I USED TO HAVE a recurring nightmare about climbing a fragile ladder straight up into the sky. The ladder wasn’t leaning against anything and the only way I could keep it balanced was to continue to climb as fast as possible. The view was great, but inevitably the ladder would topple and I’d fall to my death, over and over as the dream occurred. Needless to say things weren’t going well back then. I was trying to support a wife and two daughters on less than ten grand a year. Things got better after I wrote Legends of the Fall, and I no longer have this desperate dream.
I grew up on a farm for a while where death is so obvious. You chop the head off the chicken for Sunday’s dinner. Your favorite piglet dies for no reason. A massive draft horse drops dead while plowing, still in the harness. Quite a job to bury it.
As I aged, I expected to think about death far more than I do. My favorite epitaph is the one that my hero, the anthropologist Loren Eiseley, wrote for himself, “We loved the earth but could not stay.” Wonderfully concise. But what do we do before we go? As a writer I’ve never stopped. I’ve written more in my seventies than ever before. Of course, I frequently wear out, a condition I have countered by becoming a master of naps. The first of the day comes in the morning, soon after walking the dog and five cups of coffee. Coffee has never kept me awake an extra minute. I doze about 20 minutes under the idea that I’m clearing my head, maybe an illusion, but then it works. The next nap is what Henry Miller called a “full dress nap.” It comes after lunch, the official siesta time in Spain. This one takes an hour or more. You have to take off your clothes and get in bed. At no time may any nap be taken with your socks on. This is likely a superstition, but I stick to it. I also believe in the Resurrection, because it never occurred to me to stop believing in it. The third nap takes place after dinner and is a matter of habit. For years I had to work at full-time jobs and then write at night. I’d take a nap after dinner and then work until well after midnight. I still take the naps but rarely work at night anymore, because my mind would become clinically fugal, which means that it would slide into an uncontrollable whirl. Not pleasant.
I have been teased relentlessly by laymen and other writers about my naps, but then I just published The River Swimmer, my thirty-sixth book, and they didn’t. In Buddhist terms, my naps are a Noble Truth. My father’s message was, “Get your work done,” and I am still at it. I’ve had books published in 29 countries, which mystifies me. There was the recent addition of Bulgaria. Why do they want American fiction in Bulgaria? Would Bolivia be better?
Aging brings around illnesses beyond the head-cold range. Late last fall, I had extensive spinal surgery, and the recovery hasn’t been fun. Before surgery I couldn’t walk at all, which was hard on my dog, who became melancholy without our walks. After surgery, I wasn’t recovering fast enough and was sent to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where I learned to walk again, a pleasant talent compared with sitting. I admit that I no longer stride through the forest, but shuffling is much better than nothing.
Which brings up the sporting life. For 30 years, I spent a couple of months each fall and winter hunting game birds—grouse, woodcock, quail, and doves—in various parts of this country. I loved it, even for eight exhausting hours a day. After my spinal problem, I can’t keep up with my friends and bird dogs anymore. I have thus perfected the art of log sitting. Similar to a bed and naps, I find a nice log and sit on it, usually for as much as 40 minutes. My bird dog occasionally comes back for a visit, perhaps to commiserate, and then she is off again to where the action is, her singular imperative. I don’t mind. I’m old, semi-crippled, and want her to have a good time. She was my main motive for back surgery. Dogs don’t live long and deserve walks every day.
Of course, your sexuality vastly diminishes in your seventies. Perhaps this is the gods getting you out of the gene pool. You used to while away hours concocting electric fantasies, but now you are far too realistic and pragmatic. You know very well that those beautiful girls and women you see wandering around New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago don’t pray after work, “Lord, gimme a geezer tonight.” This is hard to accept, but don’t sit under an apple tree until you get the long-lost constant hard-on that plagued your youth. The apples will ripen and fall on your head before anything happens. I’ve read that you don’t help matters by drinking and smoking too much, but these ingrained habits help me want to live. French red wine is as necessary as oxygen for me.
