Sunday, December 1, 2013

Comfort with Discomfort

It would be easy for the uninitiated reader of all the wonderful outdoorsy books and blogs out there to assume that all we do in the outdoors comes with ease and comfort.  One can read entire shelves concerning life afield, and never encounter a mention of biting ticks and mud and soggy feet.  In much of our literature there exists a dearth of reality, in which the protagonists always bag the game with ease and aplomb, and usually have some schmaltzy life-affirming quip to back up their legendary shooting.

Never having experienced the sport, a novice might wade into fly fishing, quite literally, without any consideration given to the fact that they might someday find themselves staring, rather startled and vexed, at an impromptu piece of feathery jewelry dangling painfully from an appendage they'd not intended to pierce.

It ain't always wine and roses out there.  In fact, it rarely is.  A lot of times, it's even gonna suck a little.  If you do what we do outside, you're going to sunburn and shiver, bring home scrapes and bruises along with a full game pouch.  Or end up with a fish thrashing on the other end of a crank bait buried in your leg.  Them's the ropes, but it isn't often addressed in the glossy mags or erudite literature, and I think a touch of reality is in order.

Excursions for most of us common folk begin with throwing the gear and some food in the truck. Then we do what we do all day, and haul it all back out of the vehicle, slightly more muddy than it was when we left home.  There are no dog handlers, no chefs, no maĆ®tre d'.  It's up to us to power through the slogging and sorting, the cold and wet and tired, bird cleaning and deer gutting by headlamp, because this is what we love to do.  The vast majority of the time there are no panoramic vistas or transcendental moments.  Those are the rare treasures we seek but seldom find, and they are that much more powerful in their rarity after countless hours sitting in the cold or stumbling around on slippery river rocks until we take an unplanned swim.

The following is taken from an email I was forced to send to my entire contacts list years ago, as referenced in one of my very early (and pretty amusing, if I do say so) posts here -- Falling Down

It was going to be a glorious morning.

Waders on, fly rod in hand, I made my way down a slick bank to enjoy a few casts before officially starting my day.  It was then that I suddenly found myself flailing at nothing, enjoying a rather pleasant -- if unexpected -- weightlessness.  Followed immediately by a free fall to a muddy, wet finish.  I stuck the landing with my chin, and the Romanian judge gave it an 8.6 with a the full level of difficulty rating.

My phone is toast.  The screen shattered somewhere between the second and third full twist in the pike position, with no way to retrieve the contacts.  It also feels like I bruised my duodenum and sprained sixteen ribs, but that's not the point of this message.  Please reply here with your contact info if you wish your number(s) to be in my phone.  Or don't, if you're sick of me.

Of course replacements are currently backordered, so Verizon has kindly provided me with a lovely Bakelite rotary-dial eight-pound loaner to lug around in case the need to call in danger close air support should arise.

Have a nice day.

It was actually an abysmally useless early Windows phone for the sake of setting the record straight, but that isn't what we're driving at here.  This is: Much of what we do outside leads to a lot of hanging around slightly bored, getting frozen solid or cooked like a brisket.  Yes, there are those glorious moments of accomplishment, but there's also a lot of waiting around in the rain -- and trust me, there's a very fine line between the badass-ery of hunting in the freezing rain and simply sitting in a sopping duck blind like you were dropped there by a short bus.

I recently listened to Meat Eater's Steven Rinella among a panel of guests on a very popular podcast.  In the course of their discussion about the physical demands of hunting, one of the guests (I can't recall which) summed it up by saying that sometimes you just have to become comfortable with discomfort.  I'd never heard it put more succinctly, nor had I realized that was precisely what I and many other outdoorsy folks do without ever thinking about it.

Years ago I took my neighbor and friend in Madison ice fishing for his first time.  He was a professor at the UW, southern by birth, and a hell of a good dude.  An outdoorsy kid decades before, after years cooped in classrooms and meetings he was finding his way afield again in his free time, and I was frankly honored to take part.  He mentioned that he'd like to try ice fishing, so when I knew the bite was on we bundled up, and hit The Triangle on Monona Bay right downtown.

It was a steely hard mid-winter morning with blustery winds, but I didn't own a shelter big enough for the two of us at the time, so we braved it on upturned buckets like everyone used to do.  We caught a passel of fat bluegills before the whirring glow of the Vexilar, and I called it for the warmer climes of home just when I began to worry he was going to turn blue and topple off his bucket in one big frozen chunk.

Months after that, as we drank beer and told stories in my living room -- I think he often took great pleasure in escaping what he termed the "insufferable droning of academicians" with me -- he shared that one of the things he was most struck by from our day together on the ice was that I hadn't worn gloves while I fished.  His wife corroborated this sentiment, stating that he'd repeatedly mentioned it and stared at her dumbfounded when he'd returned home. 

Now, any jigger of panfish through the ice will attest that when the bite is hot, you can't really wear gloves and remain effective.  They eventually get wet and useless or gooped up with fish slime and useless, and you can't really tie a knot or bait a tiny hook with them on anyway, so you end up tossing them aside to get your jig back in front of fish faces with as much alacrity as possible.  And your hands get cold, but you deal with it.

I don't share this story through some need to express online machismo (fishing without gloves had never occurred to me as exceptionally "tough" or even "fucking crazy," to quote our shocked looking southern professor friend), but to demonstrate a reaching of comfort with discomfort.  My hands get as cold as anybody's, but we ice fishermen know that putting gloves on in that moment isn't the right play.  You just ride it out as long as you're on the school.  First your hands sting, then they ache, then it goes away.  As long as they turn pink and not blue or white, you're fine.

Pro Tip- Occasionally huffing and puffing on frozen hands, whacking them on your legs and cussing, or boinging around furiously with your hands thrust between your thighs like you just smacked your thumb with a hammer are all perfectly acceptable substitutions for gloves during short fishing breaks.  But you don't do any of them in front of your male Arkansan neighbor.  You sit somberly and give your best Intrepid Ice Guide thousand yard stare from behind the beard and mirrored shades.  There is a manliness protocol when taking southern guests ice fishing.

When asked how I can stand to sit on a frozen lake or hunt in the rain for hours by my "city friends" I often equate this becoming comfortable with discomfort to being hungry in a meeting or sometime when you can't eat.  You acknowledge it and move on.  Toughen up, Buttercup.  Or alternatively, if you're gonna run for the truck every time you spring a leak and spurt a little blood... or take a massive digger on snowshoes right in front of your buds Pike and Rum Runner moments after proclaiming your expertise to them on said appliances...  maybe stamp collecting is a better option for you.

I'd love to try a hunt of ease and luxury someday.  Maybe a proper English driven pheasant shoot with a scatter gun that costs more than my first car (which isn't really saying much -- almost every shotgun at Dick's costs more than my rust and powder blue Volare station wagon did).  I'd make long passing shots with grace and humble wit, then retire to the library, all herringbone and tattersall, for scotch and talk of favorite dogs in front of a warming fire, the birds and guns left to be tended to by handlers and cooks.  

But my hunt will almost assuredly never end that way.  Instead, I track mud into the house, and drink PBR while starting dinner.  Brian combs burrs out of Buddy and carps about city people.  Or bird watchers.  Or people who ride bikes ("goddamn hippies")... mostly anybody who isn't us.  The man has issues and a rare talent for colorfully entertaining vehemence, but he knows his way around the woods better than almost anyone I know.

Just occasionally though, after all the discomfort, just when you've made your peace and accepted it, there does come that perfect fish or deer or bird.  Or simply a moment of grace, a pittance of quiet understanding at the feet of the natural world.  Perhaps a short escape into that perfect panorama.


  1. Good company loves misery. It builds character, just like Calvin's dad always said. Well done.

  2. Years ago, during a particularly snowy elk camp in western Colorado, an uncle mused on the same subject- you went out in your jeans and cotton waffle weave longhandles and spent the day icy and cold tramping up and down steep ridges and blowdowns and, all in all, it's the best part of the year. Patrick McManus may have captured it best in the title of his book "A Fine and Pleasant Misery"

    1. Thanks for reading. I was definitely trying channel a touch of McManus in this post, and especially in that email fro the past. That book (and many of his others) were passed around freely in the family when I was a youngster.


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