It’s the Thought that Counts

In the fading light, the convoy of four wheel drive vehicles stopped under the canopy of a massive riverine tree.  We parked at a place called Pel’s Pools, where the dirt road ended on a bluff overlooking the Limpopo River as it snakes its way through the landscape, defining the border between South Africa and Botswana.  A large male kudu ran up a rocky cliff to our right.  We all got out of the vehicles, and followed the path blazed by the kudu.

Hiking above the Limpopo River with the university group, on our way to Pel's Pools.

Hiking above the Limpopo River with the university group, on our way to Pel’s Pools. Tuli Wilderness, Botswana, February 2103.

Fifteen minutes later, our group–consisting of three seasoned guides, twenty young students from a university in the UK, their two professors, and me–the odd man out, a 50-year-old man from the US–reached the top of the outcrop.

“Find a rock,” Johann told us, “away from everyone else.  We’re just going to sit here for about 20 minutes and watch the sun set.  It’s also a time for you to reflect on what you’ve experienced here over the last two weeks.”

By “two weeks,” Johann was referring to the time the students had already spent in the Tuli Wilderness of Botswana.  While their adventure was coming to an end, mine was just beginning; while they were reflective, I was brimming with anticipation for what would unfold over the next two weeks.

We sat high on a cliff above the Limpopo, a hundred yards or so from the border between South Africa and Botswana, as rock hyrax scampered among the boulders and birds of prey circled overhead.  A crocodile slithered slowly off the muddy banks into the water, and in the distance, a troop of baboons barked at each other.

As the sun set over the Limpopo, a few momentary signs of orange and red quickly turned to dull, muted pinks, and then it all was gone behind a low wall of clouds.  Our time of reflection over, Johann called us back over to the center of the rocky plateau.

Andrew looking down at Pel's Pools and across the Limpopo River into South Africa. Tuli Wilderness, Botswana.

Andrew looking down at Pel’s Pools and across the Limpopo River into South Africa. Tuli Wilderness, Botswana, February 2103.

“I have something I want to read to you, to put in context everything you have experienced here over the last two weeks,” he said.

Johann took a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it.  “This is a speech that Chief Seattle gave in 1854,” he said.  “And it’s even more relevant today.”

Hey, I know this speech!  I thought to myself.  This is that speech I used to have hanging on my office wall for so many years!  And then Johann started reading.

“How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us.

“If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?”

Wait…this is that fake speech…

“Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man.

“The white man’s dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man–all belong to the same family.”

Oh my god!  Who does this guy think he is?  Does he know he’s lying to all of these people?  Or is he completely clueless? 

“So, when the Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land, he asks much of us. The Great Chief sends word he will reserve us a place so that we can live comfortably to ourselves. He will be our father and we will be his children.

“So, we will consider your offer to buy our land. But it will not be easy. For this land is sacred to us. This shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you the land, you must remember that it is sacred, and you must teach your children that it is sacred and that each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.”

I can’t believe this!  I should really say something…

In fact, this was no speech at all; it was a script for a low-budget environmental documentary film called “Home” that was aired on national television in the United States back in 1971.  The script had been written by Ted Perry, an East Coast scriptwriter who composed the new version and referred to Chief Seattle.  Somehow this script had been propagated through the rumor and folklore channels for many years, passed off as an authentic piece of Native American history.

“The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes, and feed our children. If we sell you our land, you must remember, and teach your children, that the rivers are our brothers and yours, and you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.

“We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his father’s grave behind, and he does not care. He kidnaps the earth from his children, and he does not care. His father’s grave, and his children’s birthright are forgotten. He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.”

I turned away and started giggling to myself, hiding my face, not wanting to make a scene, but bemused and slightly disgusted by what I was seeing and hearing: a fake Hollywood speech was being used as a motivational tool.  But then I noticed something: everyone was glued to their seats–er, rocks–listening to Johann.  And from the reaction he was getting, this speech by “Chief Seattle” was striking a chord with every last one of them.

“I do not know. Our ways are different than your ways. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man. There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in spring or the rustle of the insect’s wings. The clatter only seems to insult the ears. And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around the pond at night? I am a red man and do not understand. The Indian prefers the soft sound of the wind darting over the face of a pond and the smell of the wind itself, cleaned by a midday rain, or scented with pinon pine.

“The air is precious to the red man for all things share the same breath, the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath. The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a man dying for many days he is numb to the stench. But if we sell you our land, you must remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.”

“The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. And if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred as a place where even the white man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow’s flowers.

“You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of our grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children that we have taught our children that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.”

People were deeply moved.  Some were wiping tears from their eyes.  Others had that look on their face–that look like everything was different now.  The story Johann was reading may have been fake, but the emotions it was eliciting were not.

“This we know; the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. All things are connected. We maybe brothers after all. We shall see. One thing we know which the white man may one day discover; our God is the same God.

“You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land; but you cannot. He is the God of man, and His compassion is equal for the red man and the white. The earth is precious to Him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator. The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Contaminate your bed and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.

“But in your perishing you will shine brightly fired by the strength of the God who brought you to this land and for some special purpose gave you dominion over this land and over the red man.

“That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses are tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires.

“Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone.

“The end of living and the beginning of survival. “

—–

“Sorry that the sunset was kind of a bust tonight,” Johann said.  “But even in Africa, not every sunset can be spectacular.”

But what Johann didn’t understand was that it was indeed still a spectacular night.  The sunset may have fizzled before it ever really got started, and the motivational speech may have been concocted by a scriptwriter for a two-bit movie, but what really mattered was that we were there, in that moment, and we were feeling it–all of us, even the cynical, skeptical 50-year-old outsider amongst the group of naïve and idealistic young college students.

Not much of a sunset?  I'll take it!  Tuli Wilderness, Botswana, February 2103.

Not much of a sunset? I’ll take it! Tuli Wilderness, Botswana, February 2103.

Over the next two weeks, I would see many amazing sunsets and hear many profound statements.  And that evening overlooking the Limpopo River at Pel’s Pools set the stage for one of the most spectacular, amazing, and memorable times of my life.

Content Rendering: Getting the Most Out of Your Content

From articles to press releases, from brochures to books, from ads to advertorials, the web has reduced the cost of exposing your content by orders of magnitude.  So spending less resources on getting your content out there means you can spend more time on producing killer content, right?

Yes.

And no.

The bottom line is that your organization can’t function without content.  Content is the life blood of any marketing organization, and without it, your organization will soon wither and die.  You need a steady stream of content; it needs to be high-quality; and you need lots of it.  So yes, the new world order the web enables means that you can spend more of your resources on producing killer content.

But there’s more to it than that.  The fact that the web has reduced the cost of exposing your content by orders of magnitude means you should actually be spending MORE time on this aspect of marketing, not less.

—–

I remember my friend Steve, when he was in the pizza business about 20 years, telling me how many different magazines there were for pizza.  I laughed.  Pizza?  It’s certainly a strange world we live in.  But several years later, when I spent a lot of time working in the advertising area, I started to really understand what he was talking about.  There wasn’t just a magazine for everything—there were three or more magazines for everything.  And it seemed like every magazine in the world, no matter how obscure or irrelevant to my marketing mission, started sending sample copies to me.

Things are different now.  Many of those magazines are (thankfully) dead; of those that were not killed off by the Internet, most have suffered greatly, and significantly modified their business models.  But the one sample magazine I received in the mail many years ago that will forever leave an impression on me was Render Magazine.

What is rendering?  If you’re squeamish, you may want to skip past this definition I found on Wikipedia and pick up this story again with the next paragraph:  “Rendering is a process that converts waste animal tissue into stable, value-added materials.  Rendering can refer to any processing of animal products into more useful materials, or more narrowly to the rendering of whole animal fatty tissue into purified fats like lard or tallow.  Rendering can be carried out on an industrial, farm, or kitchen scale.  A rendering process yields a fat commodity (yellow grease, choice white grease, bleachable fancy tallow, etc.) and a protein meal (meat and bone meal, poultry byproduct meal, etc.).  Rendering plants often also handle other materials, such as slaughterhouse blood, feathers and hair, but do so using processes distinct from true rendering.”

It’s a gruesome practice to picture in your mind, especially for the vegetarians/vegans out there as well as the PETA crowd.  But look beyond animal brutality and the lessor-known aspects of the modern food industrial complex for a minute and think about this: if you’re going to kill an animal, for any reason, you better make damn sure that it was worth it.  And that’s what rendering is all about.  Virtually no part of the animal goes to waste.  It’s a case study in sustainability, no matter how grisly.

—–

So what does rendering have to do with marketing?

Advertising has always been different than many other aspects of marketing.  One of the most important aspects of advertising is repetition—creating the perfect message, and then getting that one message out to the world over and over again, often running the same exact advertisement in numerous magazines and on many different web sites over a period of months or longer.

In stark contrast to advertising, the party line has always been that the rest of your content needs to be new.  It needs to be different.  Oh, buried deep in each unique story, you’re reinforcing common messages and themes in subtle ways.  But the content itself needs to be fresh.  Every time.

Why is that?  The point of killer content is that you’re telling your story the absolutely best way you possibly can at a given point in time—that’s what killer content is all about.  So if you’ve invested your resources in refining your story to the point of perfection, why would you want to change it?  You wouldn’t dream of running a unique advertisement in every issue of every magazine you’re advertising in, would you?  So why do you insist on doing that with the rest of your content?

Content Rendering is the process of converting your killer marketing content into other useful, value-added materials.  This includes both derivation—the process of taking big blocks of content and parsing them out into many smaller pieces—and consolidation—the process of taking the little things you do and turning them into something bigger (see “So, You Want to Write an e-Book?”).  Content Rendering can be carried out on an organizational, departmental, or individual scale.

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Unlike many other publications, Render Magazine seems to have survived the web revolution just fine.  There’s always money in efficiency—even more so during tough economic times—and that’s what rendering is all about.  For your marketing organization, this is where the big opportunities lie.  Because if your killer content gets published in one place and then languishes for eternity on your hard drive, it’s just one big waste of valuable resources.

Finding Soul

I remember that day like it was yesterday, although it was more than a dozen years ago.  It was a late summer/early fall afternoon in 2001, shortly before the 9/11 attacks on the US.  Reed and his friend met me at a new clump of boulders in Snow Valley Central that I had been developing for a few months.

Developing?  Actually, it was more like scouting.  Addicted to the climbing lifestyle, yet finding the actual act of climbing to be too utterly painful to execute any longer, I would tell people that I was “going climbing”–but what I was actually doing was mostly just exploring uncharted territory, finding new boulders in the forest, mapping their location, drawing their shapes, assigning names to them, taking extensive notes on the potential routes on each face of the boulders, and then going home.  Rarely did I attempt to climb any of these new discoveries.  No matter how tempting it was to deflower the virgin rock, it was just too god damned painful any more.

Reed Bartlett at Snow Valley, 1997.

Reed Bartlett at Snow Valley, 1997.

That day with Reed and his friend, I made a valiant effort to show them that I was still a climber.  After all, this was “my” rock; I had “discovered” it and was now playing tour guide, and so had an obligation to try to keep up with the two of them.  But all that effort was in vain.  I would mount the boulder, make just two or three moves, and the tendons in my middle and ring fingers would catch fire.  I would jump off the rock and sit down, both hands involuntarily locked in clenched fists, wincing from the pain, massaging the tendons for five or ten minutes as the burning slowly subsided, watching my friends having a great time bouldering.  When the pain was almost gone, I would jump back on the rock, only to repeat the same sequence of events over again.  And again.  And again.

After a couple hours of this excruciatingly painful ritual, in a blinding flash of brilliance I made a decision that was even more excruciatingly painful, and yet incredibly liberating at the same time:

I would never climb again.

—–

That night, I tossed and turned, trying with great futility to fall asleep and make that agonizing day end.  I was completely comfortable with my decision to retire from climbing, yet deathly worried, because I knew what was going to happen: it was inevitable that I would have vivid dreams, nay, horrible nightmares, about climbing.  For the rest of my life, I would was going to awaken with a start in the wee hours of the morning, in a cold sweat, having replayed for the umpteenth time the moves of some obscure (yet classic to me) boulder problem in a dream, only to realize that it was not to be, that I was forever vanquished from the climbing way of life.  Yes, that’s the way the rest of my life was going to unfold.  And that thought terrified me.

But a funny thing happened.  Eventually, I fell asleep, and I slept like a baby.

And I never had a dream–or nightmare–about climbing.

Ever.

—–

After a glorious four days of backpacking along the John Muir Trail through Yosemite National Park, Geoff, Greg, Mike, and I drove out and found a campsite just east of the park’s Tioga Pass entrance.  While it was still light, we raced down to the sleepy little town of Lee Vining to grab some dinner and some firewood, and then raced back to our campsite to get everything set up before we retired to an evening of telling stories around the campfire, drinking wine, and, eventually, sleep.

It had been seven or eight years since my retirement from climbing, and I had few regrets; there so many good memories of the rocks I had climbed and the people I had climbed them with, but I had moved on and spent my outdoors time pursuing other activities.  It didn’t seem to matter what I was doing; all that really mattered was that I was doing it outside.

To the west of our campsite, up Lee Vining Canyon towards Tioga Pass, clouds were rolling in.  It looked like we had finished our trip just in time; a good, hard rain was almost certainly coming.  The sun was sinking low, and would tuck itself to rest behind the Sierra crest soon enough.  But suddenly, we experienced one of those magical moments where the sun, the clouds, and the mountains align themselves perfectly.  Brilliant shafts of light, seemingly hundreds of miles long, reached out from the sun towards the heavens, and we all ran for our cameras.

I tried to frame the perfect photo, but there was a large boulder in the foreground blocking the view.  So without even thinking, I ran towards the boulder and started climbing it.

HPIM0442.JPG

It looked so much better in person…sunset from our campsite in Lee Vining Canyon, 2008.

It wasn’t a spectacular boulder.  And the route I chose up it wasn’t at all hard.  A middle-aged fat guy driving an RV probably could have scaled it with relative ease and taken the same photo as me.  But I didn’t climb it like a middle-aged fat guy driving an RV.  I climbed it like a rock climber.

The movement…the flow…it all came back, like riding a bike.  So easy; so good.  Standing on top of the boulder, I quickly took my inadequate photo as the rays of light faded away, and then suddenly realized that the rush of joy I was feeling was not because of the glorious, almost religious sunset unfolding before my eyes.  In a gigantic rush of emotions–one magical moment–it all came back.  I had just climbed again.

—–

In the late 1990s, when I was starting to have problems climbing, I had a couple of conversations with the legend himself, John “Verm” Sherman about injuries, pain, and aging as they related to climbing–and specifically, bouldering.  I was struggling with the physical pain, but even more so was struggling with the mental anguish.  What he told me went something like this.

“It’s kind of like surfing,” he said.  “In surfing, they have this concept of ‘soul surfing.’  I think there’s a certain aspect of bouldering that’s almost like that.  Kind of like ‘soul bouldering’.”

According to Wikipedia, “’Soul Surfer’ is a term coined in the 1960s, used to describe a surfer who surfs for the sheer pleasure of surfing.  The term denotes a spirituality of surfing.”

—–

After quitting years earlier, I had sold, given away, or thrown out nearly every bit of climbing equipment–even the climbing gym in my garage.  So I started to buy replacement gear.  Shoes, a new chalk bag, and a new crash pad.  And eventually, I built a new gym in my garage–this one much better than the first one.  I climbed in my garage; went to many of my old haunts–Deep Creek Narrows, Snow Valley, Joshua Tree National Park–and climbed on real rock; and took my kids to a commercial climbing gym.

Climbing in my garage, 2011.

Climbing in my garage, 2011.

Although I was climbing again, this time it was different.  Gone were the lists of routes climbed, and the other lists of routes yet to be climbed.  Gone was the competitive streak that forced me, in the presence of other climbers, to stress and eventually break my weak body.  And gone was the need to advance, to climb ever harder each time I lifted my body off the ground and launched it up onto the vertical.

All of those lists and projects and accomplishments were replaced by a focus on the simplicity and purity of the movement itself, and the sheer beauty of the experience.

The question “how hard did I climb today?” was replaced by a modest statement: “I climbed today.”

I was back on the rock, but I was no longer bouldering.  I was ‘soul bouldering.’

Turns out that’s what it was supposed to be about all along…

Learning from Amazon.com Reviews

aloAfter publication of the first edition of my book A Life Outside in 2007, one minor but fairly consistent criticism I received about the book was the use of “rock climbing jargon without explanation.”  To address this issue, I went through the entire book and attempted to identify all of the climbing and other outdoor-related jargon used in the book, and then wrote a simple, practical introduction to the second edition (2012) explaining what these words meant. It was actually quite a painful experience, but in the end I was pretty happy with the results.  The introduction also came in handy when it was time to release A Life Outside 2, which contained a lot of the same “jargon.”

If you’re interested, pasted below is my introduction to rock climbing, bouldering, mountaineering, kayaking, and mountain biking terminology.  It’s not meant to be comprehensive, and focuses mostly on terms I used in A Life Outside and
A Life Outside 2.

