[Editor’s Note: Again, I have reached back into my archives to dust off an old piece of writing, this one from April of 2017. A lot has changed in my life since then, but the thread of writing has remained constant. From buying a home to weathering the pandemic to leaving a job of seven years to moving to Vermont numerous aspects of the physical have changed but the writing has remained. Now, sitting in one of my happy places, early morning sunlight on my face, feet up on a duffle bag (prepped for an upcoming ski trip—probably a blog post about it afterwards!), computer on my lap, and tea by my side I contemplate how writing has now become central to my work. In November I entered into an agreement to re-write NOLS’ Rock Climbing Educator Notebook, the text that helps instructor’s formulate classes, understand skills, and mostly present them to novices in ways that center the student experience and build and maintain positive course cultures. Besides getting to spend most of my days dreaming about ways to run successful NOLS courses and creating prose and content to express those ideas, a side benefit arose. In the need for clear depictions of physical skills, I picked up a pencil and started sketching; in that I see the Routes of My Written Word coming full circle. I hope you enjoy!]
I used to think I wanted to be an artist. To me an artist had always been one who painted, drew, or sculpted. In those younger years I was unaware that art comes in many forms. My view of art was regulated by what happened in Mrs. Gries’ third floor art room.
I remember thinking that my daddy was an artist. Or had been. There were a few paintings around our house that he had painted. They were not award winning pieces of work. Now I think they stick around for sentimental value. The same is true of the pieces of “art” I created in high school, whether Edward Hopper re-creations or Shakespearean inspirations. I still have a drawing from my junior year in college that is framed and hanging on my wall in my old bedroom. It was that year of schooling that expanded my view of art. Over the duration of a semester we delved into many forms of artistic expression (thanks Dr. Randy Bolton), so much so, that I debated tossing away the outdoor education degree I had been working on and starting over with an art degree, with a focus in drawing.
In middle school I received a second hand artist’s box full of oil pants, brushes and other tools and mediums. It still sits, now unused, in a deeply buried closet in a room I used to call mine. These trappings, along with Bob Ross how to draw and paint books and kits, as well as countless drawing pads cemented a well formed foundation of artistic endeavors. Painting, or at least the oil medium for that matter, never caught on for me, though I did dabble with acrylic paints in high school. I can think of two acrylic rendered Edward Hopper re-creations as well as one Ansel Adams interpretation that still collect dust in various nooks and crannies of my mother’s house. It was the sketch book, both in high school and in college was probably my strongest medium. And I still find occasional pleasure in it today.
My artistic mediums of choice seem to be constantly evolving. In my early twenties sketching with colored pencils, ink, and pencil gave way to a three dimensional craft, one inspired and fed by the Utah deserts. To my friends, I became synonymous with spoon carving. For weeks on end I would be wandering the deserts with wayward youth, trying to teach them life skills through whittling spoons, pushing handcarts, and busting fires. These days, I don’t carve spoons as much and, similar to my long stored paintings, I have many spoons wrapped up and cached away, to be taken out again someday, for what though, I do not know. Friends and I would banter about technique, trade insults of each other’s work, and give away time spent carving and perfecting as gifts to those for whom we cared. Many a birthday, Christmas, or just because gift had hours of carving, sanding, and perfecting wrapped up inside. I even penned and illustrated a book on the subject, one that someday, I still hope to have published. The Art of Spoon Making combines tips and techniques for carving spoons with a few of the lessons I learned through experiences. I suspect that was the beginning of the segue into where my artistic expression remains today, writing. The written word and the desire to put things out to the world, has actively engaged me for the past several years. But in truth the writing goes further back than that.
