Montana is an incredibly beautiful, not to mention enormous, state. From east to west it’s about the equivalent of driving from Chicago to New Jersey. Crazy big.
About a decade ago, I had the opportunity to do some backpacking inside Glacier National Park. It was one of the most memorable backpacking trips, from seeing a massive and somehow majestic moose standing only a few meters away to crossing a waist-high, ice-cold mountain river hoisting my camera and the rest of my pack above my head in an attempt to keep it dry. We also came across a mama bear with her two nine-month-old cubs. Luckily, no mauling ensued.
When I arrived in Bozeman earlier this month, the little airport felt welcoming and cozy. It was built like a mountain lodge with raised wooden beams supporting a roof that takes on an average of seventy-two inches of snow each year. Outside, the Montana that I recalled entering many years ago, with it’s clean air, grand mountains nestled on an eternal horizon, and impossibly large clouds somehow not blocking the warm sun that fell on my face, greeted me kindly. Although many years ago, I had landed in Kalispell almost three hundred miles away, this was the same big sky country. It felt like an embrace from an old friend.
We stayed at a newly built dwelling called the Sage Lodge in Pray, MT. They were still putting the finishing touches on the rooms. When we checked in, we were missing oddities like lightbulbs and the sliding screen door handle. Strange, but the staff were mostly friendly and you couldn’t beat the location, which was almost on top of the Yellowstone River and a thirty-five minute drive straight across the Wyoming boarder into Yellowstone National Park.
Since taking on the minimalist way of life, there wasn’t much packed in my suitcase. It was light as a feather. Two t-shirts, an athletic long sleeve pullover, a SmartWool shirt, hiking pants, jeans, socks, hiking shoes, sandals, pjs, undergarments, a hat, sunglasses, and a toiletry bag. (Minimalism aside, I was glad the lodge we stayed in had laundry because by the third day, I needed them all cleaned.)
I’ve heard fishing is good for the mind, body, and soul, and we were in the best fly fishing spot in the world, so I figured why not. And it did not disappoint. On the Yellowstone River, there are rules about which fish you can keep, which you must release, and others you must keep or kill. According to the law, we released all our catches.
Every time I’d get a bite, I’d “set” my pole, which basically means pull it up as hard and fast as you can, and hope there’s a fish on the other end of it. I missed most times, but managed to net two beautiful rainbow trout. The experience of pulling them in, feeling their weight on the other side of the pole, and then guiding them gently into the net was invigorating. I’d wet my hands, hold them for a quick picture, and then they went back into the water hopefully a little wiser for the wear.
We also spent a day in Yellowstone. Did a six-mile hike out and back to the Imperial Geyser, saw a few bison, a bighorn sheep, and watched good ole Ole Faithful do its thing too. Impressive.
When the four days were over, I was sad to leave Montana. There is a rugged wildness, a real wilderness, about the state. And yet, I felt safe and supported by the mountains, the rivers and streams, the vast earth. Maybe it was just nice to get out of the city and see the stars. Whatever it was, I want to go back.
People say Montana winters are a “dry cold,” which I guess is supposed to be less cold somehow. I don’t know about that, but I might go back this winter just to test out the theory. I’m thinking snowshoeing or cross country skiing. Anything to get outside, even in the freezing temperatures, to be with those mountains and rivers, and under that big sky again.
It’s been almost six months and yes, I’ve lost a little steam, but no, I haven’t given up.
I’ve continued to whittle down my wardrobe to just five button-down shirts, two jackets, three pairs of jeans, four Smartwool shirts, and a handful of t-shirts. I went from almost a dozen pairs of Chuck Taylors down to three. I’ve still got a lot of work to do on my socks. I don’t know why, but I just can’t bring myself to go there, as if I might – or they might – run out on me.
I haven’t bought anything new since – no strike that. I haven’t bought any new clothing or shoes or socks or undergarments or hats or things to wear since January. But I did buy a new bike.
In my attempt to cut down on gasoline consumption coupled with my desire to ride a motorbike, after much debating, I finally purchased a little Honda Ruckus. However, I did sell all of of my other so called transportations possessions, with the exception of my little GTI, before I bought it, including two road long boards, a beautiful Specialized road bike, a skateboard, and did I mention all those shoes?
With the purchase of the scooter came a few other possessions, mainly a helmet, faux leather jacket and gloves, all for safety. Because my closet was cleaner and more austere than ever, it was easy to find a spot for each. The helmet looks badass on the shelf where once upon a time too many pairs of mom-jeans sat folded and unused.
On the whole, I feel good about the new possessions because every time I get on that bike, I smile. I feel alive and happy. I have fun. Most people who ride a motorbike will tell you there is something wonderfully therapeutic about the experience. It’s inexplainable but palpable and real. One day we might want to swap Xanax or Zoloft or Prozac or Percocet for a an hour or just thirty minutes on a bike to see the results. Imagine the possibilities.
But back to the acquisition of the bike. It’s made my commute so much more fun and in some ways meaningful. It’s a strange paradox. By getting rid of so much clutter, so many other possessions, I had space to think and feel and figure out that I truly wanted a bike. Then take the action to go get one.
I wanted to reduce my petrol consumption and usage and increase fun and meaningful life experiences. Now, I get to do all of it while doing something that was once mundane, like commuting to and from work. My commute is mundane no more. It’s an adventure.
As the summer progresses, I’ll continue to reduce my possessions as promised in my New Years resolution. Those socks – at least thirty or forty pairs – need a little thinning out to start with. And while I’m doing that, who knows what other epiphanies or grand adventures await.
