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Summer Reading with a Vengeance

Family legacies are hell to outrun, especially when violence is entwined in the ancestral DNA. This month a new batch of novels offer modern twists on the ancient themes of family, duty, revenge, and justice. The most anticipated is Peter Heller’s The Painter (Knopf, $25), the Outside contributing editor’s follow-up to his bestselling The Dog Stars. Jim Stegner, the title character, is a forty-something artist struggling to remake his life in the Colorado backcountry following the death of his teenage daughter.

Trouble finds him in the person of Dellwood Siminoe, a hunter who’s mean as a sack of razors. Conflict ensues, and Stegner soon finds himself with the added burdens of both the law and Siminoe’s vengeful kin, who have a habit of showing up drunk, angry, and armed at Stegner’s favorite fishing holes. The Painter isn’t the postapocalyptic revelation that The Dog Stars was, but Heller creates in Stegner a more flawed, reflective, and fully realized protagonist than the pining loner at the center of his first novel.

A son’s duty to his father forms the backbone of Louis Bayard’s novel Roosevelt’s Beast (Holt, $27), a fictional play on Theodore Roosevelt’s 1914 expedition down Brazil’s River of Doubt. This isn’t a full record of that journey (for that, see Candice Millard’s classic The River of Doubt) but a fanciful what-if that imagines T.R. and his son Kermit captured by the Cinta Larga, a real-life tribe that shadowed the expedition as it floated the river.

Bayard, bestselling author of historical thrillers like The School of Night and The Pale Blue Eye, hangs the novel on Kermit’s battle to become something more than his father’s valet, an elusive goal for a son who lacks Teddy’s tallyho bluster. “Of all the Roosevelt children,” Bayard writes, “he was the least likely to force himself on the world’s attention.” Beast tends to run a little too J.J. Abrams–ish for my taste, what with all the strange killings in the jungle. “We are in a strange land, Kermit,” says the old man. “Should we not be braced for strange outcomes?” But Bayard offers his readers a fun ride right to the end.

There’s no escaping family, duty, or violence when you’re a member of the Kings clan of Loosewood Island, the lobstering dynasty at the center of Alexi Zentner’s gripping second novel, The Lobster Kings (Norton, $27). The Kings have been pulling bugs out of the water around Loosewood since the 1720s, and they’ve always policed the grounds on their own. When young tweakers from the next town over start poaching their prey, Cordelia and her father, local big man Woody, must battle for Loosewood and their livelihood.

The struggle continues even as the family business comes under fire, with Cordelia rising as Woody’s power declines. By laying Shakespearean themes over the culturally rich New England lobster grounds, Zentner, a former newspaperman and climber, produces a deeply satisfying novel that reveals what is required by and given to those who inherit a family’s legacy.

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The Road Less Sprinted: The Rise of Fastest Known Time

A growing number of trail runners are finding a new way to test themselves, and it doesn’t involve race fees, bibs, or finish line chutes.

Instead, they’re enlisting their own stopwatch, navigational prowess, and determination to set trail Fastest Known Times, or FKTs. They pick a route, decide whether they’ll receive any outside help in the form of food or aid along the way, and try to cover the distance as fast as possible.

“FKTs allow for a lot more individual creativity than official races,” said ultrarunner Anton Krupicka.

In recent years, the FKT phenomenon has become increasingly visible. A web site—Fastest Known Time—now exists dedicated to record keeping, enabling runners to look up existing records and post their own. The site has several hundred threads dedicated to FKT attempts.

“I think there has been an increased interest in FKTs,” said Peter Bakwin, who runs the Fastest Known Time site. “There are a lot of really cool areas that will never have races on them. Wherever you live, you can find a route.” 

Some of the recent attention to FKTs emerged because elite trail runners have tackled major efforts. Whereas elites used to prioritize races over FKTs, Bakwin said, some are now making speed attempts the centerpiece of their season, due to both personal preference and growing support from the companies that back them. 

Kilian Jornet, a Spanish mountaineer and ultrarunner who many consider the best in the sport, has built his career around setting speed records on mountain routes. 

Sponsors, in turn, have followed suit in embracing FKT efforts. The North Face sponsored Hal Koerner and Mike Wolfe when they set a speed record on the John Muir Trail last year. Rob Krar, who set the record last year on the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim route, believes his effort on the iconic route—along with a couple of top race performances—helped land him a sponsorship with The North Face.

Public awareness of trail speed attempts has increased as sponsors produce videos and blogs highlighting FKT records. Jornet’s sponsor, Salomon, helps create online videos about his efforts, leading to global recognition of Jornet’s pursuits. New Balance sent a film crew to Colorado last summer to track Anton Krupicka’s attempt to set a speed record on a route up and over a series of 14,000-foot peaks. And Patagonia made web video of the record-setting-run Krissy Moehl and Luke Nelson set on the Trans-Zion trail. Moehl, who also set the women’s speed record on Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail last year with Darcy Africa, said Patagonia prefers that she attempt FKTs and trail adventures rather than just stick to traditional races.

