Monthly Archives: September 2007

Literature: Heller’s Whale Warriors

minkeHot off the press—literally—is Peter Heller’s new book, The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet’s Largest Mammals (Free Press, 2007). Whew. Quite a subtitle. I heard Heller read from the book earlier this week at the Boulder Bookstore, and I’m currently sitting in Amante Coffee, drinking an Americano and devouring my signed copy.

In 2005, Heller joined the crew of the Farley Mowat on a 51-day pursuit of Japanese whalers hunting endangered species in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. The Farley Mowat is the flagship of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which makes it an eco-pirate ship of sorts. It’s painted a stealthy black and flies a Jolly Roger. The captain, a certain radical environmental enforcer named Paul Watson, has sunk eight whaling ships to the bottom of the ocean and isn’t bothered by the fact that the ships they’ll be pursuing could T-bone the Farley in seconds. The Whale Warriors tells the story of Heller’s tenure aboard this ship as it clashes with the Japanese whaling fleet. But it’s also a story that explores the fate of our oceans and looks closely at the motives and personalities of the people who are fighting to preserve them.

Heller is a contributing editor at Outside and National Geographic Adventure. He’s written some other books. He’s good. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society continues to run campaigns against the Japanese whaling fleet during the austral summer, and I had my first encounter with this organization last year while I was working in communications at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Outfitted with a new ship, they had called in because they were in the Ross Sea area, trying to locate the Japanese ships. Of course, I would have been fired for offering any information, but I began tracking their progress. Heller’s book is insightful and well written, giving me all of the details (and more) that I wish I had last year as I sat in a communications box listening to crackling radio conversations.

Another Americano, please…

(photograph above is of a minke whale that I photographed frolicking just off the Ross Sea ice edge)

Landscape: Fall Light

Homey Home?Okay. So things keep getting wackier. I didn’t know whether or not I’d admit this on “Down and Out,” but here it goes. In addition to camping and staying with friends, I have also been sleeping in an airplane hangar. I don’t want to write much about it at the moment (as this is a “Landscape” post, anyway). It’s probably illegal to sleep in an airplane hangar, and the fumes are starting to get to me. While the difficulties of living like this have started to make me edgy, I still see it frequently: the beauty all around.

Just in case you were wondering, autumn has officially arrived. On the first fall morning, I was walking out of the hangar at around 6:45 a.m., and I turned around to look at the sky. So cool–I just wanted to swim in it, that liquid gold:

Liquid Gold Sky

And as I rounded the side of the hangar, the sun was just coming up, a big ball of orange setting the flatirons on fire.

Fire in the Sky

The paychecks have started coming in, and I suppose that I could (or should) probably find a more permanent place to live. But when I have moments like these liquid-gold-flatirons-on-fire ones, I feel like things are okay just as they are.

Life: The Pick Up

The Pick UpToday. Is. The. Day. In a few hours, I’ll be driving from Boulder to Limon, Colorado to exhume The Van, which has been stashed in a shed for nearly four years. When I went out to check on it in May, the thing miraculously started, but at that time, the front left tire was flat. Now, it has another flat tire and is inhabited by a family of field mice.

So. I’ve made arrangements to tow The Van to a shop in Limon, and I have called ahead to warn the mechanics. The plan is just to get it going and to drive it to Colorado Springs, were I’ll keep it at a friend’s house and clean it up. Over the next few weeks, I’ll probably disinfect it with Clorox and try to get rid of the mice turds. I’ll repair the bench seat where a little round hole has been chewed into the brown faux-leather upholstery.

Vague plans taking shape for an October van trip to Utah…

Feel the Road

Landscape: Hooray for Ouray!

hoorayI feel like I’ve been on the small mountain town tour lately—last weekend I roadtripped to Ouray, Colorado and spent an afternoon in Telluride. This week, I spent three nights in Golden (home of the Coors brewery, and little else). I had never been to Ouray before, and although I wasn’t too impressed with the town itself, its surroundings were stunning.

A few Ouray stats:

Elevation: 7,700 feet.

Population: 803 (seriously).

Free wireless: at the café next to the chocolate shop.

Ice climbing: at the Ouray Ice Park.

You see it a lot in the Rockies, these high peaks, but what makes Ouray stand out from the other mountain towns is that it’s nestled into a narrower-than-normal valley, and the 13,000-foot peaks surround it on THREE sides.

Stop in for a soak at the Orvis Hot Springs on your way. And enjoy scenes like these on your way home:


More on Ouray:

Orvis Hot Springs:

Ouray Ice Park:

Literature: A Cozy Mystery

Getting CozyIn August, I decided that I wanted to start doing more formal-type book reviewing, so I began contacting editors. As usual, some ignored my e-mails completely, which is lame. But as it turns out, I have four books to review for the month of September. This is great news—because I love to read, and I love to write—but I didn’t know entirely what I was getting myself into when I told these editors to send me “whatever.” I should have qualified, perhaps, that I tend to go for nonfiction on the topics of nature, environment, adventure, and/or travel.

