A view of San Francisco

Years go by

On the end of a weekend I sit on our rooftop overlooking San Francisco. It’s a beautiful view. Behind me the Sutro tower stands clear of fog with the sun blinding as it sinks down the tower’s tiers. To my left the hills of Japan town and the flags of the Armory are visible, clear reminders of San Francisco’s beliefs. And in front, out over the corner of Soma and the Mission that is my home, the new towers of Mission Bay and lights of the ballpark glisten in the afternoon. Slightly further lights of cars heading in on the Bay bridge twinkle between the towers of the Financial district, and the newer towers of tech-fuel Soma growth. To my right the hills of Bernal and Potrero are visible, and the massive facade of the recently-renamed SF General Hospital. In all directions growth, beauty, and a sense of the distinct neighborhoods that make San Francisco a cluster of areas and a unique city.

I’ve spent a lot of time on this rooftop over the last three years. A lot of evenings, mornings, and afternoons like this one. Sometimes with company, sometimes alone. Often with my furry cat, who likes to prowl around the edges and watch pigeons on the telephone wires. He also likes to get dirty in the planters that are now filled with only dirt but have housed strawberries, parsley, peppers, rhubarb, and more. It’s a gift, to be able to garden in the city, up high and in the sun. After our windy years in the Sunset and Richmond, where no plant can get enough sun to survive, this garden has brought great joy.

Combined with our garage, with the ability to store now six bicycles, one car, and a huge amount of camping, climbing, and sports gear, this apartment is far larger than it’s 500 square feet would indicate, far better suited to the life of a couple than any other place we’ve ever lived.

So I try to watch the city as often as possible, in the evening when the full moon rises and early before the neighborhood is awake. I try to capture as many memories of this city as I can, to take with me wherever is next.

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.

 

Closing time

“Studio closing, equipment for sale inside” says the sign, handwritten on an piece of A4 paper.

It’s a quiet end to a dream.

For more than ten years my friend has run a recording studio here, at 7th and Howard. He worked hard to make this dream a reality, by finding space, by saving money, by living in odd spaces to afford the building’s rent, by scrounging gear, by making trades and finally by meeting bands, by inviting musicians into his achievement, and helping make their dreams in exchange. He has worked odd gigs on the sides to cover expenses, and invested so much of himself in building what he hoped would continue.

Helping sort some boxes, pull down some lights, and throw out some small portion of the past ten year’s accumulation, I am glad to be here. Sad, too, of course, at the small failures. Sadder still at our approaching middle age that makes the failures real, makes us have to decide finally if this business is a life, or just a section of one. We are no longer twenty five, hoping to achieve things one day. Instead we have to look at forty and determine if where we are is where we want to be in another ten years. And if not, we have to figure out how to leave.

In a SOMA evening, the kind of breazy warmth rare to San Francisco, we carry trash cans out into the night. Bottles and cans, from clean-up crews of the week prior, are set aside for the scavengers who wait patiently at the other end of the block for us to close the door and give them space.

Inside, climbing a rickety aluminum ladder with a caution my younger self would not have shown, I remember so many other evenings like this, building or taking down, in so many strange spaces across the North East. Theaters, mostly, but also churches, bars, warehouses, and the occasional alley. In a sense, this is just one more show whose run is finished, one more set to be deconstructed in so much less time than it took to build.

Leaving later, down Howard on our bicycles in the night, I feel the post-show low too. I wonder where I’ll see my friend again, now that we’ll no longer bump into each other walking down the streets of the Mission or SOMA at odd hours. I wonder where we’ll get to build again.

And that question lets me smile, makes me happy. Because on our last parting, in Boston in two thousand one, I couldn’t forsee meeting at a friend’s house in San Francisco eight years later, to play Magic and Mario Kart again, as though nothing had changed.

Many things have, of course, and more will for both of us. Adventures are to be cherished, though. The freedom to say goodbye is hard to come by.

At the end though we don’t use that word.

“See you somewhere,” we say instead, after a hug. “Maybe Berlin.”