“Patagonia likes the storyline that goes along with it,” Moehl said.

Both elite and amateur runners who attempt FKTs say they’re drawn to the grassroots element of the endeavor. Rather than traipsing through the woods with hundreds of other race competitors, they’re on their own in nature. For trail running enthusiasts, that’s often what drew them to the sport in the first place.

“For me, it’s returning to the roots of why I love mountain running,” Wolfe said. “The joy and freedom of moving through the mountains in a minimalist style.” 

FKTs also enable runners to tackle routes in which races will never take place. Permits will likely never be issued for races in wilderness areas or National Parks, such as the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim trail, or Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail. 

With speed efforts, runners can pick their run day based on personal health, fitness, weather, or convenience, and not have to worry about a designated race day. FKTs also provide a compelling challenge for athletes who want their adventure to include navigation and strategic planning

“Races are an adventure, but one where you can blow up and get a car ride back home,” said Matt Hart, who set the Zion Traverse record in 2010 and tries to go after a new FKT each year. “There is more adventure, more risk in trying for a FKT. You have to estimate your abilities and go for it.”

But even the most ardent supporters of FKTs acknowledge that there can be downsides. Some runners simply prefer the support and comfort of directional race flagging and aid stations, and don’t want to navigate a wilderness area on their own. Krar said that some athletes might end up in trouble because they chose a route above their ability level.

Criticism also can arise if too many runners are attempting to cover a trail as fast as possible on their own terms. Bakwin and Krar noted problems with large volumes of runners in the Grand Canyon trails in recent years. The runners can overwhelm toilet facilities at the bottom of the canyon and sometimes blow past mule trains and walkers. Of course, very few of these runners are actually attempting FKTs, but observers can easily lump solo or two-person competitive runners into the category as huge groups of runners.

“I’ve heard a lot of reports of runners not obeying common courtesy because they’re on the clock,” Bakwin said. 

For these runners, time—and making records of it—means everything. The history of FKTs likely dates way back, but long-term record keeping is tough to uncover. That’s why Bakwin started the Fastest Known Time web site roughly 10 years ago. He and friend Buzz Burrell made sure to dub the records on the site Fastest Known Times, as there can always be existing speed records that no one knows about. The site encourages runners to use GPS, photos, and other methods to verify their times.

“If you want to go out there with no GPS track and no witnesses, that’s great, but then don’t publicize it and ask sponsors for support,” Burrell said. “If you’re going to publicize yourself, then document yourself. It’s a package deal.”

In addition to keeping records, Bakwin wants the site to tell stories of both trail triumphs and failures. He’s more interested in someone’s trail experience than the end time result.

“I wanted to have a place those stories could be saved,” Bakwin said. 

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Bosnia’s Better Side

Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, lies in a narrow valley flanked by the Miljacka river, a faint stream often saturated by sediment. Sadly, due to historic flooding last week, that usually quaint and bucolic waterway has been thrashing against its banks, threatening to destroy some of the bridges that cross it.

The recent flooding in Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia is so bad that some are comparing the damage to the brutal 1992-1995 war. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated, more than 100,000 homes have been destroyed and at least 43 people have been killed. At least one-fourth of Bosnia’s four million residents have been affected. 

{%{"image":"","size":"large","caption":"Guide Fikret Kahrovic en route to the summit of Mount Maglic."}%}

And then there are the landmines. The rain triggered 2,100 landslides that wiped out an unknown number of warning signs marking 9,416 existing minefields containing 120,000 unexploded mines. No one knows how many have been dislodged and swept away. 

And so it goes. Bosnia’s modern history seems to be defined by catastrophe. 

This is an even greater shame because Bosnia is worth knowing about—in a very different way. When I was there in the summer of 2013, on a fellowship to research and write about the anniversary of the 1984 Olympics—the Miljacka was bustling with people, mostly locals, many of them crowding into the tree-shaded cafes that line its banks. Some nursed a cold beer from the nearby Sarajevska brewery. Upstream, anglers sat beside their poles in hopes that something in the shallow water would snag their line.

During the three months I spent working, exploring, hiking, and peak-bagging, I was struck by the country’s abundant beauty. In Sarajevo, a city of roughly 400,000, history spills out everywhere—between the cobblestone bricks in the Turkish quarter and the gouged ground filled with red acrylic “roses.” Red roofs against light stone streets laced with patches of green extend across the valley. There’s a mosque in every sight line, but no shortage of beer or liquor or cigarettes.

You can buy a slice of pizza for a dollar on most streets. At Vrelo Bosna in Ilidza (currently flooded), swans drift on ponds. There is the well-known annual Sarajevo Film Festival and a dance club where you can take your dog. 

