First Experiments with the Zpacks Duplex Flex Tarp

Tucked quietly away on the zpacks website is the Duplex tarp. That’s the Duplex tent minus the groundsheet and bug netting. Or maybe the duplex tent is the tarp plus the groundsheet and bug netting?

Why I am I being facetious? The way the Duplex tarp is presented, or should I say not presented, one could come to conclude that the tent came before the tarp. Or the tent is so vastly superior to the tarp that the tarp isn’t even worth considering. There’s not even a picture of the Duplex tarp on the zpacks website. There’s just an option to buy the tarp, sight unseen. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s not a single photo of a Duplex tarp on the web, to my knowledge.

With some long walks on my horizon I wanted a shelter that could do it all. I’m already a flat tarp user and while I love having a flat tarp it usually takes me about an hour altogether to get set up perfect. The time it takes from site selection to locking the bug net down can seem like a eternity.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy this process. Having a flat tarp means every shelter is customised to your selected site. I enjoy this on walks less than two weeks long but any longer than that and I want a shelter that can be put up quickly and assuredly.

Coming from the perspective of a flat tarp user, I wanted a shelter that could give me the versatility of a flat tarp and the convenience of a freestanding tent. Oh yeah, and it needed to be light. Ultralight. What about bomb proof? What about with massive floorspace? Sound impossible?

So do I take a gamble on the Duplex tent without the groundsheet and bug netting? I’m thinking well, you’re a bit over walking poles. You have been using a zpacks staff for a few years. I love the staff but they’re not the best shelter support unless the peak is the same height as the staff (you have to take the staff apart and then the height is not micro-adjustable).

Also, I said to myself, I want to be able to write while I’m walking. Furthermore, I like picking my nose a lot, and walking poles and nose picking do not go hand in hand.

That was the limit of my thought processes.

I picked the woodland/camo because it’s a bit thicker and a bit darker inside.

Enter the ‘Flex’ freestanding poles. These are some carbon fiber poles that zpacks get from Easton. They weight 280 grams. When the ‘Flex’ freestanding poles were released by zpacks some of the critics over at the Backpackinglight forums chucked in their two cents. Here are some of the objections:

“This flex design seems to me more a case of trying to make the flexible poles fit the design of the Duplex rather than making the most of the poles by having 2 longer continuous poles that cross on each side of the shelter and redesigning the shelter to suit the poles.”

“The idea of using a Duplex without trekking poles sounds cool, except of course the addition of 12oz poles eats a lot of the weight savings that makes the Duplex so great.”

and

“Hmm… agreed… just looking at it, intuitively I don’t see how it can withstand a substantial wind load without collapsing, let alone a good dump of snow. Can that ridge line really support as much tension as one pitched with trekking poles? Looks as if Joe had a pretty good test venue there… Scotland?
But even if it does work, I too cannot see carrying around an extra 11 ounces when I’ve got two perfectly good trekking poles weighing 7.2 oz total.”

The overall consensus was that the ‘Flex’ poles were superfluous ‘if you walk with trekking poles’. A lot of the comments also said that they had never had a situation where  a non-freestanding tent was difficult to pitch easily. Having had some experience with non-freestanding tents, I find this statement hard to believe. I like a drum tight pitch and will spend ages re-positioning stakes and tightening  guylines until it works the way I like. Some people I’ve seen can set their non-freestanding tent up and not care.

For me however I don’t want to carry walking poles and I prefer to have a floor-less shelter. The more I thought about a Duplex tarp combined with the freestanding poles, the more the combination started to make sense. Since I’m limiting my options to not having walking poles, for this comparison I presume you would be carrying the carbon fiber poles with the Duplex tent (not the freestanding poles) that zpacks sells that go into the peaks.

For those of you who don’t have a clue what I’m banging on about, this is the Duplex tent:

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You’ll notice the groundsheet and the netting is sewn to the tarp. You’ll also notice that there are two poles keeping the tent up, one in the middle of each door. These are the dedicated carbon poles zpacks sells. Many hikers use their walking poles to keep the tent up instead of the carbon poles pictured.

I’m comparing the above to this:

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In this photo the netting and the groundsheet are connected but they are separable. There are a variety of groundsheets and nets you can use instead of the ones shown. The netting creates an inner (second) cocoon for the sleeper, this is called a double walled tent. The poles keeping the tent up are on the outside of the canopy and do not require stakes to keep it up.

Some astute readers might point out that the comparison isn’t fair – a non-freestanding single wall Duplex versus a freestanding double walled modular Duplex? Apples and oranges, as the saying goes. Yes, but I’ll give the non-freestanding a head start.

Now, the all important weight numbers.

