Monthly Archives: October 2008

Life: Small Space Nesting

This post is for those of you who live in small spaces—and for those of you who aspire to do so. I’m currently having a great time nesting in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Vail, Colorado and wanted to share the small-space love. Ultimately, I think I’d like to live in a small place out on some land (see below), but for now living in a shoebox unit with four other little apartments in the same condo will have to do. Some tricks?? First of all, I severely limit the things I collect. Even though books are a huge part of my life, I only let myself keep what fits on a single skinny shelf beside my desk (at right). I give others away to friends, co-workers, and the local library. Other space-saving innovations are a must. I’ve got a bike suspended from the ceiling in my bedroom, and my closet is stacked with shelves.

As far as the kitchen goes:

I collect recycling, but when you live in a small space, it’s important to get rid of it almost immediately…otherwise it builds up. I collect trash in small bags that I plan on throwing out anyway in order to be more enviro-friendly (I have a major aversion to plastic bags), and it keeps the trash from taking over the kitchen. No need to have a huge bin.

Hanging stuff on the walls, such as these mugs, saves space in cabinets, and it can be fun. I don’t like to have random crap all over the walls, though, so I try to keep it functional and decorative. I’m into the idea of “mountain-modern” and try to mix fun randomly-rustic things with clean design lines. The cow-print carpet squares in front of the sink above, for instance, are from a great company called FLOR. Amazing modular carpet solutions from this company, and they’re recyclable!

But the real dream involves living in a small space of my own out on some land. In Chamonix, France people are starting to turn old little storage houses called mazots into cool single-person living spaces (mazot, above right). I’ve seen fridges in closets, beds in lofts, and a lot of other funky space solutions. A French guy I know even managed to install a bar in his mazot!

Feel free to leave a comment with any space-saving solutions you’d like to share. And I’ll leave you with some links to fuel those tiny home dreams. As my pal Bill (who’s working on a solar initiative in Boulder County) says: “…buy some land, plop one of these down, and you’re set.”

Landscape: The Last Aspens

In September, people start coming up to the mountains to see the golden aspen groves. I start staring out my window for longer periods of time when I should be working. When the aspens change color, it’s not a gradual thing—it’s an explosion, but unfortunately this burst of yellow disappears just as quickly as it arrives. We had out first bit of snow sugar the peaks here in Vail a few weeks ago, but it seemed like a fluke. It can’t be time for winteryet, I told myself—there were still leaves on the trees. A series of frosty nights have since followed, and within a week, Vail Mountain turned from gold to brown.

I saw the change most markedly on the trail runs I take in the mountains near my apartment. After a series of steep switchbacks, I’m running a gradual downhill through an aspen grove that has thinned out in the past few weeks…

..and all that remains now are these ashy white trunks that will disappear when the snow settles in.

From the highest point of the trail, I see Vail Mountain, looking bare and—frankly—quite ugly without its white snowcover.

Less than a month now until the ski lifts open. Let it snow. Let it snow. Let it snow!

Literature: Extreme Landscape

Title: Extreme Landscape: The Lure of Mountain Spaces //Editor: Burnadette McDonald//Publisher: National Geographic Adventure Press//2002//249 p.

I haven’t read much good (life-changing, mind-blowing) fiction lately, so I’ve reverted back to what I love best: nonfiction, on topics related to nature, outdoors, place, adventure, travel, etc. A few weeks ago, I was browsing the used book shelves at the Boulder Bookstore and saw a copy of an essay collection edited by Bernadette McDonald titled Extreme Landscape: The Lure of Mountain Spaces (2002). This book had been previously recommended to me, and it proved to be a good find. Terry Tempest Williams writes the book’s introduction, and essays written by Barry Lopez, George Schaller, Gretel Ehrlich, and Yvon Chouinard are included, among other writers who do great justice to the places that inspire them. As McDonald explains in the foreword, “Each of the authors in this collection is a specialist: a scientist, ethnobotanist, mountaineer, philosopher, or photographer. Each has focused on particular mysteries and issues of extreme landscapes and each of them draws creative inspiration from the high peaks and icy expanses of some of the wildest terrain possible.”

