Friday, November 17, 2017

Grateful on Kendrick Mountain

This summer, a fire swept across the Kendrick Mountain Wilderness, but in true fire fashion, it had flirted with the landscape, leaving some aspen and pine stands untouched while torching others. Then the Arizona monsoon hit, triggering warnings of landslides. The wilderness had been closed since then, and had only recently reopened.

I was hiking the Kendrick Mountain trail for a work project. I spend plenty of time at my computer, and moments like these, ones that used to be every day, are now rare. As I hiked up the rocky trail, taking long, epic switchbacks to the ultimate height of ten thousand feet, I thought about the people, one most recently, who judgmentally told me that they "could never work a desk job." This always seems a bit snarky and aimed at showing that the person is somehow superior and never fails to irritate me. We all weigh our trade-offs and for me, it was not having to hustle at age 70.

Plus there's this. Desk job though it may be, I am writing a wilderness plan for this place, something that will help protect it for decades. How can that not be rewarding, to leave something behind? I think it is. Something like the cabin I stumble upon on a flat plateau, built in the 1930s. The fire lookout lived here and hiked the rough trail to Kendrick Peak's summit every day to scan for smoke.

I scale the last height to a windswept fire tower. There's still a seasonal employee who lives up here in the summer, though the tower has long been closed down for the year. The lookout must hike to their worksite, a fate that sounds pretty good to me.

The outhouse is still wrapped in fire resistant material. Having dug privies in rocky soil, I can appreciate not wanting this to burn down.

As I descend, I run into the lone hiker I passed a while back. "I could live up here!" I tell him. He agrees. "I could live up here in winter," he ups the ante. "I'm that kind of guy!" "Me too!" I say. It's always nice to meet one of my tribe in a world that doesn't value solitude.

"Do you like the music of Jerry Garcia?" he asks. While I'm not a Deadhead, I do like some of the songs, so I nod. He fishes in his backpack and hands me a CD. It's a burn of a Grateful Dead concert in 1972. "I give these to hikers," the man says. I head down the mountain, smiling at the randomness of the encounter.

Though the wilderness has been burned, I can see signs already of rebirth. Grass pokes from black soil. A spared group of aspens rustle in the wind. This wilderness is tough; it will make it. I'm glad to be here, glad that my desk job affords me the opportunity to travel, to stay fit enough to climb 2,500 feet in four miles, to be able to give something back.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Cold feet on Cayuse Flats

I am having a hard time admitting it's winter. Which means winter running, which means the fearsome choice of a treadmill, some icy streets on soul crushing pavement, or foolhardy attempts at trails you really should be skiing instead of trying to run. Yesterday I chose the latter, only to flounder through six inches of snow. Yes, the trails are shut down for the season.

Today I set off in trail running shoes as T and I headed up the trail to Cayuse Flats. Spoiler alert, I regretted this decision as we walked through fresh snow. Soon my feet were freezing, aided by a stiff breeze that forced us to don all of our layers. Not yet used to winter, we were not carrying enough, and could not linger.

Luckily the trail climbed steeply uphill, which allowed us to warm up slightly. We passed through silent forest before the trail petered out and we made for the ridge.

We climbed this hill to get to the ridge
There's a road you can actually drive to get here, but who wants the easy way? Not us. We headed along the top of the world for awhile before heading over to investigate some abandoned looking buildings. Peering inside, we noticed a brand new box of Red Wings and fresh cut firewood. Was someone living in the shack? A stock truck cruised the road, bringing hay to the horses we had seen earlier,  but there were no footprints in the snow.

Buildings from a distance
This would be a great cabin to spend the winter in, I thought. But then again, maybe not. Winters are harsh up here. The road would drift in soon. It will be eight months before it opens up again. Or more.

Lately more of my friends are speaking wistfully of warmer climates. Some have even made the break, claiming not to miss skiing or winter at all. I have to admit, sometimes it sounds good--no running in microspikes, no driving in winter storms, no skirting the edge of frostbite on hikes like this (although I will wear boots next time). But then again, living in a constant climate might get kind of boring.