The first book I received in the mail was Donna Andrews’ latest “cozy mystery” called The Penguin Who Knew Too Much (St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2007). Cozy mysteries, if they are at all like this one, tend to be light on the blood and gore, heavy on the humor. The Penguin Who Knew Too Much is the eighth book in Andrews’ Meg Lanslow mystery series. This book begins as Lanslow, an amateur sleuth, discovers a bunch of penguins—and a dead body—in her basement. Even though Lanslow is a blacksmith by trade, she’s computer-savvy enough to Google her suspects for background info. She races to investigation sites in her beat-up blue Toyota, and she cracks the case within 72 hours (but only after taking a crossbow to the cheek and breaking a leg in the process).

Even though I wasn’t sure what to expect from a series that has been labeled “cozy,” I found myself amused by Lanslow’s adventures and impressed with Andrews’ ability to keep serious topics—such as dead bodies in basements—on the safe side.

The longer, more formal-type, review of this book is now posted on’s Contemporary Literature site. To read it, click here.

Life: Tailgate Living

TailgatingAs I mentioned last week, organization is super-important when you’re living out of your car. Otherwise, how can you find your toothbrush when you’re getting ready to sleep in the back of your friend’s Subaru Forester? Impossible, sans organization. This week wasn’t short on wackiness, but I managed to have a roof over my head each night…even if it was the roof of a car.

The Subaru proved to be this week’s best living quarters, if only for one night. My friend Tarrie (pictured below) and I drove down to Ouray, Colorado because she was running the gnarly Imogene Pass from Ouray to Telluride. I decided to support the endeavor. I brought my tent, but it was late when we arrived in Ouray, so we just pulled off on a side street and spread out our sleeping bags in the back of the car. A nice breeze came in through the sunroof, which opened up to a sky full of stars.

Notice the carefully arranged gear bags. I generally arrange mine like this: one for the sleep kit, one for clothes, one for personal items, one for dry food, one for cold food, and one for the portable office. I have been writing full-time, and I had a deadline to make Friday eve, so as soon as we arrived in Ouray, I hunted for a wireless café and uploaded the work that I did on the drive down.

Besides sleeping in the Subaru, I also slept in Denver this week for a few nights at a friend’s house while he was out of town. He has no furniture, so the living quarters looked like this:

Denver Crash Pad

It was nice to have a real roof covering my head, but I’ve got to admit that it was pretty lonely there. Other than that crash pad, I also spent one night last week on a floor in Colorado Springs, another night on a spare bed there. And the most bizarre of all, I spent a night sleeping in a van in the Boulder airport parking lot (more on that in an upcoming post).

Without stuff carefully organized into bags and precision-packed into my Toyota, I’m not sure if I could live like this. There have been a few tiring moments, but I’m meeting my deadlines and generally thinking that this tailgate living isn’t so bad.

Landscape: The Commute

Super CommuteIf you had to commute, no matter what, wouldn’t you want to commute through some sort of landscape that gets your heart beating, you know, the kind that gets those brain cells fired up for the day? Yeah—me, too. I don’t think that I’m the only one who gets annoyed by standstill traffic and people who cut you off and then act like they didn’t see you. Lately my commute options have been like this:

When I sleep in my tent in the Roosevelt National Forest, I drive NW through Boulder Canyon. The road is as curvy as any old-fashioned roller coaster, and the traffic is sparse—even during “rush hour.” People are rock climbing on crags along the way, and cyclists are out for their evening rides. Last week, I crested the hill just above Nederland to see the sun going down behind the hills, splashing pastel strokes across the sky:


Now. If I choose to stay in Denver, it’s a different story. One evening last week, I was driving from Boulder to Denver at eight o’clock to try to miss the traffic, and it was still a parking lot for five lanes of expressway. Guess I didn’t make a mental note that there was a Rockies game. Today, it was back to Boulder in the rain…and even at 3:30 in the afternoon, it was like this:


I don’t know. Could someone help me out here? I mean, the photographs seem to make the choice for me, but why have I been driving back and forth from Denver this week? Right. Probably Dear-Out-of-Town-Friend’s stable living arrangement has something to do with it…

Literature: Rereading Walden

“Simplify, simplify.”
-H.D. Thoreau, in Walden (1854)

Every few years, I reread Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; Or Life in the Woods, and this time as I’m reading it, I feel like I’m finding a friend. In 1845, Thoreau decided to take a retreat to the woods near Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived for over two years on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau’s cabin was on the shores of Walden Pond, and while he was there, he recorded the details of the natural world with such a brilliant vividness that they burn so true to me today.

My life’s circumstances are not the same as Thoreau’s; however, I understand what he means when he says: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…”

Isn’t this at some level what we all want: to live?

I only spent two nights last week in the woods, but I have been thinking a lot about my attraction to natural beauty and my desire to live within it. These things are sometimes hard to explain, but I think that Thoreau, who explains his reasons for living in the woods in Walden, also best explains my own reasons for living the way that I do.

Living deeply doesn’t have to mean living by oneself in a cabin, or living in the mountains, or living in a tent. I think that what Thoreau was trying to learn was far more important than the way he went about doing it. The woods worked for him, and Walden is full of wisdom (some below) that Thoreau gained from his “experiment.” But in the end, he says, “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live…”

More wisdom from Walden:

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.”

“Why should we live with such a hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in nine saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches to-day to save nine to-morrow.”

“Time is but a stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. The current slides away, but eternity remains.”

“In proportion as [a man] simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

“However mean your life is, met it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are.”

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that it one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”