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June 18th, 2014 Comments Off on This Is How We Roll

This Is How We Roll

Before I had kids, I used to wonder what would happen when they read my books. What kind of example was I setting with some of the chances I was taking? Early last year, my son read Rolling Nowhere, my account of riding freights with hoboes. First he said he liked it. Then a week or two later came the follow-up: “If I ever wanted to go on a trip like that, would you teach me what to do?”


Asa on a grainer in Ogden, Utah.

Asa on a grainer in Ogden, Utah.


I knew I couldn’t say no. So I answered, “Well, I would if we could go together.” Last summer we did that, and “This Is How We Roll,” an account of the trip, is in the July issue of Outside magazine. It’s one of my favorites of the articles I’ve written, and the first about being a parent. Read it, share it … and see why I’m relieved that it’s over!


March 28th, 2014 8 Comments

Have We Met?

Some years ago, when I was living in Denver, I was invited to take part in a summer writers’ conference in Aspen, Colorado. It sounded like fun and indeed it was: I led my first writing workshop ever, at a picnic table under spruce trees in Rio Grande Park, and I attended lectures and readings.

At one of these, on a sunny afternoon, I was distracted by a young woman who also appeared to be distracted by me. As I later wrote in Whiteout,

She wore a long skirt, a white oxford shirt, and a sweater vest—a stylish, grown-up, prep school kind of girl. She looked well heeled, unapologetic, somehow even proprietary over the proceedings. Her skin was olive-colored. The last words were hardly out of the lecturer’s mouth when she came up to stand practically in front of me and ask, “Are you doing anything for the next hour?”

Have we met? I wanted to say.

What Alison, as I called her in the book, had in mind for starters was to introduce me to Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. She did that, and other adventures ensued.

Nancy's Facebook photo

Nancy’s Facebook photo

These things happened, essentially, because Alison – whose real name was Nancy Pfister – didn’t care if you’d already been introduced. She was impulsive, in touch with her desires, and, in certain ways (such as how she approached men), fearless. Some large part of this, I believe, had to do with the fact she was a true Aspen local. She grew up there; her parents had started the Buttermilk Ski Area. Aspen was full of curious, engaged, experimenting people and felt protected from most bad things in the world.

But last month, Nancy was murdered – at home, in Aspen. Details are fuzzy; three suspects, including a bank employee and an older couple who rented from her, have been arrested (all of them people Nancy knew). When I heard I felt sick to my stomach. A memorial service at the Hotel Jerome was attended by hundreds. She left behind a daughter, two sisters, countless friends, and a rattled community.

Nancy Pfister (r.) with Janie Joseland Bennett.
Photo by Paul Chesley, used with permission.

When I returned to Aspen to live in the early 90s, my friend Paul Andersen was dating Nancy. I called him up when I heard the news last month, to talk about her. I reminded him how I met her and then he reminded me how he met her – an encounter he also recalled in his recent column in The Aspen Times:

I had just moved here from Crested Butte for a reporting job … it was the off-season. Town was hushed and quiet. There was no one on the [pedestrian] mall except for this strangely appealing woman. She came sauntering toward me, casually eating with chopsticks from a Chinese carry-out carton.

I was drawn to her … Soon we were standing a foot apart, face-to-face, just looking at each other. What I noticed most was her eyes — mesmerizing and mischievous, like cat-eye marbles.

Without a word, Nancy scooped up a clump of rice with her chopsticks and pushed it toward me. I opened my mouth, accepted the morsel and knew I had arrived.

Paul agreed with the idea that a person like Nancy couldn’t have come from anywhere else – that place, that time. When I think of her now I think of native creatures on the Galápagos Islands, sea lions and sea birds so sheltered from predators during their eons of evolution that even today they have no fear of people.

June 4th, 2013 1 Comment

Of Meat and Art

There’s a fair amount of fine art around meat and slaughter. Most famous might be the paintings of Francis Bacon – several friends guessed that the image Harper’s magazine used to illustrate my cover story was by him. (In fact, those hanging sides of beef are the work of Russian-born Alex Kanevsky.) I’ve never forgotten a scene in James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime where the characters, out drinking at night, happen upon an open-air abattoir in les Halles: “It’s like coming upon a factory in the darkness. The overhead lights are blazing. The smell of carnage is everywhere, the very metal reeks with an odor denser than flowers.” Lately I’ve been reading The Cow, a collection of violent, visceral poetry by Ariana Reines; among the texts incorporated into her verse are passages from The Merck Veterinary Manual.

aerial consomme

Last month Tak Cheung, an artist in NYU’s edgy Interactive Telecommunications Program, emailed to if I’d be willing to help out with his thesis project. My job would be to eat a special meal he would serve me, in a Brooklyn warehouse, while being videotaped. At first I didn’t respond — it was an odd-sounding request, I didn’t know him, and I was busy, as usual. But he persisted: he had read my article, and (though he declined to say why) I was his perfect diner. I called him. We talked. There would be two diners served, at successive sittings. Australian art curator Amanda McDonald Crowley would go first. The food, prepared by two young Brooklyn chefs, would be delicious, he promised. But he wouldn’t tell me what it would be. He also intimated that how the food would be served was significant–but again, part of the project was that I couldn’t know details in advance.


I said okay. I will ruin just enough of the surprise to tell you that dessert was chicken ice cream, served inside a “sculpted chicken head made of white chocolate.” Several ingenious creations preceded that, and the whole event (which you can watch below) is a thoughtful commentary on poultry production.

Click here to open in new page.

April 13th, 2013 3 Comments

“The Way of All Flesh”

A couple of years ago, I applied for a job as a USDA meat inspector. Most inspectors work inside slaughterhouses; I thought it would be a good way to take a closer look at that world. Last fall I finally got hired. read more

March 19th, 2013 2 Comments

Meeting a moose

I was skiing at Winter Park, Colorado, yesterday—a place I have skied for more than 40 years without seeing a moose—when I saw a moose. It was in the middle of the road in front of me and so, along with others including my father, I stopped. It was a bull moose, read more

January 21st, 2013 Comments Off on Everything E

Everything E

This month my books Coyotes and Whiteout came out in eBook editions, which means that now all of my books are available in digital editions. With snazzy new cover designs. Everywhere eBooks are sold, such as the Kindle Store, the Nook Store, and Apple’s iBooks. read more

January 1st, 2013 Comments Off on Every Blasted Hour

Every Blasted Hour

For the New Year, my wife gave me a new daypack. It was time.

The old one, by North Face, served me during the research for The Routes of Man and beyond – more than ten years. It traveled thousands of miles on planes and boats, in cars and coaches, and many trips as well on the New York City subway. read more

November 10th, 2012 1 Comment

Rolling Nowhere goes ebook

Rolling Nowhere, my account of riding the rails as a young man, was recently released as an ebook. It’s pretty cheap to download it to your screen-thingy from the Kindle Store, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBookstores in 32 countries, Sony, Kobo, WH Smith in the UK and FNAC, the Diesel eBook Store, Baker & Taylor (Blio and the Axis360 library service), and
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