A moody sky, with the Wallowas in the distance
T and I headed down the ridge; the buildings would have to survive the winter without us as tenants. But survive they will, just like I will survive another winter. "I feel like last winter took it out of us," a friend said in the grocery store. He isn't ready for winter yet either. But here it is, ready or not. It's a time to adjust: running has to slow down. You can't break eight minute miles in winter, not on the ice. You have to switch from hiking to skiing. You have to bring boots, not shoes.

And maybe that's a good thing. Around here, you can't get set in your ways.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Walker Pass to Tehachapi: against the wind

A full moon disappeared in and out of ragged clouds as a fifty mile per hour wind threatened to toss my hiking partner, Triscuit, and me into the canyon below. It was impossible to stand, and I resorted to crawling down the rocky path. This wind was not something you could wait out. There was also nothing I could do to help Triscuit, somewhere behind me, her headlamp a small source of light on the dark trail. Well, Monkey Bars, I thought. You have to get yourself out of this. We were each on our own, battling the wind.

We were nearing the end of an 85 mile stretch of the PCT, billed as the driest section of the entire 2650 mile trail. In 42 miles of trail there are no water sources. We staggered under the weight of multiple liters, and sighed in relief when we found two key water caches were still being stocked this late in the year.

It felt late to be hiking here, the only people we encountered a couple of tardy southbounders (Hurl Goat and Mary Poppins) trying to outrun winter. For days we saw nobody else, our feet scuffing through miles of oak leaves. We hiked this section southbound for logistics purposes, dropped off by Dave, a talkative Uber driver who informed us all about his sobriety, panic attacks, and his desire to drop below 317 pounds, but also his desire for a candy bar. Starting from the desolate Walker Pass campground, we traveled uphill through Joshua trees and through the gorgeous Coulter pines of the remote Piute Mountains. We passed strange little cabins and campgrounds, deserted and silent in the bite of an autumn breeze. We also passed hundreds of wind turbines, lit up bright red at night like artificial sunsets.

Scenic Section F.

Old school toilets at Landers Camp. Do not camp here unless you enjoy hanging out in an icebox.

Casa De Oso, an abandoned looking sheet metal cabin. We saw no osos, but plenty of deer.
I didn't expect much from this section, but it quickly turned out to be one of my favorites. In spring, when most of the thru hikers come by, temperatures often top 100 degrees, and their impressions are not good. But in fall, we had cold nights and pleasant days, at least for the first two. As Triscuit and I hiked along a ridge, we spotted something strange--an ominous cloud in the distance.

Fog spills over the mountains.
"Is that a fire we are walking toward?" we asked each other, but as we approached, it became clear that a strange fog was taking over the sky. As we were enveloped, the wind began to blow. We marched past wind farms, swathed in all of our layers. Our camps were an exercise in finding sheltered places, but the wind still found us. It was ever present. Until you have hiked and camped for days in wind, you don't realize the level of anxiety it produces.

Wind farms at sunrise.
The last night, tucked in among some bushes, we thought we were safe from the wind. Our third hiking partner had inexplicably left us, hiking without a working phone and no headlamp down to the highway, where, we later learned, she hitched a ride to Bakersfield with a trucker. There's a lot more that could be said about this, but note to self: whenever people ask why I hike solo, there are stories I could tell.

Beautiful windswept plateau.
Shaking our heads, we retreated to our tents. After midnight, the wind increased to a howl, forcing me to take down my tent for fear of a broken pole. Still, if you run away at the first sign of adversity, how do you ever get stronger? It's just wind. Until you are crawling down a hillside, hanging on for dear life.

But nobody is going to come save you. In the wilderness, you learn to figure things out. Or you don't, and you don't go back out again. Eventually, as I knew we would, we reached more protected ground and were able to walk normally to the bus stop, where a Kern transit bus took us to civilization, the downtown transit center, where a bunch of homeless people sat wrapped in blankets. It was a jarring contrast, although we probably looked homeless ourselves with our backpacks and windblown looks.