{%{"image":"","size":"large","caption":"Overlooking Sarajevo, home of the 1984 Winter Olympics."}%}

Bosnia is small—about the size of West Virginia. The southern region has a Mediterranean climate—similar to neighboring Croatia—with a modest 12 miles of coastline on the Adriatic. In Sarajevo and northerly parts of the country, there’s a moderate continental climate, and real winters, which allowed the city to host the 1984 Winter Olympics when Bosnia was still part of Yugoslavia.

No matter what direction of the compass you choose to follow, adventure abounds. You can raft class IV rapids on the Tara, hike to waterfalls and highland villages, and explore one of the last primeval forests in Europe. There are miles of singletrack on Mount Trebevic, just outside of town, along the former front lines and the Olympic bobsled course. In June, good luck finding a table for a post-ride beer: Bosnia is playing in its first-ever World Cup.  

On the weekends I would head to the nearby mountains. The Bosnian countryside is carved by winding turquoise rivers with frothing rapids. The severe peaks of the Dinaric Alps stab at the skyline, surrounded by lowlands of lush forests and sprawling fields. Most hiking routes are marked with red circles surrounding white dots on trails that lead through open meadows, ascend vertigo-inducing hillsides, scramble up rock faces and down wide, worn paths courtesy of the local bears. Guides like Fikret Kahrovic will steer you toward the highest peaks, or the prettiest, or the most challenging, depending on your taste. There are so many, however, he can’t be made to choose his favorite.

But I know mine.

Mount Maglic in Sutjeska National Park on the border with Montenegro is Bosnia’s highest peak at 7,828 feet. One Sunday morning I met Fikret, dressed in a blue polo and a giant grin, and a few others at the iconic yellow Holiday Inn at the edge of town. Built for the Olympics, the hotel housed journalists during the war and was frequently shelled. Now a disco ball spins and neon lights bounce against the walls during late-night parties.

{%{"image":"","size":"large","caption":"The approach to Mount Maglic (right), with views of the Dinaric Alps in the distance."}%}

Maglic is often obscured by clouds (its name means "fog"), but when we were there clear skies provided panoramic views, and the craggy limestone behemoth was entirely visible. The trail began at a clearing in the woods and meandered through the forest before opening up to a meadow streaked with lingering snowpack. Fikret jokingly cursed as his phone alerted him he’d entered Montenegro, though the border was still a few miles away. “This is Bosnia!” he declared proudly, laughing.

The flat expanse led straight to the rocky base and a faint shaded triangle on the face illustrated our route. Relatively new steel cables line multiple sections of the ascent, helping mute the vertigo caused by sheer faces in either direction. After a few scrambles, a false summit, and a short climb over a mound of boulders, we reached the top. Hikers from the Montenegrin side were sprawled across the grass plateau—the first people we’d seen all day. They posed for pictures next to a metal flag staked in the ground and a plaque honoring Josip Broz Tito, the former leader of Yugoslavia. Directly below, a sparking glacial lake in Montenegro was wedged between the mountains. The 360-degree views seemed boundless. It felt like a summer hike back in Western Washington, where I’d grown up.

The pendulum of catastrophe seems to swing at a faster kick in Bosnia and its people are no stranger to heartbreak. But perhaps one day the place will be known, not for war and disaster, but for thigh thrashing ascents and a haven for adventure, like it deserves.

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Quer Ficar Comigo? Wanna Make Out?

“I said, ‘Okay one.’” She brandished her index finger. “One quick one. Then he stuck his tongue down my throat.”

“Oooh, yuck. What did you do then?”

“I retreated into the kitchen. They were really nice to me. Everyone was so nice to me.”

It was 3:30 in the morning. I was looking blearily at my 16-year-old daughter, Molly, who had just returned from her first party in Penedo, the small, upriver town in northeastern Brazil where we'd come to live for a year. 

Before leaving the U.S., I’d had my share of anxious visions about what could happen to our kids in a small town in Brazil. This wasn’t new. My husband, Peter, and I had thought through our worst nightmares before every trip abroad. But when it was just the two of us, our perception of the risks was different. We put ourselves pretty far out into the “bush”—hiking across China for our honeymoon, crossing borders into small African countries on the brink of revolution. We had that youthful sense of invincibility. But then we had kids.

When we were choosing where to go after our second child, Skyler, was born, we'd said no malaria; so we chose malaria-free Spain. When the kids were six and 10, we chose the capital city of Mozambique. It had malaria, but wasn’t far from Johannesburg and good medical care. But they were young then. Now we had teens. 

So Brazil. Would our beautiful blonde daughter’s celebrity status protect her from predatory men, or would she be seen as a special prize, a conquest, a target? We’d been warned by Brazilian friends at home that it was common practice at parties to be asked by someone you’d just met if you wanted to make out. “Quer ficar comigo?” No strings attached.

