On The Page: Shop Class As Soulcraft

Although my dad was involved in the construction industry the whole time I was growing up and built me a desk and assorted bookshelves, the expectation of me was that I would go to school and obtain white collar work. Shortly after I met F, I read this New York Times Magazine article about skilled labor by Matthew B. Crawford. Since I had just met a free spirited motorcycle mechanic, my interest was primed for some musings from a Ph.D. philosopher turned mechanic on finding fulfillment in your work. Somehow I didn’t get around to reading his full book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work until just last month.

This is really a book that you need to read if you’re interested in how the dynamics at intersection of work and fulfillment play out. Crawford’s background as a philosopher definitely shows in the dense, intellectual analysis. Crawford says, “This book grows out of an attempt to understand the greater sense of agency and competence I have always felt doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognized as ‘knowledge work.’ Perhaps most surprisingly, I find manual work more engaging mentally.” I totally connected with him there: sometimes making something or physically doing something can be more fulfilling to me than generating an knowledge “product.”

Crawford places great emphasis on the craft of manual work. He discusses at length the importance of a mechanic or craftsman obtaining an understanding of their work through years of working at it rather than relying on computer diagnostics or “how tos”:

“To repeat, when Bob looks at a part and judges it to have ten thousand miles on it, he is relying on a tacit integration of sensual knowledge, unconsciously referring what he sees to patterns built up in his mind through long experience. With computerized diagnostics, what is happening is rather an explicit integration of information, but this explicit integration is happening at the level of a knowledge system that is social in character. The results of this explicit integration are communicated to the mechanic by the service manual, written by people who have no personal knowledge of the motorcycle.”

To this end, Crawford mentions the past utility of apprenticeships as ways to learn a trade rather than through classroom education. In an apprentice-master relationship, the apprentice is able to learn the patterns and thought processes of the master rather than just accumulating facts and figures.

I really enjoyed Crawford’s views on the value of connecting with things and having an objective way to judge the value of work (does the motorcycle run?) as well as his understanding of how work can contribulte to living the “good life”:

“My point, finally, isn’t to recommend motorcycling in particular, nor to idealize the life of a mechanic. It is rather to suggest that if we follow the traces of our own actions to their source, they intimate some understanding of the good life. This understanding may be hard to articulate; bringing it more fully into view is the task of moral inquiry. Such inquiry may be helped along by practical activities in company with others, a sort of conversation in deed. In this conversation lies the potential of work to bring some measure of coherence to our lives.”

While not “light” reading I completely recommend Shop Class As Soul Craft for anyone interested in why we do the work we do, what work makes us happy, and how we connect with our material goods.

How do you feel about a connection with objective work? Have you read Shop Class as Soulcraft? What did you think?

On The Page: House of Rain

I’ve always struggled with coming to an understanding of Four Corners archaeology. Although I really enjoyed the Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding and visiting Mesa Verde, I’ve never been able to read something in a discplined enough fashion to understand how Chaco, Aztec Ruins, Cedar Mesa, Hovenweep, and Mesa Verde all hung together as cultures in the region.

When I downloaded House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest, Craig Childs’ writing transported me to a place where evidence of this vanished civilization was visible all across this high plateau landscape I’ve been wandering over the last couple of years. Childs focus on the Four Corners civilization was driven by his attachment to the Southwest. Aside from my intimate ties to the Pacific Northwest, I identified with his statement that “The impulse that commands me to go is balanced by another that commands me to stay, the two working together to send me into quick but returning orbits around certain places: the Mogollon Rim of Arizona, the low desert south of there, the high desert north, and the castle perimeter of the Rocky Mountains beyond. I am constantly in motion among these landscapes, yet my life rarely ranges any farther, tethered by history and experiences to the Southwest.”

I finally learned about how culture had developed in Chaco Canyon before spreading to Aztec Ruins, Solomon, and Mesa Verde. I learned how the Hopi, the Acoma, and the Zuni fit into the ancient Aztec history. I learned that the Navajo are completely unrelated to the Aztecs yet are responsible for the common name “Anazasi” meaning “enemy ancestor.”

As he moved from Chaco, north to the San Juan River and again into the Canyonlands before drifting south to Kayenta and Black Mesa, I found myself drawn in to a deeper history of these places I am beginning to know. When the book continued further and further south to the Mogollon and even to Northern Mexico, it enriched my understanding of what it means to wander and embrace these places.

I completely recommend House of Rain as a great introduction to the history of people in the Southwest from the twelfth century to the early fifteenth century, especially for people who love to put their feet to the ground as they learn.

On The Page: One Tough Mother

When Season 4 of the #omniten arrived in Park City, we all sat down to watch this video about Columbia Sportswear’s history of #tryingstuff. My favorite part of the video was this little clip from Gert Boyle:

One Tough Mother: Success in Business, Life, and Apple Pies is her story of how she and her son Tim took over Columbia after her husband’s sudden death in 1970. Gert had helped out at the company in her younger years but retreated to life as a mother and homemaker while her husband entered the family business.

It was a difficult transition but Gert and Tim eventually sought out the guidance they needed to transform Columbia into a large global scale company. It was cool to read about how asking customers for their input on products has been a part of the company from the very beginning! It’s exciting to be part of the #omniten and that long standing tradition.

The most fun part of the book is probably the section with copy of many of the ads featuring Gert. It was a lot of fun to flip through them: I definitely remember Columbia marketing itself as being “products of an overprotective mother”!

On The Page: Following Atticus

Hiking with Sprocket is one of my favorite things to do: he’s a good listener but doesn’t argue, is willing to go anywhere, and gives me a bit of company on the trail. After we hiked Signal Peak a few weeks ago, I bragged a little bit on Twitter about my awesome hiking pup and Adam responded with a book recommendation: Following Atticus.

Honestly, I wasn’t all that interested in reading about a little tiny pocket dog climbing mountains. Dogs aren’t supposed to be purse sized! Amazon had the Kindle edition on sale for $1.99 though so I decided to give it a try (it’s back to regular price, $5.74, now).

I don’t know why I doubted. Tom Ryan’s Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and An Extraordinary Friendship is about a dog, hiking, finding peace in the outdoors, and even peakbagging.

The story starts with Ryan becoming a pet owner. He and his first dog, Max, bond and Ryan begins to develop a sense of how a dog and his owner can help each other. After Max’s death, he adopts Atticus, a miniature schnauzer.

Photo The Adventures of Tom and Atticus

Along the lines, Tom was introduced to hiking New Hampshire’s 4,000′ mountains by one of his brothers. Overweight and out of shape, following Atticus to the mountaintop inspired him. Before he knew it, he and Atticus climbed all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000′ peaks in a summer.

Futher inspired by a friend’s strength as she battled cancer, Ryan decided to scale the 4,000′ peaks again. In the winter. Twice. The money raised by their attempt would benefit The Jimmy Fund. After their near triump, came the inevitable dog-book crying. F just gave me the “here-she-goes-again” look as I slithered to the floor to pet my own pup.


Fortunately, the book didn’t end there. Instead, Ryan and Tom headed to the mountains again to re-attempt their winter goal: this time to raise money for Angell Memorial Medical Center, the MSPCA’s veterinary clinic.

Photo The Adventures of Tom and Atticus

Following Atticus is exactly what you would expect: a heartwarming story about a dog and his human learning how truly wonderful and inspiring the outdoors can be. This story made me cry, made me smile, and made me happy to have such a loving, wonderful dog in my own life.

On The Page: Called Again

Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph details Jennifer Pharr Davis’s journey to become the fastest person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Reeling from a breakup, Davis looks to speed hiking to help salve her soul. Immediately, she set her sights on the AT as her goal. A friend convinced her to start with Vermont’s Long Trail where she started her journey. After her Long Trail hike, she started her own hiking company because she was “convinced that the trail was the best and cheapest therapy” possible.

Her first AT speed attempt, aided by her husband Brew, landed her the women’s supported speed record. Several years later, she was back on the trail attempting to set the overall AT record.

In just over 46 days of intense effort on her part with help from Brew and a cast of supportive friends, friends of friends, and more, Davis battles shin splints, weather, exhaustion and more in achieving her goal.

If you enjoyed Wild, read this to get a glimpse of an outdoors woman learning how much she can accomplish. If you hated Wild, you’ll probably like Called Again. As a lover of most thru-hiker accounts, especially ones where an experienced hiker has a unique experience, I devoured this book in the space of a couple of hours.

On The Page: River Notes

On the plane up to Salt Lake City for the #omnigames I read Wade Davis’ River Notes: A Natural and Human History of the Colorado River. The timing was great: out the window I looked out to an awesome view of the Grand Canyon. As it turns out, we spend quite a bit of time playing in Colorado River basin states plus after reading The Emerald Mile, I realized there was lots to learn about this massive and unique river.

Although River Notes had its share of interesting river tidbits, it was shorter and a lot less comprehensive than I’d hoped for. Davis’ intention seemed to be a plea for better river system policy (a worthy goal!) than documenting the natural and human history of the river.