From the zpacks website, the Duplex full tent numbers are:

– The Duplex Tarp with taped seams and sewn in linelocs weighs 9.5 ounces (269 grams)

– The included guy lines and door clips weigh about 1.2 ounces (34 grams)

– The sewn in Cuben Fiber bathtub floor and bug screen weighs 10.0 ounces (284 grams)

– The included medium-plus 7″ x 13″ stuff sack adds .3 ounces (8 grams)

– The total weight for the packed tent is 21.0 ounces (595 grams).

– If you’re carrying the dedicated carbon poles they’re 60 grams each, so + 120 grams

Total = 715g.

On the other hand, the freestanding Duplex tarp combination comes in at:

– The duplex tarp alone is 9.5 ounces or 269 grams.

– The flex pole set and hardware is 10 oz or 282g.

– Add your own groundsheet (MLD DUO 60g, or zpacks solo bathtub 91g)

– Bug net = Sea to Summit solo nano = 80 grams.

– Guylines = 34 grams

Total = 725g.

Starting to get interesting?

Both weights do not include stakes. Arguably you’ll need less stakes for the freestanding tent than the non-freestanding tent. You could argue you don’t need any stakes, just like Joe does in his set up video.

Zpacks says the non-freestanding tent requires a minimum of 8 stakes, so at 6 grams a piece (for some shepherd hooks and carbon stake combo) = 48 grams, bringing the total to 763 grams.

From my limited experience with the freestanding Duplex tarp (in windy conditions) you’ll need 6 stakes as a minimum; so 12 grams less, bringing the total to 761 grams.

EXACTLY the same weight. A double walled tent at the same weight as a single walled tent? I’m in.

You could use a bivy instead of the groundsheet/net combo as well, saving weight but sacrificing sleeping space.

I saved up and watched the poor AUD/USD exchange rate put the object a few more weeks out of reach and then placed my order and waited eight weeks.

Okay here’s some photos:

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Above: Duplex Flex tarp with shortened x-therm max. Note no bug net.

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The interior space is huge. With all the doors closed there’s 2.2m to roll around in.

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Above: with the DUO Sea to Summit bug net. I’ve since figured out the corners of the bug net are better off being hooked to where the tarp poles meet the ground.

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Above: There are two mid panel tie outs. I’ve read in various places the panels can flap around a lot in high winds. Maybe having two tie outs will help? With the mid-panel toggle connecting the freestanding poles to the tarp there is more head room in the center of the tarp by default.

Not having used a Duplex tent, here are my imagined advantages and disadvantages of the Duplex freestanding tarp over the non-freestanding Duplex tent (integrated floor and bug netting). Some of these comparisons apply to all modular floor-less tarps to integrated tents.

Firstly, price:

When you factor in the price of the carbon poles the Duplex tent is $600 (USD) plus $60. If you had a freestanding full Duplex tent, you’re looking at $750 USD.

The Duplex tarp is $375 USD plus $150 for the Flex poles totaling $525. You then have to factor in the bug net and groundsheet price; S2S bug net ($40USD) and tyvek or polycryo ($10).

Next, set up.

One advantage of the integrated full Duplex tent is that there would be a little bit less stuffing around. Maybe ‘stuffing around’ is the wrong phrase – perhaps, ‘less initial set up time’ is more accurate. I’ve spent a few hours cutting bungee cords and getting the inner net working.

The apparent convenience of the integrated tent comes at the cost of versatility.

As said, for me, I value versatility and ‘modularity’ over maximum convenience. In the context of the freestanding duplex tarp against the non-freestanding duplex tent the convenience is subjective. The floor-less freestanding tarp is more convenient if you’re ‘cowboy camping’ and it starts raining in the middle of the night.  In this video I have a waterproof shelter erected in less than 3 minutes. Keep in mind this is probably the fourth time I have set the tarp up. (The first night I set the tarp up was a day before this in the dark and drizzling rain.)

One of the coolest things for me is that you can plonk the tarp over the top of your sleeping bag, mattress and groundsheet. You can’t do that with an integrated tent.

 

Other advantages of the modular Duplex tarp over the non-freestanding Duplex tent:

I can unhook the inner and use the inner with the freestanding poles and have a freestanding net tent to use in bug infested areas on clear nights or during the day when the flies are out.

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When decamping I can lift the tarp up and move it away from the contents inside. No crouching and crawling in and out of the tent as I pack my backpack. Bonus.

I can then make the walls vertical of the freestanding tarp and let it dry while I finish packing up. Bonus.

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Did I say there are no poles in the doorway?

What if it’s blowing a gale? I can set the tent up with both the inner poles/walking poles and the freestanding poles together. You can grab a stick or two in bad weather to support the ‘Flex’ mode. Bombproof.

Shepherd hooks are actually useful in the corner tie-outs where the poles meet the ground. The tension in the carbon poles pulls the stake loop taught meaning the shepherd hooks won’t rotate and flip out. In fact, in these corners shepherd hooks work better than larger stakes because they are easier to fit in.

