Running away, starting over, “lighting out for the territories,” going BIG. . .
Dudeville is a coming-of-middle-age adventure story about a late-30s corporate dropout turned backcountry snowboarder and mountaineer. Inspired by a wild range of voices – from Whitman, Muir and Twain, to Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey and Warren Miller – Dudeville charts the spiritual exploration and self-discovery that comes between the trailhead and summit of any big mountain.
Equal parts extreme sports tale, male bonding romp, and reluctant love story, Dudeville is a sensuous, lyrical, exuberant exploration of the American West.
Imagine Huck Finn “lighting out for the territories” 150 years later, this time as a late-30s corporate dropout turned backcountry snowboarder and mountain climber.
Dudeville is a coming-of-middle-age adventure story about a late-30s corporate dropout turned backcountry snowboarder and mountaineer. Inspired by a wild range of voices – from Whitman, Muir and Twain, to Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey and Warren Miller – Dudeville is equal parts extreme sports tale, male bonding romp, and reluctant love story.
Dudeville also charts the spiritual exploration and self-discovery that comes between the trailhead and summit of any big mountain.
A celebration of the great joys – and occasional terror – of big physical challenges in soaring landscapes, Dudeville is a sensuous, lyrical, exuberant exploration of the American West.
Jonah Das had a high-pressure job with a hyper-growth technology company on the East Coast until he discovered snowboarding, hang gliding, jam bands, and the raw spiritual power of life above treeline … and fled to Colorado. He lived and worked there from 1997 until 2004, where he was an avid mountaineer and backcountry snowboarder and skier. He is also the author of That Golden Shore, a novel about the myths, landscapes, and indigenous peoples of California. He is currently the editor of Illahee Rising, a geographic information non-profit that identifies lost and neglected Native American historic and cultural sites for inclusion on our maps and in the historic record. He lives and works on a native tree and plant farm on the land of the S’Klallam and Chemakum on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state.
Let’s just call it semi-autobiographical. I can’t imagine how anyone could write fiction that rings true for readers without elements drawn, whole or in part, from their own experiences, yearnings, regrets, sorrows, or joys seeping in around the edges, if not underlying the entire story and its themes.
At the same time, many of the characters portrayed and incidents described in Dudeville are pure fictions: products of my research, imagination, self-indulgence, and spiritual attachment to several extraordinary places in the American West. (Except for the dogs, of course; and to honor their superhuman levels of physical stamina and personal loyalty, I have used their actual names.)
But I have always believed that any novel worth reading is based, independent of material facts, on a lived, living, or livable truth: the particular as universal, and vice versa.
That’s what I was going for with Dudeville: to chart the spiritual exploration and self-discovery that I know — personally and through the testimony of many others I know or have read — that so often comes between the trailhead and summit of any big mountain.
I wrote Dudeville because I couldn’t believe someone already hadn’t written it. It felt like a book missing from the world. My biggest ambition with Dudeville was to connect the adventure sports movement that emerged in the 1990s — and is now flourishing all over the world — with all those old American myths about westward migration, self-invention, and spiritual liberation.
I also wanted to memorialize a bittersweet time and place in our cultural history, when more and more people were discovering wilderness, adventure sports, and the backcountry, but right before technology invaded every last square inch of it – a time when you really were all on your own out there. No cell coverage, no helmet-cams, no social media to show it all off. Perhaps because living and playing in the mountains was all still new to me, and I was watching the trails fill up with people, but the first time I heard some guy on his cell phone on the summit of a “Fourteener” in Colorado — a mountain higher than 14,000 feet in elevation — it felt like the second closing of the American frontier.
That unique moment in American cultural history — which I try to illustrate throughout Dudeville with a mix of big adventure, bawdy humor, and local color — is underscored by my unabashed homage to the literature of the American West. In Dudeville, you will find echoes of –- and the occasional explicit reference to –- the work of Mark Twain, Edward Abbey, John Muir, Dee Brown, and Wallace Stegner, and the lesser known but more timeless works of Jack Kerouac. All of those authors were caught between a longing for the spiritual freedom and personal release that comes a few hundred feet into a big, wild, wide-open landscape –- and a painful awareness of what happens in their immediate wake, at the hands of those who came behind to mine, pave, fence in, subdue and commercialize that landscape.
