Friday, September 13, 2019

Take me to the river, part one

The river is a muscle. We float along it in our rafts for nine days, the flow almost faster than I can walk. Faster than I can swim, too: One night I put on my fins and wade out, trying to swim against it. I wind up swimming in place, unable to advance. Once I jump in with my PFD and simply ride the current, swept down through towering cliffs.

The river changed as we floated from Bluff to Clay Hills. Here at the beginning it was wide open. To river left is the Navajo Nation, and you need a permit to go over there.
The sun is unrelenting. Temperatures along the river rise to above one hundred degrees. Some nights, it is too hot to sleep, too hot even for a sheet. We slide into the blissfully cool water as much as we can, spending most of our days soaked. The river canyon bakes, the only relief the water and the occasional hackberry tree.

The ruins at River House, our second nights' camp. True to river time, we only make it six miles in two days.
The silence is a sound itself. We see few other river parties and create river names for them: the Party Barge, the Kids, the Old Guys. We see bighorn sheep, deer, a ringtail cat, and a bird of prey swooping down to capture a smaller bird right in our camp. We slow down to river time.

When I was first invited on this San Juan river trip, I didn't want to go. River trips weren't really what I wanted to do. The rigging of the boats, the unloading and loading of gear--so much gear--seemed interminable. There was a lot of sitting around in camp. I fretted about exercise, not just exercise but an elevated heart rate, which my body seems to need on the daily. I had only done overnight river trips, and most of my paddling has been on the ocean. What did I know about rivers?

As it turned out, river time is magic. Slowly you begin to unwind. I was able to sleep, the sound of the current running through my dreams, in a way that escapes me in real life. I was able to let go of the thread of anxiety related to work that pursues me in real life. Every day we packed our gear and floated around the next corner, every day we picked a different camp based on its attributes. A riffle for playing in with the stand up paddle board, a sandy beach for sitting, a trail to hike.
The view from the Honaker Trail, that climbs 1200 feet to the canyon rim.
Will I become a river runner? I don't think so. At my heart I am more terrestrial. But I succumbed to river time. "You all look so relaxed," Robert says when we return from the Clay Hills takeout. And we are, eighty-three miles later.
A pool up in Slickhorn Canyon

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

River Time

Hey friends, I've been on a river adventure,  and will write about it in a couple of days. Until then, here's a photo of where I was:

Sunday, September 1, 2019


On September 13, I will have 30 years of working for the government. Thirty! I started pretty young but that still makes me feel exceptionally old. In that time I have;

  • Cleared a lot of trails, using so-called primitive tools. Crosscut saws, axes, shovels, and the dreaded loppers..
  • Told a lot of tourists where the bathroom is and attempted to answer the unanswerable "is it worth it?" (Pro tip: it's always worth it.)
  • Lived in remote places where our entertainment came from sunsets and hot springs.
  • Put out a lot of wildfires.
  • Flew in floatplanes and kayaked in the most magical places ever.
  • Sat at a computer writing soul destroying documents.
  • Filled out reams of forms.
  • Taken the same online security training every year for decades.
  • Cleaned toilets. A lot of toilets.
Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Digital Settler (not #vanlife)

I have lately heard the term "digital nomad". Apparently this is someone who can work remotely and takes it to another level, working around the country as they travel. I had a moment of fleeting envy as I thought: I could totally do this! And then, reality: I have pets, and a husband. (Some people take both along with them. Trust me, this would not work well.)

And I kind of like not having to find gas station bathrooms, wondering where I will sleep, and having all of my stuff. I lived the nomad life all through my twenties, though I had a job, I just changed it every 6 months. It gets old, at least it did for me.

So, we paid off the Love Shack, or the Chalet, or the A Frame, or the Country Home, whatever you want to call it, last week. Don't get too jealous. This is a very rustic dwelling that inhabits the occasional mouse. We don't have a water bill, but we have to flip a switch when we want running water. I shudder to think what is under the questionable carpet. This place was built by hippies in 1965 and looks it. 