You can set it up with the walls vertical or with the walls more horizontal depending on the site size.

Even in a light wind you need at least two stakes to keep the tarp down.

You can carry it around one handed. If I set up on an ants nest, moving is quick.

Finding a flat site is not as critical with a floor-less tarp. The corners of the freestanding tarp can be staked down if one pole hangs in the air. There is no sagging of the bathtub floor if you’re on a uneven site, as discussed at Willis Wall.

With the bug netting set up this is a double walled tent. I already owned a Sea to Summit nano solo and double net-tent from my flat-tarp days. These work well in my opinion. The double wall will collect condensation that gets dislodged when the tarp shakes in wind or by large drops from a tree.

A few companies make inners that would be appropriate for the Duplex tarp. zpacks once made one, but do not offer them for unknown reasons. They do offer a single door hexamid. I was wrong, they don’t.

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Above: the elusive zpacks Duplex inner. Maybe this year zpacks will offer the inners?

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Above: Tarptent make a few that might work?

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Above: Six Moon Designs make a Haven net tent. The ridge line is off centre though, so I’m not sure if it’ll work.

Can you think of any others? Please share. (If you have a good condition second hand one of these inner nets, please message me)

I might try one of these one day but for the moment I’m happy having the bug net and groundsheet separate. If I have the full double walled tarp and bug net set up I can leave the groundsheet and contents where they are on the ground and pull the upper way out of the way. Alternatively I can set up the groundsheet and mattress etc as I need them and add the bug net or tarp later. Usually at lunch or at the end of the day you just want to throw your groundsheet and mattress down and not have to think about how everything is going to work.

Some people like having a seamless groundsheet and bug net, which I can understand. You can get the Sea to Summit bug net and groundsheet pretty tight, especially with oversized tyvek or the polycryo. It won’t be a ‘perfect’ seal though.

Speaking of groundsheets, with this set up they are interchangeable as they wear out.

If there is a downpour in the middle of the day, I do not mind setting the tarp up to sit out the worst of it. When I owned a non-freestanding tent even if I was walking in four foot of water I couldn’t be bothered setting the tent up at lunch-time. Lunch didn’t occur on those days.

This for me defines the beauty of the Duplex ‘Flex’ Tarp – its simplicity. For long hikes I want a shelter I want to use, not a compromise for weight savings. Psychologically I know it’s easy and I know it works. I want to put it up, even when it’s not raining, because it’s so easy.

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Shout out to John Abela for talking through the options with me before making this purchase.

Lastly, here is an example of a summer gear list with the MLD Core pack pictured above.

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Extinction by Thomas Bernhard – a quick review

Yesterday I finished reading Extinction by Thomas Bernhard. The novel took about two weeks for me to read and during that time I have taken the train to Armadale, walked about 100km on the Bibbulmun track and traveled around north east Bali. My copy now has dried chocolate on the cover, some black residue on the outside from my girlfriends purse, a few dog ears and various notes in different coloured pen throughout. The Vintage edition has a pretty poxy cover but the contents inside make up for that.

I wasn’t looking for any technique or angle in particular as I read. Extinction is a novel I was able to sit back and enjoy and let the author take me on a ride through the main characters psyche. The novel is one long monologue inside the ideas and thoughts of Franz-Josef Murau after he receives a telegram that his parents and brother have died in a car accident. It feels more appropriate to say the novel is separated into two paragraphs than two chapters. The first chapter is one paragraph and the second chapter is one paragraph. There are no breaks. At first this seems a little daunting but after fifty or so pages you get used to it and by the end you start to wonder why all books are not written like that. Actually, Extinction is the kind of book that is unique. Without the paragraph breaks you can see how this would force the writer to examine closely how enmeshed each of their ideas are – how interlinked each event and scene is and if they are not seamless, more words need to fill out the gaps until the bridge is crossed.

With the long paragraphs and deep psychological examination of the characters you can draw comparisons to Austerlitz by Sebald. In an interview Sebald acknowledges Bernhard as an influence. [At the 14:50 section of this interview] The influence on Austerlitz from Extinction becomes clear once you start reading both. Sebald calls Bernhard’s unique form of narration ‘periscopic’, where we receive the story through the voice of one character inside of another of another. The sentences in Austerlitz are much longer than those found in Extinction. I’m not sure which novel influenced Bernhard to write Extinction, but finding out will be a great pleasure for me.

Sebald is much more tender with his characters, but both authors are uncompromising in their pursuit of challenging the power structures of our society that lead us away from being kind to one another. You could argue that Extinction deals with the aftermath of WW2 more directly than Austerlitz, but I would prefer to say that WW2 is more of an open wound to the character Franz-Josef Murau, than Austerlitz. Bernhard is more about subterfuge from within, whereas Sebald is more about personal understanding around the periphery.

