Shmo’s Big Stupid

In August, I’m going to attempt the Pemi Loop in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. It’s a 31-mile trail with over 9000′ of climbing and I plan to do it in one (long!) day.

I’m dedicating this attempt to two non-profits that support military veterans. Please consider a donation to one or both of the organizations listed here:

Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans. Their mission is to end veteran homelessness in Minnesota. Donate by clicking HERE.

Veterans On The 48. Their mission is getting more veterans outside and onto the trails to promote healthy lifestyles both physically and mentally. Donate by clicking HERE.

Your money goes directly to the non-profit. I can see what money goes to MACV because of the way the donation page is set up. I can’t see what happens for Veterans On The 48. So, I’d ask a favor. If you donate to the Veterans On The 48, please email me ( how much you gave them so I can keep track of what impact you are making there.

Thank you for your support!

If you’re a glutton for punishment, I’ve got a bunch of words below the map about why I’m calling this project Shmo’s Big Stupid and a bunch of other thoughts. On June 2, the Stigma Free Vet Zone interviewed me about this trail running project and my writing. Check out that podcast HERE.

Why these non-profits?

Well, in a nutshell, I want to “Get veterans indoors and get veterans outdoors.”

As far as “getting veterans indoors,” I see homeless people everywhere I go as an airline pilot. But you don’t have to leave Duluth to see people who are unhoused. Pretty much every summer, if you run along the Superior Hiking Trail in the Point of Rocks, you’ll pass through a whole community of people sleeping outside. Now, there’s a lot of bad news in the world. Sometimes it’s overwhelming and just paralyzes me. I can’t fix all of it, so I do nothing. At a certain point, I realized I can’t do everything but maybe I can do something. In January 2020 there were an estimated 37,252 homeless veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Minnesota does better than most states with around 280 homeless veterans here. I know some guys that work for MACV and they are within striking distance of getting that number to zero. I don’t think people who served their country should have to live in a tent. So, I decided to point some money toward them.

As far as “getting veterans outdoors,” I believe that healthy, outdoor activities are good for you no matter who you are. But there is some research that shows it’s specifically good for veterans. I was born in Littleton, NH, just northwest of the White Mountains. When I was in high school as a kid, my dad and I hiked most of the 48 Four Thousand Footers in the White Mountains together. I finished the Four Thousand Footer list in 1990. A few years ago, I heard about the new Veterans On The 48 organization and their group hikes for veterans. I grew up in those peaks and think that this non-profit has a great purpose in one of my favorite places in the world.

“Why are you doing this, Shmo, you big dummy?”

Three reasons. First, this is the continuation of several years of big outdoor adventures that I started during the pandemic.

They canceled Grandma’s Marathon in June of 2020 and I was kind of cut adrift. I always do the Birkie ski marathon every year and Grandma’s every June. Now one of my annual milestones was gone. I need a goal out in front of me every four months or so. Not because I’m especially into the event itself. Because knowing that event is out there gets me out the door for hundreds of days beforehand. The process that is spurred by some kind of event is what I actually get out of the event. The process is what ends up being important.

So, in 2020 with no public events allowed, I decided to backpack the 65-mile Border Route Trail solo with Leo my dog. That went well so I decided to run 53k because it was my 53rd birthday. I trained all summer, including the backpacking trip, and ran two 16.5 mile loops starting and finishing in my driveway. In 2021, I started sniffing around for a 54k run for my 54th birthday. I got a brainstorm from going down internet rabbit holes. I would run from the Minnesota Low Point (Lake Superior) to the Minnesota High Point (Eagle Mountain)! I thought it was possible I’d be the first guy to do it. I scoped out an 18.2 mile route. Then I went to a website for Fastest Known Times and learned that a guy had done this very thing about 3 months before I came up with it. Dammit. But hey, 18 miles wasn’t going to be enough to get me 54k for my 54th birthday. But what if I ran up and back? That would be over 54k and I bet there wouldn’t be anybody dumb enough to do that. I went 37 miles in just under 10 hours. And now, I hold the FKT for the Low/High/Low variation in Minnesota. I did the Eagle Mountain part with Shelley and Grace. I can tell you, that was one of the coolest days I’ve ever spent outside. Now, my FKT is simply because I was dumb enough to do it first. I ain’t fast. But hey, I created a project, trained for months and it worked. And it was a blast.

