Camping Our Way Down the Columbia River Gorge

This week, my girlfriend Lisa was on spring break from grad school, so on Sunday we packed up tent, food, and cameras and drove out the Columbia River Gorge to spend a couple days exploring, hiking, and pretty much just seeing what there was to see. Leaving Seattle, we didn’t have any particular agenda, except that we wanted to drive through the Yakima River Canyon on the way down, and we wanted to visit the Goldendale Observatory on the first night.

When we reached the canyon, we found a little place called the Umtanum Recreation Area, where we pulled over for lunch. From the parking lot, there was a bridge over the Yakima River which led to a hiking trail, so after lunch we hiked across the bridge, over some railroad tracks, and into the canyon. There wasn’t much sign of Spring yet, sadly, except for a few flowers, a bumblebee, and some trees that were just beginning to bud.

As we made our way back along the trail, we wondered if the railroad tracks were active, given that they were so easy to access– a few minutes, a freight train rumbled down the line where I’d be standing a few minutes prior. It was an impressive sight, and trains would be a recurring part of our journey: the Columbia River Gorge is an incredibly active freight corridor, with BSNF trains rumbling past several times an hour. On our second night, camped at Beacon Rock State Park, the train tracks were maybe fifty feet away up a cliffside, and the rumbles and whistles of freight trains were a constant companion through the night.

We had planned on staying at Brooks Memorial State Park on the first night, based on some recommendations in Lisa’s guidebook, but upon arrival there we found that the whole park was still closed for winter. It was a bit of a letdown, given that it was 55 degrees and sunny (and also it wasn’t even actually winter any more). But it would be another recurring theme of our journeys– parks and scenic areas closed, mostly due to budget cuts that meant the parks could only afford to stay open during peak season.

So we pushed on, and found a campsite several miles down the road at Maryhill State Park. It was a nice place– our campsite was right on the Columbia River, and we spent a fair amount of time getting pictures of the river and the gorge. There was a truck stop right across the river, which spoiled the scenery a bit– although it did make for some nice night pictures. And in the morning, we were both grateful it was there, as we availed ourselves of the opportunity for a hot breakfast after spending a restless night on the hard, cold, almost gravelly ground of our tentsite.

On the second day, we made our way down the gorge, stopping for a little hike along the Deschutes River, then lunching at a roadside overlook near The Dalles, Washington after our first two choices (both nearby parks) were, once again, closed for the season. In the afternoon, we drove out of the gorge toward Mt. Adams, exploring the area a bit and getting some great views of the mountain.

At one point, in trying to get to the Big Lava Beds from Trout Lake, we found ourselves on a snowy forest road, and eventually had to turn back, leaving the lava beds for another time. We headed back down to the gorge and camped for the night at Beacon Rock State Park– this plan was almost thwarted when the main camping area there was also Closed For Winter, but luckily there was a year-round campsite right on the river that we were able to set up camp in.

We had originally planned on climbing Beacon Rock in the morning, but after two clear and sunny days, we woke up to the sound of rain on the tent. So rather than take a mile-long trail up a slick rock into a windy, misty, sky, we headed down the road a bit to the Bonneville Dam. We got a personal tour from the guide, saw the fish ladder (including the underwater viewing area, which was pretty awesome, although it was only sparsely populated by fish– we’re already making plans to go back during the peak season).

The rest of the day was mostly occupied by getting home, although we did stop briefly at the Mt. St. Helens Visitors Center to see what there was to see (answer: not much, given the weather). There was a neat little mile-long loop over boardwalks through the nearby wetlands, which we did before heading home.

It was a fun trip, although after two nights of hard ground (Lisa didn’t have a sleeping pad, and I’d forgotten mine) interspersed by nearby nighttime trains, we were both ready for a decent night’s sleep. I’m looking forward to going back in the summer, when hopefully more places are open, and we get to see the gorge in full summer foliage.

But we did get some pretty awesome Winter and Spring photos, if I do say so myself. Click Mt. Adams to check out the full set of pics on Flickr.