The wind farm look.
Impressions of Section F? An entirely enjoyable fall hike, but you must be prepared. It feels more remote than most Southern California sections. In higher temperatures this would be pretty difficult. There are several places that are easements through private property, and so you walk on ATV roads that are steep and rocky. In other places, you follow winding trail through gorgeous forests. Like most of the PCT, it is varied and surprising. The water sources range from trickling seeps to piped springs, but you have to plan carefully or you may run out. And beware the wind; it blows all the time, unceasingly.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Five anchors

I have a lot of pets. Five, to be exact. Sometimes I think what life would be without them. I'd be able to skip away from the house on long adventures without feeling guilty. No more spending exorbitant fees for shots, mysterious ailments, and fancy food. No more having to readjust my schedule because someone needs a walk/needs shots/needs more food/can't be left alone/smells like a skunk even though you've bathed her four times. Being able to find a place to rent while we build our house, because every landlord recoils in horror at the word "pets".

I have friends who swear off pets for many of those reasons and it does make sense. I couldn't have a pet when I was a seasonal worker, and I was able to go to New Zealand for six weeks/move across the country every six months/backpack anywhere in a national park/own clean vehicles.

But my heart. With one exception our animals are all rescues. One cat would have died without us feeding him with a bottle. We rescued one cat from a house that, I kid you not, had air literally blue from smoke. One of the dogs was taken from a hoarding situation. Someone else would have taken them--maybe.

Ruby before the molt. She looks totally skinny now.
In these beautiful fall days, I hike with the dogs. The older one feels he has earned the right to ignore me and poke along; he's eleven. The puppy runs ahead, and then comes back to check on me. It's fifty degrees and feels so warm; even though I laugh to myself that just a month ago it was fifty degrees more than this. This is what I love about living in a four season place. You get to watch the miracle of your body adjusting to extremes.

I've also witnessed rescue animals adjusting to love for the first time. Our old dog is getting more and more cuddly with age, just like the last one did. It makes me think of people--once you have experienced a trauma, it takes forever to trust again. The animals give me hope.

Callie! Fifteen and going strong.
 And despite the challenges of these five anchors, having a trail buddy has been really great. Ruby has gone from a stubborn, independent puppy to one who will sit when other people come by (she used to try to run off with them, as if they would give her a better home), will "leave it" when told (she stopped running after a deer, a huge victory) and who will come sit by me as I sit by a lake, putting her head on my lap.

 I don't know if I will always have pets. Now, while I am chained to working at home, it makes sense-I am there a lot of the time. If I get to retire, I plan to chase all the trails I can. Maybe I will want to be more footloose then. For now the pets fill up some empty spaces and make me happy. Plus, who would I talk to all day? Myself? Far better to talk to the pets. "Okay, Ruby, now we need to make a conference call."

Then there's the hardest part--pets don't live very long. Not nearly long enough. It breaks your heart when they leave you, even though you know they will. Every day with them, you live knowing that someday they won't be around. I also have friends who won't get any more pets because that pain was too hard to bear.

Puffin as a kitten, rescued from certain death
Do you have pets or have you chosen not to have them to pursue a more free life?

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Sorting through (a hiking story, sort of)

I've been slowly moving back into my cabin. As I haul rubbermaid containers inside and open them, I am amazed: all of this stuff. And I thought I got rid of a lot of stuff when I moved out! Living in a thousand square foot house with no real closets, I probably have a lot less than most people. Still, it's way too much.

Why is it so hard to get rid of stuff? I had hardly anything most of my life: if it couldn't fit in a Chevette, it wasn't going. Then when I left Alaska I banished almost everything: all of my furniture, most of my possessions. I liked traveling light. But in the last eight years, things have slowly crept in. I am ruthless this time: out it goes!