So I came out of that year with ideas. Around that time, I read Jessie Diggins book Brave Enough. In it, she describes something she does each year: The Big Stupid. She says it’s “an adventure that really isn’t the smartest from a training perspective for my sport, but is very necessary in order to feed my soul and sense of adventure.” Without realizing it, I was coming up with my own Big Stupid ideas for several years. Big dumb ideas that spurred me into a months-long process outdoors to prep for some big adventure outside. Not very sophisticated, but it works for me. I get into a really fun headspace when I think about what to do next. Even more fun between the ears when I settle on an idea and start figuring out how to get ready. So, that’s why I’m calling this project Shmo’s Big Stupid. Thanks, Jessie.

My second reason for doing the Pemi Loop is the process that goes into it beforehand. Even if I never did this project, my summer is looking pretty monstrous to get ready. I’m running a trail ultramarathon: the Superior Spring Trail Race 50k on May 20 on the Superior Hiking Trail. Then I’m running Grandma’s Marathon in June. Then in July, I’m going to tackle a big one: the Voyageur. A 50-mile trail ultra. I’ve done the Eugene Curnow three times, which is the 25-mile version from the zoo to Carlton. So I’m familiar with the trail. I figured, Hey, I can run 37 miles, why not try 50 miles? If I can come out of this summer healthy, I figure I can go do the 50k Pemi Loop with a fair amount of confidence.

My third reason, is because I can. Someday, I would kill to be able to do something this stupid.

“How’d you get this idea?”

A few years ago, I wrote an essay about maps. In it, I looked into the history of the Appalachian Mountain Club maps that guided me up those 48 Four Thousand Footers. I learned that my 1987 list of peaks was now obsolete. In 1998, the AMC went from the manual maps to an all digital map process. During that switch, they learned that Wildcat E was shorter than they thought. So, Wildcat E got demoted and Wildcat D got promoted. So, the list I completed in 1990 was retroactively incomplete! My OCD took over. I came up with an idea to go back east and climb Wildcat D to make sure I’m actually complete with the current list of 48 mountains. This is something I may try to do while I’m back east doing the Pemi Loop, hopefully with the whole family.

While I was scouring the internet about Wildcat D and the Four Thousand Footers, I ran into something called a White Mountains Direttisima: 240-mile direct route that’s the shortest way to climb all 48 in one shot. I got super excited about this. The main stumbling block was finding enough time to do it. I figured I’d need 45 days (driving from MN to bring my gear). I’d have to beg for time off from work, even more than the vacation I already burned. I’d split the 240 miles into three ten-day chunks with a couple days resupplying at my parents’ house in Maine in between. With a few days of family vacation in Maine beforehand. But ultimately, I’d be 30 days in the hills by myself. I was recently eating dinner in a restaurant in Boston and sat next to my dad. I explained this Big Stupid idea. He said, “That’s really dumb.” Like, not in a cool way. I took a step back and reevaluated this 6-week long project and agreed. Too big. Too dumb. Too much time alone instead of with family. So, I scaled back to a one-day suffer-fest on the Pemi Loop. I think that’ll be plenty.


I’m excited to go back to the land of Live Free or Die. My dad started his Forest Service career on the White Mountain National Forest. I was born right there in Littleton. We hiked all over there. My dad was the District Ranger on the Pemigewasset Ranger District of the WMNF. So, I’ll be running a loop around the Pemi Wilderness, the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi, which used to be in his district. It’ll be kind of like going home. If you’re really bored, you can read this thing I wrote several years ago called “Good Views” about Owl’s Head, which is in the center of that loop. Kind of gets at how the mountains mean a lot to me there. I’ll be sharing my process and the Pemi Loop itself on social media. You can find those links at my About page. Please consider a donation to the two non-profits at the top of the post.

I’ll close with a picture of me on Mt. Garfield around 1983. My dad’s taking the picture looking over me to Owl’s Head on the left and Flume in the distance. I’ll be running past this spot in a few months, 40 years after the picture was taken. Kind of cool.

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Take a Whiff: A Review of The Chicago East India Company by Christopher Lyke

Take a Whiff:

A Review of The Chicago East India Company by Christopher Lyke

When you finish reading The Chicago East India Company by Christopher Lyke, you’ll know something about the author: “He’d worked with his back, and fought,…” Then you’ll know that people who go to war split in two. One part physically returns home and tries to rejoin daily American life. The other part is lodged in their brain and bleeds over into every thought and action. Halloween in the neighborhood with the kids contains echoes of a time in Afghanistan. In less than a hundred pages, Lyke creates a lyrical drumbeat to help you learn—help you feel—what that post-war headspace is like. The last chapter is masterful and replicates the rhythm of the whole project in miniature.  If you aren’t changed when you close this book filled with concentrated, seething energy, I feel sorry for you.

Christopher Lyke

Ford Madox Ford, famous English novelist and World War I veteran, came up with a term for this mental split. In his book It Was the Nightingale, Ford called this species of man homo duplex: “A poor fellow whose body is tied in one place, but whose mind and personality brood eternally over another distant locality.” Lyke drags you from one end of that spectrum to the other. From teaching school in Chicago to a night patrol in the mountains of Afghanistan. But he really sings to me when he describes life at home in the United States when it’s interwoven with the memory of something overseas. While he’s getting chewed out by a school administrator in Chicago, Lyke writes: 

He stared at me for a while without looking away. It was another silly game he must have learned at a management seminar. A year before, people had been trying to kill me. These tricks meant nothing. 

Here, Lyke nails something I think all the time. In my civilian life, some potential bad thing might seem possible, but then I would think to myself: What’re they going to do? Something worse than shaving my head and sending me to Afghanistan? Been there, done that.

Lyke dramatically captures how one place lives in your brain while your body lives in another. And in those moments, his writing shows how combat throws a different light on every aspect of your civilian life in the aftermath. Sometimes big, sometimes small, but ever-present. 

Many of the chapters are short and entirely about life in the US, but there’s that one-line nugget that demonstrates what people carry with them after war. Sometimes, Lyke shares a dark mood or a sense of exhaustion that isn’t explicitly a result of deploying, but could be. This mimics the genuine uncertainty I sometimes have about what’s a result of combat time and what might just be part of growing older. In this way, this book should be relatable to readers who “soldier on” in their civilian jobs, even though they’ve never been overseas.

There’s a lot of discussion for many years now about the growing “civil-military gap.” The widening chasm between those who serve and civilians who don’t. Storytelling is a way to bridge that gap, and to me, it seems natural that the onus is on the military veterans to tell those stories. But it also requires readers who are willing to be made uncomfortable. It’s kind of a hard sell: Read my book because it’ll make you squirm. Still, it’s why I recommend Lyke’s book. It’s powerful, somewhat angry, but short enough to digest. The parts about life in the big city in a job that you need, but don’t necessarily want, should hook anybody. The way the chapters alternate between the US and the war are spaced out in a rhythm that brings the reader along. That rhythm comes to a crescendo in the last chapter and, dear reader, you’re going to get agitated. And that’s the point.

In Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribehe proposes a way for communities to welcome home veterans. Lyke’s work is a concentrated version of this idea for a reader who is willing to commit: 

…if contemporary America doesn’t develop ways to publicly confront the emotional consequences of war those consequences will continue to burn a hole through the vets themselves… …Offer veterans all over the country the use of their town hall every Veteran’s Day to speak freely about their experience at war… A community ceremony like that would finally return the experience of war to our entire nation, rather than just leaving it to the people who fought. 