I tried to capture that in the story too, because it really is a story about one guy’s late-onset adolescence as metaphor for the end of yet another American innocence. While following Dudeville’s characters on their various adventures in the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada, and Arizona desert, you will also get a primer on the bloody history of the American West, as I attempt to connect its legacy of violence forward to some of its more disturbing modern events. From the perspective of adventure tourists, drop-outs, or down-shifters looking to chuck it all for life in one of those mythic “perfect ski towns,” the American West seemed and maybe still seems vast, wild, and free. For them, the West is this great big empty canvas, where you can be left alone to do your own thing. But that was, and is, the biggest myth of all.
The West was never empty. And out there, you can be far more vulnerable than in a big city full of crime and people. Just ask the majority of Native Americans living in grinding poverty on the reservations how free it really is. Or ask Matthew Shepard. That was another big ambition of Dudeville. I wanted to show just how historically and emotionally complex these places actually are – these places that look so pretty in the postcards, in the adventure travel magazines, in all the breathtaking ads for ski resort real estate.
As for that autobiographical element…like the narrator of Dudeville, I was a very serious business guy for many years. I have worked in the US health care system since 1989, and I’m the author of three books about medicine in America, including Catching Babies, a novel about the culture of maternity care and childbirth. My work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and dozens of medical and business publications. I’ve also been involved in the formation, management, and governance of several health care companies and non-profit organizations, and I still am today — though I spend most of my time dreaming about or working on the sequel to Dudeville.
Half Moon Bay, California, 2017
Jonah Das could be that guy in the next office or cube over, always rattling on about his most recent adventure vacation – until the day he just up and quits. The next thing you know, he has moved to one of those “Best Adventure Towns” we are always reading about in the outdoor lifestyle magazines. His fourth book, Dudeville, charts one of those classic mid-life re-inventions. Played out at altitude and bathed in adrenaline, the novel is a romp into the backcountry on a snowboard and the spiritual power of testing yourself above treeline.
You have to know that you’re trafficking in a collective fantasy with Dudeville. Dropping out, downshifting, telecommuting – trying to find a way to move to a small town in a beautiful place and still figure out how to make a living.
Absolutely! That was my own fantasy for years, working my ass off in a corporate job back east, the whole time dreaming about dropping out, blowing it all off, living the dream out west. And I was extremely lucky, in my mid-30s, to be able to turn that into my own reality, at least for a time.
Is this why the book feels like a bit of a nostalgia trip? The characters in Dudeville are all hanging around in mountain towns today, and yet you’ve set the story in a very specific timeframe, the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
It wasn’t personal nostalgia, because the dropout-to-go-big fantasy has been around since the earliest days of the country’s history. Walt Whitman wasn’t the first, but he was the first to give it to write it all down so beautifully! And then John Muir, Mark Twain, Edward Abbey, and the more obscure works of Kerouac and Steinbeck – a huge part of the American literary tradition is really just a big road trip west. And I know people today still indulging in it. It’s half the nation’s ski patrol!
But again, the story feels extremely date-stamped, especially the way it winds up.
Yes, Dudeville’s specific time-period was very deliberate that way. I wanted to memorialize a bittersweet time and place in our cultural history, when more and more people were discovering wilderness, adventure sports, and the backcountry, but right before technology invaded every last square inch of it, and you really were all on your own out there. No cell coverage, no helmet-cams, no social media to show it all off. Back then, when I blew off my corporate job to live and play in the mountains, I was watching the trails fill up with people. Trailheads for popular climbs were turning into traffic jams. Every weekend day, winter and summer, I-70 out of Denver was one long traffic jam. And the first time I heard some guy on his cell phone on the summit of a Fourteener in Colorado, it felt like the second closing of the American frontier.
That would also explain all your homage to the literature of the American West, the echoes of some the authors you already mentioned – Abbey, Muir, Twain, Whitman, Stegner, Kerouac’s mountain lookout books. You go so far as to make explicit reference to a few of them.
Of course! No book worth reading exists in a vacuum. Every author is standing on the shoulders of the authors who came before, who marveled at the same amazing places or things or ideas, who obsessed over the same problems. My biggest ambition with Dudeville was to connect the adventure sports movement that emerged in the 1990s — and is now flourishing all over the West — with all the old American myths about westward migration, self-invention, and spiritual liberation. And that’s why the homage to those authors. The history of the American West is one of the greatest, messiest, most complicated human stories of all time, and it has fascinated me since I was a little kid, reading about the explorers, the pioneers, the Native Americans.
And that little kid certainly makes a cameo in Dudeville.
