Sunday, March 8, 2009

At the edge of the map

That's how it feels, like I'm about to fall off the map, or the page. My column at the Seattle Post Intelligencer is coming to an end after 13 years. That adds up to abut 50 hiking columns per year (you can do the math, math isn't my strong point) - the other two weeks the space for my hiking column was needed for "special" editions of "Getaways" - Hawaii, Vancouver BC, some of those spots that many of us can't afford to go these days.

I didn't realize how much of my identity was wrapped up as a hiking columnist. Yes, it took a lot of hikes, a lot of writing, a lot of photography to make it all work and there were times I felt pressed for time, a few times it felt like "work" rather than the joy that hiking really was. Now that the last days are here, I feel a chill in the air and in my heart. I feel my age - I am riding the back of the wave that crested for me a few years ago and will soon spit me out on land. Now the spare time I wished for at times .... is here and well, it feels empty. It feels too big. It's going to take a while to get used to this. It takes time to adapt.

My Dad used to crack bitter jokes about the so-called "Golden Years". I bought him a mug that was engraved "Screw the golden years". Now I get it. There are a lot of things about these so-called "golden years" that are anything but. When I started this blog a few years ago I felt young, I was strong, I was riding the crest of that wave and my hiking column was popular. Today the hiking column is still popular but it is being replaced - perhaps - with an on-line edition of the PI. It is the death of the printed page. I don't know for sure whether or not it's true but I've heard that the powers-that-be who are considering an on-line edition of that hoary newspaper have mostly asked those 40 years or younger to stay aboard.

At 65 I still feel young when I'm outside scrambling in my playpen of mountains, rocks, water, snow, desert, moss, lichen, trees, wildlife and I'm still strong. But the topographical lines in my mind are harder to read and my eyes are not as sharp as they used to be. My hearing isn't as good as it used to be either. No matter what one does in life, they will wear out but for the most part I have been fortunate. I have all my bodily parts, I don't have aches or pains, a bad back, ankles or knees. I don't need trekking poles to get up or down a steep hill. My balance is good. I'm agile.

But that means nothing to the march of time, the printed word being replaced by the digital age. Younger friends tell me to adapt, to be flexible, to go with the flow and of course they are right. But it's hard to do. I learned to type on an antique typewriter when I was 10. I wrote my first poems and stories on that old antique. When I was in my working years at various office jobs I had the reputation of being a fast typist, often testing at 105 words per minute with 2-3 errors at most. That made it easy to adapt to the computer. I still am a fast typist. Sometimes a little too fast. My fingers fly faster than my brain and I find myself skipping words from time to time, in my my haste to get to the next place.

Digital photography was another hurdle for me to jump, having learned how to take a decent photograph with a Pentax K-1000 (I still have that camera and use it at times). But I managed to make that jump too without getting too bashed up. I enjoy my digital camera and I am grateful for it's size and weight. Or lack of weight. It enables me to take more photos - that has a downside too. I've found that I don't spend quite as much time composing a scene as I did with the SLR. It's a little too easy to get sloppy yet it's fun to dabble in the digital darkroom.

But back to Now. With a capital N. Now what? The economy is sour, it's difficult to get a book published, to get anything published but it's not just the economy. It's partly the Digital Age. Now everyone/anyone can set up a blog or air their views and because everyone is blogging, talking on-line, gabbing, twittering, texting .... something is being lost. People are more connected but is that always to the good? As far as the newspapers go, they've got plenty of content with all these freelance bloggers who just want to vent, to air their views, to boast, to worry, to agree or disagree. And they'll do it for nothing just to see their name or their photo out there in cyberspace along with everyone else. So what happens to quality?

I've watched the Post Intelligencer shrink, almost like a cancer patient, getting thinner and thinner and thinner. Now it's in its final days and when I think of that I feel that chill in the air again, a little bit of fear and apprehension. Not just about me or how I will survive but what is going to happen to writing in general. It's not just the Post Intelligencer - its many newspapers that are folding up their tents and stealing away into the cyber fog. As for information -- there's already too much of that and too much information that isn't important. We've got a glut of information now with all the media and choices available - it's too much for anyone to digest, it's harder and getting harder to find substance in this floating mat of debris in the ocean we call "words".

Back to me: I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the PI. My grandfather, Edwin J. Dalby, was the marine editor at the PI for many years. My father, Fritz Dalby, met my mother at the PI. She was Edith White and was pretty enough to be a secretary to one of the higher-ups. It was love at first sight for my dad who was working as a copy boy then. Eventually they married and in 1943 I came along, a war baby.

When I was growing up reading the PI in the morning was a ritual. Especially on Sundays. The Sunday paper lasted all day. It was thick and delicious. And when my grandmother lost her vision my daughter created a PI with BIG PRINT so Granny could read the headlines. That's how important the PI was to my family.

I find myself running out of words, gazing out the window at my lean yard, still brown from winter. I wasn't allowed to write what I wanted to write for my last hiking column. If you think I was going to rage against the powers-that-be at Hearst you are mostly mistaken. I say "mostly" because apparently no one else was allowed to write a "wrapup" either of their time at the PI. It was "business as usual". What I believe to be my last column will appear Thursday and it will be a hike on Cougar Mountain.

It's not the hike I wanted to write. I wanted to take my first published hiking column, re-run part of it and compare that with what it is like to hike now. How hiking has changed, how our attitudes toward hiking has changed, how the gear has changed, how the digital age affects our hiking. I never understood the need or the desire to hike on an established trail with a GPS. I'd rather discover the outdoors, than know exactly where I am standing at any given moment.
But I'll talk about that more in another post.

For now I'm just trying to say farewell to 13 happy years of making money doing what I love most -- hiking. I am grateful for the Post Intelligencer to hire me as a free-lancer for those 13 years of mostly bliss. I am grateful to Greg Johnston who first gave me a jingle on the phone to ask if I wanted to try my hand at writing "Hike of the Week". I am grateful to John Engstrom who has helped me hone my skills along the way. And I have to laugh when I think back to all those times when Greg was editing my work and he'd get on my case about the trouble I had coming up with a lead sentence strong enough to grab a readers attention. And how he and I would sometimes squabble whether or not it was too soon for a "re-run", especially those winter months when I was scraping the bottom of the barrel for new hikes to write up. Greg insisted that there really wasn't a bottom to that barrel and in the end, I have come to agree with that. There is no bottom.


Kim Brown said...

Good stuff, Karen. What a wonderful first blog to a blog site that will blog many blogs.

Let us read your first PI article to the base of Stilliguamish for us.


monte cristo ghost said...

OK, Kim, will do!