As I trace my association with the written word, I can look far back to my brother writing a newspaper column when hew was in the third or fourth grade. He authored a series of columns about the Presidents of the United States for the Stateline X-Press; I guess he was born a journalist. Today he is the sports editor for the Granite State News and edits for a few sister publications as well. Maybe I got it the same place he did. I have no idea,
Though a strange correlation, maybe it was because I like to collect things. When one collects summits or trails there is, unlike baseball cards, not much to show for it. Potentially I wanted to remember things, so I took pictures (for almost as long as I can remember, I have had a camera; not sure what I will do with all the pictures except maybe someday reminisce about the glory days). Pictures, though they are worth a thousand words, don’t always tell a story, that is unless you remember the story it tells. So I wrote about the pictures. Then In a yellow, statement sized, three subject, left side spiral bound notebook, I started documenting all the hikes I went on. It was sometimes matter of fact and sometimes forward looking and somtimes inward looking. Today, though I have tried multiple times, I have been unable to locate the notebook. I know though, it is where I started. The acquisition of my first computer shifted the record keeping into electronic form and prompted the start of a daily journal as well.
Along the way I was published in our local newspaper. The extremely didactic report of our (my dad and I) fourteen day backpacking trip through Vermont wouldn’t win any awards, though reading it now, I see hints of a style I still possess. It didn’t hurt that we we were both employed by the newspaper (stuffing inserts into it, nothing involving writing or journalism.)
I trace the roots back. In high school, particularly English class, there were essays. I don’t know if I enjoyed or excelled at it. Writing descriptive essays, autobiographies, and about how ants were able to walk on the ceiling, were all English class assignments at one point or another. Mrs. Blodgett, Mr. Ordzie, and Mr. Haskins: they all had their unique style and structure; they all made me write one thing or another and all helped solidify the building blocks.
Maybe I can trace it back to reading, something I sure don’t do much of today. I am a pretty good reader, never struggled with it and always enjoyed it when I was young. My parents read to Josh and I on a nightly basis. Early childhood memories revolve around the Happy Hollisters, the den, and couch. With the exception of the Dukes of Hazard, television memories can’t even remotely compete with the memories of books and reading. We always had plenty of books to read, either from our parent’s collections, the library, or from the Arrow or Tab book orders that were monthly staples. It seemed I was never denied the new Hardy Boys Case Files book.
In college there was a creative writing class as a general elective and plenty of English classes too. And I kept writing, I kept documenting all my hikes, and as I got into it, my rock climbing endeavors. Junior year had journaling as a focus and I was scholastically forced to reflect and form opinions on things like wilderness and the human’s place within it or what it meant or countless other topics. Lots of writing, but lots of other art too: sketches, scientific journaling observations, acting class, taking pictures, etc.
My dad was a history buff. He collected stuff too. The interest I have in history was never one that I wondered about. I have always known the whereabouts of its roots. The same with my habit of collecting. I find these two components interwoven into my writing, not always blatantly, but there, none-the-less. It’s the intersection of collecting information, writing down what I do (which is a type of collecting information), being intrigued by the history of things and enjoying climbing/being outdoors that likely led to me authoring my first guidebook.
What started as simple collecting of information became much more when I started editing my descriptions and creating page layouts. Today it might still be just be a collection of well laid out pages with maps, pictures and words if it were not for a rumor that someone else was about to author a guidebook to the area. That news spurred me into action. Those collecting and organizing habits paid off and I was able to, relatively quickly and with the hep of a publishher, create a guidebook.
With that project now over six years in the past, most of my writing now happens in this blog. I would like to publish another book. I guess I would like to write a guidebook to the Winds or write a few essays that get published in a magazine or write a nonfiction piece of mountaineering literature.
Tracing the roots of my writing, I find artistic elements of crayons, markers, water colors, and coloring books, other things that were never in short supply when I was child. As I peer backwards from these later years, I catch glimpses of how the support and love of my parents gave me free form to be whatever it was I wanted to become; the reading at an early age, be it being read to or reading myself, leading to the artistic medium that I express today.
I see the crossroads of reading and writing, of words and pictures, paint and typing. With hindsight I can see the route I’ve taken to be writing this today and it wasn’t straight and narrow. I see the path being steep, weaving, branching, and spreading, but always it has been there, and more importantly it has paralleled wild, beautiful places with mountains, deserts, and rivers, always feeding it inspiration.
I remember I used to want to be an artist. Come to think of it, I still want to be an artist.
Featured Image: artwork on the wall of my childhood bedroom. Photo: Nancy Spaulding
Addendum February 13th 2023:
Some photos of recent art, working spaces, etc.