I remember reading a few years ago in one of the many how to write fiction books, that your characters should have attitude. Murau, the main character of Extinction, has a lot of attitude. By attitude I mean the character has convictions and is not afraid of sharing them. This attitude will put a lot of people off Extinction. But this is what I liked. We are told that having strong convictions can be isolating, because you can be shown to be a hypocrite, or you never know what lead these other people to behave the way they do. Just because you don’t necessarily agree with someones convictions at least they have convictions, and it is this premise that appears to underline Bernhard’s work.

You could say Extinction is an exercise in ridiculousness. It is ridiculousness that verges on the hilarious. I’m not sure I would keep reading if the voice of the novel continued on ranting and ranting without dipping into the ridiculous from time to time, to remind us that he’s taking us to the extremities of his consciousness – as far as that can conveyed through words on a page. The rant, or stream of consciousness, unravels in a cascading swirl where the topic of discussion is repeated or referred back to until the subject is covered sufficiently. You’d think the repetition would be annoying, but because it works on a microlevel it reads more like a poem. Where subjects are recovered on a macro level they are enlivened with a new context so that you’re seeing them in a new light. I’ll try to quote a section that covers the elements I’ve just identified – periscopic narration, attitude, ridiculousness, swirl, repetition:

“My parents had told me that the village was a dangerous place, but I discovered that it was not in the least bit dangerous. I thought nothing of going in and out of all the doors and looking through all the windows. My curiosity knew no bounds. My brother never accompanied me on my expeditions. He’s been down to the village again, he would say, and look on shamelessly, not batting an eyelid, as I was punished for my offense. My mother would beat me with a rawhide that she always kept in readiness, and my father would box my ears. I had many whippings, but I cannot remember my brother being whipped or having his ears boxed. I was interested in anything that was different, but my brother was not, I thought, examining the photo of him in his sailboat on the Wolfgangsee. I once told Gambetti that my brother was always an affection seeker, but I never was. I tried to explain what I meant by the term. At mealtimes my brother was always silent and never dared ask a question. I constantly asked questions and was reprimanded by my parents for asking the most impossible questions. I wanted to know everything – no question must remain unanswered. My brother was a slow eater; I always ate hastily, still do. I always walked fast, wanting to reach my destination as soon as possible; my brother had a slow, one might almost say deliberate, gait. As for my handwriting, it was fast and careless and, as I have said, almost illegible, whereas he always wrote in careful, regular hand. When we went to confession he always spent a long time in the confessional, whereas I was in and out in no time. It did not take me long to list the many sins I felt obliged to confess, while he took at least twice as long over the few he had committed.” p44.

Some eighty pages later Bernhard returns to the rivalry between Franz-Josef and his now deceased brother Johannes. This time Franz-Josef is looking at some pictures of his family as he tells Gambetti:

“My brother, unlike me, was a calm person: at Wolfsegg I had always been the restless spirit, but he was the soul of calm. My parents always referred to him as the contented one and to me as the malcontent. If we got in trouble, it was always my fault, never his. They believed his explanations, not mine. If, for example, I lost money that had been entrusted to me for some reason, they refused to believe I had lost it, despite all my asseverations. They preferred to believe that I had pocketed it and only pretended to have lost it, but if my brother said he had lost some money they believed him. If he told them that he had lost his way in the wood, they instantly believed him, but if I told the same story they refused to believe me. I always had to justify myself at great length and in great detail. On one occasion my brother pushed me into the pond at the Children’s Villa. Whether intentionally or not, he pushed me in while passing me at the edge of the pond, where the wall is not wide enough for two people to pass. I had the greatest difficulty keeping my head above water and not going under. I actually thought I was going to drown, and I also thought that my brother might have pushed me in on purpose, not inadvertently out of clumsiness. This thought tormented me as I struggled for dear life in the pond. My brother could not help me without risking his own life. He naturally made many attempts, but failed.” p127

Maybe you have to read the entire book but I found this passage quite funny. I think it’s the language that gives away that the writer is having a laugh. What I like is that the novel isn’t packaged into sections. Bernhard focuses on making each individual scene as vivid as possible and lets one scene flow into the next without regard to how it fits within the overall scheme of the book. You could argue that the pond drowning passage could flow on from the earlier passage on page forty four. But Bernhard is able to reference back to the contrast between him and his brother with just a sentence or two, a topic that had been canvassed over a number of pages beforehand, and then continue on with an event that had come to his mind. This is how our minds work when we stare out the window in a reflective mood. At first we’re going over old ground but then something may come to us that we hadn’t thought of earlier.

