Sunday, November 8, 2015

Post St. Helens

A Brief Aside 

Recently, I received some input about this blog from a writer whom I respect. She dispelled some  myths and misimpressions I've had about the blog world, and about blog writing.

Up until now, I didn't realize I was supposed to actually treat a blog like a somewhat professional publication, rather than the mental sounding board it's become. Most of my entries read like my secret diary, made public.  I didn't realize that I didn't get a free pass on bad grammar or poor form. 

The funniest thing about this, which I feel I have to mention, is that I've been off-base about blog writing due to bad input through the years from people who aren't writers. From the moment I started my foray into the blog world, I received random advice about how to properly write them.  Even worse, somehow most of these people were of the opinion that a blog should be treated like a personal email, or text. People told me things like, "You should keep it personal by greeting us at the beginning." and, "Keep it light, man. Use Emojis." and, "Ask us how we're doing. Don't just talk about yourself." I figured these takes on blog writing were valid, because they came from average everyday readers, the type of people I ultimately try to reach.  

After explaining to me about proper content, my writer friend then showed me some examples of properly written blogs. They read like a good memoir.  They were inviting and conversational, without a single Emoji or vapid rhetorical question like, "How are you you?" Those blogs are nothing like what all the random people told me they should be. 

I've probably been a bit rusty when it comes to writing, and uninformed specifically about blog writing, so I'm going to change my writing approach. I've already tried it the less formal way, and I don't think it has been as effective as I would like. Writing is a craft, like any other, so I can only hope to keep improving.  This blog, which is still a rather new format to me, will presumably become a bit easier. 

The other lesson learned about this is: Trust your own instincts over most people, and if necessary  every person! Most of us are just throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks, but when it comes to our own personal work, we are best guided by our hunches, and if anything else, only people who are established professionals.

A drawing made for a Seattle paper article written about the Summit Music Project in 2011.

The News And The Update

The good news is: I indeed made it to the top of Mt. St. Helens a third time and successfully recorded myself performing an a cappella cover version of Black Hole Sun up there. And yes, I did say I climbed the mountain three times. I realize how crazy this may sound to a normal person. For more on that, read my previous entries here and here. The important thing is, I did it! I'm done with that mountain--for now. 

It was hard to do, against poor odds, but I stuck it through and it worked.  

While up there, I also recorded one more a cappella ambient piece, and I threw in a long vlog for good measure. I included the vlog because it was always a part of my plan to give a long talk at the top of each mountain peak. St. Helens is the first peak I've arrived at with enough time to actually do this, so I figured I would make it a little more personal. It will be my first official vlog when I post it, and I'm definitely taking a chance with it, because I'm sharing some strange philosophical ideas with you all that I've never shared before. I only hope you don't run screaming, or shouting profanity.

Overall, the important thing is that I have footage and a direct recording of me making this impressionistic music at the rim of Mt. St. Helens on a beautiful day, and, at least in part, I succeeded at pushing forth a new artistic medium. I will mix the music and edit it into music videos before long. So keep checking online for when that's ready and I'll make announcements about it.

For a sample of some electronic music I made on one of these visits to the rim of Mt. St. Helens, read this entry all the way to the bottom, which is where I've suggestively placed one of the tracks.

Sorted Details About The Last Week And The Last Climb

After getting back down from my 2nd St. Helens summit, I rented a room at the usual cheap Motel 6 in the town of Woodman. What many would deem a "sleazy motel room," in which they wouldn't be caught dead, I view as an utter paradise whenever I'm back from a long, dirty and trying hike. Being able to shower, lay equipment out, stretch out on a bed (any bed), and veg out on stupid American television you would never usually watch (Duck Dynasty, Law And Order, and other crap) after a nasty bout with the elements, is comparable to one of the most lush Club Med vacations on the Fiji Islands to me.

Whenever I'm in Portland, I can usually be found at my preferred java pit, called Coffee Time. It caters to vegans and even has a hipster man cave that extends towards the back--another paradise--after a cold and dusty trek. I often feel compelled to stay in my car, around the block, and frequent Coffee Time during opening and closing. Yep, the place is basically my office.

                                           Friends in Eugene on my birthday.

A few mornings later, I woke up on my birthday at the house of some old friends in Eugene. I hadn't seen them in a while, so they threw a brunch, but were busy in the afternoon. I took this as a clear sign that I should find somewhere else to continue celebrating, so I spent most of the rest of the day driving back to my friends in Seattle.  One of those friends is Jane, the widow of my old friend and ambient music colleague, Barry Craig, aka A Produce.  She is remarried now to her husband Wayne, and they live with her brother Larry. I arrived at their house just in time to miss dinner--by hours. They were glad to see me, even though they were basically going to bed.  They probably wouldn't have recognized me if I had arrived on time, anyway. 