But, it's mine (and his). I've never actually owned a house before; several banks have owned mine in the past. And I still give half a month's salary to the City Home, a slightly more civilized log cabin that serves as my office and other place to store stuff. (Did I mention that the Country Home is supposed to be 640 square feet but I think it is more like 400?)

So I am not a digital nomad. I am a digital settler. I'm not going to be fixing up a Sprinter Van anytime soon. This is not what I imagined my life to be as a twenty year old traveling the interstates of America, determined never to settle down.  

But... I have raspberries. I have a secret creek swimming hole. I have a dog. And someone who likes it when I stay home. The wind in my hair is still a powerful tug, but I'm here. In my paid off shack!
Try not to be too jealous of this fine piece of architecture.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Adventure Fails

Sometimes when I scroll through social media, I wonder if all adventures are as good as they look. I'm here to keep it real, though. For example: this week. I have been in a slump, as I may have mentioned, since finishing the PCT. It's not that I want to jump back on a long trail; it is the end of something that has allowed me to look forward to, plan, and see progress on a goal. I didn't realize how much I needed that.

On Tuesday, I felt like running in the morning, so I went. And a woman passed me. That rarely happens, not because I am fast, but because there aren't many runners here. Being passed felt truly demoralizing, especially because I was struggling along at a sub-par pace anyway. "I hate being passed!" I said, not meaning to say it aloud. The poor woman jogged away, probably wondering how she ended up in crazytown. Sorry, fellow runner.

The rest of the week went all right, but by Saturday I was ready to get back into the woods. The lake I picked to backpack to is busy, but I thought most of the crowds were gone by now. Optimistically I headed up the steep trail, fantasizing about swimming. Arriving, I started to notice something. Tents! Tents everywhere! Tents too close to the water, tents in every spot, even some hammocks strung over a cliff. Surely, I thought, if I walked around the lake I would find a tucked-away place to camp. The lake is big, and I had to struggle over boulders and swamps, but then I saw it. A peninsula, the perfect place to camp. The dog trailing behind me, I climbed up to find...a tent.

Curses! The entire lake was packed. It was time to go to Plan B. There is a bench on the far side of the trail where nobody has ever camped in my knowledge. It wouldn't be close to the lake, but it would be away from the crowds. Optimistically I climbed the bench to guessed it..a tent!

It looks peaceful but....I soon discovered it was not.
I looked at my watch. 5:30. It was eight miles down to the trailhead, and it is getting darker early now. The trail isn't a cruiser either; you have to pick your way through rocky switchbacks. There was only one thing to do: hike out.

I felt like a failure as we jogged down the trail, the dusk falling quickly. It was almost dark when we got to the car. I was aware that summer is closing up shop, and weekends to camp are probably almost done. Grumpily I sulked home.

The dog, who had easily covered 30 miles, didn't care. I realized I shouldn't either. I could see it as an adventure fail or just a long day hike carrying a lot of stuff. And the next day we could hang out at the lake in town and swim.

Too tired to eat, but happy.
I can't recall ever "backpacking" on a day hike before, but I have had other adventure fails. Forgetting a sleeping bag. Hobbling with major blisters. Overdoing it and having to leave the trail. It happens. I'll go back to that lake in the fall, when everyone is gone.
The big lake is quiet now though! Swimming is great.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The good old days

"It breaks my heart," C says. He surveys the sea of tourists in the restaurant. "And I'm really angry," he added. "I miss the old days."

The old days he is talking about weren't that long ago. I've lived here long enough to know some of them, but not the way he does. "I grew up here," he reminds me. He remembers how it used to be.

This is something we are all struggling with, those of us with a little bit of stake in this place. It is changing rapidly. Last weekend as three of us hiked across the mountain range, something we had wanted to do for a long time, we encountered three women doing the "Backpacker Magazine loop."  Really? Later,as we descended from Horton Pass to the other side, we descended into crazytown. Tents perched five feet from the lake. Many occupied campsites. People with horses. People with dogs. Still less people than in most backcountry places, but still. Too many people for us.

Night number one, though, was at a lake only occupied by one other group, slightly smoky from a lightning fire. My friends slept in, as they do, but we left camp before ten, always a win. We climbed up over the pass to the lake I mentioned before. On the pass, it was peaceful, but at this lake, not so much.

