Monthly Archives: December 2009

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to you all!
May your holiday be filled with all of the things this season stands for:
and Dreams.
And most of all,

Literature: 2009 Best of Lists

It’s that time of the year: the time for looking back, the time for looking ahead. Inevitably, a lot of this nostalgia turns up in the form of lists. Not only is it nearing the end of the year, but it’s also nearing the end of a decade. And in this moment, I’m thinking about what, perhaps, was the best book I read last year. Since I’m picking just one here, I’m going to have to pick Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (FSG, March 2009). This short story collection is Tower’s first book, and I found myself so drawn into its characters that I thought about them long after I’d left them behind. Tower writes as if he’s inside the minds of these folks—teenaged girls, burnt-out-middle-aged men, and at least a few Viking-types named Gnut and Djarf and Haakon. I just read that Tower has a novel-in-progress, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from this writer.

Tower impressed a lot of people (besides me) this year with Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. The book was reviewed twice by The New York Times, and NYT critic Michiko Kakutani picked it as one of his “Top 10 Books of 2009.”’s Contemporary Literature Guide, Mark Flanagan, picked it as one of the “Best Books of the Decade” and also as one of the “Top 10 Books of 2009,” which contains a link to my review. Two other books that I reviewed also appear on Flanagan’s list: James Levine’s The Blue Notebook and Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked.

The Lists:’s “Top 10 Books of 2009”

NYT critic Michiko Kakutani’s “Top 10 Books of 2009”

NYT: “The 10 Best Books of 2009”

Photo credit: FSG.

Landscape: Tablescape.

Tablescape. Really? Is this a word? On my recent visit to the parents’ homestead in Louisville, Kentucky, my mom announced that she was working on the “tablescape” in the dining room. Huh? I was in the kitchen mixing up some basil spread for mini tomato sandwiches and peeked around the corner to see something like this—evidently a tablescape in progress:

She was artfully arranging food platters and centerpieces, putting post-it notes where certain items (“Brie”) would eventually end up:

Being the reflective type, I wonder if “tablescaping” is just another one of those ways we people try to bring the outdoors inside. Is tablescaping a way to replicate the symmetry and abundance we see in nature, within the confines of our own dining rooms? As it turns out, I Googled “tablescape” in search of more insight into the phenomenon and found an abundance of information on the topic. says that tablescapes are basically “creatively designed table arrangements or centerpieces that showcase or highlight a specific object or collection.” This site further advises that the “objects in tablescapes do not necessarily have to match perfectly,” but they should “harmonize or complement each other…to achieve balance.” These lovely tomato sandwiches (layered with said basil spread) added, I suppose, some complementing colors to the scene.

Even though the food and its arrangement (in a nearly complete tablescape formation, above) added to the festivities, I have to admit that I feel slightly suspicious of “tablescape,” the word…and of “tablescaping,” the activity. But then again, I also think it’s weird when the word “landscape” is applied to something that has nothing to do with the “land,” as in the phrase “political landscape.” Anyhow…food for thought.

Life: Kentucky Home

My mom—at right, in stylish dress and a kitchen apron—is the ultimate entertainer. She can whip up a crowd-pleaser with only what’s in her cabinets. Having twenty people over for a holiday party? No worries. It’s an old trick. On my recent visit to Louisville, Kentucky, we did Kentucky-girl-stuff together: shopping, spa, Heine Brother’s Coffee. And then we spent time together in the kitchen making cookies and cakes, dips and spreads. I drank bourbon in my eggnog. She drank a glass of wine. A Saturday-eve holiday open house provided the circumstance for all of this cooking, and it also turned into the occasion to celebrate another momentous occasion…

That’s right. My birthday was last week, and this homemade triple-decker German chocolate cake with a single candle was the best gift ever. Thirty-plus candles would have been an amazing sight, but the flickering of one candle—one wish—made me get weepy. I knew exactly what to wish for, so I closed my eyes, set the wish in my mind and heart, and slowly exhaled.