 Guest room at the house of friends in Eugene.

I only realized at the end of the day that spending the day driving was disappointing. 

Within most of us, there remains a small portion of a child. Often, the child starts kicking and screaming about not getting a more obvious birthday celebration, until your bigger and more rational voice tells him to shut the hell up and calm down. We have much bigger goals and rewards all around us, and it's absurd how we lose touch with that--even a tiny fraction. It's amusing that such a little brat is still in there sometimes though, even in secret. What is a birthday, anyway? We aren't born the moment we leave the womb. We are quite alive and aware for a time before that. We aren't born at the moment of conception either, because it's not likely that awareness occurs at that moment. So, it almost seems futile to mark a single day as being the beginning of our existence when clearly it isn't. It's one mere event in our lives. Maybe it would be more appropriate to call it a womb exiting anniversary party.

But I suppose I'm kind of a birthday scrooge, so I'll get back to the story.

Jane's guest room has an amazing peace about it, which always leads to a great night's rest, and a comfortable, unintentional wasting of precious time.  The next day, I had planned on spending the second half of the day hanging out with Jane and her family, and the first half of the day in the guest room getting packed and set up for my final St. Helens ascent the next morning. Of course, not realizing how scattered I still was from the previous St. Helens ascent 5 days earlier, I ended up spending all day in the guest room preparing for the climb, and unfortunately not hanging out with anyone.  

                                                  Dean and Jane at Jane's house.

Stuff was all over the room, all day. I had to transfer footage, clear my SD cards, charge all batteries, organize clothing, pack my pack, and even better-organize my song files in Ableton (my live music app) which needed to be completely record-ready when reaching the summit. As always, my pack ended up weighing 40-50 pounds after fitting my equipment in there.  This was before packing meals and water.

The production-equipment list for this climb was:

For Music:
Macbook Air
Focusrite Scarlet 2 audio interface
AKG 414 microphone
Logitech portable laptop speakers
2 XLR audio cables
3 USB Cables

For Filming:
Panasonic G4 (video camera)
Sony AX100 (video camera)
Sony HDR-CX110 (video camera)
GoPro Hero 2
GoPro Hero 3
3Fly panoramic video camera
Audiotechnica ambient stereo recorder
2 mini tripods

Later, at the top, I would discover that two of those cameras didn't even work!

So, this packing endeavor not only ended up taking all day in that guest room, but it made me late, yet again, in departing for St. Helens at a decent hour. 

By the time I was done getting packed and ready, it was 8pm. From Portland, Mt. St. Helens is only an hour-and-a-half away, but from a far-north position like Seattle, the mountain is almost a 5 hour drive. I had planned to be on the summit trail by 3am, from the Climber's Bivouac. My chances now of getting any sleep before the climb were gone, and I still ran the risk of climbing late. The whole prospect was ominous.

                                   Guest room at the house of Jane and her family.

The weather forecast said all heavy rain would stop the next day, but that the overcast would remain in a partly cloudy form. Well, in the Cascade mountains, if you have any type of "partly cloudy" scenario, it means there's at least 50/50 chance that another storm can roll in without warning sometimes, and within minutes. That likelihood is year-round. In late October, it may as well be winter in northern locations like this. Outside, it was cold, damp, gray and windy--in the city. I would have been out of my mind to think the weather might actually turn in my direction on the mountain.

Furthermore, the top of Mt. St. Helens is an 8-9 hour climb. In order for me to get set up at the top with enough time to ask another climber to film me, I would have to set out on the trail by 4am at the latest. Any later than that and I lose the likelihood that other climbers will still be up there to help hold one of my cameras when I get set up to record.  Climbers don't like coming back down at night, so in general they tend to leave southern Cascade summits and head back down by early afternoon, St. Helens being no exception. My timing in these matters is important to get decent footage up there.

To top things off, I received a text from a friend telling me he didn't think it was a good idea to attempt this last climb. He wouldn't specify why, and he told me to call him so we could talk about it. Potential omens never help my motivation, so I skipped calling him for fear that he would talk me out of this idea, which was, for all practical purposes, foolish.

Regardless, I left Seattle and drove to St. Helens, stopping a couple of times along the way to pick up water and my usual vegetarian Subway sandwich for the climb. This is a meal I've now come to loath in my sea level life, because it's been relegated to the role of ideal, compact climbing nutrition now. I'm certain astronauts never dream of cold hotdogs while on Earth, either.