As a matter of plain fact, life has become pleasantly smaller and simpler. Lucky for me I live in Montana and can still fly-fish for trout. About 90 days a summer and fall will find me gliding down rivers in a guide boat. When I get even older, we’ll drop an easy chair into the bow. I can make the throw sitting down because I had 20 years of salt-water fly-casting in Key West. Those were wild days and nights, with social diseases lurking in the alleys. I lived through them and try not to think about them anymore. They were just life in its simpleminded prime. Now I’m so wise, I share nasty oatmeal with the dog. She’s getting older but still loves life.
Jim Harrison'sBrown Dog, a collection of novellas, will be published in December by Grove Press.
I WAS A twentysomething divorcée sitting behind a flesh-toned cubicle wall at Vanity Fair magazine. This was a desk that many coveted, but not me. Don’t get me wrong—the magazine was a terrific place to work. Its sleek blocks of frosted-glass offices were lined with smart, caustically funny people editing some of the most vibrant voices on earth at the turn of the 21st century.
But I was blindly impatient and headstrong. I loathed sitting still. I couldn’t figure out how I was being paid (barely) to keep my butt in an office chair even though I had so little to do. I wasn’t even allowed to answer my boss’s phone, since he and his friends played elaborate prank-call jokes on one another. So I whiled away afternoons reading great stories. Without realizing it, I was learning that curious people could support themselves by traveling and writing about the world’s problems. One day I was sent to the offices of Human Rights Watch to fetch photographs of possible war crimes that Sebastian Junger had shipped back from Sierra Leone. As I waited for the photographs, someone pulled me aside and told me the story of honor crimes: women who are killed by their families for rumors of sexual dishonor in Jordan and on the West Bank.
This was a story that demanded reporting, I thought, and I decided to go to the Middle East and do it myself. This was ambitious, yes, but I had nothing to lose and I knew it. I had few expenses, and I was responsible to no one. (I was living in my parents’ guest bedroom following my divorce.) There was no chance in hell that Vanity Fair would send me, so I pitched the story to The New Republic. If I could do it, the editor said, the magazine would publish it. After just nine months at Vanity Fair, I’d left my desk behind for good to pursue a life as a writer. About a year after publishing that first story, on an achingly bright September morning in 2001, I was walking through Central Park with my sister when emergency vehicles began to race past us. I called up The Sunday Times of London and offered them my services as a stringer in New York. After filing a few dispatches for them, I scrambled and found a women’s magazine that wanted a story on refugee camps on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. At the time, the United Nations was sending journalists to Pakistan. In addition to helping secure visas fast, the UN would arrange for a flight if the journalist had an assignment.
I landed in Islamabad wearing sneakers white with the dust of 9/11 and rushed into the refugee camps from which the Taliban had sprung. For the next three years, I worked for whoever would pay me. I left Pakistan for Medellín, Colombia, to report on child assassins. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I reported on pygmies who claimed that rebels had killed and eaten their family members. I returned to Pakistan several times to report from the tribal area of Waziristan. And each time, I returned home to the same set of pink twin beds in my parents’ apartment.
I finally moved out, but I’ve kept going for the past decade, working primarily on issues of religion and justice in Africa and Asia. My story isn’t uncommon. There’s a whole itinerant pack of us who came of age in the shadow of the falling towers. As I’ve grown older, I’ve mellowed with the realization that the good things—jobs, skills, careers, love—take time. Talent is the least of it. But the attributes I learned during that unsettled period continue to serve me: curiosity, empathy, and a desire to return to desperate places. As a wise friend told me years ago, the greatest challenge is getting there.
