January 20, 2014

The adventure begins: Laguna de Apoyo


“HOLY CRAP this place is crazy! Lots of guys have guns. Most houses are made of aluminum sheets. The nice houses have tall walls around them with barred windows, and razor wire, electric fence, spikes, or broken glass on top. Our hotel has an armed guard outside. Get me out of here!” 

This was my 14-year-old son Silas’ Facebook post the day we arrived in Nicaragua’s capital city of Managua. We’d been picked up at the airport by a wild-eyed scientist and proceeded to careen through chaotic city streets packed with panhandling children, oxen carts, and bicycles piled high with people (three per bike seems to be the required minimum). 

November 1, 2013

Going Big, redux: one family's from-the-hip plan to abandon their home, America, and school to hit the road in Central America.

Me in a backcountry ski cabin a day before The Realization. 


I’m not sure why I snapped. Maybe it was watching my kids get sucked into the stifling hierarchies and materialism of American youth culture. Or it was my itch to escape my increasingly insane home country and start traveling in earnest again after 14 years of raising my boys in a cocoon of domestic comfort. 

All I know is that I was sitting by a fire in a quiet mountain cabin reflecting on life and how best to live it when it hit me: I have to liberate my kids from their school desk-rows and escape this gun-crazy, smartphone-infested country for a while. 

I’ve had occasional moments of clarity like this my entire life. Every few years some scheme I’ve been contemplating suddenly crystallizes and — bing! — I realize I’ve got do it (See: One Family Goes Big). From that moment on there’s no question — it’s happening. 

The last time I had a similar epiphany I quit my job as an editor and took the family on a 6-week wilderness mountain bike ride from Glacier National Park to Banff, Alberta.

October 17, 2013

Swell on Wheels: Riding Utah's San Rafael Swell


I was pedaling alone through a deserted corner of Utah, the first stars punching through the dome of the evening sky, when I saw the lion. Or what looked like a lion. It was too shadowy and quick to say for sure, but I feathered my brake levers, which were secured to my handlebars with zip ties and duct tape, and futilely squinted into the dusk. Riding on, faster now, rock walls launched into the sky at my side, their crenelated faces blushing in the day’s last light. I wanted to look up the names of the more dramatic peaks, but I had no map. No matter, it was all achingly beautiful and my smile led the way as I continued on, pedaling hard, further and further into nowhere. 

To understand why I’m streaking down a remote dirt road through failing light into one of the more isolated deserts in America — out of water, without a map, lights, or overnight gear of any kind — you have to know the convoluted history of this star-crossed bike journey into Utah’s San Rafael Swell. 

October 16, 2013

New published work

Have had a bevy of stories published the last few months. Here's a look at a few of them. 

This feature on lookout towers in Montana ran in the July/August issue of Sierra magazine. You can read it here.

The Clymb launched a magazine-style feature section with a great layout style inspired by this piece on Pitchfork, which is the best feature format on the Web at the moment and clearly the reading experience of the future. They used it to nice effect on my story about going back to Vietnam with my veteran father for his first visit since the war that changed his life forever. You can read it here. 


March 26, 2013

The Lucky Ones

I was lucky enough to spend a week in the glorious boonies recently after nearly a month of nose-to-grindstone writing. First I took my wife and two boys into our family cabin for a couple days of off-the-grid skiing, animal tracking, and snow-fort making. 

January 24, 2013

Award season: Travel Journalist of the Year. Sort of.




It’s been a good year for writing and photography awards, which means I have some new certificates and plaques to figure out what to do with. The biggest plaque came from the Society of American Travel Writer’s Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards (three times fast!), the most prestigious in the industry. The SATW were kind enough to give me a bronze award for their 2012 Grand Award — Travel Journalist of the Year. Gray-haired people seem to appreciate this one the most, since they actually know who Lowell Thomas was (in short: the man). Though I submitted skiing, paddling, and non-sporty stories as part of my year’s work, the judges seemed to most appreciate my off-the-beaten path cycling adventures. Here’s what they had to say:


January 19, 2013

Goodbye Mom


My mother, Karen Van Auken, died recently. It was sudden and unexpected and terribly sad. My mom was a sweet, gentle person, a lover of nature who found her greatest solace in the forests of her home state of Minnesota and the mountains of Montana, my adopted home. My mom’s father was from Whitefish and his greatest material gift to our family is the cabin we all share on the border of Glacier Park. Just like me, my mom loved it there more than anywhere else. 






Mom always used to take me for walks in the woods as a kid in state parks and the old family farm back in Minnesota. They were never very exciting, we just walked quietly. I can’t say they were my favorite thing as a child, but now looking back I’m so grateful to my mother for those walks. They showed me that the natural world is often the best place, that it can heal our wounds and enrich our lives if we just go there quietly with our hearts open. 

November 1, 2012

Finding Kishenehn



November’s wan light drained from the sky as I walked alone into a forgotten corner of Glacier National Park. As night grew from the shadows, noises in the forest grew louder. My head jerked at the sound of a branch brushing my pants. A foot of fresh snow obscured the tracks of an oversized carnivore on the trail that led me into dark timber. Everywhere was blackness, the world reduced to my headlamp’s bobbing orb of light. It seemed inevitable it would suddenly be filled by some variety of toothy creature.

I checked the pepper spray canister in my pack’s side pocket. Then I remembered the propellant in pepper spray doesn't work in temperatures below freezing. It was 20 degrees.

"Well, this is exciting," I thought to myself.

July 11, 2012

Standup Paddleboarding the Great Bear Rainforest




"Whoah! What was that?" Derek Nixon yells, as the telltale pfffft of air blasting from nostrils sounds from somewhere disconcertingly close to us. The rest of our group has stroked ahead to the sheltered waters of a nearby cove, leaving Nixon and me behind on our standup paddleboards, alone on open ocean. We turn toward the noise and see a large brown whiskered head sticking up from the water's surface, maybe 50 feet away. Another pops up beside it.

Steller sea lions. Big ones.

The pair size us up through inscrutable black eyes for a moment before sinking back into the sea.

We pull our paddles from the water and wait for the heads to reappear. Our 14-foot-long boards suddenly seem very small—the only thing between us and the 1,000-foot-deep ocean and the creatures that live in it. The surface is still. The windless air smells of wrack and saltwater. In the distance, a raven cackles; it could be laughing at us, or maybe just warning us to stay away from sea mammals with large brown whiskered heads.

It's the second day of our paddleboard journey into the Great Bear Rainforest, a place that lends itself to magical thinking, and already I'm starting to get the sense that the animals are trying to tell us things.

December 17, 2011

Ski mountaineering camp, or how I learned to dance with mountain goats


Nothing about a winter at the local ski hill has prepared me for the gut-twisting prospect of launching into thin air off a ridge in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains. "Ridge" doesn't even do it justice—it's more like the cutting edge of a granite ax. As we nervously remove gear from our packs, Clark Corey, our guide, nods at the exposed face plummeting away behind us and says, "Don't drop anything down there or it's going 3,000 feet." Anxiety drowns our chuckles. Skiing that face would actually be the easy way down. Instead, I've climbed here with four other skiers and snowboarders to descend a couloir called Resurrection, a snow gully that plunges like an elevator shaft between rock cliffs. Couloirs are prized by ski mountaineers, and until three days ago I'd never skied one. In fact, this thin sliver of snow is worlds steeper than anything I've ever skied before, and falling here would mean a long and violent tumble. Which, it turns out, is precisely where I'm headed.