Insert Default Title Here… Or Better Yet, Don’t

I’d like to share with you a comic strip I saw on Facebook today. It’s worth a chuckle, and I suspect more than a few gamers will relate to it:

We all know analyzing humor supposedly ruins it, right? If that bothers you, I’d suggest you go read something else, because I’m about to spend a thousand words doing just that. More accurately, I’m going to analyze larger issues that the comic unintentionally brings up. If that bothers you– if you’d rather have your quick chuckle and move on, because Internet– you’re welcome to do so. But I hope you’re willing to stick around, because even the most innocuous comic, or story, or TV commercial, can be the springboard for some more interesting thoughts.

Still with me? Good.

On the Facebook thread, someone commented that the comic portrayed tired stereotypes– men with poor impulse control, women mothering their husbands– and expressed a desire that artists do more to quash that particular gender stereotype.

Hmm, my brain went, it’s just a comic, but y’know, she’s not wrong. Even if it sometimes reflects real life, it’s still a stereotype on display. Still, it’s just a comic. Worth a chuckle, a moment’s reflection, and time to move on, right?

I was prepared to let it go at that, get on with my day, when I noticed a reply from the person who posted the comic: “That’s odd, [name redacted]. I didn’t ‘see’ the gender aspect when I read this. Perhaps you’re reading too much into a joke.”

Oh, snap, my brain went. Oh, now it’s on. Because it’s one thing to disagree with someone, and it’s another to dismiss their argument out of hand.

You’re reading too much into it.

It’s just a joke. Lighten up.

Why are people such crybabies? Get a sense of humor.

Any of these responses (all of which were in the thread, at various points) will get my hackles up faster than a shitty call in a Seahawks playoff game. Every single one is just a way of saying, I don’t want to have this discussion, and I don’t want you to have it either. Go away. Occasionally (as in this case) there’s the bonus, not-subtle implication that the person who brought it up is really the sexist one, for pointing it out. Which is, of course, bullshit.

I’ve blogged about this before, but just because you personally didn’t find something offensive, doesn’t mean that other people are wrong for doing so. In this particular case, the commenter hadn’t even taken offense, just pointed out an old stereotype! The reactions I read were far more disturbing than the initial comic. Which is usually how these debates go, and how an innocuous comment ends up turning the Internet upside down.

It’s just a joke offers the suggestion that humor is not worthy of such discussion– that funny things should get a free pass, because hey, it’s just a joke, right? But that’s insulting in its own way– it belittles the incredible power that humor and satire have in this world. It’s just a joke, right? Tell that to Jonathan Swift. Tell that to critics (and fans) of George Carlin, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. It’s just a joke!

Bullshit. Jokes are powerful things, even when they’re not trying to be. As someone who’s written his fair share of humor stories, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But what about this particular comic? It’s just a cheap Facebook laugh, right? Well, yes.. but maybe not, if you view it in the larger context of our culture.

You see, the artist’s intent was just to tell a lighthearted joke, so most other aspects of the comic got set to “default.” The default assumption in our society is that males are more obsessed with games (and more “childish”) than women are, so that’s what got portrayed.

We’re focusing on the “women in gaming” default, because that’s what the comic is about– but it’s the not the only way the comic portrays the standard cultural default. The woman herself is pretty and blonde, the Star Wars obsessed kid is a boy, and the family’s skin color is white. Basically, everything about this comic that isn’t directly relevant to the punchline is just society’s default assumption.

Switching everything to “default,” when it’s not relevant to what you’re trying to do (or the punchline you’re trying to tell), isn’t necessarily a problem. But a lot of people are sensitive to this particular default right now because it’s one that many people are trying to change. Even if it wasn’t the person’s intent, it’s a default that still subtly encourages the dismissal of women gamers, because it’s not “the norm.” Does the comic by itself do that? No. Is this comic strip one tiny, infinitesimal part of a larger culture that does? Yes.

Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with any of those defaults when viewed on their own– they became the defaults partly because they’re very common in our society, but they also became the defaults because the vast, vast, vast majority of people producing media and pulling the strings of the industry were white men with certain norms and expectations. What was their default became our default. Even in media that isn’t intentionally sexist, those defaults pervade.

Another example where this dynamic is even more obvious is TV and print advertising. It’s the default to have women cleaning the house and taking care of the kids, while men drive trucks, play games and drink beer. When an ad breaks the default, it usually makes the news– for example, the recent Cheerios ad that portrayed an interracial couple, or the Coca-Cola ad that sung America the Beautiful in languages besides English. Those things don’t, on the face of it, seem all that controversial (especially the interracial couple… this is 2014!). Yet it was newsworthy, because it wasn’t the norm.