Literature: GMH’s Binsey Poplars

I just returned from a long weekend visiting my folks in Louisville, Kentucky. In Kentucky, tobacco is a major cash crop, bourbon is the beverage of choice, and green hills roll along like ocean waves. Being there reminded me of the contrast between the mountains I live in now and these wide-open spaces from my younger days. Mountains are amazing, sublime spaces, but sometimes I feel cramped living in a tight valley. The rolling hills and horse farms surrounding Louisville felt vast, and being there gave me some room to breathe. I also stumbled upon a book of poetry written by Gerard Manley Hopkins on the dresser in my old room, and he seems to express some of my love of these special rural scenes. “Binsey Poplars, felled 1879” struck me as I was already thinking about these things, so I’ll post it here:

MY aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918;, 1999. [December 15, 2009].

Landscape: Guller Gulch

The Janet’s Cabin weekend eventually came to an end, but a good end at that. The ski descent through Guller Gulch ranged from being physical (pushing on the flats or uphill rollers) to nervy to impossible in sections. We’re still smiling here (Bill and I at right), but we’d eventually take off our skis and hike. And then I got sick of hiking and decided to ski no-matter-what. This approach wasn’t exactly the best, and it forced me to try and bunny-hop a (too) large patch of rocks. This hurt when I didn’t make it. And I also just skied through other thin sections, leaving deep cat scratches on my skis.

Conditions aside, the weather was perfect, and we got a good view of the landscape that I missed while hiking up to the cabin in the dark. It was still cold in Guller Gulch when we set off, and we had to pick a tight line through these beautiful frost-coated willows:

The frost gave these ski-grabbers a beautiful furry coat:

Not long after we weaved our way through the willows, we had to cross a frozen beaver pond. The Guller Gulch opened up here and gave us some good views of Gore Range (I think) peaks, near Vail:

Behind us, the Jacque Ridge/Searle Pass area looked pretty impressive, though in need of a bit more snow:

After the beaver pond, we had some icy sections of trail that were barely the width of two skis stacked side-by-side.

Forget about hockey-stopping here. I felt like I was running a gauntlet and probably should’ve hiked instead. Nonetheless, I just went with it and came out all in one piece. And smiling about it, too! My skis, however, had taken a beating. No worries–they’re okay, now. The amazing ski-fixers patched them right up with a bit of grinding and a new coat of wax.

Fun Times:

The 10th Mountain Division
Hut Association

Life: Janet’s Cabin

First day this winter to point skis downhill. Was the snow that great? No. Did we care? Not much. Life at Janet’s Cabin pretty much lends itself to skiing. The morning after my big trek in, I huddled around the table drinking coffee and eating breakfast burritos with 20 happy, hip, adventurous folks. And right there, from the dining room table, you can look out onto the snow-covered mountains and imagine a line. Bill was the only one keen enough to actually get a run in before breakfast, and he was ready to head outside again, as soon as we finished up the dishes.

So, I happily followed his freshly-broken trail. Bill was on a telemark set-up, and I’m a randonée gal, so we were doing some work for our turns.

Straight out of the cabin, we headed to a nearby high point and then started cruising down:

Joolee (above) is just learning to tele ski, so the gentle slope here worked well. To be honest, I was also glad not to be dropping into some steep bowl on my first day back on skis this season. There are no ski lifts or rope tows up here, so once we got to the bottom, we simply put our skins back on our skis and repeated the process until we were tuckered out. Meanwhile, back at Janet’s Cabin…

Lots of others were passing their time playing cards, reading books, napping, taking turns in the sauna (yes, there’s a sauna up there at 11,600 feet). The wood-burning stove in the dining area made this part of the cabin the most cozy place to hang out.

We split up the cooking responsibility into teams of four or five people, so that night I was part of the Thai curry dinner crew. When you’re cold and tired, good food always comes as a relief. And having fresh veggies like that up at a hut felt like such a luxury.

