Long Cuts

Originally posted on TrailNation.com -- Summer 2009

We've been in a deep rut
And it's been killing me
If you wanna take the long cut
We'll get there eventually

The Long Cut
Uncle Tupelo 

I've had the same job, with nary a promotion and not much for raises, for the past 17 years. I've sat behind the same desk, in the same chair, all the while. I've lived in the same town, in the barrio, for almost 20 years.  And I've been married to the same woman for 13 years. The total value of my IRA is just over $250.00. That is not a typo. 

I am 43 years old. 

I've owned 3 cars and just one 1000 square-foot house in my entire life as an adult. After bills are paid there is never more than a few hundred dollars in our checking account, especially come August when we haven't seen a real paycheck for months.

Perhaps I lack initiative. Or maybe I'm just unlucky?

A slacker, stuck in a rut?

Whatever the case, why would anyone put up with such an existence?

I've painted the picture too black.

First of all, right off the bat, it's gotta be said: I've been married quite happily for the past 13 years, and we've got a great, healthy kid to-boot. In my humble opinion, that's about all it really takes to make life, any life, okay. Bottom line for me: without the love of my wife and kid, everything else, whatever form it might take, would just seem a bit too bland.

I am blessed.

But still, some of those ruts do seem rather deep, don't they? Same job, same house, same town... for, like, forever... it begins to sound intolerable, doesn't it.

But it's really not.

In fact it's quite tolerable. Livable even.

No, really.

You see, some time ago, my wife and I decided to make one trade-off in life, a compromise for our greater-good. We determined to sacrifice a few things in order to be able to make our life in a good location: near the trailhead in small-town Flagstaff, Arizona.

Years ago, long before the Crash of 2008, I wrote a cover story on real estate trends in my hometown for a regional business magazine. Not really my kind of writing, but it paid a few bills, ya know. Anyway, I've forgotten most of what I learned during my interviews about buying and selling property and stuff like that, but one comment from a guy named Stern (seriously), a very serious, very successful, older Realtor, sticks with me.

Upon learning that I was bent on making my life and my living in our small town, he said to me quite matter-of-factly, "John, that's wrong! You don't start-out in a place like Flagstaff. You end here! This is where people retire, buy second homes, not where people make their careers. Ya gotta go out there, make your money, and then come back here with something. You'll never get ahead if you stay in Flagstaff!"

And to a degree, old Stern was absolutely right. Measured by my bank account, my job promotions, my square footage, or the newness of my gear, he was dead-on. 

But those things aren't on my measuring stick.

In addition to my happy marriage and our healthy gregarious kid, there are some 15 bicycles in my garage, plus our one nice car and my toolbox. I live exactly 346 seconds (give or take) from nearest trailhead into the Coconino National Forest where a network of 80, 100, 150, who-knows-how-many miles of epic singletrack trails await. I spend my summers working with a bunch of fine folks in a local bike shop, and my boss and his employee discount are both quite generous. Our local ski area is, max on a powder-day, a 40-minute drive away and the backcountry outta-bounds access is awe-inspiring. Riding on the road in the morning, I live 15 minutes by bike from the school where I teach, and I ride there everyday, rain (snow) or shine.

And, best of all, at the end of my workday, it's nothing but singletrack across the sunny side of Mount Elden all the way home... The long way.

It's the chance to often take Long Cuts that makes this life work.

I may be years away from retirement; heck, maybe I'll never be able to retire. That would totally suck! But, it wouldn't be the end of the world. Because, oh man, if I could just show you my way home from work! Seventeen years, still haven't tired of it: buff-colored, volcanic, foresty singletrack, mile-after-mile of amazingly technical rock-strewn trails with cool names like Forces of Nature, Spring, Tree, and Fat Man's Loop.

Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps built a lot of the trails on the southeastern flank of Mount Elden, this oft-overlooked peak that quickly rises some 2200 feet to frame the north side of the city of Flagstaff so nicely. Many of the rest were built by teachers who taught long-ago, long before my time, at the school where I now teach. The remainder were improvised by wildlife, or random privateers carrying McLeods and wearing night vision goggles (just a theory). Officially, the Forest Service calls this large, long tract of land between the base of the mountain and the neighborhoods on the edge of town below, the Mount Elden Environmental Study Area. But I usually just call it My Ride Home. Because that's what it is. That, and a daily reminder of why we live as we do: because we get to live where we do, just down the road from the woods.

I hope this all doesn't come off sounding like a brag. I don't mean it that way. Sure, we dig our simple life together in Flagstaff. But this life, like any, is full of trade-offs, as all adults know. Maybe it wouldn't work for you. And remember: in many ways you're probably a heck of a lot better off than I am. Chances are good your house is bigger. And, despite the Crash, your IRA is still probably way larger than mine, too. Perhaps you've got a boat, a toy-hauler full of toys, or a lovely second-home somewhere cool. Or maybe you're even more set. Maybe you live in Breck, or Tahoe, or Park City and can bust out for a shred or a day skiing even quicker than I. That would be sweet!

My point is only this: living small near the woods, where we can get on our bikes and go and be on the trails in minutes, or bump up the mountain for a powder morning on the slopes in under an hour, or out for a mellow walk with the dog without any deliberation, works for us.

But, truth be told, sometimes, like when the bills come due, or we visit with friends and find ourselves at the end of the evening envious of their big home or whatever, we tend to forget in the moment all our careful decisions, and we begin to begrudge our current socio-economic status to one degree or another. 

And that's when we have to make a conscious decision to get out, as soon as we can, for a walk, for a ride, for a reminder.

Because it's the long cuts that remind us best: that we're taking the Long Cut, together. And we'll get there, wherever that is, eventually.

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