A few of the standout essays include Wade Davis’s “Culture at the Edge,” which involves the author’s experience as a park ranger in Canada’s Spatsizi Wilderness, where he learned the stories of its native people. “Dumbstruck,” by Dermot Somers, is a beautiful meditation of the loss of language and Anglo-Americanization in Ireland and Nepal. Others are more academic in tone, and some—such as Yvon Chouinard’s final essay—are all over the place and back, but they all pay homage to mountain spaces. I recommend this book for any lover of the great outdoors, so if you run across it in a local bookstore or spy it on a friend’s bookshelf, snatch it straightaway.

A few gems:
“When we encounter mountains in wild places, we experience the peak of our own humility.” —Terry Tempest Williams

“The truth lies in the telling of the stories, not in the stories themselves.” —Ed Douglas, on being told stories by those he met in the Himalaya

“For [Alex], the sweeping flight of a hawk was the cursive hand of nature, a script written on the wind.” —Wade Davis, on Alex, a man who tells him stories of Gitksan lore

“To reach back through language, looking for our origins, is to cup the hands in a funnel and shout, and when the shout returns, distorted, a conversation with our earlier selves goes on.” —Dermot Somers

“When we reshape an extreme environment to suit our needs, we lose the ability to experience it on its own terms.” —Bernadette McDonald

Photo: The Royal Societies, part of Antarctica’s Transantarctic Range, on a summer night.

Life: Why Write?

“Why write? Why write at all?”
-Edward Abbey

Why write? It’s a big question, and an attempt to answer it could probably spark a more lively debate than the recent presidential ones. In answer to his own question, Edward Abbey joked: “I write mainly for the money. Only a blockhead would write for anything else.” But then he revealed some of his deeper motivations, including the idea that “Through the art of language…we communicate to others what would be intolerable to bear alone.” Beautifully put. I was thinking about this question the other night when I was writing. I got so frustrated at what I was working on that I started crying. Seriously. And then the next morning, when I returned to my laptop with a cup of coffee and read it again, it didn’t stink that bad. I thought then that it could have been mended. The obvious question followed: why do I do this? And the answers came just as easily: I love writing. I want freedom in my work and schedule. No one else in the world is going to say it for me. I have a lot of hate, too, and writing tempers it. I am nobody without words, nobody without love. And maybe if I could say something that meant something to somebody else, it would make a difference.

If anyone out there would like to reveal the reasons for why you do what you do, please feel free to leave a comment. And I’ll leave you with what one of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), has to say about her life’s motivations:

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Until his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Abbey, Edward. Abbey’s Road. New York: Plume Printing, 1979.

Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1924;, 2000. October 16, 2008.

Photo: taken near Abbey’s canyon country at Indian Creek, Utah.

Landscape: Alpine Camps

Staying out over night in the Alps can be as luxurious or as bare-bones as you want it to be. But whatever comfort level you choose, be assured that what surrounds you will wow you more than the wine and cheese that gets delivered by helicopter the some of the Chamonix-area’s high mountain huts. Of course, I like to climb, but part of what makes climbing something I enjoy is the sleeping out before and after. These situations vary—sometimes it involves tossing down a light sleeping pad between some rhododendron roots and crashing in exhaustion for the night; other times it’s more organized and involves a tent, such and the tiny one pictured at right. Yes, that’s my climbing pal Andy in the tent we sometimes take out—sleeps two—grinning and drinking tea out of the Gatorade container he’s used as a camp bowl since, I suppose, the mid-80s. That camp put us in a cirque above Lac Blanc in the Aiguilles Rouges, from which we could walk up on a ridge and catch views like this of the Dru at night:

In another recent outing, we left the tent in the valley to save weight and instead took only sleeping bags and light bivy sacs to keep us dry in case of weather. Climbers have built several nice rock bivouacs above the Glacier du Tour, which is where we stayed for two nights:

Those ice cliffs, incidentally, are the ones that tripped us up on our return from the Aiguille du Chardonnet, behind me in the photograph below. We climbed the Charlet-Bettembourg, obscured mostly by the clouds in the photo, but you can see it’s start—the thickest snow/ice runnel off to the right on the face.

Of course, sleeping out like this has its challenges, and I don’t look too excited about waking up freezing cold with all of my clothes on. But as soon as I get a warm cup of tea in my hands and turn toward my surroundings, I forget that we’ve been eating cous cous flavored with tomato soup for two days or that my socks are going to be soggy the whole way down.