My only previous experiences with huts have been the ones I’ve stayed at for climbing in the Alps, and having food this good usually doesn’t happen on a climbing trip, when things like ropes and gear are more essential to survival than fresh broccoli.

The cool thing about going to a place like Janet’s Cabin with a group of friends is that the company makes the entire place so much better. Sure, you could go somewhere like this by yourself and be blown away by its natural beauty. Or, you could go there and share it with others and stay up late chatting around the table or listening to your friends sing around the stove. When given a choice, I think I’ll always pick the latter.

Landscape: Night Skinning

There are consequences for staying out really, really late and feeling so alive that you don’t want to go to sleep. Namely, trying to wake up on time the next day. On the eve of Thanksgiving, I stayed up through the night and then messed up setting my alarm. So, I woke up at noon-thirty on Friday (instead of 8:15) and failed to meet up with a partner for our hike in to Janet’s Cabin, one of the 10th Mountain Division huts at 11,610 feet. Of course, when I finally did wake up by the light of the sun, I still had to go grocery shopping, pack for three days, drive over to Copper Mountain, take a shuttle bus to the trailhead, put skins on my skis, etc. Therefore, here I am (photo credit: self) just setting out, with the sun already behind the hills. By this time, my partner is already two hours ahead of me on the trail, and I’ve been told that I have at least a four-hour ski in. Nice. I know I’ll be cruising up to timberline by the light of my headlamp, so I’ve got it tucked in the top pouch of my pack.

As soon as I set off, I felt a great sense of relief. The (sunless) sky was clear, and I got to watch the evening colors spread over the snow. I crossed through a shrubby meadow before entering the Arapahoe National Forest, skinning along over tangled branches in the thin snow:

By the time I got into Guller Gulch, the snow was good in the trees, which allowed me to make pretty good time. My friends broke trail along the route the day before, and when I reached the hut (in the dark), they told me that it took them a brutal seven hours of stomping through snow that was knee-keep in some spots.

Midway up the gulch, the moon appeared in the sky, which was cool: skinning by moonlight. Of course, it finally got too dark for this, and I eventually had to get out my headlamp.

It’s surreal, being in a forest by yourself at night, with the snow looking like glitter from the light. I think I finally forgave myself for getting up so late by this point in the journey and just settled into a happy rhythm.

Janet’s Cabin sits at timberline, just at the edge of the forest. Without the track my friends had set down the previous day, I don’t know if I would have found it so easily at night. Luckily I arrived—3 hours and 40 minutes after setting out—just in time for dinner.

I didn’t really appreciate the coolness of this place until the next morning, when I was able to hike above it for some ski runs. Then I saw it for what it was: an old-school log cabin, outfitted with solar panels, and a big viewing deck. And inside? A sauna, a stove, some bunk-beds, and twenty amazing people gathered together to share life, food, and mountain fun.

Literature: House and Mountain Lit Awards

I’ve got a few books lined up on my shelf, but one I’m getting psyched to read is Steve House’s Beyond the Mountain, which was published by Patagonia Books in September. Last weekend, House’s book was awarded the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature at the U.K.’s Kendal Mountain Film (and Literature) Festival. Others short listed for the prize were: John Allen (Caringorm John), Jerry Auld (Hooker & Brown), Dominic Faulkner (The Longest Climb), Jerry Moffatt (Revelations), and Chic Scott (Steep Rock and Deep Powder). Two weeks earlier, at Canada’s Banff film festival, Jerry Moffatt’s Revelations won the grand prize, and House received the “Best Book” award in the Mountain Literature category. Not bad for House, a guy who doesn’t really consider himself to be a writer. I always like to see what books have been entered in the Banff competition, in particular, because its short list identifies some of the year’s best books in categories ranging from mountain literature, to adventure travel, to photography, to mountaineering history. This year, 101 books from 16 different countries were entered in the Banff competition.

To see the entire 2009 Banff Book Finalists and Entries, click here.

And, to read more about Steve House’s Beyond the Mountain on “The Cleanest Line,” the Patagonia blog, click here.

Photo credit: Patagonia Books