I look down the counter at my daughter Merriam.  She is waiting there on her tower, a genius contraption that raises the toddler to counter height so they can take part in all that is grown up kitchen activity.  At this moment she props herself up on the counter with her little folded arms, feet afloat above the tower.  Apparently, the grown-up task unfolding tonight is so exciting she can’t contain herself to stay afoot.  She stares down the countertop toward me.  Not at me, toward me.  What she really wants to see is what I’m working on.  I turn a hand crank – yes, a hand crank – grinding up venison that then squirms out of little cylinders onto an awaiting cookie tray. My inclination toward less technologically advanced means of labor extends even to our butchering process.  Between Merriam and I stands my wife Sora.  She cuts sheets of butcher paper and proceeds to form the product of the grinder into neatly packaged freezer ready meat.  After applying a basic label to the package via marker, she slides it down to Merriam.  There, our daughter, just turned two, applies her own signature label to the package before it goes into the freezer.  She delights in her role.

The energy of the animal would soon be transferred to a multitude of other organisms, our family being among them.

The meat we are grinding is from a mule deer buck I killed about a week prior.  There is no reason to use another term and blur the reality of what took place – I killed him.  I stopped his beating heart; I willingly took his life.  I paused and said my thanks with a hand on his ribcage.  I sat in silence for a moment to absorb what had just happened.  Then the work began.   I removed hide from meat, and meat from bone.  What was a deer on the hoof minutes ago was broken down into parts usable to us, and those I would leave for scavengers, soil, plants, and bugs to enjoy.  The energy of the animal would soon be transferred to a multitude of other organisms, our family being among them.  I loaded the meat in my pack and with some delicate maneuvers eventually brought it to rest upon my back and got to my feet.  I lugged it out of the wilderness and placed it in my truck.  I was back home within a few hours, where I hung it up in a cool shaded place.  I cleaned it of any hair and earthen debris remaining from the process afield.  After a few days I took it down.  Sora and I cut it up into roasts, steaks, shanks, and cubed meat to grind.  The latter went into the fridge and over any spare time in the coming days we ground it up into burger.  Days or weeks or months down the line, we will pull a package of burger from the freezer.  We will let Merriam see her label upon it.  She knows exactly what it is, where it came from, and what part she played.  Later that evening as she gobbles it up the transfer of energy that started on a mountainside last fall will come to fruition.  We have all been a part of it.  We savor it.  We don’t take it for granted.  We know intimately what took place to bring this meat to our mouths.  We did the doing.

It is January of 2020 in a tiny rental house on the Panoramic Highway above Muir Woods.  The whole world was about to change, and so was our little part of it.  Sora stands over a pregnancy test on the counter.  The minutes move like hours.  As I think usually must be the case, she didn’t need to say anything when she finally looked up at me.  We teared up, embraced, laughed, and had all the ‘holy shit’ thoughts for a few minutes.  Then I had to go to work.  My commute at the time was a bit of a multi-legged journey.  She drove me down to the 101, where I would some mornings hop in a carpool with a colleague and some mornings take the bus into San Francisco.  That morning it was the former.  My carpool mate was as good as one can get.  Frank was the volleyball coach at the University of San Francisco, where I was the cross country and track & field coach.  Frank was near the end of his career then, and with me nearing the middle of mine, I saw him as a wise old sage.  Each morning I tried to soak up all the wisdom I could as his Prius darted across lanes of traffic.  Obviously, that morning was way too soon to share our life-changing news.  I remember how odd it felt to not tell him though, I wanted to tell him.  He was a parent and grandparent, and from what I knew certainly the type I would hope to emulate.  Of course, I eventually did get to tell him, and I will never forget the tone of his response.  Frank is a supremely genuine man, but in that moment, he conveyed a sobering authenticity that still took me aback.  He told me my life would never be the same.  I knew he was right, and I had known from the moment Sora looked up at me in the wee hours of that morning now more than three years behind us.

…the metropolitan life was indeed too much pace in not enough space. 

I had come to San Francisco for the same reason many do, a really good job.  Bay area living had, as expected though, proven challenging for me.  Having spent nearly the entirety of my years to that point in Idaho and northeast Oregon, the metropolitan life was indeed too much pace in not enough space.  When I first shared with friends and colleagues that I had accepted the job there, the responses were consistent. “Really?!  You in San Francisco?”  They knew me well.  I had a bit of a plan though.  I was able to put two things in place to help.  The first was being able to keep our small home back in Idaho.  This allowed me to quickly escape back there to pursue mule deer at least once in the fall, spend the Holidays chasing my bird dog through the Owyhee Mountains, and much of the summer hiking or throwing a fly around in the high country. The second was the location of our rental cottage.  If you must live in one of America’s largest metro areas, dealing with a bit of a commute to have trails into Muir Woods right out your door is certainly not the worst approach.  It was a hectic couple of years, but it was fun in many ways.  We enjoyed the diversity, the food, and of course the beauty of the natural landscapes left intact in the Marin area.  I got to have a great job, and still be back home in the mountains pretty often.  Still, when Sora looked up at me from that pregnancy test, I knew ‘pretty often’ would soon be ‘not enough’ and the clock started ticking on our time there. 

