Saturday, May 20, 2017

Retreat from a high point

The trails are opening up!  It's been a long winter of the bike trainer and the gym. While it will be a couple of months before the high country melts out, the lower elevation trails are once again open for business. We are able to now trot along about six miles in before snow stops us.

Going to be awhile before anyone climbs Sacajawea.
The late spring means that the narrow Hells Canyon window is open a little longer than usual.  "I don't think I've ever climbed up Freezeout this late," I mused to T as we ascended the trail. Usually baking in the heat by now, it was downright pleasant this April...I mean, May. A 50% chance of thunderstorms was not about to deter us from our goal, Freezeout Saddle. Only about three miles, it can feel like a lot farther as you plod up endless switchbacks, climbing over two thousand feet. 

We had a bigger day than that planned. We hoped to hike along the ridge for a few miles, on a little-used trail that circles the canyon rim. I hadn't been on it in years and T never had. It would be a good, long hiking day.

Two backpackers lounged on the saddle, getting ready for the rocky descent into the canyon. I felt envious, as I always do when I day hike. It would have been a perfect night to camp.
This view doesn't really get old.
Or not. A clap of thunder from nearby sent us on high alert. A storm crouched just to the west, ready to descend. We were on the highest point around. Time to leave. The miles went a lot faster on the way down.


We gained the parking lot just as the storm unleashed. A bear hunter observed us.
"You girls got back just in time," he said. Disregarding the fact that in no known universe can I still be considered a girl, he was correct.

So it would be a short day, but you don't mess with thunderstorms around here. I recently talked with a lightning strike survivor, and his story pretty much convinced me that retreat was the better part of valor.  In these mountains, you have to know when to retreat. 

As we drove away, lightning pounded the hills. I thought of the backpackers and hoped they had made it to a low point. Though six miles is nowhere near an epic day, it felt fine. When I used to run more, I got caught up in the miles I recorded in my training log. Less than a certain number meant I had failed. I'm glad I've moved past that point.

Monday, May 15, 2017

They call me the breeze ( a packing story in memes)

I stared at my outdoor gear totes. How can you know what you'll need for four months? Clothes are easy. It's summer (allegedly. It is snowing currently). Shoes? Just a pair to run in and a couple to hike in. But outdoor gear! How to choose? I threw three tents into a pile. What? It makes sense! The PCT tent that folds up as small as a water bottle. The two person deluxe. And my overnight fave.

Over the last eight years I have mostly lost my gypsy nature. I used to be up for any kind of move. I was like the breeze, always moving on. I've lost that person, and it's time to find her again. I am moving about six hours south, for 4 months, a job thing. Just like I never thought I would do, I am following a man (but it's okay, I am married to him). The alternative is to stay here and take care of the two houses we own. Oh Honey. No.

It's surprising how deeply rooted I've become and how hard it is to prepare for this. How did I ever move every six months, for years? At the same time, I've become kind of comfortable. Time to shake things up.

And the stuff! How did I acquire so much stuff? I'm cleaning out the house so some short-term renters can move in. What are all these electronic chargers and what do they charge? What is this unidentifiable gadget? How did I end up with four nail clippers? And on what planet did I ever think these shoes were stylish?

Weeding out your life is actually a good exercise. Minus furniture, I have discovered that my belongings all fit in a small shed. I've taken stock of everything I have and decided if it's worth keeping. I still hang on stubbornly to a few things. Doesn't everyone need two camp stoves? And five sleeping bags is totally reasonable.

The pets are the issue. I've never wanted to be a person who would not go on vacations because of their pets. But it definitely becomes a consideration when embarking on a temporary move. Some of them don't get along, which raises the complexity of the whole thing.

It's hard to think about missing a summer here.This is about perfect--enough tourists to make sure we have some nice restaurants and a bookstore, but not so many you feel road rage trying to get home. People in the mountains, but less than other places. On the bright side, this is a way to try out a new place without a commitment. I have new trails to explore, a pool (!), lakes to kayak on. The town is full of athletes, which can be good and can be bad. I'll have to get over being passed by other runners, which never happens here. But I might be able to find some kindred souls, which can sometimes be lacking in my small town.

I have three weeks to cull the herd, so to speak. The thrift store won't know what hit it. And I know once I get there, it will be an adventure. Welcome back, wanderer.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Pacific Crest Trail, Section C, Cabazon to Cajon Pass, Days 5-7:Strange Encounters

Triscuit and I hiked through the ominously gathering heat in a deep river canyon. Far below us, enticing, inaccessible beaches lined the shores of dark water--Deep Creek. I wanted nothing more than to jump in, but steep canyon walls guarded the creek, making it only a shimmering mirage. We had seen very few people in the last eight miles, and it felt like we were the only people alive.

Lovely Willow Creek
Then we rounded a corner to discover a scene of utter weirdness. In the middle of nowhere, there were tents. There was music. There was a slackline across the river. There were people hollering. There were...naked men?

This was Deep Creek hot springs, probably once a sweet destination, but now the site of a fatal ameobic disease if you submerge your head (though we saw plenty of people doing this) and a high fecal coliform count. I had to admire the tenacity of these people who had actually hiked in a couple of miles from a road to visit, but the scene was way out of place and uncomfortable. We quickly moved on.

Inaccessible Deep Creek beach

As we hiked, the heat became intense, and as a giant, strange dam holding back zero water came into place, we staggered to some cottonwood trees. A woman roared up on an ATV. "Ladies. A hundred yards from here I have beer, soda and kale salad."

Kale salad? It was a strange thing to have while hiking, but I would take it. As we sat by the Mojave River, the trail angel peppered us with offers. I'll drive you to Silverwood! I'll bring you hot dogs! It's too hot to hike the burned area! Take my phone number! Are you sure you don't want to go to Silverwood? I'll go get more food! We can get pizza! Have more salad!

She was sweet, but it was too much after a week of near solitude. We escaped, walking through an eerie burnt landscape. Fire doesn't bother me much, and it was interesting to see the bones of the land laid bare, even though we were walking in an oven. Arriving at our campsite, with a welcome seasonal stream still flowing, I encountered a southbound hiker who looked...oddly familiar. It was Pebble, whom I had met briefly on the steep climb up from Seiad Valley in Northern California last summer! What were the chances? Life is strange.

Silverwood Lake. Looks nice, but...

The next day we wound by Silverwood Lake, which was sadly trashed. The water was silty and garbage lined the sandy beaches. My hopes for a swim were dashed on this, the hottest day yet, over ninety degrees. We sat, homeless looking, in a picnic area with two other hikers. One of them would later write in her trail journal that she had met two others "about her age." Judging by a few things she said, I deduced her to be in her 60s. Did I really look sixty out here? The desert does strange things to you though. When I returned home, my skin felt like rough parchment. It takes a week for the desert varnish to leave, and a boatload of lotion.

Not the best picture of me, but I wanted to show you my hiking setup. Long sleeve shirt and a hat were necessities. Everyone thought I was a thru-hiker so I guess I looked the part.
Our last night on the trail was only six miles from the interstate but after 18 miles we called it quits by a small trickling stream. Hiding in the shade, I felt the same old dilemma. I wanted to be home with the ones I loved, but the trail has a pull I can't deny. I wanted to keep going.

The last six miles were truly magical.

Early morning walking
Triscuit and I sat, homeless looking, at the hotel where the shuttle would pick us up and deliver us back to Palm Springs. A van hove into view, the driver waving at us enthusiastically. It was....our lonely trail angel from the Mojave dam! For a moment we thought she had been tracking us. How else to explain how, thirty miles later, she would suddenly appear at exactly the same moment that we were sitting at this random hotel? After she drove away T and I burst into hysterical laughter. This strange encounter was the perfect ending to a long, strange trip.

the last campsite

Friday, May 5, 2017

Pacific Crest Trail, Section C, Cabazon to Cajon Pass: Against the Wind, Days 1-4

the mysterious whitewater area
Triscuit and I stood under a harsh Southern California sun. Wind, the equivalent of a blowdryer aimed at the face, whipped around us. Where was the trail? We could see the trail angel house we had stopped at the year before, but the angels had retired and this was clearly off limits. Taking a wild guess, we scrambled up a prickly hillside to find it: the PCT. We were back.
Uphill, always uphill

Triscuit views the trail ahead

Mt, San Jacinto, still snowy

Our goal: Cajon Pass, 132 miles away. Six days? Seven? Since we had started at three in the afternoon, we could only hope to reach Whitewater Preserve, an oasis in this parched landscape of cactus, creosote, and ceanothus. Trudging uphill, burdened by the entire food supply we had planned on taking (no resupply), we made it eight miles: a gurgling river and green grass, populated by a sea of thru hiker tents. Frogs in the desert, how was this possible?

out of the oasis

But this wasn't true desert. Over the next few days, we gradually ascended to nearly 9,000 feet. Our camp on Day 2, after an all day 18 mile grind uphill, though admittedly through a fascinating river landscape, was the result of a rookie mistake on my part. Arriving at the so-called "creekside camp" on my map, I was dismayed to note that it was only a wide spot in the trail, already festooned with tents. At lunchtime we had shared a sitting log with several other hikers and those were sure to follow. While others can sleep with tents right next to them, I am not one of those. I found a small sandy beach by the river and dropped down to it with delight. When Triscuit appeared after a rough day, she was too tired to argue.

During the night, the Santa Ana winds rose to a crescendo. I lay awake as a gritty substance blew in through the exposed mesh of the tent. Sand--I was being buried alive in the sand! After a sleepless night and a morning of panic when I dropped a contact lens on the beach and, amazingly, found it--we marched on twenty more miles, to find a forest of pine trees.

Was this really Southern California, I marveled, as I hurtled myself down switchbacks, near hypothermia? The scenery resembled the Sierra, with a deep forest and huge sand-shaped boulders. Who knew this existed?  The landscape was almost impossible to capture via camera, but it was composed of stark and strange beauty. We walked through burned areas, the bones of the land revealed by wildfire.

The people were a hardy, friendly bunch, far different than last year. We came upon a hiker huddled in a crevice to escape the ceaseless wind. When asked for his trail name, he said sheepishly, "Spooner.", alluding to the fact that some girls had given it to him on another trail. Other hikers weren't as circumspect about prior hiking experience: one man found a way to insert the fact that he had "hiked the AT" twice in a two minute conversation. (He was also carrying a bear canister, hundreds of miles before it was required, claiming he might as well get used to it. Okay, Bear Can Boy.)

Pine trees!

With our dedication to mileage, we outdistanced the hiker bubble we were in and reached a new one, with hikers who had started several weeks ago. At campsites the trail seemed crowded but during the day we mostly walked alone. Alone, but with the wind, a constant companion.

On Day 4, we hit a camping jackpot. It had been 21 miles of descent from the freezing pines into the swelter of the lowlands, and we knew we were coming into a restricted camping area. We had to stop somewhere, and we spied it, a small flat area near some boulders, with a view of trackless mountains. Nobody camped near us, not any of the people we had given our own trail names to and never saw again--the Australians (we had mistook their accents for Aussies), International Girl, Creeper, Tat--nobody was in sight. The wind even stopped breathing.

We were holding our own. Looking at the maps, it looked like an easy, though hot, cruise ahead. Little did we know things were about to get weird. Very, very weird...

To be continued...

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

On the trail again (PCT)

Last April, Triscuit and I sat in the dubious shade of a dumpster and pondered our life choices. We had just staggered through three miles of deep sand, accompanied by a forty-five mile headwind. It was hot, topping ninety degrees. At a blessed trail angel house, we drank Gatorade and fended off stoned waifs who inexplicably tried to hug us. Never again, I thought. I work so hard for my vacation time, why was I in this mindless desert?

But still. There's something to having a goal, even if it is just completing the entire Pacific Crest Trail in sections. I've done 1500 miles; the trail is 2,650 miles give or take. Even as we sat there, true "hiker trash", I knew I would be back.

And so it came to be. On Tuesday we embark on another section, from I-10 near Cabazon to I-15 at Cajon Pass. It promises to be much elevation change, and some weirdness (Deep Creek hot springs, where locals like to ingest substances and soak naked. We may not be clear of the stoned waifs yet). Wind farms are a distinct possibility. Why do we do this, when there are possibly more close to home, scenic places to hike? For me, it's all about the trail community; while the stoners do exist, there are still some real, genuine people (take Shortcut, the Frenchman I camped with last summer. We still email each other) and true soulmates can exist (solemates? Ha). Then again, it's about the dream: Footprints from Mexico to Canada. How amazing is that?

I have: nine pounds of food for seven days. The usual camping gear. Something new, a "rain skirt" instead of pants (the forecast shows no rain); and a new drinking system where I have a tube connected right to a Smartwater bottle instead of a bladder (I love bladders, but on a long trail, it's a PITA to keep unpacking to take it out and fill it and know how much water you have. For shorter hikes, it's still my preference). I am contemplating going the no camp shoes route--there aren't really stream crossings, and for a week, I can go without sandals.

