Places I slept, 2017

The year ending feels very long, in ways both big and small. For the first time since two thousand nine both of us were able to take time off this year, to figure out what to do next, where to live, and what to aim for. These processes aren’t finished yet and will shape much of twenty eighteen and beyond. The last time we had such freedom, in the spring of two thousand nine, we interviewed cities on the west coast of the US, certain that we wanted to be close to the Pacific. We still do, though much else has changed. The feeling of freedom is rare and wonderful, and will dominate all memories of twenty seventeen.

Eight years seems like a full phase, and the present moment somewhat of a shared opportunity. Many of our friends are likewise contemplating what’s next in their lives. Some are moving, are looking to move, or have just done so. Others are taking professional risks, or debating them. For reasons both mundane and political, twenty seventeen felt like a year of shifts, of small detachments and new freedom. Unlike twenty sixteen, which ended in despair, there is hope to be found, if we look hard, if we are willing to work and to dream. We are.

It’s always good to remember the past years gifts as well as it’s themes. Looking back mostly I remember friendship and the distances traveled in service of. We saw Seth in Bangkok in February and in Seattle in December. Jeff in Los Angeles in January, New York in November, and Seattle in December. Mitch in LA in January and Arizona in March. Lucas and Kristin in Portland and San Francisco. Bobert on both US coasts. Mel, Dray, Tori, and so many others in San Francisco.

This list is neither comprehensive nor designed as such. Rather it’s a reminder, for myself. The friendships we keep travel well, and we should never fear for their endurance. They are what supports us in hard times and what we build on in good. In the tough years we work together to survive, all investing in smaller circles when larger ones feel fruitless.

Yet in twenty seventeen professional circles felt more rewarding than ever as well. We met inspirational people and were able to support others for what seemed like the first time, though it was not. Understanding, at last, the value of a professional network feels both strangely liberating and humbling. Once again I grow up slowly.

Lastly, to those reading, thanks for your time. Writing hasn’t been as easy the last two years, but it is still the most rewarding activity, a way to feel better at the end than at the beginning.

With that, here is my list of places slept, the longest ever without question due to fifteen different camp sites on the Grand Canyon over sixteen days this past July and August. That trip was a gift, and turning thirty eight en route felt lucky. On other fronts I saw new parts of southern China, a lot more of Hong Kong, and more of the US west coast than in most years. As always, travel is a gift, and I’m more comfortable with this rate now.

San Francisco, CA
Humen, Dongguan, China
Baiyun, Guangzhou, China
Macau
Futian, Shenzhen, China
Santa Monica, CA
Lumphini, Bangkok, Thailand
Bang Rak, Bangkok, Thailand
Along the 5, CA
Mesa, AZ
Malibu, CA
Portland, OR
Sha tin, Hong Kong
Bao’an, Shenzhen, China
Shaoguan, China
Kowloon, Hong Kong
Bodega Bay, CA
Ft Collins, CO
Walden, CO
Flagstaff, AZ
15 different campsites along the Grand Canyon, AZ
Davis, CA
Gilroy, CA
Rio Linda, CA
Zhuhai, China
Wan Chai, Hong Kong
Cherry Hill, NJ
Brooklyn, NY
North Point, Hong Kong
Ashland, OR
Seattle, WA
Astoria, OR

My count of places swam reached thirteen in 2017, but I will not publish them this year. Instead I will begin a new list, that of cities biked. This list comes thanks to the worldwide expansion of bike share and my growing certainty that cars are not meant for urban areas. I hope for more in twenty eighteen.

San Francisco, CA
Shenzhen, China
Fort Collins, CO
Seattle, WA
Portland, OR

As for Mr. Squish, he too has been traveling. I write this from Portland, where he is lying below the coffee table in the sun in our friend’s house, completely relaxed after a week on the road. A useful skill, for a cat. His list for 2017 is below.

San Francisco, CA
Fort Collins, CO
Ashland, OR
Portland, OR
Seattle, WA
Astoria, OR

Visiting weekends

On Sundays in Hong Kong the overhead walkways are covered space. At eight thirty most are taken, demarcated with twine or blankets by the early risers. These women make phone calls or read, occupying space for friends. By noon all spots will be taken and the chatter of friendship will fill these temporary cement salons. This occupation of public space is part of Hong Kong, repeated and and relatable in a way comforting to this San Francisco visitor. In my neighborhood it is streets and sidewalks that are occupied on Sundays, rather than overhead walkways, and the small sales, drinking, and disruption are rather more confrontational in nature than the collection of weekday workers FaceTiming their families. The juxtaposition is strange, and comforting. Like myself, the migrant workers of Hong Kong have only Sunday off, the sole moment of solitary peace in a foreign country. Unlike them, I spend the single day in a solitary fashion, drinking coffee, climbing, and writing in my hotel room. I am lucky to be here in the employ of a US company, to have access to discretionary funds, to have energy to explore. I do not need to carve out a section of stairwell to have private space, nor bring cardboard to pad the ground. And yet I too will FaceTime my family, I too will chat with friends similarly distant, and I too will go back to work in the evening, ready for another week of long days in a country not my own.