Yes, he does. And while everybody wants to know what elements in the book are autobiographical and what parts are pure fantasy, the passages about my time alone in the woods as a kid are the most unadorned. That really is how I grew up.
Having profound, Thoreau-like spiritual experiences, alone in the woods, as kid?
Yes, as a kid, as early as, I’d say, nine of ten years old. The woods were safe, the woods were alive with meaning for me. I grew up in not far from the Onondaga Indian Reservation, and in the woods near our house when I was growing up, they were doing an archaeological dig of an old longhouse. That sort of thing can really trigger a kid’s imagination. Suddenly, those woods were full of Iroquois, and it was always still the French and Indian War out there, and I was in the middle of it.
And even back at that age, you were having spiritual experiences out in the woods, the way you describe them in Dudeville?
Yes, I was, starting way back at that age, in ways I try to describe in the book. When I did discover Thoreau in my late teens, it was instantly recognizable. And that’s why my second biggest ambition with Dudeville. I wanted to place a novel about something as quirky and contemporary as backcopuntry snowboarding on a trajectory going all the way back to what literary types call ‘American Transcendentalism.’
I think I know what that is, but could you define it?
‘American Transcendentalism’ is a literary tradition that celebrates the mystical power of landscape and nature, the ability of what’s all around us to seep into our souls, and send them into something like temporary rapture. And it almost always happens when you’re out there solo. But who has climbed a big mountain, or gone down into a desert canyon, or stood on a big empty beach and not felt it? That spiritual release or connection – the complete dissolution of your worries, your social construct, your ego that comes a few hundred feet into a big, wild, wide open landscape – that is as profound a human experience as you can have. And in a place like Colorado, where the feeling is turned up 100X, it can be extremely powerful, and become extremely addictive. So yeah, the adventure story that serves as a container for Dudeville may look like just another romp through the snow, but I also wanted to write a story that connected all of our fun in the outdoors with a very serious literary and cultural tradition.
With lots of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, of course.
Of course! It’s called ‘Dudeville’ for a reason. All the climbing yarns in locals’ bars, the obsessions with gear, snow, weather, and putting up firsts; all the chasing after the Betties; the mountain dogs and jam band music everywhere. I wanted to catalog a distinct, colorful subculture, if only because I came to it as an older guy who never really had an adolescence and who was enraptured by all of it, even if – well – no spoilers from me. But just because a novel explores the spiritual experience of wild places, or the dark side of mountaineering, doesn’t mean it can’t also be fun.
So it’s a very serious, literary place – where the locals rule.
I know, I know. My friends have gotten on me about that. But hey, that’s also an American tradition, right? A big part of the literature of the American West has always been a visceral anguish about what those coming right behind you – mining, paving, fencing in, bulldozing – what they are doing to this landscape you’ve internalized and are so connected to. Back in those days, I remember a t-shirt: ‘Welcome to Colorado: Now Go Home.’ In Half Moon Bay, where we live now and you can spot a good surf break by the traffic jams on the PCH, it’s all ‘Go back to the valley, man!’ I try to capture that in Dudeville too.
Because it really is a story about one guy’s late-onset adolescence as metaphor for the end of yet another American innocence.
Well, that sounds a little grandiose, but ok. Which goes back to the specificity of the story’s time-period. Right around the turn of the millennium, all these beautiful places were being overrun, thanks to ordinary population growth, plus the downshifting of all these baby boomers who were flush enough to retire or semi-retire out in these ski resort towns, plus new technologies like high-speed internet and cell coverage everywhere that allowed people to tele-commute, stay connected with the urban national economy. All of sudden, hordes of people really could move to Telluride, or Crested Butte, or Steamboat, or Park City, and not have to try to scratch it out as ski bums.
And you were one of those guys.
I was, and a big part of Dudeville is my struggle with how to do that, what it meant, how to minimize my own impact on the environment out there. I may have been just another tourist who stuck around, but I was painfully aware of the cost, of my own footprint, and how it was not a footprint in uncharted territory, but territory soaked in the blood of history. From the perspective of adventure tourists, drop-outs, or down-shifters looking to chuck it all for life in one of those mythic ‘perfect ski towns,’ the American West seemed and maybe still seems vast, wild, and free. For them, the West is this great big empty canvas, where you can be left alone to do your own thing. But that was, and is, the biggest myth of all. But the West was never empty, and in Dudeville I wanted to show just how historically complex these places actually are – these places that look so pretty in the postcards, the travel magazines, the breathtaking ads for ski resort real estate. Ultimately, Dudeville is a love story – about all these beautiful places we are in danger of loving to death. It’s a bittersweet love song to them.
