Bootpack to the summit of Mount Glory
Mountain Quarantine Routine
The white Ford Transit turned the corner onto Aspen Drive on its return from a backcountry skiing mission. My roommate Leon had converted the van into a spartan living space for outdoor adventure sports. The other two roomies, Collin and Carter, were sprawled out on the bed in the back surrounded by three sets of skis and my snowboard. They were staring at some pictures on Carter’s phone of the terrain we had just skied and discussing new lines we could attempt the following day.
We had just finished our morning summit hike up Mount Glory, a grueling 40-50 minute slog up a bootpack from the Teton pass parking lot. As soon as we had caught our breath and strapped in, we were rewarded by pristine, adrenaline-pumping, "blank canvas" powder. Since COVID-19 shut down the resort and grinding normal life to a halt, we had made backcountry ski trips a daily routine. Social distancing in the mountains is delightful.
Sitting shotgun, I saw that the restaurant on the corner of our street had been cordoned off and a construction crew was tearing down the rustic facade. When we parked, I hopped out and started walking back up the road towards the large caterpillar backhoe that was pulling down a stone wall into a heap. “Where are you going?” Leon asked. “I’m gonna see what they’re doing with all that stone and barn wood siding,” I said.
Still wearing my snowboard boots I walked up to the foreman and inquired about the plans for the restaurant’s building materials. “They’re all going to the dump,” he said. “Woah, can I have them?” I asked. “Sure. If you can beat the dump truck. They’re yours.” I felt like I was channeling the spirit of my grandpap, who had always been on the lookout for “one man’s trash is another’s treasure” style opportunities. Within an hour I was pulling a 26’ Uhaul into the construction site to load up barn wood siding, farmer’s stone, copper doors, and custom fireplace fittings. Over the next few days, with the help of my roommates, I made four runs over the pass to Driggs, Idaho with my treasures, wondering if I would be able to use all of the materials I had just accrued. In return for the help, I would pick up steaks, asparagus, garlic bread; and a bottle of malbec. Hard work deserves a good feed.
After watching the housing market in Teton county for several months I decided to put a bid in on 105 East Little Avenue in Driggs, Idaho. In a stroke of unbelievable luck, I cleared out my individual brokerage account for the down payment just before the market tanked from the pandemic. It was as if I had been walking down a sidewalk and a dropped piano had smashed on the ground a few feet behind me! Everything was set to close on April 1, 2020 but when the appraisal came back it turned out that the property, which had served as an engineering firm's office, was zoned commercially. Although it was originally a residence before being refitted as a business, it would have to be rezoned to purchase with a residential loan. My real estate agent said he could get my earnest money deposit back but couldn’t guarantee that we could get it rezoned. I could walk away unscathed. Instead of walking, I decided to double down. This was for all the marbles. Mountains of paperwork, a $1500 application fee, and five weeks later my case was going to be heard at the planning and zoning committee zoom meeting.
The final committee zoom call had eight committee members, a small local business, and me. My case was up second, so I got to watch and listen to the small business rezoning request before my own. The committee voted not to rezone the property commercial and the small business owner was borderline hysterical. He pleaded with the committee, passionately explaining how so much money had already been sunk into the property. If I had been nervous before, I was really shitting myself now! My mouth was dry and I could feel my heartbeat in my throat. The last thing I wanted was for my voice to waiver when I spoke. I did some circular breathing, four second inhale, four second hold, four second exhale, and a four second hold on empty lungs. It helped. I unmuted myself and presented my request to the planning and zoning committee. They deliberated and then voted. "All those in favor say Aye," said the chairman. A chorus of Zoom "Ayes". "All those not in favor say "Nay". Sweet, sweet silence. "This committee has approved the rezoning of 105 E Little avenue to neighborhood mixed use." Relief and elation washed over me. For some reason, when a tense situation passes it makes me laugh...giggle really. Without thinking about it I unmuted and blurted out, "Thank you everyone! Looking forward to being your neighbor!" Not only could I buy the house that I had invested myself in financially and emotionally, it could serve as a single family home or a business! My heart was grinning ear to ear.
Working with wood procured from "Lift": A restaurant in Jackson, WY that was torn down
Since I wouldn't actually close until 2 July, 2020, I released some earnest money to the seller so I could move into the property and begin working on it May 1st. The next two months were spent putting up all of the timber and stone I had gotten from the restaurant. The barnwood siding covered the peaked sides of the house and I added tongue-in-groove cedar underneath the eaves. Then I ripped out the wall that was covering the wall in front of the cinder block chimney to expose a perfectly intact fireplace. Not being much of a stone mason, I hired a professional to do the entire chimney and hearth in stone. Be still my rustic heart! I finally had my mountain ski lodge!