For an example of a comic strip that avoids defaults well, I’d point to Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, which portrays a wide variety of relationships and people, even when “the default” would be good enough to get the punchline across.

As a writer, I’m not saying you have to studiously avoid the default– I’m saying make your choices deliberately. Don’t create your characters in default mode just because you’re lazy. You’re taught to avoid cliches in your sentences, so why use cliches in your characters and their motivations?

And for those of you who think that this is a lot to pull from a single comic– well, yes it is. But it seems to me a discussion worth having, or at least, a discussion worth not shutting down.

Also, for the record, the comic itself is from direman.com (Yay for attribution– but that’s a whole other blog post.) It’s a long-running comic with a variety of characters, and seems to do a pretty good job of representing women in gaming overall, and does a fair amount of satirizing stereotypes. So perhaps it’s unfair to take this comic out of context– but that is how it was posted on Facebook (not by the artists, I should add). And I think it’s worse to try to shut down a worthy discussion by belittling people who bring it up, or dismissing their larger concerns with it’s just a joke.

Let’s be clear. It’s not just a joke. It’s never just a joke, even if that’s how it was intended. Context –cultural and personal– is everything. And just because someone does see a slight that you’re privileged enough to be able to ignore– please, try to put yourself in their shoes, if only for a moment. Maybe a day will come when we don’t have to talk about defaults, and when stereotypes aren’t so overused as to be worth noting– but until that day comes, don’t be surprised if you see these discussions crop up in places where you might not expect them to. When that happens, remember Wheaton’s Law.

And if you’re a content creator– be it a writer, artist, video producer, or otherwise– remember, don’t be lazy and pick the default, just because you can.

Creative Vibes by Lake Quinault

Yesterday, I got home from four days at the Rainforest Resort Village on Lake Quinault, on the southwest side of the Olympic Mountains. I was there with 36 other writers, surrounded by lots of awesome creative vibes as well as some awesome scenery– the event was the Rainforest Writers Village, and the goal was to retreat to somewhere isolated with other like-minded folks to get some writing done.

For me, it definitely worked. Over the course of those four days, I wrote 22,346 words for a new novel– it’s a steampunk alt-history story, and I’m really pleased with how it went. Being in the Rainforest, able to focus on the writing for long periods of time without worrying about going to the gym or filing taxes or sorting bills or checking the Internet, was a blast– and because I had a plan, with a freshly-outlined novel ready to start, I feel like I was both more productive and more successful than the last time I went to Rainforest Writers, back in 2012. It was the most fun I’d had writing a novel since my first NaNoWriMo, back in 2009– I loved the characters, I loved the scenes, and I felt like I was playfully romping through the prose, like a puppy playing in a field, chasing zeppelins and dragons and intrigue during an alternate version of the Second Opium War.

Needless to say, I’m pretty excited about this project. But that wasn’t the only good thing about Rainforest– I got to hang out with some good friends, several of whom I hadn’t seen since my last Rainforest two years ago. I also felt less socially awkward than I did back in 2012, and had more fun hanging out with new folks and meeting people. Part of the reason is that I feel more a part of the writing community than I did two years ago– and probably part of it is also the antidepressants I’m taking, and the general progress I’ve made with my depression.

But in addition to being more comfortable socially, I was also more comfortable alone– I was more than willing to go back to my room in the Inn, which had a fantastic sitting room facing the lake. There I could sit on the couch, put my feet up on the coffee table and write alone with my laptop, sometimes for an entire afternoon. I probably did two-thirds of my writing in my room, and a third in the public writing area in the Lounge, which was a nice occasional change of pace.

In addition to writing a third of a novel, I also got a lot of great photos of both the people and the scenery– after breaking my own personal record for writing fiction in one day on Thursday (about 7200 words), on Friday I went for a 4-mile hike on what turned out to be our one sunny day, taking pictures of mushrooms and waterfalls, then watching a fantastic sunset over the lake. We were also lucky enough to get some clear nights, with some of the best views of the night sky that I’ve seen in years.

The best part, though, was the people– the group meals, the conversations, the Saturday night party, sharing photos, and bouncing ideas off each other. I’m planning to head back to the Rainforest next year.

Here’s a slideshow of pics from the weekend!