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A kayak is a small boat, often only big enough for one person but occasionally built to hold two or three people.  Essential gear includes the kayak itself, a paddle, and a personal floatation device or life jacket.  A spray skirt is a cover sometimes used to protect from water getting in to the kayak in the space between the kayaker and the opening in the boat in which he or she sits.  A put-in is the place where you put your kayak into the water.  If you are paddling somewhere and need to take your kayak out of the water and carry it past an obstacle, this is known as a portage.  A kayak is different from a canoe in that kayakers sit closer to the bottom of their boats and use paddles with two blades instead of just one.

Mountain biking involves riding special bikes off of paved roads and on rough and rocky terrain.  Mountain bikes include special tires and other features so that the rider may better handle the rugged conditions they are exposed to.  In addition to riding them on dirt roads, mountain bikers often take these special bikes on singletrack, a term that typically describes a dirt trail about the same width as the bike itself. A fire road, also sometimes referred to as doubletrack, is wider and suitable for use by off-road vehicles and is a frequent destination for mountain bikers.

Mountaineering might be most simply described as a mixture between hiking and rock climbing: it typically involves hiking up steeper trails, or even where there is no trail at all, and often to the summit of a mountain.  Depending on the challenge, mountaineering can also include technical rock climbing techniques, and it is an activity that is sometimes pursued during inclement weather.  A special mountaineering ice axe is helpful in cases of self-arrest, where the mountaineer may be tumbling wildly down a steep snow or ice-covered route and needs to apply very specific techniques in order to stop the fall.  The difficulty of a mountaineering route is described by the Class system, with ratings ranging from Class 1 (easiest) to Class 5 (most difficult and technical).

Rock climbing is technical Class 5 climbing requiring the use of protective gear.  The gear includes a rope; a harness that wraps around your waist and legs and attaches you to the rope; and caribiners, which are used to connect ropes, harnesses, and other gear together.  As a climber ascends a roped climb, he or she is put on belay, a technique where another person controls the intake, outtake, and tension of the rope using a small piece of gear known as a belay device or stitch plate.  Belaying is used in both toproping, where the rope is pre-set above the climber, and in lead climbing, where the climber places gear and moves the rope upwards while climbing, and which is more challenging and technically complicated than toproping.  Special shoes with soles made of extra-sticky rubber are worn by climbers in order to gain as much purchase on the rock as possible.  A route is an agreed-upon pathway up the rock, and routes are often named and have difficulty ratings attached to them.  The difficulty of “Class 5” rock climbs is further refined by Yosemite Decimal System ratings such as 5.6, 5.8, 5.10, and 5.11b (the higher the number, the more difficult the route).  A pitch is the section of a route equivalent to what can be safely climbed using a single length of rope; routes longer than this require stopping to re-set gear, and are known as multi-pitch and are very common in mountaineering.

Rock climbing on smaller, shorter routes without the use of ropes for protection is called bouldering, and the routes are commonly referred to as problems.  The only form of protection typically employed in bouldering is a crash pad or bouldering pad, which is composed of multiple layers of special foam design to absorb most if not all of the impact of a fall.  A boulderer may also employ a spotter—a person standing behind or underneath the boulderer who will use their hands and attempt to steer the body of the boulderer clear of serious danger in the case of a fall.  The Yosemite Decimal System and other ratings systems are sometimes used to describe the difficulty of boulder problems, but the system most widely used for this application is the V system invented by noted boulderer John “Vermin” Sherman—for example, boulder problems may carry difficulty ratings such as V1, V3, or V6 (the higher the number, the more difficult the problem).

Rock climbing, bouldering, and mountaineering can share many terms.  Gymnastic chalk is often used to remove moisture from the hands and get a better grip on the rock.  Often similar descriptors are used to describe qualities of the rock itself, such as slab (a rock face of less than 90 degrees), vertical (a rock face close to or exactly 90 degrees), overhanging (a rock face of more than 90 degrees), and roof (so steep that as you climb your back might be parallel to the ground).  An arête is a narrow ridge of bare rock which sticks out prominently, while a buttress may refer to a wider but still prominent protrusion.  The crux is the hardest part of a route or problem.  Climbers often take advantages of weaknesses in the rock, such as a crack; different techniques are used depending on the width of the crack, such as a finger crack or a fist crack.