The same day that I closed on "The Haberdashery" I started my drive back to D.C. to rejoin the Office of Naval Intelligence. Four ski bum renters ensured the mortgage was paid and I could focus my attention upon gracefully reentering my career. Coming back to my old job after two years could not have been more seamless. Most of my colleagues, including my brother, were still there, and I was even brought back in at the same pay grade. All of that fretting I did before quitting was totally unfounded. I think I’ll be doing this sort of thing again a few times before I retire for good!
The Haberdashery receives a face-lift
Old Town Exodus
Quick backstory: After grad school at Syracuse University I had taken a job working for the government as a civilian intelligence analyst with the Kennedy Irregular Warfare Center (KIWC), a center within the Office of Naval Intelligence. From 2011 until 2018 I generally spent 8 months at home and 4 months abroad embedding with Naval Special Warfare SEAL teams and Naval Expeditionary Combat Commands (think Explosive Ordnance Disposal EOD, Riverines etc). For the job I was based in Bahrain, Afghanistan, Stuttgart, and Guam but also had the opportunity to travel around the regions I was working. Best of all, my brother Luke also worked at KIWC. The two of us carpooled, worked out in the mornings, and even deployed together to Guam in 2016. Between leisure travel and my job, an insatiable wanderlust has brought me to 74 countries thus far. By my count there are 195 so I’ve still got 121 countries to go.
Following my mid-career hiatus I returned to KIWC as if I had never left. After two years without a proper paycheck and having just purchased the Haberdashery, getting back to work was a relief. When my Alexandria renter’s lease was up I moved back into my townhouse there and picked up where I had left off. To my delight, Luke and his wife Alicia bought a place two blocks from me in Old Town. It was good to be home!
The freedom of solo travel is the bee’s knees but long established friendships are sunshine for a road weary soul. The effortlessness of these bonds can be easily overlooked or taken for granted but are unmistakable when they are rediscovered. Adventures are to be had here in the United States too. Sharing these experiences with your closest companions is a happiness force multiplier. Back among my people, outdoor trips like mountain biking, the annual Allegheny River canoe trip (25th year running), and camping in Shenandoah filled my social calendar.
Luke, my buddy Joe, and I took a trip out to California to visit Andrew Noriega, a former work colleague, renter, and friend. We hiked a section of the Jon Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevadas, slept under the stars in Death Valley, and for contrast’s sake, indulged in an evening on the Las Vegas Strip.
Canoe Trip, California Backpacking, Dunanda Falls and Hot Springs (Yellowstone) and building a Walnut table with Luke
Hafa Adai Guam
Spearfishing in Guam
In December 2020 I embarked on a five-month deployment to Guam. It began with a mandatory 14-day COVID quarantine in the Westin Hotel. I nearly lost my mind from restlessness and boredom. This was evident to my instagram followers who expressed concern when I began a multi-day story chronicling the life and times of my stainless steel french press, "Franklin." It's available for viewing in my IG (@restlessben) highlights reel under the title "Franklin." Not to spoil it but Franklin is forced to confront his murderous french press brother Felix who sets about killing other appliances in the hotel room. Franklin is still my barista today.
This was my second time in Guam for work, the first being in 2016 when I was there with Luke. The silver lining of a small island with strict quarantine entry requirements is that compared to the rest of the world, COVID was barely an issue. My free time was spent spearfishing, freediving, boating, paddleboarding, doing yoga in an open-air studio situated next to a waterfall, and running through the rainforest with the Guam Hash Club. Two of the other KIWC deployers, Kristin and Mark became good friends. We were thick as thieves. As far as “deployments” go, being on a virtually pandemic-free tropical island was quite pleasant.
Old Wives Beach Rope Swing, Yoga Garden, and Mark and Kristin
In April 2021, I returned to Washington, D.C. with a tan and a smile. Shortly after getting home I received an exciting text out of the blue from my old friend Wills Baird. “Hey man, you want to raft the middle fork of the Salmon River this July?” I thought about it for about .5 seconds before responding, “Hell yeah! I’m in!” Wills and I had met back in 2009 while studying in Egypt at the American University in Cairo. A fellow wanderer, Wills had gotten out of the Navy after serving as a Nuclear Submariner and traveled around Europe in a converted Land Rover that would make “van-lifers” swoon. He had been invited to raft the Salmon by his childhood friends from Charleston, SC and wanted to get another good adventure in before starting med school at Stanford. He's a fascinating guy and his instagram stories are a highlight of my day (@willsers).