I laugh when I see some of the items. The array of hair potions, trying to tame what hypothyroidism has done to a formerly glossy mane (it's not pretty). I have ziplock bags of unidentifiable pills (Tylenol PM? Aspirin?). I obviously store my fears, because my medicine cabinet is heavily weighted toward blister prevention. As far as clothes, I have hung on to "office wear", just in case I ever return to one (it's doubtful, but you never know where life will take you). I can't seem to part with my XtraTuf Alaska rubber boots or my storm kayaking jacket. Maybe doing so would admit that part of my life is really over. It is over, but maybe, I think, there's a piece of that woman who did those things that I don't want to let go.

I finally couldn't take it anymore. It was time to hike. I held no illusions that I would get to Ice Lake; tales of waist deep snow elsewhere abounded. If I could just go ten miles, I thought. Maybe that would smooth out some rough edges (life has been pretty complex lately).

I hurried through all the old landmarks: the wilderness boundary sign, the place where the trail rides turn around, the first campsite for those who overestimate their fitness. I crossed the bridge and headed up toward the basin. A storm was coming in, with lots of snow and 40 mile an hour winds. I knew I had to beat it.

Strangely enough, there was only a skiff of snow. I was going to make it all the way! Giggling with happiness (yes, I am a dork), I arrived at the lakeshore to find gale force winds and a lake churning with whitecaps.

Ok, YOU try to take a selfie in 40 mph winds.
It's interesting how the moods of a place can change so fast. In summer this lake feels almost tame and hospitable. You can go swimming. (of course, "summer" at almost 9,000 feet is really only two months max). Now, it felt like a place where humans should not stay. Looking over the peaks, I saw a ragged hem of clouds approaching--the storm. High on Sacajawea, mountain goats roamed, seemingly indifferent to the gale force winds.

Stuffing a bagel into my mouth, I raced down to safer ground. The entire 16 mile hike would be done without breaks. As a result I hobbled back into the house, flopping dramatically on the couch. Nobody was too impressed. The chores still awaited, an army of containers with too much stuff. Tomorrow, J informed me, we would have to go cut wood. In the snow. Because, we could buy wood, but that would make us soft, I decided.

I stared at the detritus of my life. There was my wedding ring from my former marriage. Though the marriage was awful, the ring was pretty. I started to toss it, then reconsidered. I can hang on to it a little longer. Maybe I'll have it made into a necklace. Not as a reminder of someone who treated me poorly, but because I survived it and came out stronger. Or really, does everything have to have meaning? Maybe it's just a nice ring.
Some things you just have to hang onto until you are ready to let them go.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

coming home

I drove home into an early winter. Usually the Wallowas get a fine dusting of snow, like giants spilling flour, by this time. I've even been chased out of the mountains on Labor Day by a half a foot dump. But this much snow, this early, is not typical, at least not in the recent decades. Two guys I passed on the trail today said they had run into a foot of snow before the old cabin on Falls Creek, and that is just deeply weird.

But today, at least, my first day back home, was one of those fall days that can break your heart. Heartbreaking because you know they can't last and they are just about perfect, a slight bite to the air, piles of bright leaves, warm sun on your shoulders and an open trail. I'm trying more and more often to live by the philosophy of "don't be sad that it's over, smile because it happened" and so I took on an easy trail, but one of the most beautiful.  I wanted to be grateful for the fall day, not gnash my teeth over the coming winter.

Only a few frosty cars at the trailhead, so some brave souls were camping in the twenty degree temperatures. Good for them. For me this is the time of year for day hikes. It only takes about an hour to reach Slick Rock Falls, the best I could do today when the chores had piled up in my absence (Note: if you rent a cabin to a bachelor, their idea of a good cleaning just might not be yours).

I hiked along at what my friend Gary calls a "friendly pace". It is always surprising to me to see day hikers with headphones, because my mind always is busily thinking about something. On my latest PCT hike it took me about five miles to add up all of the segments I have done and figure out what I have left (788 miles). I thought about each section and what it was like, and of the ones I have left to do. I think of plotlines for my novel. There is more to think about than there are miles.

The light wasn't great for pictures, but you get the idea.
 For example. Here in Deadman Meadow, I thought about climbing Sacajawea, the snowy peak pictured above. I thought about my friends who got married here. I remembered when I came and camped right here, on my 50 night backpacking quest. So much to think about.
All too soon I had reached my destination, Slick Rock Falls. This is where an avalanche often tumbles down from above. In the summer, you can climb up a ways and sit in some chilly, deep pools. This is also the route to the often dreamed about Deadman Lake. I could go further, I thought, keep going until the snow stopped me. But maybe this was good enough.

It's good to be home. Just like a person, this place has its challenges. I will deeply miss swimming, and the easy, flat trail system that actually made me want to go running. It was easy in Sisters, with convenient amenities, whatever you wanted close at hand. It would have been easy to stay and we almost did. But in the end, this feels more like home, so we came back. The future is still uncertain, but I'm ready to see what is next. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Know when to fold 'em*

All week long I dreamed of Camp Lake. In the guidebook pictures, it looked just like my kind of place--windswept, barren, stark and lovely. Access to it has been closed most of the ephemeral summer we managed to get, due to a fire that really wasn't all that close. Busting a fire closure isn't really my thing, so I waited, hoping for a break that finally came this weekend. The road to the trailhead was open!

The forecast wasn't all that great for backpacking. This time of year, you are flirting with disaster when staying out overnight at high elevations. I really wanted to camp because the hike was seven miles long plus there were other lakes up higher to explore. While a fourteen mile day hike was well within my range, having the chance to wander around the basin really could only happen with more time. In the end, the thirty mph wind gusts forced me to reconsider. (and that is a good thing).

Ruby and I left at dawn, which now means seven, armed with treats, warm clothes, a SPOT beacon, map, too much water, and an emergency blanket. There were only two cars at the trailhead, one belonging to a hunter whom I caught on as we trudged through the first dismal four miles of burnt trees. The other group would mysteriously never appear.

Ice on the creek crossings made for some ballet-like leaps as I attempted to keep my boots dry. I normally hike in trail running shoes, but some instinct had told me to wear boots. I was glad I had as I ascended the switchbacks after the turn-off to Demaris Lake (4.5 miles). The trail became completely snow-covered, with only a few footprints to point the way.

Lakes. But not Camp Lake.
My luck ran out at a cliff. Several sets of footprints had merrily begun traversing what I could tell from the map was the wrong way. I could see where the group had milled around and given up. Punching through a foot of snow, I decided to traverse the ridge and drop down into a valley. I could, I thought, follow my prints back.

I ascended a hill and found the wooden No Fires sign that seems to mark most lakes in these parts. Hallelujah for route-finding skills, I was on the right track. However, I was completely alone in what felt like winter. No trace of the trail remained. To the south, the Three Sisters loomed, implacable and indifferent.
So much snow.
I found what I thought could be the trail, winding mid-ridge, but a tentative step revealed solid ice with a thin snow crust. The snow bulged out over the cliff, making it impossible to kick in steps successfully. A fall wouldn't be automatic death, but it wouldn't be all that fun. I stopped and pondered my options.

I knew I was within a quarter mile of the lake. I could even see the basin where I was sure it lurked. Perhaps a less prudent person would have kept going. Years of being in the wilderness, and of carrying people out of the same wilderness, have taught me that it's important to follow your instinct. It was, I knew, time to turn around. Even though I was so close. Even though it would probably all work out. Even though I would never be back, and this was my only chance. Even though.

I looked at Ruby. Ecstatic, she was rolling around in the snow. She raced at full speed around and around in the snow. She didn't care that this trip was a bust. In fact, to her, it wasn't. So what if we didn't make our destination? I resolved to be more like Ruby.

Yes, that is a dog rolling in snow.
I left Camp Lake to winter. Sometimes, you just have to know when to quit.

Winter is here.
* If there's a Kenny Rogers song now in your head, I apologize.
Dog out of focus, but happy.