Literature: Descriptive Sketches

Descriptive Sketches is William Wordsworth’s account of a walking tour the poet took among the Alps with one of his friends in the summer of 1790. Wordsworth and his pal Robert Jones skipped south during one of their summer vacations and walked from England through France and the Alps, covering roughly 1,500 miles. Wordsworth says that he composed much of the Descriptive Sketches while hanging out on the banks of the Loire in 1791 and 1792. Later, Wordsworth went on to include many of the experiences recounted in Descriptive Sketches in his long autobiographical poem, The Prelude (1850). I just wanted to include a few sections of Descriptive Sketches, relevant as they are to the recent “Down and Out” discussions of Chamonix, France. If you would like to read Descriptive Sketches in its entirety (670 lines), click here to read it on (which also archives Wordsworth’s complete poetical works online).

…upon the mountain’s silent brow
Reclined, he sees, above him and below,
Bright stars of ice and azure fields of snow;
While needle peaks of granite shooting bare
Tremble in ever-varying tints of air.

…The tall sun, pausing on an Alpine spire,
Flings o’er the wilderness a stream of fire:
Now meet we other pilgrims ere the day
Close on the remnant of their weary way;
While they are drawing toward the sacred floor
Where, so they fondly think, the worm shall gnaw no more.

…Last, let us turn to Chamouny that shields
With rocks and gloomy woods her fertile fields:
Five streams of ice amid her cots descend,
And with wild flowers and blooming orchards blend;–
A scene more fair than what the Grecian feigns
Of purple lights and ever-vernal plains;
Here all the seasons revel hand in hand:
‘Mid lawns and shades by breezy rivulets fanned,
They sport beneath that mountain’s matchless height
That holds no commerce with the summer night.

Photo credits: all photos taken by The Sister. Top right: chalet in Chamonix. Next: Shawna and Traci under l’Aiguille du Midi. Next: Beer outside Swiss mountain hut. Next: Chamonix and Mont Blanc.

Life: Summer Van Projects

Summer is short in Vail, Colorado. It wasn’t until June that the snow had melted, and here I am—at the beginning of October—listening excitedly for news of the first big powder dump. This leaves a short window for summer projects, but I made a few improvements on the Old Lady…and managed to get rid of some ugly furniture in my apartment by using the van to haul it away (couch attached to van with climbing rope and biners, at right).

If you’re a regular “Down and Out” reader, you’ll know that the Old Lady is the 1970 VW van that I bought for $1000 about five years ago. It was rusted out and in appalling condition at that time, but I’ve been slowly chipping away at its the never-ending list of things that need fixing. This summer’s big improvement: a new floor! Hardwood laminate—which amazingly cost only $25 on sale:

My cool dad came out here to visit in September, and we tore up the old floor, which was harboring nearly 40 years of dirt, mold, and mice crap (leftovers from the time I stored the van in a shed on the eastern Colorado prairie). While dad was patching holes with sheetmetal and silicone sealer, I painted all of the interior compartments with mold-resistant paint.

We also ripped out the old cooler and fridge (disgusting—another 40 years of mold), and we took out a seat to make room for more bikes and other gear that would actually be useful on a camping trip.

All of these improvements, of course, will make for more happy passengers, like Amanda and Etienne (above), who came out from Chicago to go hiking in Vail earlier in the summer. So, what’s next? Well…

The aspens have started turning gold here, and there’s a chill in the air. When it gets like this, I feel Utah calling. It’s time for a fall camping road trip, and the Old Lady is finally ready for a good autumn adventure.

