March links: Our nomad year, report from Bozeman, war in Ukraine
Good morning from La Verkin, Utah. We chose this town for our stay this month because it's strategically-located near many of southern Utah's famous red rock playgrounds, like Zion National Park. But what kind of name is La Verkin, you ask? The city website's section on the origin of its appellation is a paragraph of half-assed speculation: "There are several theories. One is that it was derived from the Spanish for The Virgin...LaVirgin. But there doesn't appear to be any Spanish influence in the area." Seems that no one actually knows for sure.
Like many rural Utah towns, which seem to attract preppers and edgy folk, it's got a few weird bits of history lurking below the surface. La Verkin was at one point the residence of neo-Nazi Johnny Bangerter (related to Utah governor Norman Bangerter, who has a highway named after him) and his "Army of Israel," whose outlook on the world, best I can tell, was a slimy blend of white supremacy and Mormon scripture. In the 1990s, they declared Zion National Park to be a future whites-only promised land.
Also, in the 1980s, La Verkin was supposed to be the site of Terrene Ark 1, a ritzy nuclear bunker/condo development. Unfortunately, it was never built.
Anyhow, southern Utah is a very welcome relief from the colder, snowier climes of Montana, where we spent our March. More on that below.
On December 23, 2021, on our way up Big Cottonwood Canyon, we got stuck in holiday ski traffic. Our intended target was Brighton Resort, but we set out too late and we became enclosed in the stop-and-go convoy of fellow late-rising goobers. Fiona and I were caffeinated and began musing about the longer-term trajectory of our lives. We lived in San Francisco and yet we were on our second month in Utah, working remotely and staying with my family. The longer we stayed and skied, the more our apartment in Noe Valley looked like an outrageously expensive storage unit.
"What if we just did this, but, like, other cities for all of next year?" Fiona wondered out loud. Everything about that idea suddenly clicked.
We'd batted this concept around before, like in 2020 when lots of other people were heading out on the road, but we weren't ready at that point. For most of the pandemic, we felt constantly under threat that our jobs would issue a "return to office" mandate and we'd once again find ourselves on the ol' Bay Area commute. But it didn't happen. And then it still hadn't happened nearly two years later. We learned to love working from home. Fiona transitioned to remote status to obviate any decree that she be in some office building by some time, and my company has always been friendly to distributed workers. Now was the time.
Two days after our conversation, I gave our landlord notice. We bought a car in early January, and we were on the road by the 20th.
The plan is roughly this: Do a giant loop around America for maybe 1-2 years and come back to the Bay Area for more stationary living. Allow for the possibility that we will fall madly in love with some other part of the country, or that we want to live nomadically for even longer.
So, there's no set end to our travel schedule, but this is what we've worked out so far:
A chilly stay in Bozeman, Montana (our first stop)
You get the sense that the town is on the precipice of a big change. Maybe it's the blocks of pre-fabricated condo buildings popping up around the town in between the recently-$2 million Victorian-era houses. Or the fancy new San Francisco-style cocktail bars on Main near Schnee's, the storied old hunting store. Marijuana dispensaries now ply their trade in converted homes with neon green crosses in the windows. Our new-fangled apartment building looked down onto two classic dive bars (Hofbrau and The Molly Brown) that still charge $4 for a pint of something hazy.
A few conversations with bartenders or other passersby revealed that many denizens were transplants or fellow travelers. With remote work becoming so commonplace, you start to wonder whether we're becoming a country full of cities no one's actually from.
There are real Bozemanians to be sure. You see them at Western Cafe. They're wearing work boots and cowboy hats, pants dirty from dealing with livestock out in the farms surrounding town. But even among this crowd, evidence of the inexorable march of internet culture: Pit Vipers. More than a few of the farm boys sport them with mullets to match.
We were clearly in Bozeman at the wrong time of year, though, multiple people said so. Truth be told, I think Fiona and I just wanted to go somewhere we hadn't been; someplace surrounded by wilderness. We weren't thinking too much about weather. For anyone who asked, skiing at Big Sky was our justification for being there in the middle of the Montana winter, with its harrowing chill. But the snow coverages were surprisingly crummy and yielded ice-sheet-laden runs, studded with rocks. Also pretty crowded. My guess is that the line for the Swift Current chair had to be the densest population per square mile anywhere in the state. We made the drive to Big Sky merely twice during our whole stay.
The Bozeman summer, we are told, is lovely. The rivers are full of fish, the mountain snow melts away, opening them once more to recreators. Anglers and hunters come flocking. The town comes out of its hibernation. But while we were there, it was freezing and the sky consistently overcast. I started to feel an onset of mild seasonal sadness. One evening we clambered into the car to go someplace for dinner and the temperature gauge read -8F. Bozemanians also do not believe in plowing their roads after blizzards. It's a kind of Darwinian approach to traffic: Only the four-wheel drives survive.
There's very little to do around town in winter if you're not skiing or drinking. So, we attempted to go to the bowling ally, Bozeman Bowl, on a Saturday. After three paces into the building, a lady marched up to me and announced that I had to turn around and get out. Bewildered, I looked around the place, which was packed with people. I noticed that several old men were staring at me territorially. "It's league day, you can't be here," she repeated. I was irritated that she hadn't even let me get to the front desk. I walked out, shaking my head. Two and a half stars on Yelp says my experience was not unique.
We returned to Bozeman Bowl on a Tuesday night. I was excited. Being denied bowling before made me want it all the more. I'm not even that into it, normally. Once again, we parked and hurried inside out of the frigid air. The place was similarly packed and smelled like fries. This time, I got to the front desk, where I asked the guy whether we could grab a lane. The guy, who was distracted and spraying some chemical into brightly-colored bowling shoes, didn't even look up. "Nope," he said, "league night."
Despite the temps, I strapped on my Yaktrax (chains for running shoes) and ran around a lot of the town during our stay. One day, Fiona suggested we go for a hike after work near the local "College M" trail, which is perched atop a merciless incline on very south end of the Bridger Range. Since I'd recently come across this piece by Brendan Leonard about what I naively thought was the same College M trail, I declared to Fiona that I would also run it. I did, and it just about killed me. I was sore for the rest of the week and my lungs felt rough for days from the hyperventilating the cold air. Turns out that the College M referenced in that piece was the other "M" in Missoula. Still challenging, but not like its Bozeman counterpart, a 32% grade where you gain 800 feet over 0.46 miles.
We sampled essentially all of the breweries and restaurants in town during the remainder of our time in Bozeman. Recommended hit list if you find yourself in the area (as of April, 2022):
- Montana Ale Works
- Western Cafe (greasy spoon breakfast joint; can't recommend enough)
- The Crystal Bar
- Plonk (wine bar)
- Blackbird (decent Italian)
- Hofbrau (dive bar)
- The Molly Brown (dive bar)
- The Cat's Paw (dive-y poker/pool hall)
Some of the best daily reporting about Ukraine I've found is coming out of The Telegraph's podcast, Ukraine: The Latest.
Another good piece on the war:
Good analysis of Russia's aggression:
This should have been in the January newsletter...oh well:
This should have been in the February newsletter...oh well:
A good series of ACX articles:
Linked from an ACX piece:
I read about Namche Bazaar in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and I've wanted to visit ever since: