Montana, like me, is prone to extremes. Endless sun-baked days in August yield to the endless gray and the early dark of December. Late fall, early winter I stumble a bit, and the wolf of depression makes a visit. We must remember to stay pragmatic, do what you know helps, don’t listen to your thoughts, for they are, thoughts. We too should revisit what Lincoln said nearly 160 years ago.
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! — how consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away”
Abraham Lincoln, Wisconsin State Agricultural Society Milwaukee, Wisconsin September 30, 1859
Life has a random, ironic and amusing way of playing out. For the past 16 years, my teaching career has primarily consisted of teaching seniors. These 17-18 years old spend senior year jumping headfirst into the hills and valleys of figuring out what happens after high school. Twenty-five years ago my college search was neither strategic or planned in fact I’m not sure if there was any point in my life where I was less dialed in then senior year of high school. I assumed I was going somewhere for college but really had no opinion about it. I’m pretty sure my parents grounded me one weekend in the fall of 1992 and made me apply to two colleges, Longwood and Radford. Longwood sent me the slim envelope of rejection and Radford accepted. My last semester of high school was focused on chasing girls and pretending I was cooler than shit. I have a vivid memory of being nervous as I waited in line to receive my actual diploma after the graduation ceremony knowing I might have to make up a class in summer school. I graduated.
My parents, in their wisdom thought that letting me go to college in the fall would be a fast track to failing out (a very safe assumption). They decided it would be best I defer going to Radford in the fall and instead attend community college and go to Radford in the spring. I was unmotivated, clueless and lazy.
A quarter century later my experience plays out in the back of my mind as I proofread a Stanford admission essay written by a senior student who wants to turn it in two months before it is due. But maybe I speak with the extra air of authority when I tell students to be on top of the process; knowing how poorly it can be done if you don’t have your ass in gear.
Of course, now I can look back and say that destiny was at play. My “gap” semester led to experiences that challenged and developed me. I’m often reminded of the Jon Kabat-Zinn book on mindfulness, “Wherever you go, there you are” when I’m talking to students who are in the midst of a mental breakdown regarding their futures. “It’s all going to work out” I want to tell them and somehow convince them that it will. Not to say that some will make terrible, even fatal mistakes but it will all work out, it always does. How did it work out for me? If I hadn’t been asleep at the wheel of life during my senior year of high school I probably wouldn’t have gone to Radford University.
If I had not gone to RU, I would not have been taught by Nick Pappas. Dr. Pappas was a football powerhouse at Shepherd University in the early 1960s. Though he was drafted to play professional football the New York Giants he instead enlisted into the Officer Training School for the United States Marine Corps. In 1965, the Vietnam War began in earnest and the Marines were off to DaNang. As recounted in Philip Caputo’s Vietnam classic A Rumor of War, Lieutenant Pappas was told by his commanding officer that there was a report that the North Vietnamese were laying mines around the airbase in DaNang and that Pappas should ascertain the validity of that report. I recall Pappas telling me that he left the briefing curious how he’d ascertain the validity.
After a lengthy recovery at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. The disabled Nick Pappas received a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Virginia. In the 1980s he became a tenured professor in the Political Science Department at Radford University in Radford, Virginia. In the spring of 1994, I signed up for Introduction to International Relations taught by Dr. Pappas. The I think the reading list was Plato’s Republic, maybe Eric Voegelin‘sScience, Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays.
Pappas usually wore the same thing, every day. A blue oxford shirt and blue work pants. In the winter he would hobble into class with a fur-lined bomber hat and he would announce his approach with loud bird calls from down the hallway or immediately outside the door. He took the time to figure out what his students did: if on a sports team there was usually talk about that upcoming or recently past contest and some discussion of the opposing team’s mascot. He learned that I grew up not far from the Quantico Marine Corps Base, where he had done his Officer Training. He would often describe a place on the base and ask if I knew if it was still there. His primary instrument of teaching was a handout known as a Raptorgrasp. Using quotes, thought bubbles and pictures he would draw the outline of his lecture, make connections and graphically plot out his thoughts. Every class I took from him followed the same basic format, he’d lecture and assign a writing prompt. We would write an essay in blue books for the following class. He would hand back the previous weeks marked up and the grade would always be assigned a Greek word. The Greek word for excellence, “Arete” was the highest score, they were rare.
Pappas was my teaching ideal, mysterious, irreverent, and inviting. Most of what he taught was unknown to the recent high school graduate. Or, perhaps Plato, Hagel, Marx, and Nietzsche were on the syllabus and I slept through them. He had a fantastic way of making our ignorance accessible. He’d say, “Don’t you remember Book VII of The Republic, Plato describes the Cave Allegory”? We didn’t, he knew we didn’t but rather that simple introduction allowed us to pretend we did and no time was lost. It was effective.
Many times I’d stop by to see him in his office. A turn of the century railroad house a block off campus, home of the Political Science Department. Even if you hoped to drop off a late paper, the creaky wooden doors and floors would betray your presence. Pappas would often either be asleep or deep in a book when you crossed the threshold into his office. More often than not he would have a chew in and he’d look up, his eyes would open super wide and he’d make the “one second/one minute” signal with his index finger as he swiveled around to spit out the chew into a white paper cup that he always had on his desk.
He was always willing to visit. And would suggest books to read, movies to watch, songs to listen to. He once gave my girlfriend at the time a Country Gentleman mixtape, he was obsessed with the song “Matterhorn” and would sing, “Men have tired and men have died to climb the Matterhorn” every time we walked into his office to see him. Like most good friend and teachers much of what he said to me has taken decades to sink in. He made me want to understand Thucydides and he showed me that an academic didn’t have to be some stuffed shirt. His influence made me the teacher I am today.
My wish for my students is that there is a Dr. Pappas out there for them. He changed my life in immeasurable ways. Life is short we are often told. I am strictly JV kids stuff when compared to this mountain of a man, but I like to think that a little of him rubbed off on me.
Dr. Pappas died aged 77 on September 5, 2017. I miss him terribly and wish I could thank him for all that he did for me, one more time.
I sometimes ask students if they had to give up one of their five senses, which one would they give up. Sight is not a common answer. I happen to think we underestimate how powerful hearing is and that we often tune out so much of what is beautiful. But if you walked out of Glacier High School tonight and saw the mountains you would have seen the alpenglow on the mountains and it would have taken your breath away.
The stoics said that we should constantly remind ourselves that everything can be taken from us without warning. Life, health, friends. reputation, career, everything is temporary. Here’s to taking every moment as they come, to living each day as if it truly is a gift. Every conversation engaged, every friendship sacred. Every alpenglow sunset special.
Sophomore year of college I saved up and bought a big Mountainsmith backpack. It has all the new fancy bells and whistles and from what I could tell, fit like a glove. Hundreds of miles through the Virginia and North Carolina sections of the Appalachian Trail that pack carried my gear. When I moved west it saw trips in Yellowstone and Glacier, the Elkhorns, the Snowies, the Absaorkas, up the Lima Peaks and down into the Missouri Breaks.
Last year that old trusted pack broke on a multiday trip into Glacier with C3. I tried to rig it back together but on a short trip into the Bob Marshall this past summer I sighed the sigh of resignation, knowing my beloved pack was not going to be on my next trip.
The other day a box showed up from REI. Smithers scored a sweet deal on a fancy-pants Osprey back. This past weekend I dropped my old Mountainsmith at the goodwill store. Goodbye old friend, many miles you caught my sweat, kept me warm and were with me as we discovered the most beautiful places on earth. Thank you.
It was the first day of 2018, January 1. A big snow had fallen two days before and we struggled to get up the North Fork Road to find a place to shoot skeet. It was already getting dark when we made our way south, back to Columbia Falls. As usually I was driving way too fast and just happened to see something on the east bank of the North Fork. As the ABS engaged we slid to a stop and quickly reversed. Turns out I didn’t need to rush, they were two Moose who had just crossed the river. In fact, at first we thought there was just one but then the other stepped out from behind the first. They were still for many minutes. I imagine they waited for the chill of the freezing water to fade away from their numb legs. Then, slowly they moved into Glacier National Park.
It started to snow this weekend though the backcountry has been covered for a few weeks. I can only imagine the slow hardship that winter is on animals. It’s a silent death, or a narrow survival.
It was on this day, the 29th of November, 1781 that the white crew of the slave ship Zong began murdering slaves by throwing them overboard. The crew hoped to claim the murdered slaves as part of an insurance policy that allowed slavers to make claims for cargo that was jettisoned in order to save other cargo. Due to faulty navigation, the Zong had sailed past their intended port in Jamaica and had run out of drinking water after the mistake had been identified. The plan for murder was made after the slavers feared the starved slaves would die a natural death.
On 29 November, the crew assembled to consider the proposal that some of the slaves should be thrown overboard. James Kelsall later claimed that he had disagreed with the plan at first but it was soon unanimously agreed. On 29 November, 54 women and children were thrown through cabin windows into the sea. On 1 December, 42 male slaves were thrown overboard, and 36 more followed in the next few days. Another ten, in a display of defiance at the inhumanity of the slavers, jumped into the sea. Having heard the shrieks of the victims as they were thrown into the water, one slave requested that the remaining Africans be denied all food and drink rather than be thrown into the sea. The crew ignored this request. In total, 142 Africans were killed by the time the ship reached Jamaica. The account of the King’s Bench trial reports that one slave managed to climb back onto the ship.[
The horror of the Atlantic slave trade inflicted on humanity should never be forgotten. Let us resolve to know this history. To honor this history and to ensure that it will not happen again.
894 days ago, on June 16, 2016, I woke up and decided that I was not going to drink alcohol anymore. Nearly 23 years before I had gotten drunk for the first time a few days after I graduated from high school. Over the course of those years I did lots of regrettable things under the influence of booze, nothing that led to criminal charges or deep remorse, but enough to increasingly wonder why I was drinking.
I never found a middle ground with booze. I would drink to get drunk, nearly every time. I loved how my world would narrow, how funny everything was, how funny I was. I would get loud, smile a lot, talk a lot. Yet, I would usually say something to somebody that was inappropriate and didn’t reflect well on me.
In the spring of 2016, everything was ripe for me to quit drinking. I was in the middle of a personal renaissance, had started to practice meditation and mindfulness and was visiting with a shrink. In my head I made a mental pro/cons list of using booze. The cons outnumbered and outweighed the pros. Booze took away, on average, a weekend a month from me. Nursing a hangover I would be a useless partner and lazy father. Booze kept me up too late and wrecked my sleep patterns. Booze was expensive and it in a state with little public transportation and brutal winters put me in the ethically ambiguous border of drunk driving far too many times.
I read once that booze was a great servant and a terrible master. That is certainly true. If you have the stops that allow you to use responsibly then who am I to judge? I had no stops and it was an issue so I stopped. I’m shocked by how easy it has been for me. When somebody asks if I want a drink my stock answers is, “I’m good”. Nobody cares that I don’t drink, nobody. I’ve been at concerts where everyone around me is drinking and drugging, no worries, no pressure. Maybe it’s time to ask yourself what if alcohol is still your servant. Maybe not. Either way, know that it can be done.
The first time I went into the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone was in the winter of 1998-99. Despite the reintroduction of wolves in 1994, there were still huge herds of elk in the river bottom. I remember thousands and thousands of This past week the only elk in the Lamar Valley was a pile of dirty hide and red meat. The shapeless carcass was 150 yards off the road and we had heard that wolves were feeding on the lifeless mound. We were told to be there starting at pink sunset or before the blue dawn.
We arrived at 3, no sign of wolves. Other than the dozen bison on the North Ridge and a few black ravens in the trees dotted along the Lamar there was no sign of life anywhere. Clouds raced along to the south spitting snow. A few minutes of glassing around the valley revealed professional wildlife photographers on the ridge overlooking the carcass. They had spotting scopes the length of my arm and probably telephoto lenses equally as long.
Soon the wolves would appear, perhaps beginning with only one, circling, watching. By nightfall, the feast would begin. In a week the elk mound would be gone and another act of the Lamar Valley drama would begin.