The Mississippi River is known as “Big Muddy” however historically the Colorado moved a huge amount of sediment to the sea: “The average daily sediment load was five hundred thousand tons, enough to fill a hundred freight trains, each with a hundred cars, with each car bearing a load of two hundred thousand pounds.” Before the construction of the dams, “One hundred seventy million cubic cards of sand and silt” were moved down river—more than “three times the amount of dirt excavated to create the Panama Canal.” The Colorado is not the longest North American river nor does it move the most water but in four hundred miles it drops “some 2,500 feet in elevation, a rate of descent twenty-five times that of the Mississippi.”

I’d read a little bit about the formation of the modern Salton Sea in The Emerald Mile but enjoyed reading more about how in 1905 the flooded Colorado defied the man made structures separating it into its natural channel and the California Development Company’s Alamo Canal. For sixteen months the river flowed into the below sea level depression (an ancient path of the river itself).

As mentioned previously, most of River Notes is a plea to save the Colorado River. Davis discusses the appalling water policy surrounding cattle ranching and meat production (“in California, Arizona, and Nevada, roughly 85 percent of the water allotment goes to agriculture, with roughly half the irrigated land devoted to the raising of meat”). He does note a minor success story in the (very) partial restoration of the Colorado River Delta. “What began in the 1970s as a small island of fertility, fed in part by natural springs, runoff, and storm surges from the sea, has grown a hundredfold to become a lush wetland covering more than forty thousand acres. Land that had been sterile for a half century took but eight years to regenerate.”

On The Page: MotoRaid

After reading Obsessions Die Hard, I read MotoRaid by Keith Thye. MotoRaid recounts the story of Thye’s adventure riding from Oregon to Chile in the 1960s with his friend Dave. Thye’s writing style is pretty minimalistic (which might be related to the book being published quite after the adventure) but the story of two young men heading out to South America is quite entertaining.

Along their route, the Keith and Dave face bad roads, food poisoning, and rainstorms. They make friends with local residents and visited sites like Machu Pichu. They took a “road” leading from La Paz, Bolivia hoping to end up in Chile but ended up re-entering Peru illegally. They finished their southbound journey in Pucón, Chile where the residents threw a raucous party in their honor.

I was honestly a bit surprised at how hard MotoRaid was to put down. I think it only took me two sittings to finish it. If you’re interested in adventure travel stories (motorized or not!) check this out for a good read.

On The Page: The Man Who Quit Money

Part of why we live on the road is to experience a freedom that working a job, having a mortgage, and living in a house or an apartment just don’t allow. We live in quite a comfortable set up and there are few things that I really miss (besides being close to family and friends). I’m always impressed by those that are more able to sacrifice even more creature comforts to simplify their life.

Among the most extreme examples of simplifying life is to quit using currency all together. The Man Who Quit Money by Mark Sundeen is about a man named Daniel Suelo (née Shellabarger) who since 2000 has lived a currency-less existence. Born to a fundamentalist Christian family, Suelo (Spanish for “soil”), began to develop his own ideas of religion and spirituality. During his stint in the the Peace Corps, Suelo came out as a gay man leading to tensions with his family, the religion he loved, and ultimately sending the young man into a deeply depressed state.

After returning to the States, Suelo moved to Moab where he worked several jobs, had his first romantic relationships, and began his migration away from money. During his evolution toward his moneyless state Suelo’s goal was to test two hypotheses: “Thoreau’s premise that living in nature made you stronger, and St. Francis’ belief that following chance brought you closer to God.”

I read this book in one sitting, absolutely riveted by Suelo’s spiritual journey and his ability to live entirely without money. (Suelo also avoids bartering.) Suelo is able to make piece with his faith while keeping his distance from religion he explained, “Yes, I decided I’d rather be in hell with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Mother Teresa, Budda, Kabir, Rumi, Peace Pilgrim, and, yes, with Jesus Himself, than to be in heaven with the tortuous fundamentalist mentality that thinks itself right and everybody else wrong. I decided I’d rather be in hell for love than to be in heaven for bigotry.” Although I am not a religious person, I deeply respected Suelo’s candidness about his faith.

The actual logistics of living without cash—dumpster-diving, foraging, asking for rides, and more—were also really interesting although Sundeen chose to focus more on other parts of Suelo’s journey. This was probably a good choice for the book. Mark Boyle is an Irish activist who published his first book The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living in 2010 (which I plan to read next) which promises to talk more about the how of living without money.

Skipping out on currency isn’t anything I plan to do, however I do hope to live with only what I need:

“I don’t expect everybody to live in a cave and dumpster-dive,” he says. “I do implore everybody to take only what they know in their own hearts that they need, and give up excess to those who have less than they need. If this happened, I certainly wouldn’t have to dumpster-dive.”

I highly recommend The Man Who Quit Money as a fascinating and thought provoking read. I found myself very inspired by Suelo’s story and have added his blog Moneyless World — Free World — Priceless World to my blog reader. If you read The Man Who Quit Money, come back and tell me what you think of it!

