Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Deep in the Great Burn.

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Atop the Rattlesnake.

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For once, someone else's tire.

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Looking at Glacier.

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Up in the Swan.

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In the northern Whitefish, more evidence of last winter's historic avalanche cycle.

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Al (headlamp) fresco in Missoula.

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After more than a few thousand miles, a Michelin Runn'r gives up the tread.

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In the Mission.

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50 miles done in the Whitefish.

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Single-minded second gear to Stuart Peak.

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Downhill in Glacier Country.

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LOLZ. They closed Canada!

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North Fork twilight on the autumnal equinox.

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Home along the Big Blackfoot.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Three beans from Nicaragua.

It used to be that no trip to the tropics was complete without a visit to the market and walking away with a few cordobas, quetzals, or limpiras worth of unroasted green coffee beans. I got the idea for doing this after chatting with the head roaster at the venerable Salt Lake Roasting Co. and seeing how easy the process could be duplicated at home. Once I had the beans (getting them through customs could be interesting – Is it a food? A vegetable? Plant matter?) all it took was a few minutes per handful in a stainless steel pot on an open stove. (Outside – always outside. As your neighborhood will soon find out, coffee roasting creates a lot of smoke.)

I really got to see how easy the process was after visiting Ethiopia, where I sat through a month’s worth of “coffee ceremonies” – after dinner, a girl makes a small fire on the kitchen floor (literally) and roasts a handful of beans in a hammered tin pot, then grinds them and makes coffee using a handheld drip system. Good stuff.

Green beans from the market were usually of erratic quality. The impression I got was that the bean sellers were not the bean harvesters – they were likely aggregators pulling together beans from a number of producers, or getting the non-exportable excess from a higher-quality farm. It was always impossible to determine the precise pedigree of the bean other than they were “local”. One exception to market quality was in Sulawesi, where the beans I saw in markets were about as pretty, plump, and uniform as green coffee beans can get.

Nicaragua has a coffee culture – probably more so than what I’ve found in places like Guatemala or Honduras – but the coffee quality is overall lower than what I found in adjacent nations. A lot of that has to do with topography – Nicaragua has a lot of mountains but they are relatively low elevation. That also is a fact that means the nation will lose its coffee crop much quicker to global warming than nearby nations with higher peaks – in Guatemala, for instance, as the temps warm, the trees can to a certain extent be moved up the mountains.

Nicaraguans like coffee, but they also like it weak – so weak that children drink it, and more than once I had to convince a waiter that no, our 2-year old did not need coffee to wash down his pancakes. For a couple of reasons I did not come home from Nicaragua with green beans, but after getting some tips from locals in Granada I did bring back several bags of locally roasted beans. I doubt these will show up at Albertson’s any time soon, but in case you are interested …

1. Café Premium Segovia ($3.70/400g – nearly 15 ounces)

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This pre-ground bean was the cheapest of the lot, and my least favorite. The roast was medium to dark; in the espresso machine it yielded no crème. The taste was floral and bright and somewhat acidic – similar to what I’ve tasted from Rwanda – but not to my liking.

2. Casa del Café ($6.75/400g)

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Case del Café is a local chain of coffee shops – their hacienda-style café just off the main square in Granada is a grand setting. These whole beans were the priciest of the bunch but not the best. Despite being a medium roast the grinds are a few shades of brown too light by my reckoning. In the espresso machine you get a decent crème, and the flavor is full but feels dialed back – as though there’s another 20 percent of the flavor that’s not showing up.

3. Café Las Flores ($5.75/454g)

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This medium-roast whole bean was the winner of the three by far, and a great deal compared both to other Nica coffees and what you find at home. It ground a consistent dark brown, and in the espresso machine it yielded a gorgeous thick crème. The taste was expansive and smooth. This was the one I wish I’d filled my suitcase with.

Hey – why is Guevara celebrated but not Sandino?

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American troops with Sandino’s battle flag:

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Radiance vs. ordinary light.

Reach for it.

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(Fourth of July Lake, White Cloud Mountains.)

We are down to not months, not weeks, but days. This is not the time to get lazy and complacent, folks.

A week ago Kintla was swimmable, but doubt it now.

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My guess is same goes for Bowman.

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Due to decisions we’ve made, it’s unlikely we’ll ever live in a big house, buy a fancy new car, or eat at swanky restaurants when we’re not being treated. On the other hand, every weekend we can go out and recreate in one of the world’s great landscapes.

Keeping it real, part A: Bowman Lake.

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Keeping it real, part B: Stanley Lake.

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Keeping it real, and clean, part C: Sawtooth Mountains.

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Keeping it real, part D: Ovando.

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Keeping it real, final installment: Whitefish Lake State Park.

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Keeping it sweet in Ovando.

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Red Meadow Lake, Whitefish Mountains.

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Some new snow along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, Whitefish Mountains.

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Whitefish Trails with the baby.

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Whitefish Trails on my lonesome.

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Back to Polebridge.

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Back along the North Fork.

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An end-of-summer paddle in Bowman.

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An end-of-summer paddle in Stanley.

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An end-of-summer wheel dip in Redfish.

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Hiking toward Sawtooth Lake.

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Biking toward fall.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mucho la Nica.

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(Asuncion, León)

I first went to Nicaragua in 2002. Then, I crossed overland from Costa Rica and stayed for about a week. I found the country to be interesting but gnarly. There were few services for visitors, personal security was a major concern, and the feeling was not just ‘third world’ but also decidedly ‘post-war’. My most vivid memory of Managua was seeing people chopping apart trees in the street medians because they needed firewood.

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(Bus station in Subtiava.)

Nicaragua in 2014 is much different, and after spending a week there we came to think we were in a special place during a special time. The country lacks the smooth banality of a place like Costa Rica but also the abject danger of a place like Honduras. I felt safer there than I have in almost any other country. It’s decidedly third world but the poverty does not seem as grinding as elsewhere. The people are friendly, and everyone went nuts over Cooper. As a follow-up on Managua, 2002 vs. 2014, I can report that while the capital is not about to win a beauty pageant, the trees in the medians have grown back and uniformed workers now trim the median grass with weed whackers. You should still watch your stuff, but it’s no longer necessary to use a cab when making a nighttime trip of a half-block (as was routinely recommended in 2002).

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(Basilica and square in León.)

In 11 days we spent $850: that figure does not include, of course, the plane tickets ($650 each) but does include the $10 per person entry fee and a night at a hotel in Denver, as well as all food, hotels, bus and taxi rides, tours, guides, and incidentals in the country. Notable expenditures included surfing lessons, day-use fees at a hotel in Lago Apoyo, and a tour of the small islands along the south shore of Lago Nicaragua. Most hotels were in the $45 range – including tepid water, satellite TV, and air conditioning – and most dinner tabs in sit-down restaurants came to about $10, a few beers included.

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Nicaragua is the largest nation in Central America but a lot of the big sights are fairly concentrated, meaning you can go from city to mountain, and mountain to coast, and back again just using a series of two-hour bus hops. When we first planned the trip we thought about spending the entire week in a single beach hotel, then in our normal fashion gradually chipped away at that. Our itinerary, day by day, included:

1. Missoula-Houston
2. Houston-Managua-Léon
3. Léon
4. Léon-Las Peñitas
5. Las Peñitas
6. Las Peñitas
7. Las Peñitas-Granada
8. Granada
9. Granada
10. Granada-Managua-Denver.
11. Denver-Missoula

(It seems like we spent a lot of time in the air but we had an afternoon departure from Missoula and a night in Houston, ensuring an early arrival the next day in Managua. Returning, we had an afternoon departure from Managua and a late arrival in Denver, then an early flight home. Even with the hotel rooms that schedule was cheaper than a one-day haul each way, but also seemed best for breaking the trek for Cooper.)

Crime in Nicaragua in 2013 was roughly comparable to that of the United States, and the country is well-advertised as the safest in Central America. In looking more closely at things, you quickly see that crime stats are hard to interpret and compare, let alone believe, and they don’t take into the special consideration the plight of the tourist, who is almost always, in every country in the world, at greater risk of crime than a local is. So while crime is not an inconsequential concern, I believe in Nicaragua it’s not much greater than what an American tourist would find in a traditionally-considered ‘safe’ country such as the UK or France.

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(Hotel rooftop, León)

The weather was not as ‘bad’ as I thought it would be (hot = bad), but can say it was still pretty darn hot. The mornings were bright and clear and manageable until about 10, when steamy sweaty heat kicked in. That lasted until about 2, when the sky clouded and eventually broke into air-filling downpours – take a deep breath during one of these and you could also get a cup of water in your lungs. Those storms usually cleared off by sunset, leaving what could actually be pleasant sunsets blending into warm evenings.

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(Las Peñitas)

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(Hotel courtyard, León)

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(It was getting late, and hot, and Cooper was crying for a juice. Just then it seemed a city full of juice stalls was totally absent of juice stalls. We wandered around and finally found juice in this bar, and Cooper drank it through a straw while music pumped and people yelled.)

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(Iglesia de la Merced, León: built in the 1500s, razed by pirates, and rebuilt.)

There’s a lot of country to see, and we just scraped the surface. Maybe next year Cooper will be ready for the 24-hour epic by bus from the capital to the Caribbean.

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(Headed home: Honduras and the Gulf of Mexico)