I flew into Boise, ID and met up with Charles, Billy, and Rich at the airport where a smiling Wills scooped us in his Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. The five of us made a trip to the grocery store where we stocked up on 7 days worth of food and booze before driving out to the put-in at Boundary Creek. Five dudes in a Tacoma is a tight squeeze but we swapped out "sitting bitch" to spread around the pain. The outfitter dropped off our gear, two inflatable rafts, a 16’ and 18’ footer, and an inflatable duck boat. The center frame rowing rig positions one person in the middle to pilot the boat with two oars like a rowboat. The others are tasked with navigation, beer drinking, and general jackassery. We were made for this!
Before the sun had even crested the mountains that ringed our campsite, we had loaded the boats at the top of a 100 ft long wooden ramp that dropped steeply into the Salmon river below. It was humorously dangerous looking and required one oarsman to ride the boat down where it splashed into the churning water. Charles climbed into the boat as the rest of us strained to hold it back. "You ready?!" we asked. "Yep!" With a whooshing sound of raft sliding on wood, Charles rode the last 20 ft and hit the river with a splash. We climbed into the boats and were getting situated in the calm area above the first rapid when another group called over to us. "Mornin'! You fellas want some salmon and halibut? We just got back from fishing in Alaska and have way more than we need." We politely attempted to decline but eventually relented graciously and loaded up some beautiful fillets into our cooler. They were easily the best thing we ate on that trip.
The Middle Fork Raft Ramp
The wonderful thing is that there is no cell phone reception, no distractions, and your entire world is what you can see before you. And it’s quite a sight! The natural beauty and pristine wilderness could move one to tears. As a western society we often bemoan the difficulty of living in the moment, the Salmon River provided us no other option. There was always work to be done, especially when making or breaking camp. After a day floating and rowing we would pull up to a sandy shore campsite and spring into action. The tasks at hand included unloading the boats, setting up our tents, preparing dinner, and, everyone’s least favorite, setting up the toilet or “groover.” Then we would go for a hike to explore the surrounding hills or find a high rock into deep water to jump off of. I love jumping off of shit into water. Always have. Always will.
The U.S. Park Service has very strict rules governing the “leave no trace” aspect of rafting the river, which I support wholeheartedly. This includes leaving no solid human waste, which brings us to the infamous "groover" pictured above. Before the current model was developed, ammunition cans, with their hearty design and resealing mechanism, served as vessels to cart out human poops. Today, the toilet is an aluminum box about 2’x2’x2’ with an attachable toilet seat. Pros: you can set up the mobile toilet anywhere your heart desires, to include breath-taking vistas overlooking the river and mountains. Cons: Five dudes drop heat into the same metal box for a week. This box is then left in the beating sun and tossed about in thundering rapids. Believe me when I say that opening that lid to attach the toilet seat is fucking gnarly.
Pre-dinner Gainer to work up an appetite
One morning after we had broken camp and were drifting along, we decided to pull off to scope an upcoming rapid. It was intimidating, with multiple features: a churning hydraulic, a falls, and a few small rock snags, so we wanted to get a look at it to pick a good line. Flipping a gear boat would make for a rough day even though everything is strapped down, or "rigged to flip."
Four of us had walked down the narrow footpath next to the rapid when we heard Wills let out a "Woah! Shittt!" and jump backwards. A few inches from the side of the path a rattlesnake was poised, it's body coiled like a spring, ready to strike. We all stood a safe distance away and gawked at the deadly serpent whose cat-like pupils stared right back at us defiantly, its tail vibrating vigorously. No wonder it had caught us by surprise... the thundering rapid had completely masked the telltale rattle. We breathed a collective sigh of relief as the snake slithered away, retreating to a pile of rocks. We talked about it and realized that if one of us had been bitten we would have been several river days away from the nearest ranger station. Even then we would be relying upon a bush plane to come from civilization, land on the dirt runway, and then spirit the victim to a hospital. Losing a limb or even life was a very real, very sobering possibility. I bought a snakebite kit but after reading the directions it is pretty clear that without antivenom it's just a bandaid on a bullet hole. When my friends and I raft the Grand Canyon this May, we'll keep our heads on a swivel for the critters.
Whitewater rafting isn't just an enjoyable pastime, Luke and I have it to thank for our very existence. My father, John Orndorff Jr., was a whitewater rafting guide for the American Youth Hostels (AYH). Among other outdoor activities, he guided trips down the Youghiogheny River which runs through Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania. It just so happens our mother was on one of those trips and saw a rugged, handsome, nature enthusiast that she took a shine to. Glad she did!