As a writer do we then package the same subjects together or write about them as they occur to us? Bernhard could have separated the the book into smaller sections titled Johannes, Mother, Father, Sisters, The Wine Cork Manufacturer and so on, but this would detract from the swirling nature of the prose. The way the characters interlink is masterful. Without giving too much away, the juxtaposition between the values and apparent principles of the characters all coming together for the funeral elucidates such a realistic feeling inside of me that I understood exactly where Franz-Josef was coming from, why he acts the way he does and why he has such an attitude. Imagine having to greet Nazi SS officers at your fathers funeral because they were ‘friends’.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – review

Bryson is popular. His writing style allows for fast, readily digested prose. There appears to be no subject he is unable to broach. His narratives are simple and erudite. His messages are a mixture of learning and experience. In A Walk in the Woods (AWITW) Bryson attempts to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in America. His attempt is unsuccessful, for Bryson is someone who writes books, and decides to go for a hike, rather than the other way around. Bryson is more comfortable at home surrounded by books. The majority of A Walk in the Woods is Bryson relaying information from other books, sharing his experiences of hotels/motels/bunkhouses off the trail, and at one point a monologue about how he’d given up walking to reconnaissance the Appalachian Trail by car. A Walk in the Woods is not a book for me, even though I found it easy to read.

For such a well known author, little is written about Bryson’s style and technique in academic journals. Actually, most journals ignore him completely. Mostly it’s glowing reviews in online newspapers. One serious article ‘Including Appalachian Stereotypes in Multicultural Education: An Analysis of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods’ takes Bryson to task for his depiction of hicks and hillbillies.
Stefano Calzati argues in ‘Travelling and writing and the form of travel writing: Reconsidering Bill Bryson’s (supposed) postcolonial legacy’ “that travelling and writing are two “practices of knowledge” which promote per se the marking of differences. In this regard, travel writing, as the novelistic genre that derives from such practices, cannot help but reproduce the epistemological distance between the self and the world.” And this is the overwhelming feeling that I take from Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods – his account re-enforces, through his armchair approach, rather than eliminates, the distance between the self and the world.

Bryson’s phenomenology is filtered through his project, his style and his constant attempts to shock the reader to keep reading.
Bryson is more serious about writing a book than walking the Appalachian. There are three main elements that comprise AWITW. The elements do not always hang together well, but the writer is able, through his prose, to weave them together. The first element is his commission by his publisher to write a book. The second element, is the Don Quixote set up. The third aspect that pads the book out are the lectures. When Bryson gets bored with one element he falls back on the other.

The first, why would Bryson disclose to his readers that his publisher had commissioned him another book? What purpose does this give to readers? Bryson is attempting to build himself and his reputation up reminding us ‘these books don’t exist in a vacuum’. Also, Bryson, the man, is the main character in his books. He realises that the success of his career hinges on continuity across his works.

The second, the Katz/Bryson play off reminds me of Don Quixote and Sancho, except Bryson isn’t deluded beyond not knowing why he’s walking the trail. Bryson is deluded in thinking he can walk the trail in one season. After walking for a few weeks, Bryson and Katz are killing time in an outfitters which leads to him looking at an overview map of the AT. He figures out that that the trail is long, much longer than he anticipated and instead of resolving to finish the trail, as Don Quixote would, both Katz and Bryson are put off and dejected. The most interesting struggle in the book is Katz’s attempt to quit drinking, but it comes very late in the piece.
Thirdly, unlike Don Quixote, Bryson, the character, can not be too out there, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to enter into armchair lectures on the history and value of a range of subjects consisting of: how dangerous animals are, the history and design of the Appalachian Trail, how Americans use cars too often, underground fires in Centralia, murder, climate change, geology, diseases, how stupid and fat people can be, especially ones who look like they’re from the movie Deliverance, forestry, the rise and fall of townships, hikers preoccupations with gear, botany, misdirected government spending, meteorology, hypothermia, ludditeness, war, ecological destruction, and so on. After a while, the trail becomes a backdrop for these fireside lectures Bryson, one can assume, wrote before or after being on the trail. In this sense the book is about Bryson’s ability to take cues from the trail and weave them into his research. Where he gets this knowledge from we don’t know, there are no references.
There is a morality to his lectures – but his attitude is incongruous to the way he has set himself up to interact with his characters. Bryson wants to give his readers guidance on the one hand, and then ask them to suspend their disbelief in the name of humour. So, for example, when he discusses how the AT avoids towns and is cocooned in green corridors (in contrast to the apparently more advanced designs of English/European trails), Bryson concludes: “doubtless it is all to do with its historic impulse to tame and exploit the wilderness, but America’s attitude to nature is, from all sides, very strange if you ask me.” p258 This is symptomatic of the manner in which Bryson presents his lectures. His information is to serve an agenda and his research concludes at the point where the agenda has been satisfied. The agenda appears to be primarily to provoke people to keep reading. Surely he must know that not all Americans wish to tame the wilderness and that some Americans share his views.
So when we turn to the people Bryson meets on, and (more often) off, the trail we gain more of a reflection of Bryson, than of the people themselves. Again, the agenda is provocation. Here is his telephone interaction when attempting to find a taxi in Gatlinburg:

“‘How much would it be to take two of us to Ernestville?’ I enquired.
‘Dunno’ came the reply.
This threw me slightly. ‘Well how much do you think it would be?’
‘Dunno.’
‘But it’s just down the road.’
There was considerable silence and then the voice said: ‘Yup.’
‘Haven’t you ever taken anybody there before?’
’Nope.’
‘Well, it looks to me on my map like it’s about twenty miles. Would you say that’s about right?’
Another pause. ‘Might be.’
‘And how much would it be to take us twenty miles?’
‘Dunno.’
I looked at the receiver. ‘Excuse me, but I just have to say this. You are more stupid than a paramecium.’
Then I hung up.”

Bryson’s characters are there to make him look smart and to support the preconceived worldview he wishes to push. It is because of this that the subjects of his lectures do not become integrated and he doesn’t appear to recognise the ecology and interconnectedness of the world in which he inhabits. A more enlightening approach would be to manufacture or even seek out an intelligent person who may be more helpful and illuminating. He could work all of his home reading into the voice of his characters.
Because of this provocative style, Bryson leaves himself open to hypocrisy and inconsistency. At the end of the taxi driver episode (in which he and his Sancho (Katz) buddy decide on a whim to give up the idea of walking the entire trail), they find themselves back in the dearth of commercial America, amongst shopping malls and carparks, the opposite of the woodlands they had been walking through:

“But come off the trail, properly off, and drive somewhere, as we did now, and you realize how magnificently deluded you have been. Here, the mountains and woods were just backdrop – familiar, known, nearby, but no more consequential or noticed than the clouds that scudded across their ridgelines. Here the real business was up close and on top of you: gas stations, Wal-Marts, K-marts, Dunkin’ Donuts, Blockbuster videos, a ceaseless unfolding pageant of commercial hideousness.”
While it is not the role of a writer to be morally consistent, it is their role, especially in the context of non-fiction, to research thoroughly and to show their readers an interconnectedness. Instead, when recounting the phase of American history where demand for new world seeds and botanical interest was high, Bryson speaks with celebratory glee, apparently unaware of the relationship between that unregulated process and forestry the ugliness he describes above:

“The first people to venture deep into the woods from the east (the Indians [sic], of course had got there perhaps as much as 20,000 years before them) weren’t looking for prehistoric creatures or passages to the west or new lands to settle. They were looking for plants. America’s botanical possibilities excited Europeans inordinately, and there was both glory and money to be made in the woods. The eastern woods teemed with flora unknown to the old world and there was a huge eagerness, from scientists and amateur enthusiasts alike, to get a piece of it…These and hundreds more were collected in the American woods, shipped across the ocean to England and France and Russia and received with greedy keenness and trembling fingers.”

Contrast the above attitude to the one in this passage:

“In 1987, it [the Forest Service] casually announced that it would allow private timber interests to remove hundreds of acres of wood a year from the venerable and verdant Pisgah National Forest, next door to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and that 80 per cent of that would be through what it calls ‘scientific forestry’ – clear cutting – which is not only a brutal visual affront to any landscape, but brings huge, reckless washoffs that gully the soil, robbing it of nutrients and disrupting ecologies further downstream, sometimes for miles. This isn’t science. It’s rape.”

And then this one:

“And there was a more compelling reason to go. The Appalachians are the home of one of the world’s great hardwood forests– the expansive relic of the richest, most diversified
sweep of woodland ever to grace the temperate world–and that forest is in trouble. If the global temperature rises by 4°C over the next fifty years, as is evidently possible, the whole of the Appalachian wilderness below New England could become savanna. Already trees are dying in frightening numbers. The elms and chestnuts are long gone, the stately hemlocks and flowery dogwoods are going, and the red spruces, Fraser firs, mountain ashes, and sugar maples may be about to follow. Clearly, if ever there was a time to experience this singular wilderness, it was now.”

Bryson does not draw any comparisons between the seed collectors, the forestry service ‘rape’ and climate change. The author seems intent on shocking the reader into further reading without considering an overall scheme. People starting and finishing Bryson’s work appears to be a more important criteria to him than jettisoning contradictory elements in his prose. An argument could be made that being in the same book, and written by the same author would constitute the correlations being drawn, but my opinion is that the structure, the schism between the elementsof the book, prevent such a reading.
When Don Quixote lectures, (Cervantes’ Don Quixote) he is so clearly out of touch with both the other characters in Cervantes story, and to us the readers, that we all humour him. Within Don Quixote’s absurd lectures, however, are some incredible conclusions, some of which we tend to agree with. But the Don Quixote, the character of Bryson, in A Walk Walk in the Woods never strays into the absurd. Often his observations are blatant and his treatment of others’ is cruel. One has to ask that perhaps if we didn’t treat each other the way Bryson treats people in his book, whether the planet would be in the state that it is.

Of course, Bryson and his fans might rebut my above points by claiming ‘lighten up it’s just a bit of fun’, or, present the book as a gateway to more serious studies of wilderness, ecology and nature. It’s creative non-fiction after all, so don’t take the deliberate littering seriously. There are light moments and Bryson does indeed reflect on the wonderful aspects of bushwalking or hiking. These appreciative moments are added and sprinkled throughout as if to remind us that that he’s not a negative bastard. There are some arresting moments that lift the reader up from the negativity I seem to keep returning to. Here’s a moment, on day one of their hike:

“When, after ages and ages, you finally reach the tell-tale world of truly high ground, where chilled air smells of pine gap and the vegetation is gnarled and tough and wind-bent, and push through to the mountain’s open pinnacle, you are, alas, past caring. You sprawl face down on a sloping pavement of gneiss, pressed to the rock by the weight of your pack, and lie there for some minutes, reflecting in distant, out-of-body way that you have never before looked this closely at lichen, not in fact looked this closely at anything in the natural world since you were four years old and had your first magnifying glass.” p53

At the end of the book Bryson wryly states the trail did not change his life: “but I certainly gained an appreciation and respect for the woods and wilderness and the colossal scale of America” p350. Perhaps, if he did complete the trail from one end to the other, if he allowed the experience to become more than an exercise for his publishers, he might have let go of the preconceptions that inhibit transformative processes. It is somewhat troubling that a writer takes on a major project lasting a period of years to finally say to his readers, ‘don’t bother, my book is all you need’. Perhaps he is attempting to provide counterbalance to the apparently naive rights of passage accounts that pervade nature and walking writing? Overall however, Bryson’s work is an intellectual, rather than phenomenological one.

 

References:

Bryson, Bill. 1998, A Walk In the Woods, Black Swan, London, England.

Including Appalachian Stereotypes in Multicultural Education: An Analysis of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods
Herzog, Mary Jean Ronan, Journal of Appalachian Studies, 1 April 1999, Vol.5(1), pp.123-128 [Peer Reviewed Journal]

Stefano Calzati (2015) Travelling and writing and the form of travel writing:
Reconsidering Bill Bryson’s (supposed) postcolonial legacy, Journal of Postcolonial Writing,
51:4, 422-435

Portaspresso Rossa Air Espresso Review

In mid-September 2012 I emailed Ross Spencer at Portaspresso about a Rossa device. The bloke had the integrity to inform me that in a month or so a new model would be available, one lighter and better. So instead of selling an old one, he said to wait.

Having never used a Rossa device I was in no position to judge what was better or not, but I do own a Rosco Mini-hand grinder and have been very pleased with the quality and craftsmanship.

I’m willing to bet that if you owned a Portaspresso device and your town was engulfed by magma from a volcano, in a thousand years time archeologists would be able to dust off the dirt, and begin happily grinding their favourite espresso blend while musing over their latest report.

Two of the biggest criteria for coffee purchases for me are durability and portability. I want them to last a long time and to go travelling.

Once the new model became available I ordered a Rossa Air Espresso PG (Pressure Gauge).

The set comes well packaged in a small box, capable of worldwide delivery. 

After reading and carrying out the first use cleaning instructions I began preparing the first shot.

Charging the Cylinder:
Luckily for me I’m a road cyclist and have two floor pumps already. The air cylinder adapter has a thread so using the pump with a female thread is easier in my opinion.

The other thing about the screw on type pumps is they make much less hissing noise than the lever squeeze pump heads (when removing from the cylinder thread adaptor). This makes a difference if you are going for an early morning ride or off to work. Either that or pre-charge the air cylinder the night before.

Pumping up above 11bar became immediately disconcerting when I noticed the gauge on the pump only went up to 11bar. But the needle spun passed the maximum without too much effort.

If you need to buy a pump to use the device I would avoid a hand pump and have a look at the Lezyne mini floor drive range. Especially the micro floor drive or the travel floor drive. Lezyne make reliable and durable products that are good for both home and travel.

[Update I have since purchased a Lezyne micro shock pump. It weighs 84g and while taking a little longer, does the job nicely.]

Judging by the Popeye sized forearms of Ross in the youtube videos he probably doesn’t have a problem getting up to 120PSI with a hand pump, but I did have trouble on my little hand pump I take cycling.

Had to muck around a couple of times to get a sense of whether or not the valve was open, or I was pumping into the closed circuit of the pump hose. There’s little chance of breaking the device, so I wasn’t worried.