CV: Attended St. Andrew's high school in Middletown, Delaware. Graduated from Middlebury College in 2011 with an environmental-studies degree. In September, after losing a job on a lobster boat, Forsthoefel started walking west from Philadelphia with a 50-pound backpack, a mandolin, an Olympus LS-10 audio recorder, and a sign that said WALKING TO LISTEN. He recorded interviews with people he met on the road: a woman in Alabama whose Marine-vet husband had died from complications related to an IED attack in Iraq; a cop near the Grand Canyon who “pulled over” Forsthoefel for pushing a baby stroller containing his pack over a windy pass. Forsthoefel completed his journey in Half Moon Bay, California, 11 months after setting out, and seven months later, This American Life aired a popular show on the project.
Up Next: A book about his trek. Forsthoefel is pulling espresso shots in Woods Hole by day and writing by night.
15: States he walked across.
On Letting ’er Rip: “Taking unusual and maybe risky paths opens up opportunities. It’s the quickest way to go from living in a bubble to learning something new. That’s what the walk was about.”
I love my job. Playing with gear is clearly the highlight of my day and getting to geek out while writing about it is a relatively close second. But reading about what's new is also pretty high on the pleasure scale right now. With more people buying gear online, the need for quality reviews is higher than ever. And with the demand high, established sites and newcomers have rushed to show us what's new and exciting. But with all the players, it can be hard to spot the winners. Of all the gear coverage I read online day-to-day here are my seven favorite sites.
Blister Gear Review Blister Gear Review, the youngest site on this list, is certainly the most thorough about its treatment of outdoor gear. Their reviewers are all top-level athletes and they test the dickens out of gear before writing about it. It's true long-form, the average length of a review of a single piece of gear is 1500 words, and they take advantage of those words by really breaking down the minute performance and design details that matter when you are using high-end gear.
Having started Gear Junkie in 2006, Stephen Regenold is one of the longest standing members in the gear blog game and has built an empire around it. Regenold told me in an email that they have over 20,000 reader comments on their blog. I personally gravitate to their "First Look" coverage. It feels like every time a new piece of gear is released in our the outdoor space, Gear Junkie seems to be right there playing with it.
Ex-Outside Associate Editor Justin Nyberg paid his gear dues as Executive Editor for the Outside's Buyer's Guide, working on every BG for six years before co-founding the Gear Institute. The sharply designed site is easy to navigate by category and packs a lot of information in to a small space thanks to its use of illustrated ratings along with words and images.
Trek Tech Blog
Trek Tech Blog's founder, Billy Brown, is a beast. The 3-savage-workouts-per-day athlete recently competed in the American Ninja Challenge on assignment. Brown and his crew of testers are brutal on their bodies and the gear they test—dragging it behind cars, spilling whiskey on high-end tech, and occasionally sending themselves to the hospital. The site is in a scroll down blog format and features gear one piece at a time.
Gear Patrol is my go-to for inspiration on hip treatment of gear. The site uses photo essays, a clean design, and well produced videos to create an aesthetically pleasing experience. Gear Patrol has a much more lifestyle lean than any other site on this list, but a man can't live on outdoor gear alone.
Amy Jurries, who runs The Gearcaster, is always right on top of trends. Jurries maintains the most comprehensive outdoor trend forecasting site by constantly reading, keeping up with industry events, and getting after it outside herself. Jurries just came back from a Pack-Raft gear testing adventure in Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska. Her gear testing is presented one item at a time in a scroll down blog format.
Adventure Journal's gear coverage is fun to read thanks to writers like site founder Steve Casimiro and Semi-Rad's Brendan Leonard's pervasive, decidedly funny, voice. I find myself laughing out loud when I read sentences like the following, from Leonard: "If your gear were a person, it would divorce you, have you arrested, or stab you to death."
I'M DOZING IN a hammock slung between two snow-ghost spruces overlooking a gypsy-camp movie set put together by Sweetgrass Productions. A dozen or so locals, professional skiers, and hangers-on, all dressed in vintage drover coats, animal skins, and thrift-store fishing sweaters, are walking around on hobbit paths that wind through the woods. We’re a few hundred yards off the back side of the White-water ski area in Nelson, British Columbia, in a clearing decorated with a tepee, an igloo, several blue-tarped lean-tos, and a couple of four-season tents disguised under khaki-colored canvas. Watching the actors and crew move about, I can’t quite tell who’s in character and who’s for real.
A few feet away, Cody Barnhill, a 30-year-old professional freeskier from Alaska, is disrobing and locking limbs with his girlfriend, Meredith Richardson, a 27-year-old reporter for ESPN.com. Santa Barbara–based photographer Lindsey Ross snaps a picture. Ross, 33, has schlepped in an Ansel Adams–style 8x10 box camera and a portable darkroom, and has been shooting collodion wet-plate nudes of just about everyone here.
Down below Barnhill and Richardson, a guy named Todd, a midforties snowboarder with thick dreads and a gentle voice, is in a similar state of undress with an early-twenties local named Beth. It’s early March, and they’re scrubbing themselves with handfuls of snow, the possible goal of which is backcountry hygiene. As they wince from the cold, Sweetgrass codirectors Nick Waggoner and Ben Sturgulewski, both 27, film the act in high definition, offering occasional directorial comments. I knew there would be nudity—one of Waggoner’s ex-girlfriends had said to me, “I hope you’re ready to get naked”—so none of this is too surprising.
“Having naked people skiing is really about expression and finding comfort with your own self,” Waggoner, the outfit’s figurehead, explains. “This is not a negative thing.”
The Sweetgrass crew, whose base of operations this winter is a three-story, five-bedroom house on the south side of Nelson, spent much of the previous night around a towering bonfire, filming scenes for their upcoming release, Valhalla. An art-house take on your typical ski film, it will tentatively feature something exceedingly rare in the genre: a narrative arc. The movie is a mostly fictional account of a young American paper pusher named Conrad, played by Barnhill, who burns out, quits his job, and heads north in his Volkswagen Beetle to reclaim the youth he lost to conventional ambitions.
Along the way, Conrad meets a tribe of feral skiers, including Ayla, played by 24-year-old professional skier Sierra Quitiquit, and the cultish Rasheek, played by Alex Monot, a lanky, bearded, 38-year-old Frenchman who looks like the sixth wizard of Middle Earth and barely knows how to ski. They’re all searching for something that Waggoner calls the “eyes of youth,” a theme prominently featured in a trailer Sweetgrass released in December 2012, along with lots of swirling visuals, fire dancing, Sturgulewski’s rear end, and skiers soaring gracefully off impossibly high cliffs. “When I think of freedom, it’s that first snowfall and walking out into it,” says Sturgulewski.
Valhalla, which debuts September 13 at the Paramount Theater in Denver, is inspired by Woodstock and the sixties—or, rather, by Waggoner and Sturgulewski’s interpretation of that era. They started shooting two years ago here in Nelson. Tracking the annual migration of professional skiers, photographers, and filmmakers, they moved their operation to Alaska for a few months in the spring of 2012, only to return to Nelson again for the winter of 2013. The whole process is less about efficient storyboarding and more about curating the enviable lifestyle they want to portray on film—the ultimate freewheeling ski-bum existence. And, in a way, the finished movie is only part of the performance art. But it’s a big part, one that Patagonia, Dynafit, and a dozen other upstanding ski-industry companies have ponied up real money to see produced.
Right now there isn’t much skiing going on, though. After one of the snowiest Decembers in B.C. history, blizzards have given way to rain crust, and the crew hasn’t touched powder in weeks. This morning, Sturgulewski and Waggoner are spitballing ways to effectively use Quitiquit, their female lead. A self-identified “ironic vegan” who occasionally eats meat, she’s also appearing in the forthcoming Warren Miller film Ticket to Ride and has been working as a fashion model for apparel company American Eagle.
“We could shoot the nude drop-in,” says Sturgulewski, referencing one of several naked ski-action segments in the film.
“Or we could have her interacting with animals,” offers Waggoner.