Different Every Day

A thin layer of smoke from the summer fires hangs heavy over the city, but it doesn’t bother me too much.  I’m up above, looking down on it from the foothills.

Behind my back, the sun was starting to rise over the San Bernardino mountain range, casting a haunting orange glow on the San Gabriel mountain range to the west.  I usually don’t stop to take a lot of photographs on my morning mountain bike rides, but this morning I was in no particular hurry to get up to my turnaround point.  Besides, I was tired of carrying my camera every morning and never really using it.  It was always with me, just in case I ran across something rare and awesome on the trail, like a mountain or a bear.  But I almost always arrived home after the ride with an empty memory card.

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After taking a few photos of the beautiful scene in front of me and failing to adequately capture the magic digitally because of the tricky early morning light, I stowed the camera and continued working my way up the trail.  I could see the footprints of two people who had beat me up the trail this morning, and who I would probably overtake in about half a mile.  There were no other fresh tracks on the trail, just a jumble of mountain bike tire marks from the last few days, and the thick tracks laid down from the guy on the ATV who uses this trail illegally every day or two to haul water up to his pot farm that he thinks we don’t know about.

It’s a cool 66 degrees or so at 5:30 in the morning, a refreshing respite from the 100 degree plus temperatures we are experiencing this brutal July.  Before long, the steep climbing is over.  I switch gears, pick up the pace a little, and begin the short descent down across Potato Flats.  As I pass the spur trail through the mound of poison oak that leads off to the clandestine pot farm, I can see the two hikers, a man and a woman, ahead of me.  They are just passing my turnaround point, and will be far enough ahead of me by the time that I reach my turnaround that they’ll probably never even know I was behind them.

After a brief climb, I arrive at an old USGS gauging station which used to measure the water flow through a flume that pulled water out of Plunge Creek and redirected it down to the once-pervasive orange groves that were the glory of Southern California’s East Highlands Ranch.  Alas, most of the orange trees have been gone for a dozen or more years now, and there is no water flow left to gauge, so the odd-looking metal contraption serves no purpose other than as a convenient place to stop for a rest or turn around.  Isn’t it funny how, out in the wild, the one place that humans tend to gravitate towards is the one structure they see?  It’s a sad commentary, but maybe modern man just finds a little bit of comfort in being close to a man-made contraption out in the middle of nowhere.

I take a sip water, then take another photo or two of my surroundings.  I have lots of photos from this spot–because it’s a place I almost always stop, so taking a photo here does not interrupt my pace–yet I never hesitate to take more photos from here.  The vegetation, the lighting, the clouds, the color…every day, it’s just a little bit different from the last time.

I prepare for the descent home by shifting gears, dropping the seat, and adjusting my front shock.  I’m old enough to not be worried about racing down the steep, rutted trail in an attempt to set a new personal record.  Oh, I could probably do it.  But my reaction time isn’t what it used to be, and my bones are brittle.  It would be a bargain with the devil.  So now, each year, each ride, I try to be a little more careful than the last time, take it a little slower and more safer, and just enjoy the ride.

Another sip of water, and I mount my steed.  Gravity quickly takes over, pulling me down the mountain at an ever-increasing speed.  The pedals that I relied on so much on the way up now just hang there, practically useless, their only function being to act as a convenient place to place my feet.  The brakes, which on the way up were feeling so sad and neglected, finally get their 15 minutes, working double time to keep me from careening out of control and going off the side of the trail.

—–

About half a mile down from the Gauging Station, I stop to take another picture of the morning sun illuminating the San Gabriel Mountains.  From a different angle, with the trail in the foreground below the mountains, it looked like a magical composition in my mind, yet the photos didn’t even come close to capturing the magic of the moment.  But if you think about it, they never really do.  The purpose of the photograph is little more than to rekindle the memory; years from now, when I’m too old and decrepit to scale any more mountains, I won’t be staring at these photos and mumbling to myself “What a beautiful photograph!”  No, I’ll glance at them just long enough to reignite the neurons that burned in my brain that morning, and then close my eyes, letting the movie play in my head and reliving the glory of that magical morning ride.

I was only on my bike for another 30 seconds or so when I came around a tight turn, right where my friend Geoff had walked up on a resting mountain lion about two years ago, and an animal ran across the trail about 20 feet in front of me and went behind a small bush then over the steep side to the right.