The valve thread takes a little getting used to and may be a little sticky to begin with. I did think that maybe an armed head like a water tap might be easier to turn than the round head. Jury is out on that front functionally, but the aesthetics would suffer.

[Update: After a week of use I can say the current round head is perfect for the job]

Trick with the cylinder valve is to treat it gently when opening and closing. With pumping, get the pump adaptor on first before opening the valve. Any pressure inside the cylinder will quickly show up on the gauge. You don’t have to open the valve up passed the black o-ring on the valve stem.

Making the coffee:

My first attempt was a disaster because there was no air in the cylinder and the water just flopped through the basket. That was ok I thought, and had about 5 goes pumping the cylinder up and having dummy runs with a wet and used puck.

Most of us will get the device in the mail in the afternoon. For me, I didn’t get anywhere near mastering the technique on the first night. After about 5 or 6 air cylinders’ full (running through a wet puck) I gave up for the night and read the manual and watched the tube video again.

I recommend the video instead of the written manual on the first night as the manual tends to digress and Ross runs through the steps slowly enough on the video that you can follow him. The manual is good for fine-tuning your technique.

All this makes it sound difficult. It isn’t. I’ve had the device for three days now and have started to make good coffee. I imagine it will be about 1 month before I have complete control over the settings. Having said that the coffee on the first morning was a set up from my previous machine.

I ordered the grind transfer adaptor and whilst a nice little addition I am not convinced it’s absolutely necessary.

[Update, the adaptor and I have since become friends. It centres the coffee raised from the base of the basket making it easier for tamping]

Now. About the coffee quality. I’m no expert. Once you have the grind setting dialed in, producing a great shot is easy as. Simple hold the device over the espresso glass and slowly open the valve. The slower you open the valve the more pre-infusion you enable. This is the great thing about the Portaspresso devices: they allow pressure profiling on the fly. There is a great write up on the Portespresso site about pressure profiling.

During the ‘photoshoot’ a friend Lorenz took the photos while I made the shots. I made about 3 shots in fifteen minutes while chatting. Could be done a lot faster.

We could easily taste the differences; some fruity, some caramel, some bitter, some not. At one point our conversation seamlessly shifted to whisky. Making these comparisons, you could say I’m working toward the highest taste of coffee drinking with this device.

I’ve taken to grinding the coffee while the device heats up with boiling water. I also have a blender jug on hand to collect the heat-up water instead of tipping it down the sink.

One of the best aspects of the Rossa PG is that you can control the pressure in two phases. Once in the air cylinder itself and then the second time when you open the valve during infusion. If you put less pressure in the air cylinder there’s less danger of over extraction. Also, if there’s less pressure to begin with there’s less chance of messing it up.

Tamp consistency and the amount of coffee has an impact because this will change the time it takes from starting to open the valve, the valve opening, and then coffee passing through the naked filter head. For my level of experience, at the moment there feels like a delay between opening the valve and coffee coming out. You have to keep slowly winding the valve open.

There is a level of satisfaction with the interactivity of the device. I find myself having to stop wanting to make another shot to see what it will taste like otherwise I’ll be floating on a coffee cloud all day. It’s not like a jumper or an electric coffee machine; you put it on and it does it’s job. There are no buttons or cords or fuses.

There is an old fashioned quality to the Portaspresso range I find very appealing.

A couple of conclusions:

With the purchase, I would welcome some spare o-rings, a spare head seal, and a spare air cylinder pump adaptor. I can see myself losing the adaptor at some stage (especially on the road) and it would be a annoying to have to wait a week or two for a replacement, as it is not after market.

One limitation to the device in both the mini hand grinder and espresso device is that they’re not ultra-lightweight. I’d be very tempted to take the Rossa PG (0.75kg without PG) hiking or cycle touring, but at 1.2kg the mini-hand grinder is a little too heavy.

Perhaps carbon fibre or titanium? Or plastic? One of the previous materials morphing into alloy (like a bike fork drop out) for the threads?

Furthermore, I am not sure the bores need to be as large as they are, since you’re only grinding and extracting one shot at a time. I could be totally off the mark here however.

Having said this, these little dudes are definitely coming along on the next backpacking or camping adventure.

If you could get both the grinder and espresso device down below 1 kg and a combined cost of $500AUD you would have a world beater.

Another touch I would like to see is a molded and padded briefcase for the kit.

The future of lightweight espresso is very bright and Ross Spencer at Portaspresso has a sound portfolio to work from. The Air Espresso PG is an excellent device for any coffee enthusiast because it offers a high level of control over all factors of espresso creation. Thus far, every morning I wake up stoked with my purchase. My bosoms have never swelled so frequently as I stand back to admire the Guinness-like settling of each pour.

If you would like to see some photos, please click here.