I FIRST MET Waggoner in 2008, during his senior year at Colorado College. He took a journalism class taught by Outside editor-at-large Randy Wayne White, who brought his students to Santa Fe to meet editors and photographers. Waggoner, who grew up in New York City’s Greenwich Village and attended the tony Upper East Side Loyola School, stood out as having both the talent and the ability to sell himself at a young age.
His self-assignment for the class was to write a story about the reinvention and massive expansion of British Columbia’s Revelstoke Mountain Resort. But he had other motives. “I convinced the PR guys at Revelstoke to comp my heli time,” says Waggoner, who sought out the best local skiers to shoot for a film. During a spring break, on a press junket partially paid for by Colorado College and partially by Revelstoke, Waggoner captured the first scenes of what would become Hand Cut, the film he made with freshman roommate Sturgulewski, classmate Zac Ramras, and Mike Brown, a childhood friend of Ramras’s from Salt Lake City. The four would later name their fledgling production outfit Sweetgrass, which is headquartered in an old school bus that’s most often in Colorado.
If you’re aware of the quartet, it’s likely because of their second film, Signatures, which chronicled the 2008–09 winter they spent in Hokkaido, Japan, among a soulful group of local snowboarders and artists. That movie contains what’s easily the best four minutes and four seconds in ski porn: a mesmerizing montage of neck-deep powder turns through silver birch trees set to Bon Iver’s "Skinny Love," released six months before anybody had ever heard of Bon Iver.
Waggoner and company have a rare ability to boil skiing down to a feeling. “What strikes me most about Sweetgrass’s work is the subtlety of the art,” says legendary ski-film director Greg Stump. “The images are stunning. The skiing is great. The use of light is pretty dang perfect. And then they top it off with musical choices that are downright haunting.” The marquee scenes in many ski films—a lone figure on an Alaskan ridge about to drop in on a seemingly endless, obstacle-ridden, near vertical apron of snow—are almost always shot from helicopters. Sweetgrass, which occasionally uses helicopters to get around, never films from them. Its productions are quieter; watching one makes you want to quit your job and go on an extended quest for deep powder.
Which is exactly what the Sweetgrass crew embarked on when making their wildly ambitious third film, 2011’s Solitaire, a western-themed ski movie set in the Andes and featuring narration adapted from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. As if the conceit wasn’t highfalutin enough, they decided to translate the text into Spanish and then subtitle it back into English on-screen.
The film was hampered by several major problems, including a lack of good snow, unreliable vehicles and lodging, and the skiing deaths of two of their athletes. “Solitaire wasn’t my favorite movie,” Waggoner says. “It was stressful and impossible to shoot.”
Valhalla will be different but no less risky as an artistic endeavor. Waggoner and Sturgulewski started with a 60-page script, but the finished product will have almost no dialogue. It will be narrated mainly by Barnhill, Quitiquit, and Monot in a series of moody voice-overs—the sort of thing that can be either unforgettable or cringe inducing.
Waggoner understands the challenges of structuring a film this way, but he might well pull it off. He’s become one of the most respected filmmakers in the genre, and he isn’t under serious financial pressure as he pursues his vision. Although ticket and DVD sales matter to some extent in a production like this, his primary obligation is to make a film that his sponsors will want to help publicize. And for the first time, he has his pick of the world’s best freeskiers, including Barnhill, Oregon native and freeskiing elder statesman Pep Fujas, and high-flying Canadians Kye Petersen and Eric Hjorleifson.
Sweetgrass has nicer toys these days, too: the crew is shooting with a pair of $40,000 Red cinema cameras. (They had to sell a third one to make rent.) “We don’t want to be Brain Farm,” says Waggoner, referring to the Jackson Hole–based production house with the most expensive moviemaking equipment. Whereas Brain Farm is the Michael Bay of the industry, Sweetgrass aspires to be its Terrence Malick.
WAGGONER HAS a kind of soft-spoken, charismatic innocence. And he often dresses like a dandy, favoring shawl-collared sweaters and fringed suede jackets from thrift shops. Combined with his well-stamped passport, it makes for a conspicuous profile, as I learned when I crossed the border on my way to Nelson.