It wasn’t Geoff’s mountain lion; it was too small, much too close to the ground, and the coloring was wrong.  And it wasn’t a bobcat, because it had a much more substantial tail than a bobcat.  It might be a coyote, but again the coloring was off…and it didn’t move like a coyote.  It moved like a cat.

It never even occurred to me to stop and look at the tracks this mysterious animal left.  I’m always looking at tracks on the way up the mountain.  Going slow, breathing heavy, staring mostly at the ground in front of me, my mind trying to keep itself occupied to forget about the pain of the uphill grind–it’s a good time to try to identify marks in the dirt.  Shoes and tires, domestic dog, and a variety of wildlife leave their temporary imprints on this trail.  I’ve seen coyote, bobcat, deer, raccoon, mountain lion, bear, and other tracks on the way up.  But on the way down, I’m focused 110% on staying safe and keeping on the bike, and never even think about tracks.

Probably the other reason I didn’t think about looking at the tracks left behind by this shadowy animal was that tracks are how you identify that an animal was there after the animal is gone.  In this case, the animal wasn’t gone–it was right in front of me.  Or had been until a few seconds ago.

I raced a few yards down the trail to where the creature had crossed, turned off the trail and onto the berm, and pressed my brakes firmly, stopping right on the lip of a precipitous, near-vertical 75 foot drop down into a small drainage.  And there, a few dozen feet up the opposite side of the drainage, holding a freshly killed rabbit in its jaws, was my animal.

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It stood with its tail towards me, as if it was ready to beat a hasty retreat, but its head was turned towards me and it just stood there.  It seemed to be as curious about me as I was about it.

Not breaking my stare, I pulled out my camera and zoomed in as far as possible, firing off a couple of quick shots.  This standoff lasted close to a minute, then it suddenly turned and bounded off across the slope, disappearing in the bushes a few seconds later.

The animal that commonly kills rabbits in this area is the coyote, but this wasn’t a coyote.  It was smaller, or at least its legs were shorter, and it was closer to the ground; the tail looked larger, and more bushy.  And when it ran, it held its big bushy tail out and used it for balance, as a fox or almost any type of wild cat (with the exception of the bobcat) does.  My initial assessment was that it was either a fox, or a ringtail cat.  I knew there were ringtail cats up in these mountains, and had identified their tracks once, but I had never seen the actual animal.  And I had never heard of foxes inhabiting this area.

When I got home, I looked at the two grainy photos on my computer screen and then brought up some photos of ringtail cats from the Internet.  The ringtail cat is a member of the raccoon family, and looks an awful lot like the genets I had seen so many of a few months earlier on my adventure in Botswana.  The most striking feature of the ringtail is obviously the black and white “rings” on its tail.  In my photo, I thought I could make out some faint rings, or maybe it was just my imagination.  With my cheap camera, the low light situation, and the zoom set at maximum, I was 90% certain it was a ringtail cat.  Then my friend Mike correctly identified the animal as a gray fox.

——

The truth is, part of me didn’t ever really want to know what species that animal was.  It’s part of the mystery of being out in the wild.  And who knows, maybe I’ll see my little friend again soon.  And maybe this time I’ll get a better picture.

I’ve ridden this trail hundreds of times, and hiked it hundreds more.  You would think all this repetition would get boring.  But it never does.  There’s something new to see, to touch, to feel, to smell, to experience every day.  Every day is a little bit different.  Just different enough to keep it exciting.

So, You Want to Write an e-Book?

Purpose

Why do you want to write an e-book?  Do you have a compelling story you want to communicate to a broad audience?  Do you want to inspire others to action?  Are you trying to sell something?  Are you trying to reinforce a brand (corporate or product)?  Are you trying to be recognized as a thought leader?

It may be OK if you want your e-book to serve multiple purposes and audiences, but avoid answering this question with “All of the above, and much more!”

Title

Some people say you shouldn’t worry about the title early on in the process (because it will probably change anyway), but I like to start by thinking about the title of the book almost immediately.  A working title helps you to visualize the project and makes the abstract “e-book that exists only in my mind” a little more real.  If you can come up with a brief, descriptive, compelling title that focuses on what you think is important and then you write to that title, you tell a consistent story that reinforces the theme and drives the content.

If you can keep the title to 2-3 words that draw people in, then you can elaborate with a wordy subtitle and not lose people. And as your thinking evolves through the writing process, the title and subtitle can evolve as well.

Book? Take a Step Back…

A lot of people say “I want to write an e-book about…”  The first thing I like to ask is, what are you trying to communicate?  An e-book may or may not be the best way to do it.  Maybe you would get more mileage out of your story if you published it as a series of blog posts or magazine articles, you created a series of web pages, or you made a video.  More likely, it’s a combination of various media, which leads to…

Content Marketing

When you write an e-book, you are generating a huge block of content that supports a theme or message.  Writing an e-book may seem like an overwhelming task, but in fact the e-book itself is a small piece of the entire content puzzle. Think bigger than “just” an e-book.  By thinking bigger, you’ll actually make the project more manageable.  Let me explain.

Everything you do can and should serve multiple purposes.  To get the most out of your effort, you need to think in terms of “feathers” and “bricks”, and embrace the concepts of consolidation and derivation.

content marketing

“Feathers” are things you do which have a low investment of resources and result in a relatively low return.  “Bricks” require much more effort, and potentially have a much bigger impact as well.

Consolidation is the process of taking all the little things you do and turning them into something bigger—making a “brick” out of “feathers” and moving up the return on investment ladder.  Derivation is the process of taking your big block of content and parsing it out into many smaller pieces—making “feathers” out of your “brick”.

“Bricks” tell the complete story in detail.  “Feathers” tell pieces of the story or support the overall story.  Everything taken together tells a compelling, consistent story which supports your overall message and communicates to a wide audience using a variety of media.

Outline

Thinking about “feathers” versus “bricks” and consolidation versus derivation will help you drive the outline of your e-book.  You can write the outline, then look at each area of the outline and try to identify pieces (articles, blog posts, etc.) you’ve already written about the case that could be re-purposed as parts of your e-book.  Or could start by taking an inventory of everything you’ve already written about the subject, identify missing pieces that still need to be written, and then assemble those into the outline.

When you identify pieces of the story that still need to be written, break them down into components and think of them like this:

  • 3 blog posts can be assembled into one article
  • 3 articles can be assembled into one e-book

The math (3 X 3) and the media (blog posts –> articles –> e-book) in this example may not be exactly right for your project, but if you approach it this way and get a solid outline and logically break down your story into component pieces, then in my hypothetical example all you have to do is write a combination of 3 articles / 9 blog posts, and then you’ve got all the content for a short e-book.

Not too many people think they have the requisite skills to write an entire e-book.  But most of those people can probably write 9 blog posts.  Follow this simple formula, and your 9 blogs posts–if carefully thought out and planned–equal one  e-book.  Not to mention you get the bonus exposure of 3 articles and 9 blog posts published before your e-book is done!  Now that’s what I call content marketing!

New Book Series: Confessions of a Weekend Warrior

Over the years, I’ve written a lot of stories about outdoor adventures–from rock climbing to mountain biking, from kayaking to mountaineering, and more–that have appeared in a number of different publications.  Many of these have been collected and published in my A Life Outside series of books.  And that’s fine.  But apparently, some people don’t like the “mix” of different types of adventures.

513pnAMhQCL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_While in Botswana earlier this year, I had the idea to create a new series of books, each of them focused on a different activity or theme.  These collections would be shorter than the average book, but perhaps those people who are not schizophrenic like me, but who like their readings to be 100% focused on their particular outdoor drug of choice, would find them more palatable.

I worked up the outlines for several of these collections while in Botswana, and a couple months later while in Reno on another vacation, the title for the series came to me in a flash of brilliance: “Confessions of a Weekend Warrior.”

51UortQKpSL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_I’m happy to report that after much work, seven–yes seven!–books in this series have already been published!  All are now available on Amazon.com as both paperback books and Kindle e-books (although I would hope that you purchase the Kindle e-books as they are much cheaper and the length of the content is much more appropriate for the e-book format than the paperback format).  All seven are also now available as e-books from the Barnes and Noble NOOK, and the iPad versions are slowly coming on line in the Apple iTunes store.

These e-books are a great introduction to my outdoor adventure writing, and the best part is that they are easily digestible (coming in at between just 12,000 and 19,000 words each) and cheap (only US$ 0.99 each)!

41AZVQ9wF6L._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_In just the last 10 days or so, a lot more copies of these have been purchased off of Amazon.com than I ever expected.  If you’ve read one or more of these, please let me know what you think.  And I’m already working on more titles in the series…

Confessions of a Weekend Warrior

The complete set–collect all seven!

Confessions of a Weekend Warrior: