2021 Reading List

Wow, 2022 already! I’ve got a pretty good list of resolutions this year.

3 days in and I’m holding strong.

One thing that’s not on the list: reading more. Why? Because I did plenty of that last year! It was a good year for books, and I’m excited to share what I’ve read. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them as much as I did.

Format is the same as last year’s list: 4 categories, from Read Right Now to Skip. If I think something was outstanding or peculiar I’ll give a little review, but I won’t spend too much time on things in the “it was fine” category.

So without further ado, here we go!

Read Right Now

These books have it all. Delightful prose, fascinating content, a meaningful message. Once you’ve picked it up you’re loathe to put it down, and once you’ve finished you feel a better person for it. There is no reason that one of these shouldn’t be your next read.

This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

A recommendation from my sister, Time War is far and away my favorite book from this year. It might be my favorite book in the last decade. The conceit is, two superpowers at the end of time send agents back into the past to prevent each other from ever existing. The agents fall in love; the book is a collection of their letters to one another. The prose is beautiful, almost poetic, and it’s the most satisfying and accessible treatment of time travel I’ve seen in a while. If somehow you haven’t already heard of this one, do yourself a favor and go pick it up right now.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, translated by H. T. Willetts

I will admit, when I borrowed this novella from the library at the recommendation of my team’s PM intern, I did not expect it to make my top list. As the first realistic account of life inside a Soviet labor camp to be published in the USSR Ivan Denisovich is historically important, but it’s the overwhelming humanity of Solzhenitsyn’s characters that pulls it out of “ought to read”. Denisovich’s life is truly awful, but his soul shines through regardless in the satisfaction of a job well done, the dread of frostbite or a missed meal, the joy at finding an extra crust of bread. The story is at once a denouncement of the brutal excesses of Stalin’s regime and a monument to the tenacity of the human spirit. That juxtaposition makes it all the more powerful.

Entangled Life, by Merlin Sheldrake

A recommendation from a student, this delightful nonfiction is half introduction to the bizarre science of mycology, half rambling memoir of a very weird mycologist. Shelldrake writes well, his passion for the field is evident, and he has had some great adventures. And fungi are way more interesting than you might expect.

Ought To Read

These are the ones I enjoyed, and maybe thought were important, but for one reason or another I don’t feel like everyone I know should drop what they’re doing and read them immediately. Still highly recommended, especially if they seem like your cup of tea.


  • A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine
    • A delightful little gem, wonderful science fiction world building, great characters, gripping plot. I think there’s a trilogy planned but I felt like this one stood on its own.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr
    • A thousand years after a nuclear apocalypse, the church is the last bastion of knowledge in a dark age, carrying unintelligible scraps of wisdom forward into an uncertain future. The subject matter is dark, and yet Miller keeps it funny and light, in a way that doesn’t feel artificial or distracting. Canticle is a classic, and for good reason.
  • Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino
    • Marco Polo and Kublai Khan sit by the fire, talking of cities that are, cities that were, cities that might be. This is a collection of micro stories, almost poems, each about a different city. In classic Calvino style, it is both weird and delightfully written. It’s also great for reading out loud.


  • The Box, by Marc Levinson
    • This short history of the shipping and container industry was surprisingly interesting. I also finished it just in time for the Ever Given incident.
  • Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber
    • Last summer while hanging out with a couple of climbing buddies, one who is most of the way through a PhD in economics and the other with an undergrad in philosophy and a masters in neruo-psychology, I mentioned that I was on the lookout for a serious read. They looked at each other, then back to me, and together said one word in perfect unison: Debt. Written in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Graeber turns an anthropologist’s critical eye to the study of economics. He ends up debunking many of the myths they teach you in econ 101, and asking some deep questions about whether we might do economics a little differently. The writing is good, and because he’s an anthropologist, it’s not about numbers, it’s about people and how they did or did not live. It is also very long and a little dense, which is what kept it out of the top tier.
  • Algorithms to Live By, by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths
    • This one was an unexpected hit. The title suggests this one will explain your life in terms of computer algorithms, but this one really explains important computer algorithms in terms of real life. As someone who has made a career out of this stuff, I learned a surprising amount about how computers work and why. It’s not number- or theory-heavy, and I suspect it would be just as accessible and entertaining to someone who hasn’t studied computer science or math.

Read if You’re Into It

These are the weird ones. They’re not bad (bad books go in Skip) but maybe they’re niche, or technical, or extra long. If it sounds like you’ll get something out of it you probably will, and if not then you probably won’t.

  • Wherever Seeds May Fall, by Peter Cawdron
    • Solid science-fiction, of the near-future first-contact variety. Delivers a “surprising yet inevitable” twist, but some of the social commentary felt a little on-the-nose during the pandemic.
  • Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan
    • Very dumb and very fun. I read this immediately before Debt, and goodness was that an about-face!
  • Notorious RBG, by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
    • Well-written, but since it’s targeted at young adults it assumes the reader knows basically nothing about modern American history or the course of the Feminist movement. I would recommend it to any teenager in a heartbeat.
  • The Machines of Empire Trilogy, by Yoon Ha Lee
    • Excellent, weird, well-written science fiction. The conceit is great! I almost moved this to “ought to read”, but a thousand pages of grimdark math-rock space opera is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
  • The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
    • I enjoyed this one, but it was not an easy read, and I would probably not recommend it to most people. What has always stood out to me about Dostoevsky is his ability to depict human misery, particularly of the self-inflicted variety. That is a bit of a hard sell! I feel like if you’re in my audience and you’re going to like Dostoevsky, you’re probably already reading Dostoevsky. But if not, and you’re feeling like attempting some Dense Russian Literature, Brothers K is not a bad place to start.


As I get older, I feel I’ve gotten more aggressive about not finishing books. I used to take pride in completing everything I picked up. Maybe I’m more mature now and feel I have less to prove, or maybe at age 30 I now I feel the inexorable approach of death a little stronger, and am a little choosier about how I spend my time. Either way, these ones didn’t make the cut.

  • Superintelligence, by Nick Bostrom
    • Bostrom’s thesis, that we as a civilization are probably not far off from creating something smarter than us, and that’s probably an existential thread, is salient and well made. But this book was really depressing. I had to put it down. Sorry Nick.
  • The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
    • Oof this book. Instead of writing something new here, I will copy/paste from a text conversation with my sister. Enjoy.
      • Hi! I’m like 20% of the way through Avalon (our boy Art just got his sword) and I’ve got some Thoughts and Opinions. You didn’t ask, and I’m going to share them anyway.
        1) This book is well written! The prose flows, and MZB has a wonderfully unique voice. I am enjoying myself.
        2) I don’t know much about the experience of being a slightly misanthropic teenage girl, but I can totally see how this story and character set would be exactly what they were looking for.
        3) MZB writes without a shred of irony. She is 100% invested in the story she’s telling. The fate of Britain hinges on every event, every emotion is the highest high, or the lowest low, or else it’s a character putting aside all emotion, all humanity, for the good of the realm. Even the meals are either a little slice of heaven or something that turns your stomach because of the great weight you carry on your shoulders. No one ever cracks a joke. I have not checked, but what I imagine is that if MZB were on Twitter she would spend a lot of time defending tiny details and getting salty at fans.
        4) Avalon (at least what I’ve read so far) is feminist, but it’s a feminism that doesn’t challenge existing power structures. MZB does not for a minute question the legitimacy of monarchy, or the right of one group of people to rule unconditionally over all the others. She doesn’t examine the Saxons, they are not humans with their own wants and needs and problems but merely a horde of unfeeling barbarians at the gates. Her standards of beauty are thoroughly American: women should be tall and thin, men tall and muscular, all with blonde hair and blue eyes. The Isle of Avalon is as blindly hierarchical as the world of priests and kings outside. Vivian and eventually Morgaine are the chosen ones, ruling by blood and divine right, and though their reign may be less overtly violent than that of the men it exacts no less a toll from those who are not at the top. MZB’s vision of feminism, at least in this book, seems to be not so much tearing down the patriarchy as it is throwing up a parallel one that happens to be run by women.
        5) This book is very long, there’s no way I make it through before I have to return it. Haven’t decided yet if I’m going to spend money on a copy to finish it out.
        Also, there’s a lot of book left, and it’s possible she’s setting up a baseline to contrast with later as she delivers a scathing literary criticism of patriarchal white supremecist capitalist power structures.
    • The first 300 pages of the book were at least entertaining; the second 300 were just boring. I ended up putting it down with another third left to go. It’s a bad book, and I’m not sorry.

That’s it for this year folks! Good luck in 2022, and stay tuned for next year’s edition in which I lament not being able to put Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth in my top list because it’s too rapey.

2020 Reading List

2020 was a lot. You all know what happened, I don’t need to reiterate. In times like these, sometimes all you can do to keep yourself sane is escape between the pages of a good book.

The format of this one is the same as last year. There was less that landed in my top category this time around. There’s a few things that I could see leading to that:

  • A 5 month vacation made 2019 a big year for books.
  • I picked up a couple of long biographies (John D. Rockefeller and Ike Eisenhower), that together sucked up a lot of my reading time.
  • I picked up several novellas and collections of short stories this year. Many of these were great, but they were often more experimental and less balanced than a full novel, and that kept them out of the top ranking.
  • My 2019 strategy of “find books that made it onto both Obama’s and Bill Gates’ reading lists in the last 5 years” has started to run out.

That’s not to say that what I read in 2020 wasn’t good, it’s just not the sort of thing where I’m urgently excited to share it.

Anyway, here’s the books.

Read Right Now

These books have it all. Delightful prose, fascinating content, a meaningful message. Once you’ve picked it up you’re loathe to put it down, and once you’ve finished you feel a better person for it. There is no reason that one of these shouldn’t be your next read.

So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo

It’s 2020, check out how woke I am with this best-seller at the top of my list!

Seriously though, if you haven’t done some reading and some self-reflection on the topic of racial justice this year, and especially if you’re white, you should probably get on that. This book is a good place to start.

Above all I was impressed by how accessible this book felt – you don’t need to be a social justice warrior or have read a bunch of theory to get something out of it. Taking a step to educate yourself can feel intimidating, but while this book was a lot, reading it didn’t feel like work. I honestly believe that any human would benefit from reading it.

If it still feels like too much, go check out Trevor Noah’s autobiography (see last year’s list), then come back to this.

Ought To Read

These are the ones I enjoyed, and maybe thought were important, but for one reason or another I couldn’t quite give them top honors. Still highly recommended, especially if the seem like your cup of tea.

  • To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers
    • Becky Chambers is one of my favorite modern sci-fi authors, and this novella about a crew of explorers on a distant world is fantastic. If you’re into sci-fi at all, go check it out!
  • Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami
  • The Nonexistent Knight, by Italo Calvino
    • Italo Calvino is weird. The Nonexistent Knight is weird. It’s silly and absurd and almost begs to be read aloud. If that sounds good to you, you’ll probably enjoy it.
  • The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang
  • The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
    • Somehow I had never read this! I love Hemingway, and this delivered.
  • The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison
    • Serenity! This delightful little novel gets props because
      1. It’s an excellent bit of political drama with a side of unique world-building
      2. It’s the rare standalone fantasy novel (no trilogy required)
      3. I read it aloud on the Wonderland trail and we got a lot of mileage out of doing the voices
  • Liveship Traders Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
    • Fantasy pirates on sentient ships! What more could you ask for? I picked this up at the end of October as a distraction from election season, and it definitely did its job. It’s incredibly well-written, I blazed through the three books in about a month and a half, and the characters and events stayed with me long afterwards.
    • Fair warning: it does involve rape. It serves to advance all three of plot, character and setting, and it’s handled with what to me seems an appropriate amount of gravity. But if that’s going to trigger you, maybe skip this one.

Read If You’re Into It

  • Titan: The Life of John D Rockefeller, Sr., by Ron Chernow
  • Eisenhower in War and Peace, by Jean Edward Smith
  • The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin
  • The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Ambercrombie


  • The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander
    • Read this with a work book club. I didn’t get a lot out of it. Oh well.

Hello Remitly

I’ve found a job! On Tuesday September 22, I’ll begin full-time work as a Senior Software Development Engineer for a Seattle software startup called Remitly.

What is Remitly?

Let’s say you’re an immigrant worker from Honduras picking cherries in Yakima, or maybe a Filipino construction worker in Saudi Arabia, and you want to sent part of your paycheck home to your family every month. This kind of small international money transfer is called a remittance, and it’s a huge source of income in developing countries. But how do you get that money back to your family?

You could…

  • Go visit a Western Union office and pay a big transfer fee
  • Send an envelope full of cash through the mail
  • Use this fancy new app called Remitly

The idea is that Remitly eats Western Union’s lunch by being more convenient and just as secure at a tenth the price. This is accomplished by clever software, economies of scale, and operational efficiency.

About the Company

Remitly is a late-stage venture capital-funded startup. Earlier this year they raised $85 million in series F funding on a $1.5 billion valuation. The desired exit seems to be an IPO (CEO Matt Oppenheimer is adamant about maintaining control of the company), and general consensus they’re on track to do so “in the next few years” (which you should, of course, take with a grain of salt). Their business has been doing great in 2020 – no one wants to risk getting COVID by physically going to a Western Union office, so they’ve acquired a lot of new customers. Wooo tech economy!

I’ll be joining their “new initiatives” team, working on a new project that hasn’t been officially announced yet! Exciting! You’ll probably see another post here when that goes public.

I’ll be working in a back-end / server-side role (as opposed to working on the app itself). The tech stack is Go and Java running on AWS. I’m super pumped about learning go! I am somewhat less excited about re-learning Java, though I hear it’s improved a lot in the last decade. AWS I’m somewhat ambivalent about. I found it frustrating to use while I was at Ada, but a lot of that was because I was debugging weird student issues, and because I never spent enough time on it to feel like I knew what I was doing. But whether or not I learn to love it, I suspect working with the cloud will be an incredibly valuable and powerful skill-set, one that’s all but inevitable for a software engineer in 2020.

But the thing that drew me to Remitly is that it’s not just about eating Western Union’s lunch. Remitly is fully committed to helping improve the lives of immigrants and their families by providing useful financial services. It’s an extremely mission-driven company, and this manifests itself everywhere I’ve looked, from their website, to conversations with current and former employees, to their press coverage.

The Mission

I am totally stoked about Remitly’s mission. I think they’re actively making the world a better place, by helping the right people in the right ways for the right reasons.

People – I love the idea of working for a company that provides useful services to immigrants. These are people who have made a huge sacrifice in search of a better life, for themselves and their families. They want it, and they’re gonna go get it. People who are willing to upend their lives in search of something better (a group which includes Ada students) tend to be excellent, and tend to be a great investment. They also have intimate, direct knowledge of how they money they send can best help their loved ones back home.

Ways – Remitly helps those excellent people in a way that is useful, sustainable and dignified. Its product takes a part of their life that was both important and a big pain, and makes it easier, cheaper and safer. It’s also a “fee-for-service” model, which I like much better than something e.g. ad-supported, where the user is not the customer.

Providing the tools motivated people need to help themselves is a sustainable business model, a good fit for a private for-profit company, which in turn allows for faster growth and nimble action. It fits nicely into the theory of capitalism as an engine of wealth generation and human development (the “good parts” of capitalism, as my socialist brain calls them).

Reasons – This one is a little more complex, and I’m going to get into armchair political economist mode. Bear with me, and please do let me know when I say something dumb!

The promise of modern / postmodern / neoliberal economics, particularly the theme of globalization, over the past 3 decades has been two-fold: human development and liberalization. The idea is that poor backwards countries, when exposed to western ideas and western money, would of course become nicer to live in and more free.

The first desired result has pretty much happened. If you compare China, Vietnam, India or Poland today to where they were 30 years ago, it’s pretty clear when is a better time to live there. Of course there are many exceptions to this (particularly places where the US government meddles directly like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, etc.), but the general trend has been a huge surge in human development and standards of living in recent years.

Much (or some at least) of this development is the direct or indirect result of investment in those economies by western companies and governments. Often this takes the form of companies moving factories overseas to take advantage of cheap labor markets. We complain (justifiably!) about bad working conditions, pollution, etc. in these factories that is hidden from the consumer and insulated from western regulatory environments, but ultimately the jobs get taken, the countries get richer, and the people who live there are less likely to starve and more likely to send their daughters to high school.

On the other hand, the liberalization component doesn’t seem to have panned out so well. China is cracking down on Hong Kong, Poland and Hungary just re-elected far-right governments, and the POTUS is an unabashed fascist. Authoritarianism is on the rise globally, despite the earnest promises of neoliberal economists from the 90s.

My somewhat uneducated suspicion is that this is partly a result of the top-down pattern of aid and investment. Governments give money to governments, corporations invest in corporations, and there are many layers for power to trickle through before anything reaches The People. What incentive does an Eastern European oligarch have to liberalize their government, or to protect the rights of ethnic minorities? None – in fact, such changes would make it more difficult to control and exploit their workers.

Remitly (and immigrant labor in general) represents a somewhat different approach to globalization. It’s bottom-up globalization, a movement of people and mixing of cultures that I think bears a bit more promise. An immigrant worker is directly exposed to western ideals, without a propaganda filter or great firewall. They are paid directly, and can send that money directly to where it’s needed most, supporting whatever people or causes back home they think are worthy. At the same time, their work is subject to labor and environmental legislation in the countries they come to – there’s no offshoring of the negative consequences, so they must be dealt with up front.

Besides which, there’s plenty of evidence out there that immigrants are also a net financial gain for the countries they immigrate to. Plus that’s where you get great innovations like Vietnamese and Thai and Mexican and Italian restaurants in every town. So who’s complaining?

Wrap Up

Huh, I got a bit excited there.

Anyway, work starts on Tuesday. I’m ready. Funderemployment has been pretty alright, but I am very ready to have coworkers and interesting problems and a mission that gets me out of bed in the morning. Even if my commute is only the 10-foot walk to my computer. I am a little nervous about returning to private industry after 4 years of nonprofit work (“but mooooom! what if they’re all robber barons?”) but I think Remitly is as good a way as any to get back into it.

Wonderland Actualized

I’m back from the woods! Yes it was great! No we didn’t get too smoked out!

Here’s the full trail report.

Dramatis Personae

If you’re not familiar with the tradition of trail names, now is the chance to educate yourself!

First is Bagel, so-named because she packed a bagel in each food cache. These “dum-dum carbs” powered her through our hardest days.

Bagel and me – different trail, same mountain in the background.

Here is Santa, famous for his bulging hang-bag full of treats. His return from the bear pole each morning would be greeted with a rousing chorus of “Here Comes Santa Claus” or “The Man with the Bag”.

The book is “Radical Acceptance”, if you’re curious. Turns out Santa is into Eastern philosophy.
Santa spent his “luxury weight” on a film camera. Gotta work for the perfect shot!

And I am known as Dad, because I carry the map, know what the hell we’re doing, and drive everyone everywhere. Plus it’s only one letter away from my actual name. I shaved down to the dad-stache after being awarded the title.

The party assembled

Additional roles included park rangers (overwhelmingly friendly and chill – the impression I get is that woods cops aren’t the actual worst like city cops, but our party was all white so it’s hard to be sure), other backpackers (friendly in the morning, tired and terse in the afternoon), day-hikers (oblivious), trail-runners (out of breath), and a few boomers driving oversized RVs.

On the Trail

9 days of hiking is a lot. 93 miles of hiking is a lot. There are many ups and downs, both physically and emotionally, and I struggled to find a way to convey the experience. There’s not one thing that sums it up, and giving a play-by-play would be boring both to write and to read. The best thing I could come up with was a series of tableaux – that’s how it presents itself in my mind. I hope they make some sort of sense.

Climbing slowly through the fog out of the Carbon River valley, pausing to catch my breath, and watching the clouds burn off over about 2 minutes leaving a beautiful clear day and a perfect view of the toe of the glacier.

Seriously, no more than 2 minutes apart!

Chasing after Bagel on her first dum-dum carbs morning as she pounds up the ridge below Skyscraper Mountain, and getting a perfectly crisp early-morning view of Rainier, followed by views north all the way to Glacier and Baker once we round the ridge.

Listening to jazz on the trail. I’ve been learning the piano this spring, and my teacher says if I can’t play for 9 days then I should view this as an opportunity to do some listening.

Jazz albums tend to have excellent names.

Catching up with Santa, who has paused for a water break in Berkeley Park, under a ridge where the Wonderland intersects with several other trails. We have a good view of the Mt. Fremont Trail just under the lip of the ridge above us. “29… 30… 31” he says as I walk up, pointing. “I can see 31 people just on that mile-and-a-half stretch of trail”. It is Sunday of Labor Day weekend, we are coming up to a major access point for the park (White River), and due to COVID no one has anything to do other than hike. The next several miles are very crowded.

Spotting deer and mountain goats in the same morning!

Slogging up the 2000 ft climb to Summerland with a full pack at the end of a 13 mile day, and the immense relief when a hiker going the other way lets me know it’s just 3 more switchbacks to the top.

Reading out loud. Each night I read a few chapters from The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, thoroughly butchering all the made-up elven words and names. I love reading out loud – it’s a great way to bring a group together, and it gives me an opportunity to bust out my teacher voice.

Waking up to pee and spotting Rainier glowing in the moonlight, then waking up early to catch it in the pink of dawn.

My crappy phone camera couldn’t handle the moonlight but it sure did snag the dawn.

Summiting the 6800 ft Panhandle Gap, being almost blown off the mountain by the wind rushing between the peaks, and spotting a mountain goat and kid somehow surviving in this desolate place.

Eating lunch in the beautiful sunlight at the group shelter at Indian Bar, and dipping our swollen feet in the cold clear water of the creek as we filled up our bottles.

Realizing my water bottle has fallen out of my pack, and having to backtrack over almost a mile of steep terrain to find it.

The relief of a “rest day” between Nickle Creek and Paradise River after 2 brutally hard days, “only” 9.5 miles and 2000 ft of elevation. The reduced difficulty is important, but almost as key is the change of scenery – instead of climbing huge ridges with outlandishly, demandingly beautiful views, we recover from sensory overload with a quiet day climbing steadily through a narrow canyon and enjoying the fall colors just starting to appear on the opposite slope. Of course, we finish with a big climb up to the big view of Reflection Lake, but by then we are ready.

Obligatory Reflection Lake pic.

Sitting on the porch at Longmire sipping coffee (real coffee, not instant!) and waiting for the restaurant to open for lunch (fresh food!).

Recognizing different groups of backpackers keeping a similar cadence along the trail. Maybe we would be at the same camp two nights in a row, then leap-frog each other up a steep climb, then loose track for a few days, then suddenly be at the same camp again. It was good to see some familiar (masked) faces.

Realizing we’ve found our second dry camp in a row (why didn’t the ranger we met this afternoon tell us the lake is dry when she checked our permit?), drawing the short straw to slog a mile back up the trail on aching legs to pump water for the night, and seeing one of the most splendid sunsets I can remember.

Finishing our second 13-mile day and finding it much easier than the first. Seems like your body really does get conditioned as you go.

Pulling a plastic half-bottle of wine out of my pack on the last night and toasting to the Wonderland, then getting remarkably silly after just one cup each. Turns out not drinking for a while and cranking your metabolism up to max for a week lowers your tolerance!

Sitting and reading on the last night when I feel something scuttly crawl over my foot. I turn on my headlamp and what do I see? Mice! A whole bunch of them, clearly living off of hiker droppings. We hang the backpacks on the bear pole with the food to avoid getting a salty strap gnawed through in the night. The mice end up getting into our food despite it being hung – either they have figured out how to get around the skirt on the pole, or a lucky one hitched a ride in one of our packs. They only get into the trail mix, and eat everything but the raisins. Typical.

Deciding on a silly name for each of our campsites:

  1. Carbonara River, at which the party dreams of pasta
  2. Camp Oopsie, at which several minor mishaps occur
  3. Lightbox Camp, from which we observe Rainier in the daylight, moonlight, and the pink glow of dawn
  4. Nipple Creek, at which the crew is very tired after a long day on the trail and takes the obvious joke (from Nickle Creek)
  5. Mediocre Paradise, which is not all it’s cracked up to be
  6. LA, which is dry, crowded and a bit smokey
  7. Land Before Time V, next to a lake so dry it would be comical if we didn’t have to walk a mile to get water
  8. Camp Serenity, at which the group shares an inside joke from TGE (we read 5 whole chapters that night!)

Driving back down into rural Pierce County, filled with Trump signs and apocalyptic smoke, and wondering if we should just turn the car around and head back to the woods.


Hiking the Wonderland Trail was a lot of work. It involved a ton of logistics, from getting permits to planning training hikes to prepping and distributing food caches. And of course, it was intensely physically demanding – probably the most physically difficult thing I’ve done in my life.

It also involved a lot of luck. Getting a permit? Luck. Avoiding injury during a long summer of training? Care, but also luck (in fact, one of our party had to drop at the last minute due to a ruptured Achilles). Wildlife not eating our food until the last night? Luck. No rain or freakishly early snow? Luck. No wildfires in the park? Luck. Smoke from the CA / OR fires holding off until the last day to get really bad? Luck.

So I guess I would say I’m grateful to have been so fortunate. Fortunate that the stars aligned, and fortunate that I had the time and money and experience and strength to take advantage of the opportunity. Fortunate that I had good friends who could share in the journey.

Hiking the Wonderland also hammered home the reality of global warming and climate change like little else I have experienced. Rainier is in severe drought again this summer, and many creeks and lakes shown on the map were dry. At the same time the glaciers are in full retreat, flooding the major rivers with silty meltwater, washing out bridges and making crossings difficult. I remember standing on Emerald Ridge over the Tahoma Glacier and being able to measure its retreat year-over-year by the quantized heights of the saplings colonizing in its wake, looking down at perhaps a mile of valley that was permanently under ice until a decade ago.

Santa crossing a raging torrent.

And of course there’s the smoke – we had some early in the trip from the Yakima fire, and then the last day-and-a-half we were hit by the smoke from the CA / OR fires. The forests and mountains that I love so dearly are literally on fire. An area the size of New Jersey has burned already just this year, and the fires are barely contained. The skies being filled with smoke and ash is not something that used to happen, and now it’s practically every year. It’s remarkable when it doesn’t happen. I don’t know what more convincing evidence you could ask for that something is terribly, frighteningly wrong with the balance of our planet.

So I guess that’s another reason to be grateful – grateful that I get to experience this magnificent trail as it is now.

And finally, I’m really glad to be back in a place where you can get clean hot water with the turn of a tap, you don’t have to go to bed at 8:00 just because the sun has gone down, and by pressing a couple buttons on your phone and trading in a few imaginary economy points you can get a real live pizza delivered to your apartment in like 45 minutes. There’s certainly something to be said for modern technology.

But… I think I will go out again this weekend. At least for a day hike.

Wonderland Preparations

Next week I’ll be hiking the Wonderland Trail!

For those of you who aren’t familiar, the Wonderland Trail is a 93-mile hiking route that circles Mount Rainier. The trail is famous for both beauty and difficulty. Over our 9-day trek we’ll be gaining something like 22,000 feet of elevation, so just a little more than one ascent of Denali.

The Wonderland Trail has been on my list for several years now, and I am elated to have a chance to throw myself at it. We leave on Friday, and I can hardly wait.


The Wonderland Trail is incredibly popular, so to help keep it pristine and let you have some solitude, Mount Rainier National Park has instituted a lottery system for back-country permits. You apply in mid-March with a proposed itinerary and a list of what changes you’d be willing to accept, and if you’re lucky you hear back a couple of months later from the park rangers with a final route plan.

Coming up with a route is somewhat complex, but there are a ton of resources on the internet that will help you. One of the most useful was the Wonderland Trail Itinerary Planner, which is very fancy and interactive.

Electronic planners are great, but sometimes you’ve just got to sit down with a guidebook and a map.

Getting a permit is far from a sure thing! I’ve applied for the last 4 years, and this is the first year I’ve gotten one. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have gotten one this year – between a low employment load and everything else being closed due to COVID, an outdoorsy hobby to sink a bunch of time into has been just what I’ve needed.


So what does it take to spend 9 days on the trail?

9 days off food and supplies is a lot! A good estimate is 2000 calories per day plus 100 calories per mile, which works out to about 27,000 calories for the whole trip, or about 3000 per day. That’s enough calories that you need to be intentional about eating. Hiking hungry is no fun, and once you’re in a calorie hole it’s hard to climb out.

What actually goes in the cache? Don’t run out of food!

That much food is heavy, and it probably won’t even fit in your pack. So instead of carrying it all with you, you leave caches for yourself along the trail. That way you only need to carry 3 or 4 days worth of food at a time. Plus you can stow a spare T-shirt and a fresh pair of socks in each cache.

This is what 27000 calories looks like. It’s mostly candy.

Of course it’s not just food – you need to cache any kind of consumables, like fuel, toilet paper and sunscreen.

Tomorrow I’ll spend the day driving around the mountain and dropping off caches at ranger stations. Hooray for being both the party leader and unemployed.

I’ve also been working on dropping pack weight. Ultra-light tent, tiny water filter, and dropping comfort items I don’t need. I should be able to get my dry pack weight to about 26 lbs, which is pretty comfortable.


What’s the best way to train for a 90-mile hike? By hiking, of course! I’ve spent 23 days and 8 nights on the trail so far this year, totaling more than 200 miles.

Yay data!

Of course, 200 miles of trail has produced some pretty good photos.

An early-season hike at Mt. Washington near North Bend

With no office to bike commute to, I’ve taken up running in between hikes. I’ve added on a light regime of body-weight resistance training. Sometimes I do yoga (I should do more of this).

Goat Lake, off Highway 20

My number one goal with this training was to drop weight. Weight has some issues as a fitness goal, both scientifically and socially, but in this case it felt appropriate. That much hiking, particularly downhill, is really hard on your joints. If you could take 15 pounds out of your backpack you would be elated, so why not take it off your middle instead? I cut sweets (mostly) back in the spring, stopped drinking in mid July, and have eaten a LOT of salads. Plus cooking at home more due to COVID makes portion control much easier. The result is I have lost 15 pounds since April, about 8% of my body weight. I feel great, my pants sag noticeably when I forget a belt, and I am ready to take on those hills.

From Mt. Defiance, with Rainier in the background

COVID has made this a very strange hiking season. On the one hand, the wilderness is the only thing that’s open and safe, so it’s been remarkably crowded. Finding a campsite or even a sliver of solitude can be a challenge, though it’s no where near as bad as that hike I did in Korea. On the other hand, none of my friends have anything else to do, so it’s always easy to find a hiking buddy.

Mt. Adams, as seen from a different Goat Lake
The Knife’s Edge section of the PCT
Cispus Basin, possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever camped

Tomorrow I lay in the caches, and Friday we hit the trail. It’s been a lot of work to get to this point, and I am ready.