So here we go. 127 miles give or take! I'll report back soon.
This pavement is actually a short walk on the previous section. Not sure why it was chosen to represent Section C.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Dragging Friends on Adventures:the scary road edition

I try to include disclaimers, I really do. I told my friends: This is a narrow, steep, road, with exposure. As we inched along toward the trailhead on the dirt one-lane road, shrieks filling the cab and threats to walk, I felt worried. These same friends were exposed to a freezing, steep hike they weren't expecting a few months back even though I clearly said, it's only two miles, but pretty much uphill the whole way. When we had arrived at our destination, the looks on their faces showed that it had not been described as promised. Foolishly, they had agreed to come with me again. I was sure they were regretting it. This is why I like to go alone sometimes, but I like these friends and it was going to be spring in the canyon. We've been shut out of spring this year (as I write this, it is snowing) so this was a window I couldn't ignore.

One of my friends declared that landing a military plane on an aircraft carrier was easier than the drive. That was hard to believe, but since I've never landed on an aircraft carrier, I had to take his word for it. Backing up for two oncoming trucks in the most narrow place around was probably the last straw. I sighed. Once again, an adventure miscalculation.

not my picture. You think I was taking pictures? Source
I have a very shallow adventure buddy pool, and in a way it's like speed dating (though thankfully I never had to do this in real life). Someone wants to go with you and it's mostly cross your fingers and hope for the best. Along the way, I learn their issues through trial and error (lightning phobia, horse phobia, dislike of bugs, dislike of dogs) and they learn mine (sunrise chatterbox, exercise obsession). We work it out.

After a harrowing two hours we finally arrived at the trailhead. Fortunately, the hike was worth it, because it always is. My friends agreed with this assessment: 4.5 miles one way,  mostly flat! There's something about a confluence that calms everyone, though one friend was heard to say this was a once in a lifetime trip.

The Snake River at last!
I don't know if these friends will accompany me again, but I'll keep trying. I'll just cross them off the list of narrow, exposed roads, like I've crossed others off long slogs (and they have undoubtedly crossed me off steep skiing excursions). Different friends for different adventures!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Alaska is a tug to the heart

The sound of the ocean. Eagles with their crescendo calls. Friends, who never age because of the absence of sun. The familiar edge as I hiked along the trails, wondering if a bear lurked in the forest. And a siege of memories that I thought I had forgotten, opened like a wound.

 Many of us have places like these, places we fled when times got tough, or when we wanted to restart our lives. Southeast Alaska will always be that place for me. It was the scene of great joy and great heartbreak. I've managed to put all that away into a box but, going back to work on a project there, it all came springing out.

It's not bad to have these places in our lives. It's better, I think, than a flatline through life, a contentment that never gets shaken. Though my life is good now, I always think, what if I had stayed?

Because the light lingers from five in the morning to past eight at night, I was able to hike far past where I could down south, and I visited some of the old trails. Familiar, yet not, it was strange and yet wonderful to revisit the paths I used to run or hike daily. My former kayaking partner, Helga, and I crunched along the Cross Trail, walking through the place where a landslide took three peoples' lives, a half-finished house sitting mutely among the devastation. A reminder that things don't stay the same. In the time I have been gone, people have left, people have split up, people have had babies. Life doesn't stay in pause just because you are gone.

Fishing boat and Mount Edgecumbe
 As I flew away, back to the life I've chosen, I looked down on Baranof Island and could name all the bays. There was where we pushed the boat through a sheet of ice in April. There was where Kitty and I spent one glorious patrol, nobody else in sight. I was surprised how much I remembered.
Nearing the edge of Baranof Island, Cape Ommaney in the distance
My friend said, "I bet this feels small to you now," and in a way she was right. I like the idea of living unfettered in a big landscape, able to drive to the next town, the next river, the next mountain, instead of hemmed in by sea and tough mountains. I have choices now that I didn't then. It is always a tradeoff.

Still, I will never be quite able to forget this place. I don't think I could live here again. Even though I was here during a few days of unusual sunshine, I know there are times when it rains thirty days in a row. I am a sunshine person now. Backpacking here was hard, a combination of desire and fortitude, armed with pepper spray and aerial photos. In many ways I have it much easier. I have probably  lost that Alaska toughness.

And there's this: I've lived there and in the Florida swamp, in the Great Basin and in the southwest. All of those places have left their mark. I'm glad I did it all. Even when it hurts a little to leave.

I recognized Lake Diana immediately as the plane flew toward the lower 48. I camped here for several days, looking for rare plants.