What to Read: Kelton Wright is adjusting to a new altitude
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
Shangri-Logs is about bringing new life to old logs at 10,000 feet, whether those logs are the actual house or just what I call myself when I've spent the entire day watching HGTV—which is why I’m throwing myself into downhill mountain biking, backcountry skiing, seemingly endless shoveling, DIY log cabin renovations, and the never-ending pursuit of becoming a local in a place where the locals don't necessarily welcome you.
Log cabins are revered in American culture. What made the experience appealing to you? What is living in a log cabin really like?
My dad was a smokejumper and my mom was a wildlife biologist in the U.S. Forest Service, so there were photos all over our house of the various cabins, shacks, and lookouts they used to live in. Romanticizing that lifestyle was part of being their kid, and it led to me living in multiple ships’ cabins, a cabin/cabana on Virgin Gorda [British Virgin Islands], two hunting cabins in the Santa Monica Mountains, and finally my first true log cabin, in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.
The cabin is called a full scribe log cabin or round log, meaning the bottom of each log is carved out by hand so that it fits snug around the top of the log below it. The idea is that you don’t need any extra insulation or chinking (log sealant) to keep the house weather-tight, but the reality is that the logs twist and shrink and settle over the years, and gaps form. Which is why it snowed in the house last week. A+ ambience. C– insulation.
But I didn’t want a house that was an escape from the elements: I wanted one that was part of them, and a cabin will do that. Sometimes I just rest my hands on the logs and sit with them, imagining the years they stood tall before becoming dead-stand and then eventually becoming this home. Sure, in a cabin you might end up wearing a beanie to bed, or taping the seams of your doors, or noticing you can see daylight through your wall, but that ever-present connection to the land makes everything else better. You just have to love the land to love a cabin.
You moved from L.A. (well, Topanga Canyon), a city of 4 million, to a town of 180 people. Many people have relocated in the past couple years. Do you have any tips on the right (or wrong) way to integrate into a new community?
It really helps to be an observer of a new environment before becoming a participator. I ask questions like: Do other people leave their outdoor lights on after dark? Are there unofficial parking rules like “Sally always gets that one spot even though it’s not technically in front of her house”? Is there a local community organization I could get some notes from? Do pets roam free? Does anyone have a fence? Does everyone?
When I was looking for a new home, in each of the towns I considered, I looked for mandates, guidelines, local newspapers, etc. to read about what bothers the residents and what they’re hoping to change in the future.
Finding and reading the town mandate for where I am now was one of the major reasons I moved here. It included bylaws that forbade short-term rentals, prevented commercial development, and promoted dark-sky policies. Knowing these things in advance helped—the first month I was here, everyone’s favorite question was “Are you part-time or full-time?” In other words, did I buy a vacation home I’d be in once in a while, or did I actually move to this tiny town? What they were really asking is would I be someone they’d be towing out of the ditch on snowy nights when I was escaping the city, or would I actually be a contributing community member.
I think when you move anywhere, that’s all anyone is really asking: Are you gonna make it worse, or are you going to help us make it better? And if you’re on board with better, then you better listen first.
Read: What’s a good neighbor?
The town you moved to is under threat of avalanche. Five people died in avalanches this past year, and visitors are warned to not stop when driving in. How does this shared risk affect the culture of the town?
This town doesn’t just think about shared risk but sharing risk, in that nearly every person here is defined by their risk-taking and their joy in wrangling you into it. Somehow, in a town of only 180, there resides every guide imaginable: bike touring, river rafting, mountaineering, even a wilderness therapy guide. There are professional skiers and downhill mountain bikers, heli-ski operators, search and rescue experts, and a couple ex-CIA agents. If the people in this town agree on anything, it’s that risk is what makes life worth living.
Where the shared risk weighs heavy is visitors, newcomers, part-timers, and the like. This is one of the reasons short-term rentals aren’t allowed in town, because just being in and enjoying town can require technical skills. The last thing a local wants to deal with is getting someone’s car off the pass, towing someone out of a snowdrift, or digging someone out of an avalanche.
I had my two-way radio on the other day tuned to the local channel after a big snowfall. Static broke and a woman came through, “Hey, avalanche triggered on Mustang. Everyone’s fine.” A moment of quiet and then a man chimed in, “Thanks. Have fun out there.” No chaos, no panic, no follow-up. Everyone here looks out for each other, but they do that knowing everyone else can look out for themselves.
How has your writing practice shifted with the move, if at all?
Moving here was like an internal excavation. Things I thought were shards of myself were actually stores of curiosity just a few layers deeper. Something about this valley. Without the din of the city, I can hear myself again, and when I can hear her, I can write.
Plus, there’s nothing like moving to a town where you don’t know anyone in the middle of a pandemic to really accelerate a writing practice.
You compiled “a crowd-sourced gear list for staying warm” from friends. What’s one item you recommend to anyone transitioning to a drastically colder climate?
Wool. Wool socks, wool blankets, wool base layers, wool hats. Piles and piles of wool.