So when Molly had come home from school earlier that day jubilantly announcing that she’d been invited to her new friend Keyla’s 15th birthday party, we thought we were prepared. She’d been told to keep her eyes on her drink and stick with friends. Molly barely spoke Portuguese and so far only one person we'd met spoke English. But Molly can dance and at a party, in Brazil dancing well will get you a long way.

“Mom, what should I wear?”

“What do you have?” (We'd moved to Brazil with one duffle bag each.)

At 10 that night, another new friend, Leyla, came to pick Molly up. Molly was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and her favorite multicolored flat sandals. She opened the door. There was Leyla—in a satin minidress and four-inch heels. Molly rushed back into her room.

“Mom, what can I wear?!”

She re-emerged in a short black dress and the only heels she owned, two-inches high with a tame strap.

“Have fun,” I called as she slipped out the door. I doubted she’d heard me, or the trepidation in my tone.

Parties in Penedo start at 10 or 11, after our bedtime. We had no car. We’d considered finding a taxi driver to bring Molly home in the wee hours, but thought better of it. After midnight, if they were willing to work, chances are they would be doing it under the influence. So she'd be stranded at the party with no way to bail. We kept our cell phones by our bed, figuring maybe we could call Zeca, the young lawyer who spoke English and was fast becoming a friend. It turned out Zeca was often at the same parties.

That first time, I woke up at three a.m. It was still dark. No sign of our 16 year old. Though I wished she were home, I was less anxious than I would have been in the U.S. Perhaps this was because, abroad, I was too in the dark to know what to worry about. And in this small town, the big U.S. bogeyman, drunk driving, didn’t exist. Lots of people were drunk but almost no one was driving. Kids didn't have cars. In Brazil, the parties are also intergenerational, so I knew Leyla’s mom was there and would bring them home.

I went to lie down on the living room couch. Not long after, Molly quietly opened the front door.

“How was it?” I asked sleepily.

“Oh, Mom, it was really fun, but…It was kind of overwhelming, too. There was lots of dancing. But these guys, they made a big circle around me and were shouting, “Mohly, Mohly, I love you, I love you.”

“In English?”

“Yeah. In English. For a long time. And they kept asking me to fica (to make out) with them. My friends were trying to protect me. But finally, I gave in. I told Felipe, you know, the guy who worked at the desk at the pousada, that I would, cuz at least I kinda knew him.”

That first introduction was an eye opener. You can hear about a custom in another culture but what do you do when it's actually dropped in your lap. Do as the Romans do? Some things are easier to try on than others, like sampling new food. But making out with strangers...?

Well, we’d been warned this would happen to Molly. But to our son Skyler? It turned out that at age 12, our tan, blond, blue-eyed son had an impassioned female following, both his age and older, acquaintances and total strangers. They’d regularly ask him to kiss them, at school or on the street. Anywhere would do.

“Mom, what do I do? I want to go play tennis but there’re all those girls out there!” And there were; a little, tittering clutch eagerly watching our front door from the concrete benches in the plaza.

“Can you just say we don’t do this in the U.S.? That we don’t kiss strangers?”

“I’ve tried that. They just say, 'But this is Brazil'.”

In Skyler’s first few months in school, we received several love notes a week, surreptitiously slipped under our front door. Once I heard it happen and whipped the door open, mischievously hoping to catch the author. She’d vanished. On purple or pink paper, with heart or rainbow stickers, in a combination of Portuguese and broken English, they ranged from the fairly innocent (and somewhat inscrutable), “Never get out of Brazil that is a rock. I’ll die” to the racier “Just want your baby well,” or “I’am Prostitute and you is my Bum” or better yet “Fuck! Te Amo!”

One Saturday, Skyler took part in a Capoeira demonstration at a neighboring school. We'd recently begun to take lessons in this Brazilian martial art/dance form. As soon as his Capoeira group arrived, he was surrounded by girls wanting to pose for pictures with him.  Our "California surfer," with his shaggy blond hair and clear blue eyes, stood dutifully for one selfie after another, a big white smile, frozen painfully on his face. Theoretically, this should be a boy’s dream, but it wasn’t.

This is what we began to realize about cultural immersion. It's not just about language, which was where most of our focus had been. Certainly that plays a part. But there are all those other things. All that body language; what seems suggestive in one culture might be casual in another. All that learned understanding of what's acceptable and what's not; a curt response to a social advance that feels rude in one culture might be routine in another.

Months later, I asked Molly about the men at another party during Brazilian Carnavalthis one an all-nighter, with bands and huge crowds—she said, "Oh the men are fine. I just pry them off my face."

Okay she's in, I thought, she's immersed. And then I thought: she'll be able to handle anything.

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