On The Page: Obsessions Die Hard

Last summer, the thrift store in Ridgway received a donation of several motorcycle travel books. I think most of them came home with us… Among the books was Obsessions Die Hard: Motorcycling the Pan American Highway’s Jungle Gap by Ed Culberson. Stationed at the Panama Canal zone in the 1970s, Culberson purchased a Honda 125 which he rode throughout Panama, eventually trading up to larger bikes and riding large portions of the Pan-American Highway. Although he wished to ride the entire Highway from Prudhoe Bay to Ushuaia, however, he was award of how harrowing crossing the Darién Gap could be.

Despite the challenges associated with traversing 80 miles of swamp, jungle, and rivers, Culberson decided to give it a try… or two. His vivid account of making his way though the Gap (including traveling in the company of the colorful Loren Upton) combined with some of his difficulties in crossing borders (his connections formed as an Army officer certainly helped) make for very interesting adventure reading.

I enjoyed this book a little better than MotoRaid, mostly because Culberson was able to relate his story in a very readable way.

On The Page: The Emerald Mile

Glen Canyon Dam, and the enormous Lake Powell behind it, has generated more Opinions about the balance between hydropower and the preservation of nature than perhaps any other structure. Situated just above the Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon Dam controls the flow into the heart of one of America’s most beloved National Parks. When the headgates closed in 1963, the Grand Canyon was forever changed by the regulation of water flowing through its walls.

The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko, follows three interconnected stories: the managers at the Bureau of Reclamation in their efforts to harness nature while providing for human energy needs; the Park Service and the guide companies on the river; and then the more specific story of Martin Litton, his Grand Canyon Dories, and Kenton Grua.

While the book is mainly about the speed runs of the dory The Emerald Mile through the Grand Canyon, it begins with the story of Europeans discovering the Canyon in 1540. As all Grand Canyon tales must, it details the story of John Wesley Powell and the first run through the canyon. (I’m not sure I can let my ignorance of Beyond The Hundredth Meridian continue much longer if I am to adventure in the Colorado Plateau). Discussion of the evolution of Martin Litton’s dories completes the stage setting for the events of 1983.

The winter of 1982-1983 was greatly affected by phenomenon known to oceanographers as the El Niño Southern Oscillation. Snowpack in the Rockies was heavy, building into May before warm temperatures in early June destabilized the snowpack all at once. Managers at the Bureau of Reclamation were caught flat footed: many of their reservoirs were already approaching full despite the large amount of water left in the mountains—and rapidly heading downstream.

The all nine power generation turbines were running at Glen Canyon and the spillways and river bypasses were opened as well. The spillways had only been tested when the reservoir reached full capacity in 1980 (that release powered The Emerald Mile to its first Grand Canyon speed record); large enough to handle 276,000 cfs, under the stress of 20,000 cfs, the eastern spillway began to fail as the concrete liner was stripped away and the soft sandstone bedrock took a beating. Soon, the western spillway began to experience the same issues leaving dam operators to figure out how to get enough water through the dam while keeping the spillways intact.

This played out as the highest water to flow through the canyon since the dam was completed. Crystal Rapid, created by a debris flow from the rim in 1966, killed one passenger and destroyed several boats. The Park Service struggled with how to keep visitors safe while allowing commercial boats to still operate. In the midst of this, Kenton Grua decided to take The Emerald Mile through the Canyon for another attempt at the speed record.

Fedarko’s book takes The Emerald Mile’s thirty-six hour odyssey and expands it into a book that looks at the complicated dynamics at work between the guides, their clients, the Parks Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation. The book is understandably critical of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell but does celebrate them as grand achievements of technology and as hydroelectric dams necessary to our modern society. It balances that view with an understanding that wilderness such as the bottom of the canyon is necessary to our psyche as Americans, that we somehow need the ability to run rivers without permission and to test ourselves against the power of mother nature:

“The subculture [river rafting] that they have created is cantankerous and incorrigibly headstrong—its members are irritatingly independent, impossible as cats to herd. But they have preserved an aspect of the American persona that is uniquely vital to the health of this republic. Among many other things, those dirtbag river runners uphold the virtue of disobedience: the principle that in a free society, defiance for its own sake sometimes carries value and meaning, if only because power in all of its forms—commercial, governmental, and moral—should not always and without question be handed what it demands.”

The Emerald Mile is a well-written adventure story. It captures a specific moment in time where much was being decided about how the Grand Canyon would function in a time of dams and human control. It discusses the dreams and ambitions of Grua, echoing the adventurous spirit of John Wesley Powell. And like the best adventure books, it made me want to pack my bags and head for the Grand Canyon.