Landscape: The Chardonnet

I’d wanted to climb the Aiguille du Chardonnet since the first time I saw it. Two summers ago, I was living in its shadow in Argentiere, France; in that part of the Chamonix valley, this peak is one of the most distinctive. It’s got the good pyramid-symmetry going on, and it glows yellow then orange when the sun sets each night. It wasn’t until my recent trip to France that I had the chance to climb the Chardonnet with my friend, climbing guru Andy P. Instead of doing some wussy ridge on the thing, he wanted to do a route on its north face (covered by wispy clouds in the photo below):

…so I struggled along with him, returning that evening to our bivouac with a bloody lip (top, right), feeling otherwise sleep-deprived and sore. We started climbing as usual in the wee hours of the morning, crossing a crevasse field in the dark. Then some steep switch-backing took us to the base of our chosen route: the Charlet-Bettembourg, a gully of steep Styrofoam snow and solid ice, littered with rocks along the way:

On the second pitch, I managed to hit myself in the face with the blunt end of my ice axe, so I left behind a nice trail of blood for a while, but luckily I didn’t knock a tooth out. We eventually topped out to take in a magnificent view of the surrounding peaks, including the Aiguille d’Argentiere:

But by the time we summited, our descent route had deteriorated into the consistency of mashed potatoes slipping around on a sheet of glass. It was nasty, and I was moving painfully slow. And once we got back to the base, we still had to return to our camp. A shortcut through a serac field didn’t quite work out, so we ended up chopping a bollard to rappel off one of the ice cliffs. Sketchy—but it worked. Anyway, that’s how these things go, good with the bad. We had perfect weather..and only a few technicalities to deal with along the way.

Literature: The Lace Reader

“…an image will begin to form . . . in the space between what is real and what is only imagined.”
–from The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry

Title: The Lace Reader//Author: Brunonia Barry//Publisher: William Morrow//July 29, 2008//394 p.

I’m always looking for an excuse to go to Boulder, so when I saw that the Boulder Bookstore was hosting author Brunonia Barry on her The Lace Reader book tour last week, I turned up, hoping to hear more about the story behind the story. I knew, for instance, that The Lace Reader is Barry’s first novel-sensation (on the New York Times bestseller list for a few weeks, but recently knocked off by several newbies). It is the story of a self-described “crazy” woman, Towner Whitney, who returns to her hometown of Salem, MA when her Great Aunt Eva goes missing. The Whitney women have a gift of seeing the future in a piece of lace, and that ability offers insight into the details of Towner’s convoluted past. The Lace Reader is an entertaining and suspenseful read, with a host of interesting characters including witches, a fundamentalist preacher, and a woman who shelters abused women on an island just off Salem’s coast.

I read books because I love stories, but I go to book readings because I love to hear from authors about what makes them tick. Barry has an interesting story, herself. She fielded questions and was candid about her worries to make upcoming deadlines. It took her seven years to write this book, and she self-published it locally before pursuing national publication. When that time came, the book sold at auction in a two-book deal, and it has now sold in more than twenty countries. That’s a story to remember!

More upcoming events through November: Brunonia Barry will be reading and signing on a non-stop schedule…from San Diego, to Chicago, and finally back to her hometown: Salem, MA.

To read my more formal-type review of Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader in Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, click here.

Life: Savoyard Cuisine

I once made the mistake of trying to impress a guy in France by cooking a raclette, which is a traditional Savoyard dish made of cheese (in this case, raclette), potatoes, and some sort of grisly meat I had bought at the market. The dish stank, literally, and we both tried to gag it down. Even if you don’t cook this stuff yourself in the Haute Savoie region of France, it is everywhere. Cheese, potatoes, and meat have sustained this hardy alpine population for centuries, and if you’re going to visit Chamonix, you have to at least give it a try. So when my sister suggested we go out for a traditional Savoyard dinner to celebrate our summit of Mont Blanc, I agreed—reluctantly.

I knew it would be cheese, cheese, and more cheese, but we also discovered something wonderful and new. No, it wasn’t the fondue (our appetizer, and enough cheese to sustain a small French family for a week):

We were picking from the menu, and I saw the word “brasserade,” and thought—hmmm. It wasn’t something I had tried before and—to be honest—I didn’t know what it was, so I suggested that we order it. Minutes later, this neat little grill turned up at our table:

To our delight, we had at our fingertips what was like the French version of a Japanese hibachi grill! But what to do with it? Strips of lean beef were brought to our table, so we grilled those on the top, and to make use of the cheese plate, we sliced boiled potatoes and then smothered them in cheese, melting the dish in the warming area of the grill.

In short, I’d recommend the brasserade—in any country, but particularly in France, as it makes eating Savoyard cuisine fun. See, here we are smiling…

(and I won’t mention the pain of waking up in the middle of the night with cheese knots churning in our stomachs)…