From “Summit Fever,” somewhere outside Dudeville, Colorado
From this summit, the horizon seesaws open into an electric blue dream of Colorado sky, the adolescent swagger and brawn of the Rockies, a youthful geology’s arrogant challenge to gravity, the roof of the world turned upside down. The wind rushes up out of the canyon, cleansing the mountain, cleansing the earth, cleansing me. And the Presence, once again and always, the sense beyond all sensations turned way up, a feeling like someone is here in the room with me, except the room is the size of everything.
I have no idea what the Presence is, but I know that it is verifiable, witnessed through the experience of others. I’ve watched them burst into tears when I’ve led them to the top of one of these mountains for their first time, and I’ve always wondered: tears of what? Joy? Relief? Recognition? Sometimes I ask them what they are feeling, and they can never say directly, only compare it to what they’ve felt somewhere else, and it’s the same short list for me: walking along a great empty beach, beholding the pastel streaks of dawn or fiery dusk at the edges of the day; standing at the edge of a desert canyon, the blood red earth opening before them like a great womb; or stumbling out of a sweaty country bar at night, into the sudden darkness and quiet and a skyful of stars.
I push my board over the edge and point down the snowfield spilling off the north face, the adrenaline coursing through my body like cool water down a parched throat. Back and forth, time slowing and the horizon blurring, nothing but gravity, back and forth across a perfect snowpack, a blank canvas of creamy spring snow tilted 40 degrees. I am surfing off the roof of the world, dropping down the margin between transcendent bliss and utter catastrophe, a channeled fury exploding from my core into arcing snowboard turns as I crisscross the fall-line and dissolve into gravity.
From “Pissing Contests,” in Ullar’s Bar
Maggie’s propped up on the cooler behind the bar reading Mountain Gazette. She’s the big sister of Dudeville’s local Bettys, this tribe of ripped athletic women who piece together their livelihoods through some combination of competitive skiing or snowboarding, guiding, teaching, and killing it out on a huge mountain in magazine ads for gear made by their sponsors. For the best money and worst scorn from the rest, the Bettys who are the poster-prettiest — with their hats and goggles off and hair down — make the best money, not in skiing or riding shoots, but posing in ads for ski clothes, ski resorts, ski town real estate.
Spend your ski money here, disposable incomers and bucket list boys from back east, their big white teeth and honeyed hair and facefuls of sun all seem to say, and you’ll get a hot Betty like me, for the slopes and the apres.
I look out across the long, heavy tables, carved up with nicknames and lewd petroglphys and lacquered with a thousand coats of beer and BBQ sauce, and remember the pissing contest from last spring. Kelly and Hillary were holding court at the big table in the back, four or five other Betties and a bunch of guys crowded around, talking smack about who fought harder that season for her wins, or got a rawer deal from this or that gear company, or wrecked her knees more. Kelly — with her strawberry blond perma-braids, wrestler’s shoulders, ice blue eyes, and freckled face all splashed and splotched with the sun – had raced in high school and switched to freestyle while sort of attending the University of Colorado. When backcountry skiing went from anonymous wolfpack adventure to televised extreme sport, she left the industrial bumps for the wilds just past the resort’s ropes, and turned into one of extreme skiing’s first stars.
The pitchers went down and volume went up, as she squared off, again, with Hillary, her rival since their high school racing days, who had skied her way to a silver medal in the World Cup and a bronze in the Olympics. Hillary was taller, thinner, and blonder, and her face and teeth seemed to grow only more radiant with all that sun. Kelly was the better, braver and more creative skier, could beat Hillary down jagged plunges of mountain most people wouldn’t venture near let alone think of skiing; but Hillary had the prettier face and longer legs and Olympic hardware, and so she struck sponsorship gold: fashion modeling. She started out dressed in ski clothes which, shoot-by-shoot, started coming off, until she was essentially naked in Ski Illustrated one winter, nothing but a pair of skis held crosswise, at just the right angles across her big boobs and shaved little cootch.
I missed the first part of the argument – I was out back smoking a bowl with Dana and Maggie, then back at the table with Aaron still rattled by and ranting on about that day’s avalanche rescue — but then the whole of Ullar’s went quiet when Hillary yelled “Oh fuck you! I piss all the time standing up outside the starting hut.”
“So what?” Kelly yelled back. “You think you’re the only girl who can take a piss standing up in ski boots?”