I had put almost twenty years into a collegiate coaching career at that point.  I loved it.  I didn’t think it was ok, I didn’t tolerate it, I loved it.  I miss it now.  When Merriam was four months old, I resigned from my position at USF and walked away from that career I loved.  It was hard, but it never felt wrong.  I didn’t answer to college coaching anymore, I didn’t answer to my athletes, and I didn’t answer to my own competitive aspirations.  I answered to Sora and Merriam, and I had to go.  I want to be clear; I did not leave collegiate coaching because I found it inherently in conflict with good parenting or family life.  It certainly has its challenges in that regard, but of course there are many college coaches who are fabulous parents and fully devoted to their families.  My departure simply had to do with something Sora and I knew from very early on sat atop our value list for raising kids.  That was living in a small community, in the mountains, surrounded by wild public land spaces.  Not for everyone, but critically important to us.  The list of collegiate track & field jobs in small communities surrounded by public lands that pay well enough to support a family and offer a chance at competitive success is rather short.  We were not going to wait around.  Maybe one of those short list jobs will come my way at some point and we will have to take a good look at it.  I doubt it, the odds aren’t strong. 

…the love you have for something you do and the love you have for your children are related in verbiage only.

The hardest part about my departure from college coaching was certainly that I was leaving a job I loved.  It was not lost on me how rare it is to be able to make a living, modest as it may have been, doing something you love.  I knew I was fortunate.  But the love you have for something you do and the love you have for your children are related in verbiage only.  There were other challenges to leaving though.  There were significant ancillary losses.  My job and career path were incredibly stable.  While coaching positions can be tough to get, they are usually even tougher to lose.  It also brought us solid employer provided health insurance and retirement benefits.  Soon my paycheck would not be guaranteed.  I would have to go get, and retain, clients to bring money in.  Not enough clients = not enough income.  I had many an athletic director tell me my roster had to be at a certain number, but my paycheck was never docked if we ended up short.  Conventional wisdom is that when you have kids you move toward the more stable career path.  I did the opposite.  I reflect on this often.

Every parent must ask themselves what they wish to provide for their children.  There will be many answers to this question, and these answers will vary in priority.  It was that prioritization that determined our path.  Living in a quieter space, more connected to the natural world, controlling more of our own food supply, all in the middle of the vast public lands of central Idaho won out.  We still need retirement investments, health insurance, and savings for college.  We don’t live in any sort of distant utopian world.  We are bound by the same mundane economic necessities as everyone else.  It is not that the norms don’t matter to us, it is just that there are these other things we value just as much, a bit more even.  There can be no quantitative value assigned to the life we’ve built here though.  How do you account for the space, the silence, and the sunsets.  The meat in our freezer bearing Merriam’s signature, the tomatoes soaking up sun in our garden, the onions and carrots growing in the earth below them. The dirt and sometimes blood under our fingernails, or the ability to step through our back gate onto public land and snowshoe up the mountain to cut our own Christmas tree.  We don’t need to quantify it; the qualitative suffices. 

It is summer now.  Our meat supply is wearing thin.  Every time I open the freezer my heart jumps with the thought of again resuming the process of filling that empty space. It is not yet time though.  Instead, when we get a half a day to spare, we retreat to the high country.  It is here we enjoy what we have termed ‘creek time.’  Up in some higher basin, where the summer temps are cooler, I park the truck near a meandering creek.  We unload.  Me with my fly-fishing gear, sometimes maybe even with a cold beer tucked in the vest pocket.  Sora and Merriam with their swimming suits, buckets, snacks, drinks, and coating of sunscreen.  The only one in the family who doesn’t love creek time is Duke, our now gray muzzled German Shorthaired Pointer.  It ends up being mostly laying-in-the-shade time for him, which a big running bird dog only appreciates outdoors after exhaustion from the chase.  No chase today, he accepts his purgatory.  I bid them farewell, and I hike upstream to find ripples and pools and play one of humanity’s oldest games.  The girls are off to wade in the creek, splash, collect bugs and leaves and sticks of interest, and build rock towers.  I hear them plotting their adventures as I go, and eventually as I work my way back downstream, I begin to hear their giggling banter again.  I slowly fish my way toward their voices, the only human sounds I have heard in hours. 

The final pool I want to fish is just above them, and soon I find my eyes drifting off my fly toward Merriam.  She seems like she hasn’t tired at all.  She has achieved a level of immersion in the environment only achievable by a child.  I feel the slightest tug on my line and my mind snaps back to the task.  Damn, missed that one.  I roll cast again, now refocused.  Again.  Again.  And then bam, didn’t miss it this time.  I reel in a rainbow trout.  Perfect size to complete our dinner for tonight.  One of the greatest parts is that Merriam and Sora don’t even notice.  I wade across the creek and the short distance down to them.  As soon as I pull the fish from my vest she is captivated.  As always, I hold the fish out and let her examine them.  I explain a little but mostly let her mind do the work.  She asks a few questions.  She runs her finger up and down the trout.  I have a fleeting thought about her fingers on the scales of a fish versus a touch screen.  She pokes at the eyes.  She flicks the tail fin gently.  She has yet to find it ‘icky’ in any manner.  Sometimes she wants to watch me clean them.  On this day she does not.  She has a rock tower to finish before we go.  I am back in a few minutes.  Now the fish have no innards and no heads.  They have moved from animal to food.  She looks at the one she had just examined with a long stare.  I tell her we are going to eat it for dinner, she nods and smiles.  As we get in the truck, I instinctively grab Sora’s hand.  I don’t look over at her, but I know from the squeeze she gives my hand that she is also happy with what we have provided today.

She has achieved a level of immersion in the environment only achievable by a child.