By the time I reached the Climber's Bivouac (the parking lot and trailhead for the summit rim of Mt. St. Helens) it was 3:30 am already, and I was ready for bed. The Bivouac was basically a ghost-town-parking lot, not a soul in sight. This was a first. It didn't appear that anyone else was going to be dumb enough to climb that mountain in that weather, and I would not likely have that camera help at the top.

Not only was I scheduled to set out on the trail a half hour ago, but I still had to pack some of the newer supplies, and it was still drizzling outside. I got packed within a half hour, but that still left the sleep issue. Two weeks earlier I had first done the climb with no sleep at all, so that was proof it would likely be fine again.  However, climbing a nine-thousand-foot mountain on no sleep at all had slowed me down before, and I needed time on my side now. Which option would save more time? Setting out early on no sleep, or leaving a little late with some rest. I decided to sleep for an hour, which makes me laugh now reading it back. That was a pretty dicey solution.  Still, I slept. 

About 45 minutes into my nap, I heard a rustling in my car.  "Not you again!" I shouted.

Yes, there is a little detail I did not mention before: 

When I had climbed Mt. St. Helens 6 days earlier, which was the second climb that month, I had gotten a little careless at the Climber's Bivouac. I had arrived at the Bivouac with only 4 or 5 hours left to pack  before my ascent. On these trips, my stuff quickly turns from being a thoroughly stocked vehicle of equipment, to being a mountainous pile of junk on all of my passenger seats. I've tried remedying this a couple of times, but the nature of this project is just too rushed and complicated for that. I wear too many hats to keep anything tidy during this particular brand of chaos. Take into account the second law of thermodynamics, and you can imagine the state of my car by this time in the trip. 

So, while packing at Climber's Bivouac 6 days earlier in the usual fashion, the doors all flew open, and with my pack leans against the car, I grabbed things one at a time from all around the vehicle. When I was done packing, and was all ready to head out, I put everything back in the car including myself, turned out the lights, and attempted to catch the next 4 hours of sleep before the climb. Two hours into it, I was awakened by what I imagined to be a subtle rustling in the car. I quickly turned the light on and--nothing. There was silence, and nothing was there. Over the next hour, it happened two other times, and one of those times felt like a brushing across my legs. On go the lights and... nothing. It's like my car was suddenly haunted by the ghost of the Climber's Bivouac. On the fourth rustling though, I switched the light on and saw a small tail duck behind one of my many pieces of junk. My mind flashed back to my first descent back down the mountain a week earlier, where before the rain started, I was feeding the cutest little mice that would scurry out from the rocks for my dropped grains of rice and egg. "YOU LITTLE F-CKER!" I yelled, knowing that one of those cute little mice had climbed my pack right into the car while I was packing.  I suppose the smell of my generic Subway sandwiches was too much for him to resist. 

With only a few minutes left before I was scheduled to head out on the trail, at 4am, I decided to leave. Not wanting the mouse to die in my car, I left one of the windows a crack open, and I even left some food out. After getting back down off the mountain later that night, the last thing I wanted to do was arrive back to a mouse in my car, especially after having botched my cover tune at the top. Well, not only did his dumb little rustling continue to wake me up when I slept in the car that night, but it persisted in there for days. I left the car doors open for almost an hour once, but I still heard him again afterwards.  I was simply in too much of a rush on this entire trip to bother with compassionate mouse traps and the like, so I just let it go. Before long, the rustling stopped, so I figured he either finally left, or I will find his body in there when I'm cleaning out my car in LA. 

-Flash back to the present moment at the Climbers Bivouac with roughly 15 minute left before I climb my last ascent:
Again, about 45 minutes into my 1-hour nap, I heard a rustling in my car. "Not you again!" I shouted, following with "Great. Thanks buddy. I live here too you know." I don't know how this little guy was still alive, but apparently he was, and he had been in my car all week. He definitely had no shortage of little caves and crevices to make himself/herself at home to in my car piles, a veritable mouse Disneyland (but I don't think this guy's name was Mickey). I looked down at the space under my seat, and saw him move into the light, plain as day, and look at me before casually disappearing again. Mountain mice are not like city mice, in that they are a little cuter. I'm not a cruel and heartless person towards animals that bother me. I wouldn't be able to kill something consciously without feeling my own life was somehow taken in the process. 

So I let out a huge sigh, and then pounded my vitamin pack, ate my breakfast burrito, left some out for the mouse, strapped on my 40-50 lb. pack, switched my headlamp on full power and went out in the cold cruel weather towards the trailhead. It was 5am, two hours later than planned It seemed over, but I plowed on anyway.

The Ascent
I don't usually like spending money on hiking poles when nature provides such great ones on every forest floor. Typically, I will do a little search at the beginning of every climb, where I locate and test fallen branches to see if they are light enough and strong enough to make the journey. Luckily, the same one I had used the previous week was still lying where I had left it.  A friend had given me one earlier in the week that had been lying in his yard, so that made two. This would be fine for a 6-thousand-foot elevation gain hike.

The air was cold and moist enough that the mist from my breath was thick enough to obscure my vision considerably. I was actually able to blow smoke rings with it. As I continued hiking up the trail, I told myself over and over to turn back. "You're crazy dude. You're going to get rained on again! Or snowed on! Or lost or injured because you're so tired! Something will happen! You won't make it back!"  After freaking myself out sufficiently, I came to my senses and realized it's Mt. St. Helens trail, for God's sake. Hundreds of people hike this thing every week, and have for generations. I think most of the big game wildlife in the region got the picture a long time ago: this is human territory. Stay out.

When I finally reached the tree line, I felt my usual relief about how much more doable things seem, and how in shape and energetic I now felt.  

But later, after reaching a little bit more altitude, my hope sank back into nothingness when first light revealed a storm that completely covered the sky and the top of the mountain. I was now basically hiking into a storm, a cold one. Cleverly, I told myself that even though the day might not be a success, it couldn't hurt to get a good workout in today by climbing the mountain.  This was only Mt. St. Helens, and unless they predicted an arctic snow storm would come, I wasn't going to be in life threatening danger.  All of this was basically the first smart and rational thing I had said to myself all morning.

With that new attitude, I zipped up the mountain with my monster pack and my dead branches for limbs, looking like some kind of aspiring wizard. When I got halfway up the mountain, by mid-morning, I found myself above the storm, gazing down on the clouds like stereotypical heaven. I would stop for trail mix and water, but maintain a steady pace the rest of the time. I had never been quite so in shape on this mountain. Clearly, having climbed it two other times over the previous two weeks had payed off. However, I was still apprehensive of the currently ideal weather. I had been tricked by it enough times before to not get hopes up. It was still just about the work out at this point.

Then, a miracle happened; I heard a voice, and saw a person climbing up behind me. This was encouraging! Even if that person was not going to help film me at the top, he was an indicator that others might be on the way as well. When I spoke to him, he confirmed my curiosities by telling me that there were indeed more people on the way up. This was great news! I new I could summit and set up right around the same time they would arrive up there. And that's exactly what happened. 

The first wave of people were teenagers who said they would help at the top. 

I arrived at the summit rim of St. Helens to find blue skies above us and heavenly clouds below. Warm. No more wind, at all. It was he absolute perfect day. I let out my usual primal howl before laying everything out to set up. I couldn't set up quite in-time enough for the teenage group to stick around because they told me they had to catch a plane in a few hours (people crazier than I am?). But they also said they would tell the last wave of climbers about me before those climbers reached the top.  

That wave of climbers was two men who turned out to be truly incredible people. They were father and son catching up on quality time together, and both in the military. The father worked for search and rescue in the Cascades, and the son was currently stationed in Hawaii and was studying to be a musician. Both loved music and were totally excited to help me film.  

After they heard me performing my a cappella cover of Black Hole Son, they said they had both been to a Soundgarden concert together, in nearby Seattle, where Soundgarden banged out that song. Grinning uncontrollably, I told them this was one of the reasons I decided to perform it up there at the rim. 

The other reasons for the song were a little too personal to mention in mere passing, yet in a way those reasons should be the most obvious to anyone and everyone who understands the song. You can even watch the official video for that song sometime and it will reveal the relevance as plain as can be.

When the song was over, we all agreed that weather-wise and otherwise, this day had turned out to be one of the best days we had ever experienced at the rim of St. Helens. Apparently, the father had once watched his friend slip and fall to his death right next to the spot where we were currently standing, so he didn't like to stay up there long due to the memories and fears. I assured him I would be careful, and we all exchanged info before they headed back down. 

As usual, I was the last one off the mountain. I stayed up there a while, and filmed myself giving a talk (or a vlog), as well as recording another vocal ambient piece before my laptop power ran out once again. But this time that was okay. I had gotten the bulk of everything I needed up there.


The Descent
I headed back down early enough in the evening to enjoy a long sunset during my descent. The clouds and the wind had pretty much completely vanished, and several times on the way down I simply stopped to experience a peace and silence that I rarely find even in the desert, which is actually saying a lot. To have that kind of peace thousands of feet up, with that kind of view, is rare. I relished, and relished...and relished, in quiet celebration of my personal accomplishment.

The classic part about that descent, however, was after night fell and I reached the last 4 or 5 mile stretch of it. Oh My God it S-CKED, as always. It just went on and on for ever and ever, with my damn monster pack on. I was yelling again on the way down, lots of profanity. That stretch is beyond grueling for some reason. It's nothing going up, when your adrenaline fires are burning for a climb, but coming back down it turns you into a "rotting slime oozing for dear shelter," to repeat what I said on the mountain. I laugh about it now as I write this, because I was so very blissful up there before that moment.

I was now obligated to be back in LA within 55 hours, to play a gig in downtown LA with the band Zen Land, run by my friend Mike Z..

For some reason, I had fantasized about BBQ during that last grueling night descent on St. Helens, so I stopped in Portland to break my vegetarian habit for a day at a known pit called Padnah's. It is crazy good stuff, but still a slow farewell for me. I just don't believe in regular meat eating anymore. It's kind of evil.

After my temporary meat orgy, and a shower at LA Fitness's Portland branch, I hit the road for LA. However, I was going to attempt the recording of one more song on the way; I was going to perform The End by The Doors at Crater Lake during sunrise. I got all prepared for it on the way there, but soon ran out of time to do the session. This was primarily because I missed dawn and, without any clouds, direct sunlight on Crater Lake is not that aesthetically pleasing for film or photography, thus not in person either.  I basically had to cut and run back home for the LA gig or I wouldn't make it, so I did. But I promised myself I would return to Crater Lake and record that song immediately after the LA gig with Zen Land.

Turns out that I still didn't get back to LA with enough time to perform the Zen Land gig the way I had wanted to. I had said yes to too many things, as always.  

Also, it turns out that I soon changed my mind about Crater Lake, which I've been discussing with people over the last two weeks that I've been back home in LA.

Perhaps some of you have figured this out already, but when I perform these famous a cappella cover songs at given locations, I usually choose the song based on how its subject matter poetically relates to the area where I plan to perform it.

Talking with someone about The End by The Doors made me realize that I should probably be at the edge of something when I sing it, so the Grand Canyon might be a better place than Crater Lake. I had originally chosen that song for Crater Lake because Crater Lake used to be a large Cascade volcano before it came to an end one day when it collapsed in a massive eruption. But I suppose that's not quite as obvious an aesthetic association as the Grand Canyon would be, so I will probably change the plan. Perhaps I will even take a small poll on it first before deciding.

Final Notes
Regarding the conclusion about the mouse in my car, I promise to fill you in about it on the next entry, if you keep reading this blog and checking in. I always post notices about new blog entries on my Facebook walls too.

Again, I will produce and post music videos of all of the songs I performed at the rim of St. Helens, including my vlog up there, but let's hope that's sooner than later. I think it will be sooner than later. Just stay posted for my links and notices about it on my Facebook wall(s) because they are the most updated. 

Even though my gig with Zen Land had issues, it still came out great and people loved it. But what excites me even more than that is how the bass player for that band, Doug Lunn, whom I've been a fan of all my life, had a session with MY band The Stratos Ensemble just a few days ago, and it looks like he wants to join up. The session was miraculous, and it was surreal having him and ex Happy The Man drummer, Coco Rousel in the same room together performing. Doug plays for many of the best musical minds in the world, as well as regularly for Andy Summers, The Police, Chad Wakerman, Dweezle Zappa, The Fire Merchants, and the one most important to me, Mark Isham. Having both him and Coco Rousel aboard The Stratos Ensemble will be a true honor. Additionally, the session we had the other day was recorded well, so I will post it online soon. Anyone who likes any music other than pop will probably like this stuff. (Oh my God pop music is so shallow and artistically corrupt, please don't be someone who doesn't like anything else.)

These things, as well as family and friends, are some of the the extreme rewards worthy of coming home to--every time. I only wish I actually had more time for the people in my life. Anyone I don't work with I see on average once or twice a year, sometimes less. This is due mainly to big projects like Summit Music. I hope this project amounts to more than merely the selfish experiences of an individual when all is said and done. Perhaps that remains to be seen.

               From top: Stratos Ensemble, Halloween party, pumpkin I carved at the party.

Lastly, if you would like a sample of some of the music I made at the rim of St. Helens during this last adventure, here is one that I recently posted on Soundcloud. It's actually the first thing I recorded, on the first day that I reached the rim out of three summit days. That makes this the first piece of ambient and/or electronic music ever professionally performed and recorded at the rim of Mt. St. Helens. Crazy? Well, you've got to admit that it's interesting at the very least.

A poem that Mt. St. Helens makes me think of...

"What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?"

-Langston Hughes