In some small way then I appreciate these women’s situation, their choice, however constrained, to live in this country and work hard for money they can share with a family they see only on screen. Watching them set up their places early this morning I appreciate their perseverance, their laughter, and their community. And I appreciate the culture that has employed them so willingly but also that allows them this one day a week of occupancy. The freedom to take over public spaces, in fact to appear in public spaces at all, is not taken for granted, and is not common. The fact that Hong Kong’s walkways are covered on Sundays with evidence of the city’s dependence on migrants is a reminder that public space can be shared and maintained for everyone, regardless of origin.

Outlier Ultrahigh Rolltop Backpack thoughts, part 1

I’m on my second, so this is a review of both versions of yet another horribly named bag. The first version had a non-stretch liner to the front zip pocket, no top to the interior sleeve that holds the back plate in place, and slightly different angles on the side stretch pockets. I believe all changes are very much for the better, and recommend the second version in all situations. After several years of only second hand availability, Outlier has recently re-stocked, which makes this review more timely. Unfortunately the price has increased significantly, which makes correctly valuing the product harder. Hopefully this review will help with that as well.

As mentioned elsewhere, over the last several years I’ve worked hard to eliminate weight and stuff from my travel kit. One of the key steps was moving to single-bag travel. For short trips that means the GR1 and for longer trips a North Face Base Camp Duffel that I am also working on a review of. Both of those bags, while ideal for packability, durability, and flexibility, are heavier than necessary for a day pack. For simple packability, Eagle Creek and others sell ultra-light weight day packs, but those too lack structure and durability, not to mention sacrificing something in appearance. These considerations, and a curiosity about materials, led me to dyneema bags and the Outlier Ultrahigh Rolltop Backpack.

The rolltop has two great features: it’s incredibly lightweight, and it can be collapsed to basically nothing. This means I can add it to my single bag carry by removing the frame sheet and rolling it up. The frame sheet I put in the bottom of the North Face duffel and the rolled bag gets crammed in above the pack it cubes. This lets me have a durable, light weight bag for daily use, mostly taking samples and laptop to work meetings, as well as shopping, hiking, or whatever else. For these situations the appearance and durability of the Outlier bag are far superior to similar light weight bags, and yet it can be collapsed for longer cross-border journeys as well as put into the duffel for international flights, allowing me to avoid checking luggage.

The bag itself has a couple of good features and a couple of drawbacks. Most of them center around the roll top, which long time readers will know I’m not a fan of. In this case, the most critical one is that the roll top makes the bag lie very flat when opened, and allows it to both accommodate large items and compress tightly when mostly empty. While it remains annoyingly slow to open, despite the Fidlock closures, the roll top is a solid compromise given the bag’s weight, size, and materials. I’d be very curious to test the quad zip version, but have not had an opportunity. Given the price, I don’t expect to.

Between the first and second generation Outlier revised the bag slightly as noted above. Most importantly for me, they changed the inner material of the zip pocket from a non-stretch fabric to a stretch one. This is critical as that non-stretch material on my first bag tore during my first year of use, probably due to a pen or key or other object pressing against the edge of the pocket during use. Two years in the second version with a 4-way stretch material for that pocket shows no signs of damage or even wear. It’s a critical improvement in my experience. The other changes are also for the better, as mentioned, but more minor, and wouldn’t impact my purchase decision.

One of the big features of the roll top system on this bag is the Fidlock magnetic closures that secure the roll. These are great, quick to attach and release. However, when using the bag open-topped, which I do a lot when doing grocery runs to maximize internal volume, the magnetic pieces stick out and can get caught on doorways. I have lost one this way, tearing it out on a doorway and then being unable to properly screw it in again, leading to it falling out repeatedly. Outlier support sent me a new magnet piece, which I screwed in on my own and has worked perfectly over the last four months. I still use the bag open like that a lot, because it’s the most convenient fashion, but am a bit more careful when entering or exiting houses and cars.

The bag is also a bit small for a 15” laptop, which is not a problem I have, but something to be aware of depending on gear needs. It’s a very comfortable home for a 13” size. It also, wonderfully, perfectly fits a six pack of beer in bottles in normal vertical fashion, something that may or may not have been on the designers’ minds.

As someone who is on the road and generally rough on bags, I’ve damaged most parts of this bag over the years, so have a good feel for the overall durability. The fabric on the zipper pull gave out on my current trip, and the zipper pull is slightly too small for comfort without, so I’ll have to add something to that. I’ve bent the frame sheet due to extreme travel situations, and it’s a little hard to get perfectly flat again, though this doesn’t impact the bag or my use at all. And I’ve filled the Fidlock magnet ends with sand frequently enough to be well aware of how difficult sand is to remove from magnets. In short, I’ve put this bag through a lot, and other than the internal pocket tearing, which has been addressed in v2, and the Fidlock magnet getting pulled off, the bag is in incredible shape. Outlier’s durability claims for the material are true. This also speaks well for other cuben or dyneema bags such as SDR Traveller, Hyperlite, and Pitcharpak’s wallet line, which I’ve used for a half dozen years at this point.

While the Outlier rolltop is a very specific product aimed at a relatively specific market, I find myself using and thus recommending this bag more than any other I own, including the GR1, which I love. The combination of durability, flexibility, and lightweight structure make the Outlier bag an easy choice on days when I’m not sure what I’ll encounter, and make me happy to take a bag when I otherwise wouldn’t, as it’s basically no burden when empty.

At a new higher price this bag is a little harder to recommend, simply because $475 is a lot of money for any product. However, as I said about the GR1, if it fits your budget, this is a hard bag to beat, and I absolutely love mine.

Finding comfort

I am again in Hong Kong, briefly.

Over the past decade I’ve spent a dozen days like this, give or take. They’re days of freedom on either end of busy work travels. They’re days plucked from the vagaries of jetlag and airline schedules in an attempt to maximize time on the ground.

It’s not a common approach. Many try to minimize time in country, to avoid skipping a child’s soccer game or a Saturday morning breakfast. I have done that too frequently, and now my priorities are different, born of being a person who loves many places, rather than one. Luckily my family understands that I am better company returning from an extra day of quiet thinking than a tight Friday night rush to the airport from a factory in Dongguan. At least usually. Spending Friday evening exploring or at a dinner and then Saturday wandering leaves me with an impression of the world I want to return to, rather than viewing it as a place of work necessity. As always, I try to maintain that curiosity.

In this fashion I’ve spent a weekend in Changsha, doing research, and many weekends in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo, the loci of my global slingshot routes. And yet, despite years of practice, I’m still learning. I’m learning how to find special places, how to be a more adventurous visitor. Being a frequent visitor rather than a tourist should provide different opportunities, and does. Lately I’ve been visiting climbing gyms, small parks, and new neighborhoods. Mostly, as always, I walk long distances and speak little.

After several hours of wandering, after a day of looking down alleys and up stair cases, I find somewhere to get cheap noodles, maybe a local beer, and read some fiction. The novel lets me tune out the city I’ve worked so hard to focus in on. And eventually, calmer and ready for company, I head to the airport for my long commute back to our small apartment, to Mr. Squish and our four am jetlag mornings.

The patio at Deer Creek

On the river

For three weeks we drift down the Colorado. The Grand Canyon is so large as to take hours to approach by car. Finding the flat space at Lees Ferry where we launch our boats feels very random, and I wonder how the first explorers managed. So many miles of walking or riding to reach this place, and so hidden from view. How many ridges had they crested looking for a way to the river before discovering this one?

Our days are nothing like theirs must have been. Our route is well planned and food precisely proportioned. We cook in crews and camp at spots long favored by the elders of our group. We stop for hikes to waterfalls that pour into the canyon, and stand in them, letting the cleaner, warmer water wash and refresh. It is a hundred and ten degrees in Arizona in August, and we are often in the sun.

Mostly a passenger, I spend some part of every day with my feet up and my hat over my eyes, watching a narrow sliver of river and sky without a care. It is peaceful, to be rowed, though less so to row, and several of our party eat ravenously every day. I manage to read three books, mostly in the quiet hours after camp is made, on nights when I am not responsible for the cooking. It’s a beautiful scene, to look up from one’s book and see the canyon walls rise high into the distance, or to see the river wind away into the sunset. For three weeks any conversation can be interrupted by “wow, look at that,” and everyone will. Condors, mountain sheep, hawks, herons, and frogs cause these exclamations, as do waterfalls, landslide evidence, and the cliffs themselves as we wind through one tope of rock into another of a far earlier era.

So often the canyon reveals beauty in hidden spots. These side hikes, hidden caverns, or waterfalls are a surprise, the beauty of place that is invisible from without. The grandeur, the huge vistas and towering walls that sprawl across the horizon is overwhelming and an excellent reminder of real scale. These giant vistas have been photographed though, and can be seen in some sense from the rim, from above. The small canyons, etched by water in oddly smooth curves, with pools in between small waterfalls, that can be swam in or sat beneath, are impossible to discover any other way. They can only be found from the river.

And so for three weeks these small discoveries keep us climbing, hiking, and sweating, up hills and over cliffs, looking for another beautiful spot that takes work to find.