I don’t know how much of Lyke’s book is autobiographical. Some chapters refer to the main character in the third person, while other stories are told in first person. I suppose I could make some guesses about what’s nonfiction and what might be fictional based on the point of view. I’m reminded of the line from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried that’s almost like a Zen koan: “You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.”

For the longest time, the answer did matter to me, and still does. I believe a war story should be true. But now, I have my own litmus test for truth and it’s one I learned from Jerad W. Alexander in a piece he wrote called “On Telling War Stories”

The subject has a tendency to spray a social gathering with what seems to be an ultrafine shit-mist,…

Lyke’s stories read like the truth to me because I can smell that mist. Even though I was overhead the battlefield instead of on the ground. Even though I’ve never been a big city schoolteacher. I want to shove a copy of The Chicago East India Company into a reader’s hands and say, “Take a whiff.”


Eric Chandler is the author of Kekekabic (Finishing Line Press, 2022) and Hugging This Rock (Middle West Press, 2017)

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Seeing the Elephant

A Review of So Frag & So Bold: Short Poems, Aphorisms & Other Wartime Fun (Middle West Press, 2021) by Randy Brown

Reviewed by Eric Chandler

Randy Brown’s latest chapbook, So Frag & So Bold: Short Poems, Aphorisms & Other Wartime Fun (Middle West Press, 2021), is small and explosive. That’s why the cover image of a combination heart/grenade is so apt. Grenades are also small and explosive. 

The “Wartime Fun” comment in the title might seem odd, but humor is the sugar that makes the medicine go down. It’s hard to look directly at war. But if a poem is funny, you might be able to hang on long enough to hear what the poet is trying to say. The title also says these are short poems. True, but the words gained power for me surrounded by white space. 

I read somewhere that laughter happens when your brain gets surprised. When I read “Morning Prayer” I laughed because, my goodness, my wife and I love a cup of joe:


Thank God.

A short poem, for sure. There’s even a poem that ponders just how short a poem can be. Another questions what poetry is. The chapbook title comes from Brown’s parody of a William Carlos Williams poem called “This Is Just to Say.” Williams’ plums in the ice box become grenades in Brown’s poem. These poems might be a little “inside baseball,” requiring some familiarity with writing and poetry, but they still made me smirk. 

Still, this is mostly a collection that ponders war. Brown is self-aware when it comes to revisiting one’s experiences in the military. Some pieces are almost meta-poetry. Writing about war writing. In one piece called “a poem” he writes:

You don’t have to make everything

a poem, she said. 

Or about

being a Veteran.

And in his “The New Sherpatudes,” his personal list of aphorisms and nuggets of wisdom, he ends with this one-liner: Nostalgia is a disease, suffered by old soldiers. I think it’s too strong to say that reminiscing about wartime experiences is a disease. We tell stories, after all. It’s intensely human to share our stories. 

We tell those stories in different ways, which Brown covers nicely in a piece titled “blind men & veterans.” Seeing combat has been called “seeing the elephant.” He deftly combines that phrase with the old fable about several blind men describing an elephant differently based on which part of the animal they were each touching. Brown got me nodding when I read this piece:

we each describe

                           seeing the elephant


As for me, I feel guilty sometimes about continuing to dwell on wartime events in my life. My disease of nostalgia. Brown dropped a truth grenade on me in a piece called “on war poetry.” Not funny, but explosive. It made me realize it’s okay to revisit some of the most important moments of my past:

we write the war /

the war writes us

even the ones

who got away clean

One time, I was dangling my toes off a dock into a Minnesota lake when a bald eagle swooped down and snagged a fish out of the calm water ten feet in front of me. The surprise of such an improbable occurrence hit my brain and I let out an explosive “HA!” like a grenade. Brown lobs many surprises that powerful, so go get yourself this chapbook. It really is So Frag & So Bold.

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