a single day than I did in decades of skiing.  Most of those falls happened within speaking distance of the base lodge (some in the lunch line).  But none were serious, and learning to snowboard made the mountain big again.  It wasn’t comfortable — but it was exciting.

Skating on Lake Morey in Vermont proved to be much more of a challenge for the author than skiing.  (lakemoreyresort.com)

 

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Local Schools Doing Poor Job of Training Workers for Jobs that Don’t Exist Yet

Citing evidence of low levels of employer satisfaction, a new study by the non-profit Lincoln Organization indicates that our nation’s public schools are failing to adequately prepare graduates for jobs that don’t exist yet.  “We are not equipping our students to compete in an increasingly changing global workplace,” says Steven Joyce, lead researcher on the study.  “The jobs of tomorrow are going to require skills we haven’t even thought of, and it’s the job of our schools to teach those skills.”

Experts cite the advance of technology as evidence of how quickly the job market is changing.  “When I was in high school, computers didn’t even exist,” says software CEO Jane Davis.  “Nothing could have prepared me for the new fields I would dominate using the problem solving skills I picked up in public school classes like math and English.”

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Conservative Voter Wants Things to go Back to the Way They Were When Donald Trump was a Reality TV Star

Saying that he’s tired of the direction our country has taken during the last decade, conservative voter Eric Collins of Charleston, South Carolina expressed his desire for things to go back to the way they were when Donald Trump was a constant presence on our televisions.  Citing the six seasons during which “The Apprentice” ran on NBC as “a time when things were good for a lot of Americans,” Collins believes this election is about recapturing a time when America was a great nation in which to watch Donald Trump on television.

“I remember the good old days when you could just flip on the TV whenever you wanted and see Donald Trump berate and insult people, say crazy s–t, and bully everyone into getting his way,” says Collins.  “I want my kids to be able to enjoy the same benefits of being entertained by The Donald that I had.” Collins believes that the country has been going downhill ever since 2010, when ‘The Apprentice’ was cancelled, although he believes that Trump’s recent presence on popular media during the campaign is a sign that things are on the right track again.

“He’s kicking people out of his rallies who don’t agree with him, he’s saying he’s going to torture people, he’s feuding with every media outlet — even with Fox News!  He’s making it up as he goes along, and he’s still winning.  It’s such great TV!  You almost want him to end a debate by turning to Ben Carson and saying, ‘You’re fired!‘”

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A New Hampshire Independent

Last Tuesday morning, as the sun rose over the Atlantic Ocean, a flurry of jets descended into Manchester International Airport.  The planes carried Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and most of the other candidates for president of the United States.  Up front, where first class would be, the planes also carried the candidates’ entourages:  opinion makers, deal cutters, spin doctors, strategists, and confidants.  In the rear, in economy class, rode the journalists, bloggers, and television reporters who cover them.  The American political establishment has two halves: those who govern, and those who want to.  The former was in Washington, D.C., winding down the seventh year of Barack Obama’s presidency.  The latter, who roundly debate Mr. Obama’s legacy, had flown through the night from Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, where polls had just closed, to New Hampshire, where in seven days the state’s 1.3 million residents would pull voting levers.

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Math Anxiety

It’s a feeling of panic.  Your heart races, your palms moisten, your eyes race down the page.  Everything, all of it, looks like hieroglyphics.  Frantically you search for something — anything — that you recognize.  Something you can start with.  You frantically flip to the second page, then the third, your eyes racing down the page, heart pounding in your ears.  By the time you scan helplessly to bottom of the last page, there is nothing you know how to do.  Suddenly hits you — you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.

Surely others are panicking too?  But a quick glance around you reveals that even those dullards are weaving their way crisply through the opening problems.  Suddenly you feel completely, utterly stupid, and totally alone.  Your eyes dart to the door.  You want to leap up and run — but you can’t.  They’d stare.  They’d talk.  Are they staring right now?  Can they tell that you have no idea?  Your heart races faster . . .  You’ve got to find something you know how to do . . .  You can’t pass in a blank test . . .  Control your fear . . .  But it’s too late . . .

Suddenly you’re wide awake.  You’re sitting straight up in bed, heart racing, forehead dripping sweat.  It’s 3 am and you’re a fully grown adult and you’ve just had a nightmare that has, strangely enough, become more frequent since you left school.  As you try to catch your breath, two words come to your lips in a whisper.

Math class . . .

I’m 34 years old and haven’t opened a math book since before “Google” was a verb and I still get nightmares about being back in math class.

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