A few years ago, I went cage diving with great white sharks. The experience was incredible. While living in San Francisco, I wanted to take full advantage of as many activities local to the surroundings like eating fish and chips in the Wharf, kayaking out of Sausalito into the bay with whales and sea lions, sailing a twenty-two foot sloop under the Golden Gate Bridge, and visiting the Farallon Islands, affectionately called the devil’s teeth, for some cage diving with great white sharks. The last was one of the most memorable and hypothermic experiences of my time on the Pacific Ocean.
For context, the Farallon Islands or Farallones if you’re channelling your inner Spaniard are a group of islands that sit about thirty miles west of San Francisco. In the fifties and sixties, it was reported to be a radioactive dump site. Get ready for some three-headed shark encounters. But all that apparently stopped in the seventies when a whistle-blower made it public. Before sailing out to the islands for my planned cage dive, I read Susan Casey’s The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks. The book was interesting and definitely sets the stage for what you can expect on the islands. Her own story is a little creepy and so self-serving, you can’t help but to strongly dislike the author for her lack of common and rational sense. Nevertheless, a good book to get you in the mood for the great white shark, bone-numbing cold adventure that awaits you at the Farallon Islands.
There are many outfitters who are more than willing to take your money and give you a ride out to the islands so you can put on a wet suit, get inside a fishing cage, and submerge yourself under the 56 degree Pacific Ocean. I tend to find any business is just as good as its people, and people tend to come and go, so check out recent feedback and comments on a sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor before you pick one.
Usually you can rent a wetsuit, fins, etc. from the outfitter, but you might consider obtaining your gear ahead of time if possible. There are no guarantees the suit will fit unless you tried it on ahead of time and there’s no guarantee they’ll have enough when the time comes, unless you want to slide into someone else’s suit after they pissed themselves while in the cage. I recall a guy needing to use two right boots because they couldn’t find any lefties in his size. Same with the goggles. You want a pair that fits well and doesn’t let the water in or it’ll be a frustrating and probably painful experience.
It’s a fairly miserable boat ride out to the rock islands. If you’ve never sailed or boated around San Francisco, the winds are unlike anywhere else, as is the choppy water. The boat leaves around six in the morning so hopefully you skipped breakfast or it’s likely going to end up over the rail. I’d recommend packing a breakfast or CLIF bar to consume when you get to the islands and the up and down of the boat stops. For anyone with sea sickness, load up on the dramamine or skip it altogether. There are other ways to dive with the great whites and not spend almost three hours of your life puking on the rail.
Upon arrival, it’s still a balmy 50 degrees, foggy, with a slight wind coming from who knows which direction. Pack a beanie, waterproof coat and pants, and warm gloves if you plan on spending any time on deck.
As you look out from the boat, you see there is nothing else around but the jagged rock islands, which are in my estimate completely uninhabitable despite knowing from the book that humans could live on at least one of them, the boat under your feet, the people next to you on the boat, and the sharks.
Once the crew begins moving the cage into the water, setting up the air machine (technical term), and requesting their patrons change into their wetsuits, shit got real. The realization of what I signed up for hit home. I’m going into great white shark infested waters inside a fishing crate.
To lighten the mood, the crew pulls out cooking grills and tosses a few dozen burgers and hotdogs on. They also warm up a huge vat of chicken noodle soup. Hot chocolate and coffee is ready to ward off hypothermia for the poor souls emerging from their time in the cage. Make no mistake, the water is freezing cold and you’ll feel it.
Once in and under, the adrenaline kicks in and you realize you need to breathe through your mouth or you’re going to die, and you forget about the cold for a little while.
Even start to enjoy yourself. Hello.
I spent a lot of time looking at nothing. A few jellyfish, lots of really cold, green water, trying not to think about how long nuclear waste actually lasts in any given area and what long term affects this might have on any offspring, and wondering if I’ll actually see a shark up close.
Oh hey, there’s another jellyfish.
Knowing these killers are less than a football field away from you, lurking in the liquid green fuzz is still terrifying. Every shadow is suspect.
Oh wait, that pic wasn’t actually taken by me, I poached it from a luckier diver.
After emerging from the thirty or forty minutes endured under the teeth-chattering ocean surface with those man-eaters – seen or unseen – one might feel like a complete badass.
The ride back to San Francisco is far better for what it’s worth. Traveling with the wind, it’s faster and smoother. With a belly full of warm soup, an adventure completed, and tiredness setting in, the ride is quiet and fairly quick.
The beautiful Golden Gate Bridge greets us and we’re back on land, oh lovely land, minutes later.
A few tips if you plan to go on your own shark diving adventure. In your duffle bag, bring a formidable plastic bag for storing wet clothes, wetsuit (if you bring your own otherwise they’ll take them from you), and anything else that is wet after your dive. It’ll save soaking your other clothing and your bag.
After you get out of the 56 degree water into the 50 degree air you will be cold. Don’t stay under water if you start shaking inside your wetsuit. Get out immediately and into dry clothing. Drink the hot soup whether you like it or not. At the time I was a vegetarian and all they had was chicken noodle soup. It was steaming hot and I was freezing so I drank it. And it was delicious. I witnessed a guy shake uncontrollably after his dive. According to the captain, once that starts, it’s tough to stop on the boat. He spilled everything he tried to hold to drink to get warm. Once he got out of the wetsuit and into the slightly warmer cabin, the shaking subsided.
There was a woman who brought a small pillow full of popcorn seeds. I had never seen one, but it was incredible. Pop that pillow into the microwave for thirty seconds and it was wonderfully hot for up to ten minutes. Place it on your hands, neck, feet, wherever you need to warm up, and it did the job.
Take lots of pictures and enjoy the journey.