Category Archives: philosophy

Montana Miles

Combing through the three draft posts that have accumulated in my WordPress dashboard over the last year is a lot like viewing the stomach contents of a trout. Dulled is the fly fisherman’s coveted iridescence on gossamer wings. Nothing real looks good half digested.

I can still decipher the essence of my intent, but the metaphors seem tenuous at best. I really should start including tasting notes with my blogs: best consumed with a scotch ale and a sleep deficit.

In my last annual report a year ago I made some predictions about the year to come. Whether you call them tongue -in-cheek or lip-and-chop depends upon how much emphasis you thought I put on the emergence of facial hair trends.

Regardless of how clever I thought I was, there were a lot of things that one-year-ago me didn’t anticipate. That guy certainly didn’t predict a year-long drought in putting digital ink to virtual paper. And I’ll be damned if he had even a splinter in the brain to the notion that his next year in Montana would be his last…and end just as this love affair started, on a river in country that is less a place than an archetype of the indefinable.

Sunset in the Big Belts – Near Avalanche Butte, Montana

John Steinbeck once wrote,  “I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it …”

Reticence to trample the words of Steinbeck provides a credible excuse for me to abbreviate my own rumination on the relationship I’ve cultivated with this landscape. I possess not the literary acumen to avoid the awkwardness of the trite prose I’m compelled to pen; lest they dwell on tears descending to the pacific as their Atlantic bound source sojourns on.

On a side note, I’m probably going to punch myself  squarely in the pretentiousness when I re-read this in the morning.

The point is, my connection to this place extends far beyond an alignment of my aesthetics with the landscape. The eponymous mountains of this state aren’t the only snow-capped beauties I’ve seen in my life. Yet none of the other thirteen ranges I’ve explored in half-again as many states offer the sense of place I’ve experienced little further than my front door in Missoula. A short walk through my neighborhood affords me a view from the top of Mount Jumbo onto a city that is as comfortable with its  quirky, independent and inclusive identity as I am.

Rattlesnake Recreation Area - Missoula, Montana

Upper Rattlesnake – My “Backyard”

To venture into Montana’s backcountry only serves to solidify that which I feel on the streets in Missoula. I’ve explored 7 or 8 of the ranges here, but there are over 100 big enough to carry names…all of them are big enough to kick my ass. That is an indelible part of the ethos here; it takes work. Sometimes it even takes work coming down.

Pillows Run at Lolo Pass - {Photo By Sperry Desrosier}

Backcountry Pillows Run at Lolo Pass – {Photo By Sperry Desrosier}

“Earning it” isn’t unique to Montana however; I’ve written about it before. Yet in most places I’ve lived, the line of authenticity separating daily life from a crafted adventure is an obvious one. Here, perhaps only woven into the context of my expectations, is a sense that the quiver of skills one carries is necessary to navigating this landscape; not a luxury. This isn’t strictly fact of course, Missoula is a city after all. But perceptions are important, and the fact that skiing to work or towing a baby stroller behind your bicycle during hunting season isn’t considered by most to be odd demonstrates a sense of place that embraces “adventure” as a part of life.

The Hunting Rig - Upper Blackfoot Valley

Hunting Season – Upper Blackfoot Valley, Montana

As Thomas McGuane put it, “Giving freaks a pass is the oldest tradition in Montana.”

I’ll miss that.

Graduation is scheduled for May 18th and is just as much the marker of a task completed as it is a starter’s pistol. My days in Montana are numbered, approximately 235 in fact. In December, I’ll be driving back to the Midwest for Christmas before moving to Durham, New Hampshire a month later. I’ll shed my Grizzly skin and enroll as a Wildcat for a masters program at the university there. From Missoula, traveling four hours in any direction will get me to at least any given three of one-hundred named mountain ranges and probably at least one national park. From Durham, the same spin of the needle could put me in the White Mountains, New York City, or in the open ocean of the Atlantic. A different kind of adventure awaits me, to be sure.

North Fork of the Flathead River | By Clinton Begley

North Fork of the Flathead – During my First Visit in 2009

But the landscape that captured my imagination in 2009 during my first night spent camping in Montana will be my home until then. It was along the banks of the North Fork of the Flathead River, just outside of the electricity-free outpost of Polebridge, Montana that I heard a lone wolf howl for the first time, and where I first fell in love with this state.

Polebridge, Montana – 2009

Beginning in the week following graduation, I will have a Polebridge address. My mail will be delivered by a woman who owns a wolf she raised from an abandoned pup. I will not have electricity, nor cell service, nor internet. The five months I’ll spend there may be my last in Montana as I cannot say what adventures may be ahead of me. But I am confident that after a summer spent in its heart, the romance I already hold for this state will only be magnified by time and distance from it.

My good buddy Matt likes to measure the long uphill sections of especially rough, unkempt, talus strewn and log hampered trails here in “Montana miles,” a term of endearment to be certain. Because although the trails are tough, they are also ruggedly beautiful and the view from the top is always worth it.

I’m a full eight months from my date of departure and already I am measuring the long stretches of I-90 east in Montana Miles. Not because they are physically demanding, but because it will take some serious work on another level to convince myself that the view in end, another step on the career path near the Atlantic, will be worth it too.


Scotoma

Southwest Texas Asphalt | Photo by Clinton BegleyAt night, all asphalt looks the same between the lines.
The differences between our paths lie in the periphery, blurred by speed, and unilluminated.


Kshanti

I’ve been sitting on this photo for nearly four years.

More accurately, I’ve only recently posessed the skill and perspective necessary to assemble the photos comprising this panoramic into something remotely reflective of my feeling for this place.

Cathedral Peak by Clinton Begley

I wish I could say that this was an exercise in patience and foresight; that I’d somehow had the wherewithal to archive these photos until a serendipitous moment struck me with the inspiration to execute the perfect crop and the ideal channel mix of red, green and blue to make the abrasive granite nearly palpable to the eye.

In truth, it took a failure four years ago to make this assemblage possible. I had all the components and resources at my fingertips, but was lacking proper perspective on the experience to compile the pieces into something meaningful.

This week, as I’ve reflected on the impact that this first solo trek and other transformational  experiences have had on my trajectory through life, I felt compelled to revisit these photos. Like myriad analogous situations through life, the value of time and reflection is difficult to measure, but easy to feel. And this one feels good.


This Road Don’t Go to Aintree

There are a lot of things I remember about the various trips I took down the Chattooga last summer.
I remember quotes and debacles, hilarity and shenanigans plus a fair amount of respect for my compadres.
But when I think back most often to the Chattooga, it is the healthy respect for the river itself that I feel most pointedly.

Like mountains and people, rivers have personalities of their own. I liken the demeanor of the Nantahala to a good-natured hilbilly…pickin ‘n grinnin. The Ocoee reminds me of a bull-rider; it’s as fun as it can be dangerous, but feels safer in the company of a dozen clowns.

The Chattooga, by comparison, has more of an animal quality; it never lets you forget that for all man’s attempts to tame it throughout history, this river is wild. That trait is rare among southeast rivers, and at times, the Chattooga seems to want to prove this point. The point is always well taken.

I’ve never taken a really-bad spill on the Chattooga. A few missed braces in canoes on section III, and a dump-trucked raft on Sock ’em Dog (see video here) round out my carnage stories. But my respect for the river’s wildness has not been diluted. Perhaps it is my memory of  stories recalled by river veterans about each near-miss, injury or fatality conveniently told after each run, but I prefer to think my respect wells from a place more primal.

Even now, as I look at the photos I took during my first trip down the Chattooga river, I can feel my breaths become shallow and my neck stiffen. This river makes me nervous.

But I love it. I love the Chattooga the way I love wolves and moose and grizzlies in the west; I love it for its wildness and for the respect it commands, demands and receives. And I’d love to run it again soon.


I Hope It’s Like Gravity

I could taste the salt as I bit through the line to free my reel from the rats-nest of knots surrounding it. It has been five months since I tossed the bit of fishing gear into my car in late June after a trip to the North Carolina coast. My whole time spent in the south lasted just five months too; looking back it feels like a whole life was lived in such a short time and that another one has passed by since leaving.

Yet, I’m just now cleaning out my car again.

Mt. Starr King - Yosemite NP (May, 2011) | Clinton Begley

Mt. Starr King - Yosemite NP (May, 2011)

As I placed the reel on the shelf of my Montana garage and tossed the marine flavored fish-floss in the garbage, I realized how wonderfully different the months of my life have been this year. After all, there I was tasting saltwater from the Atlantic while standing in the middle of the rocky mountains. The day after my parents left Missoula in an empty pickup-truck on a 1500 mile journey back to the Midwest, I joined some friends in the Bitterroot mountains (here, affectionately referred to as “The Root”… it rhymes with “foot”) and humped some cans of Hamm’s a couple-thousand feet up a mountain-side to spend a few days yanking cuthroat’s out of an alpine lake and shooting a pistol at the aluminum corpses of beers passed on. After returning to civilization three days later, on the one-week anniversary of my arrival, I went to an event at the local art museum. Walking in a stranger I left with a position on the event planning committee and a free lunch.

Clinton Begley Upper Rattlesnake

The Upper Rattlesnake Recreation Area - Outskirts of Missoula, MT

As my early weeks here continued to pass by I scored a position with a local environmental education non-profit, shared a remote lake in the Mission Mountains with two good friends, hung out with Austin Lucas for a few moments at his basement show and hiked to the top of Lolo peak for lunch, a nap and a superb view of my new home. Matt and I ran the Blackfoot river (made famous by “shooting the chutes” in a River Runs Through It) three times in two weeks, and I also spent plenty of days learning to hold my own surfing a world class freestyle kayaking wave on the Clark Fork river. Mind you all of this took place over the span of barely four weeks between the start of my classes at the University of Montana and arriving to the northcountry after a knock-down-drag out summer in the south full of non-stop hiking, rafting and kayaking.

Tamarack Lake Clinton Begley

Skeletons of Tamarack Lake - Bitterroot Mountains, MT

Yet more-so than the places I’ve been or the ridiculously awesome jobs I’ve landed, the uniqueness of each passing month is symptomatic of a change in the tenor of my understanding of people.

Because dammit, people really are pretty awesome most of the time.

I’m increasingly finding it unfathomable that some find it so hard to meet quality, thoughtful and insightful individuals. In my experience, the world really seems to be lousy with them; so long as you’re open to finding them just about anywhere. Despite my excitement to get to Montana after nearly a decade of the idea floating around in my mind, it was really a bit harder to leave Georgia than I’d anticipated. Sure I’d expected to feel reluctance about saying goodbye to my great friend Carson with whom I’d lived and worked throughout the summer; but then just as now, I found myself missing some really great people I’d come to know, respect and appreciate over my short time there. Inexplicably, I even find myself missing some altogether unsettling and just plain weird folks as well (If you’ve got an “RW” on your helmet, I’m talking to you.)

And even in my short time as a Missoulian, I’ve been bowled over almost weekly by the quality of people I’ve come to know here. Of course, go figure that I’d meet a great group of people all of whom are shipping off to the Peace Corps in six months; however I can already feel that I’ll be keeping in touch with these folks for years to come.

Reflections in Tamarack Lake - Bitterrots, MT | Clinton Begley

Reflections in Tamarack Lake - Bitterrots, MT

But you know, I’ve never really had a shortage of awesome people in my life. I’ve tried never to take this for granted, but sometimes it’s still pretty unbelievable even to me.

This summer, while Carson was out of town,p robably in the Carribean, or Florida Keys or something, I decided to try and replace the rear brake rotors and pads on my Passat. Without going into too much detail I very quickly produced a puddle of brake fluid and a jammed wheel cylinder piston. With unreliable internet access and my phone’s connectivity waning, I decided that since I was unable to research how to remedy the situation on my own, I’d just borrow Carson’s jeep and head to Autozone for a new wheel cylinder; or maybe just a crowbar with which to beat myself senseless. Upon arriving to the neighborhood Autozone with glistening wheel cylinder in hand I immediately set to work trying to locate a replacement one with the help of the marginally helpful guy behind the counter. Just a few feet away at another terminal was an older black gentleman rattling off a list of makes, models and part numbers to another attendant who frantically keyed them into the computer.
After a few moments, my guy behind the desk delivered the sobering news that either I could order a new one through this store and have it in 3-5 business days for just $130, or I could drive to the other side of Atlanta to pick one up myself at the same price. My frustration must have been palpable; only a beat of silence passed before the gentleman next to me hollered over, “What are you need’n brotha?” He asks in a perfectly pleasant and soft southern drawl.

After explaining the situation and showing him the problem in my hands, the man gestures to my attendant behind the counter and points to the image of a tool kit illustrated on a table-top mat next to the computer. “Let Anthony take a look at this,” says the man as he uses a rag from his pocket to take the fluid covered part from me. The attendant dug around behind the counter for a few moments before opening and presenting a plastic case on the counter-top the way a waiter might present a box of fine cigars in a hotel lobby. As Anthony went to work repairing and resetting the cylinder’s piston, he began to tell me of his life in Florida before being displaced by hurricane Andrew, and how he chose Atlanta to start his new life because of a girl there he once knew. He told me about living in Stone Mountain, his wife, her kids, and how he demanded the same respect that he gave from each of them.  I could tell by the way he looked at me while he talked more than at his own hands that I wouldn’t need to buy a new part; I could tell that I was being taken care of.

I was thanking him well before he was finished repairing my foolishly bumbled wheel cylinder, and long before he walked me through how I’d re-install it safely and precisely once I got back home with it. But as I expressed my appreciation, he stopped me in mid-thank you. “There is a lot of wickedness in the world son.” He said as he paused the work in his hands to look me directly in the eye. “But there is a lot of good in the world too,” he continued, “and we of good heart have a way of finding each other.”

Without skipping a beat he put the finishing touches on resetting the cylinder’s piston and plopped the hunk of metal in my hands without even a pause to make sure I’d catch it.

We all have doubts from time to time about our paths through life, and whether or not the choices that we make are as selfless as we’d like to believe. Despite the joy that I’ve experienced over the past year, I often wonder whether the cost of time lost with friends and family is worth it. I’d like to think that I may someday know if what I’ve gained to share with those close to me can ever offset the time I’ve missed with them to acquire that wisdom; but the truth is that I probably never will. But, if Anthony’s words continue to ring as true to me as they did on that hot day in Georgia, then perhaps I can find some comfort in knowing the profound goodness in the hearts of those who have always been close to me and have faith that maybe my choices and actions are a product of the goodness in their hearts if less so my own.


Four Months Down – Two Weeks To Go

Cape Lookout National Seashore - Clinton Begley

Sunset at Cape Lookout National Seashore - Photo By Clinton Begley

 

Fist-fulls of change, hard-boiled egg shells and google maps printouts comprise the majority of the refuse littering the floor of my car.  As anyone who has ever ridden with me knows, entry to my car usually involves a brief waiting period pending consolidation of items strewn throughout the backseat. Today, a climbing harness, grocery sacks of damp clothes, some ratchet straps and several spindles of CD’s would be the main barrier of entry.

The unseasonably tolerable Sunday summer air in my Georgia  neighborhood echoes with the sounds of familiar Illinois voices as Kentucky Knife Fight pumps from the speakers in my four ajar doors.  My thoughts turn to their and other voices from home while I categorize, compartmentalize and cast away some of my car’s contents in preparation for the next cargo laden exodus to a new region of the country.

I never really unpacked to begin with. Boxes half full and ransacked litter the floor of what has been my home for the last four months. Duffle bags of clothes unworn sit upon closet shelves and books unread grow flatter daily under their own weight… still packed and stacked in plastic bins that will leave tell-tale rings like crop circles in the carpet on my bedroom floor.

Soon these crates and bins will find themselves thousands of miles northwest. Though perhaps this time the cold Montana winters will afford me the time to explore their contents more fully.

My summer has been spectacular. I’ve been busy as all get out, but I’ve managed to run many of the great classic rivers of the Southeast in all manner of watercraft. I’ve piloted rafts, canoes and kayaks down many rapids, and even swam a few.

Clinton Begley Guiding Second Ledge on Chattooga River's Section 3

In solitude I hiked and explored a classic North Georgian wilderness area where a prison escapee once lived for 6 years undetected, and discussed the finer points of assessing the potency of backwoods Tennessee hooch with a Cocke county resident in the moonshine capital of the world.
I planned a trip to Yosemite National Park and helped to guide eight participants as the first team to explore  its southern high-country this year. Replete with blizzards, icy river crossings and all manner of backcountry techniques it was the very definition of an adventure.  I led a group of six participants on an ocean journey off the cost of North Carolina in waters once pirated by Blackbeard. Each morning we awoke to living vestiges of his pillaging as wild horses, descendants of those that swam ashore in the wake of his destruction of merchant ships, grazed near our tents.

My experiences in the office at Georgia State have been just as nurturing as my experiences in the field. I’ve assisted in various projects from polishing off an $80,000.00 bouldering cave project with new hold selections and surveillance, to hand picking nearly 50 tents to replace the current rental inventory. I’ve created some new avenues for marketing and exposure for the program, and even taught a backpacking skills clinic.

I often post photos, blogs, or comments online about my various activities, trips and projects. Yet these are not boasts or bragadocious self-congratulatory exhibitions of my endeavors. They are thank yous, and gestures of appreciation to all those who have been so instrumental in bringing these experiences within my reach.

Throughout this summer internship, each and every day, my thoughts have turned several times a day to all those who have encouraged, contributed and sacrificed to make this happen. So many people in my life have done so much to get me here. From the encouragement and assistance of my family, to the kind and inspirational words and lives of my friends I would not be here if it were not for a veritable team of people in my life. Certainly I would not have had this opportunity were it not for my great friend Carson and his excellent administration of this program along side his generosity in allowing me to stay in his home. Similarly, I look forward to sharing a house with Matt in Missoula in just a few short weeks when I take him up on his hospitable offer to be a housemate.

Things will get harder after this summer. For the first time in 11 years I will be without a job. I’ll be focusing upon school, and on further realizing this dream that until recently was only visible in my mind’s eye. Yet, I am more confident than ever that I am on the right path.  It’s a confidence that is a luxury granted by the unwavering support of friends and family hand-in-hand with my  acknowledgment that the opportunities that have been laid before me, and the people whose paths have crossed mine are not accidental, nor are they earned. They are gifts; and I take none of them for granted.


Fleur de sel

Clues were scarce.
As I scanned through the hundreds of pictures and videos with the tiny left-right arrows, there were only a few hints at who the camera’s owner might be. The face at the end of an outstretched arm, framing itself from a distance was that of a young sandy haired man. The first few photos appeared to be of a military academy graduation, but my knowledge of the armed services did not equip me with the ability to identify the branch. The last few photos, hauntingly,  showed the beach along the great Salt Lake where I’d found it. Snapped just moments before I’d arrived there with my friends Matt and Mark to test whether the rumors of supreme buoyancy were true, those pictures chronicled a similar experiment shared between people I suspected would always be strangers to me.

The Great Salt Lake Sunset

Matt and Mark on The Great Salt Lake at Sunset- Photo By Clinton Begley

It was day thirteen going on fourteen of a vacation across the American west on July 31st, 2009 and I was due to fly thirteen-hundred miles back to the Midwest the following day. A week earlier, while descending 3200 feet from Stony Indian pass in Glacier National Park my own point-and-shoot camera had slipped from my hands and exploded like a soda can full of glitter upon a slab of granite at my feet.

Granite :1 | Camera: 0

Though I felt blessed holding it’s cosmically bequeathed replacement in my hands, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the unknown smiles captured in each photo I flipped through on it’s tiny screen.

It was obvious that what I held in my hands was a chronicle of a summer of celebration. Over 200 pictures and videos of travels beginning with a graduation. Family trips. Exploration. Memories.

My search for the camera’s owner started logically and simply. A call to the Antelope Island headquarters yielded no reports of a lost camera. Once I returned home, I reviewed the catalog of pictures on my computer and meticulously poured over the images looking for clues. No license plates, no diploma pictures. There was a brief moment of hope when I spotted a last name on the front of some BDU’s worn by what appeared to be the owner’s father. But without a first name, there was no way to know for sure. I googled phrases like ” lost my camera at the great salt+lake” and “lost camera at antelope+island”  I signed up on a couple of lost camera websites and shared salient points about the details of the camera’s discovery in hopes that the owner would go-a-googling too. Although a year and a half passed without a clue surfacing, I’d stubbornly resolved to some-day find the owner. Over the past few months, as I’ve prepared to embark on another journey, the camera resurfaced amongst my belongings. At last, begrudgingly, I resigned myself to put it to use.

A quick visit to ebay yielded a new battery and charger for slightly more than the cost of postage. Upon the arrival of my new accessories, I decided to browse the photos one last time before deleting them forever and claiming the camera as my own with which to capture my own archive of travels. In this last viewing, something new caught my eye. A box, mostly out of frame, upon a table at what looked to be a graduation dinner.

My fingers moved fast: Right Click>Open With> Photoshop CS3

As the pixelated image of the box at the table’s edge filled the screen, I realized I was within reach of finding the camera’s owner. It was a Josten’s box. Probably containing a class ring, or graduation announcement or other such milestone marking memorabilia, the box was exactly the clue I’d been looking for to link all the pieces together. Visible barely within frame was part of a shipping label, the most important parts: Last name. Zip code.
It was enough to deduce the graduating academy.

Within moments I was on the phone speaking consecutively with several employees of Josten’s customer service department as I was put on hold and transferred up the chain of command after each before them had been regaled with a story of my attempt to reunite a 2009 Colorado Springs Air Force Academy graduate with his camera, and how I’d come to posses it. Less than 45 minutes after an abridged account of the whole saga had been left on customer service manager “Dawn’s” voice mail, I received a phone call from an incredulous and appreciative guy now living in Logan, Utah.

Salt Lake Horizon Photo By Clinton Begley

As Above So Below on The Great Salt Lake - Photo By Clinton Begley

I just returned home from the post office a few moments ago, shipping receipt in hand. It would be easy for me to concede that this receipt is all I have to show for my hours of playing Horatio Caine and the year of self restraint that kept me from deleting the pictures outright and hawking the camera on ebay. But in truth, I’ve been given an opportunity to appreciate a perspective wholly unique to the clockwork of the universe.

Dozens of times throughout my life I’ve received the metaphorical phone call from a Josten’s employee informing me that someone found my camera and wanted to return it. I’ve always passively accepted the gifts and blessings handed to me without much understanding of the intricacies and details that needed to exist in order for that final connection to be made. I’ve always trusted that what had fallen into my lap had done so for a reason, and I’ve accepted it without questioning the myriad factors required to get it there. What strikes me now is that over the year or so of periodically holding out hope that I’d find the camera’s owner, I never once felt like I was on a mission to execute some higher purpose.  After-all, it’s just a camera… not a kidney.

Truth be told, my motives were mostly selfish. I enjoyed the puzzle of it… the mystery to be solved. Yet in the end, something wholly implausible yet altogether positive resulted for a guy in Utah who had but to answer the phone and recieve. Not to wrap this whole thing up into a cute and quotable bundle, but it really makes me pause to consider what blessings each of us are blindly and unflatteringly executing everyday by indulging what motivates us in the ways we were created to be.