At the international checkpoint north of Spokane, Washington, an inspector in the secondary screening area asked to see my phone. While he searched it, his colleague explained that cell-phone data helped “reveal peoples’ true intentions.”
“How do you know Nick?” the inspector asked when he returned.
At that point, Waggoner’s name was not in my contact list, but there was a text message from his cell-phone number giving me his address in Nelson, which is commonly referred to as the country’s pot capital. Waggoner has been flagged in Canada’s database since 2010, when agents detained him for 11 hours and strip-searched him. “Where are the drugs, Nicholas?” they wanted to know.
He didn’t have any. Like most of the rotating cast of 15 people who are currently inhabiting the Sweetgrass mansion, Waggoner practices yoga every day and prefers the town’s health-food co-ops to its famous smoke shops. (He does have a weak spot for ten-year Laphroaig Scotch, though.)
At the moment, the house’s other residents include Barnhill; the Frenchman Monot; Quitiquit; her boyfriend, professional freeskier Julian Carr; the photographer Ross; and a few others. In what should be the dining room, camera gear and beat-up tripods litter the floor like kids’ toys. Quarters are tight: Barnhill is currently sleeping in a closet under the stairs. But everyone mostly likes the arrangement. Mostly. On a pizza box in Waggoner’s room, I find a note Ross wrote to Waggoner with a Sharpie, lamenting her inability to sleep with all the loud sex that’s happening but not involving her.
Over the course of the week, all four of the Sweetgrass guys are in constant motion. Brown makes several six-hour round-trips to Spokane to shuttle talent to and from the airport. Ramras picks up a truckload of fireworks for a night-skiing shoot, and Waggoner rents a generator for another, even bigger bonfire party they hope to film at Whitewater Ski Resort.
Occasionally we ski. On one of the few runs we take during the week, Barnhill, who is arguably the most underrated freeskier in America, drops the group while skiing backward down a steep tree-studded glade of icy moguls. And somehow he manages to look like he’s having fun while doing it.
One day, we drive a minivan an hour north to an abandoned mine, where a dozen defunct Into the Wild–style buses sit collecting snow. The goal is to shoot scenes of Quitiquit as the jackbooted, union-suit-wearing Ayla squatting at an abandoned cabin, trying to carve a living out of the land. Only things don’t go as planned. Waggoner shoots a few scenes of Ayla catching a trout and laying out her bedroll, but then the minivan won’t start. While Ramras tries to revive the vehicle, we decide to cook up one of the props—the store-bought fish Ayla supposedly caught on a fly. We fry it on an iron skillet over an open fire, throw in some leftover curry someone brought along, and stand around scooping it into our mouths with bare hands. Waggoner produces a couple of cans of cold beer, and for a moment life imitates art. Then Ramras coaxes the van back to life.
Toward the end of the week, everything is finally set for the bonfire party. The resort’s management is so enthusiastic about hosting it that they have their ski patrollers saw up and stack more than a cord of eight-foot logs to fuel it. At the appointed time, a mix of locals and cast members stage a hippy gala set piece in the woods, with dancing, flaming Hula-Hoops, and generator-amplified music. The inferno is massive. It looks as if a small house is on fire.
Sturgulewski and Waggoner spend much of the night filming Monot’s Rasheek leading Barnhill/Conrad into the circle of gyrating bodies, which includes the mysterious Ayla, and delivering one of the film’s few lines of dialogue: “C’mon, man, let’s get some love.”
Waggoner says the sponsors have been accommodating to Sweetgrass’s style of production. They haven’t required him to turn in anything more than the trailer, which they’ve already posted online. Do they know just how free-spirited the film will be? He doesn’t want to ruin the surprise.
When pressed, he says, “We’re not going to show a cut of it to our sponsors ahead of time. At some point, you just have to say fuck it.”