We had meant to stay here but we looked at each other with the same thought in mind. "I can't deal with Mirror," A said, and we headed to a less popular lake, which we had to ourselves. There are still pockets of solitude here, which makes me hopeful.

The next day we headed down the most popular day hiking trail there is here. When I say most popular, I am not talking 100 people or even 50 (I know, I am spoiled) but maybe 25 people, which to me is way too many. We braced ourselves, but the trail was strangely empty. And I know I can't move to a place and bar the door against others. By coming here from somewhere else, I am part of the problem. Not to mention, we all live on stolen Nez Perce land.

But still. The wilderness endures. We completed a traverse of the mountains, south to north, that we had wanted to do for years--thirty miles, three people, two dogs. These are the good old days.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Hiking the PCT--THE FINAL STRETCH! Trail Pass to Crabtree Meadow

I slogged upward, all enthusiasm gone. Why was this so hard? It was just hiking. Then I realized: yes, I was hiking, but at 11,500 feet. It was supposed to feel hard. The various John Muir Trail hikers seemed to agree. Because it's so hard to get a southbound JMT permit, many of them were starting from Horseshoe Meadows like I was. Swathed in head nets, enormous packs with stuff hanging off everywhere, sun hats with flaps, a family approached. "The bugs are TERRIBLE!"  they exclaimed.

"I'll just walk fast," I said. "Well, good luck," the dad said, not believing me for a second. When I passed by the spot they had said was so bad, the mosquitoes were almost non-existent. It's all a matter of perspective.

I had just 22 miles left of the PCT, but it would end up being 45, because I had to do an out and back, plus climb up and down a couple of bonus passes from the parking lot. Due to plane snafus (our plane went for a test flight and never came back), I had arrived at Horseshoe Meadows a full 24 hours later than I had planned, which meant the leisurely stroll of my dreams had vanished. But it was somehow fitting. The PCT has never made it easy, and why start now?

Some nice ponds at mile 755. A JMTer insisted these were called Soldier Lakes. Um, no.
The Sierra will always be one of my favorites, and I hiked through soaring towers of rocks and fresh green meadows. "The scenery on this section isn't that great," a JMT hiker complained, and I could hardly believe it, because to me it was spectacular. As I descended into Rock Creek and back up again, all I could think was I was so glad I had bailed out of this section in June. It would have been incredibly dangerous.

Ha ha ha, this gate is not protecting the wilderness.
Not today, though. I selected a camp high above Crabtree Meadow, with a solid 22 miles in for the day. Defeated-looking JMTers trickled past, intent on camping near water. I had forgotten how most backpackers always choose water camps, when in truth you get less bugs, less condensation, and less people at dry camps. It really is simple to carry enough water, and it gives you so much more options.

Crabtreee Meadow. So gorgeous, so full of people.
In the morning, I only had one and a half miles to tag my terminus--the junction of the JMT and PCT. I had been here in 2011 with my surly hiking companions, and never dreamed that this many years later I would return, having hiked 2,650 miles. There was nobody around, it being early, and I tried to take a few selfies, but the sign was short. Luckily two thru-hikers came by. My people! They took my photo, but at the time I didn't even think to pose artistically. What you get is a boring photo.

Ugh. Oh well.
As I was hiking back the way I had come, a sudden wave of emotion caught me by surprise and I found myself fighting back tears. I had done a really, really hard thing. I had stuck to it even when there were troubles with logistics, hiking partners who hadn't clicked, long stretches of monotonous desert, all of it. I had done something big.

I rolled into Chicken Spring Lake, having hiked 18 miles, most of it uphill. The lake was packed with weekenders, noisily clanking their bear cans. One man arrived and pitched his tent right next to the lake, ignoring the regulation of 100 feet distance. He climbed out in nasty red boxers and proceeded to pee right there in full view. People. How I hate them sometimes. I try not to, and then one of them pulls something like this. Come on, folks.

Last light at Chicken Spring.

As I headed down Cottonwood Pass I felt...empty. I didn't feel done. I felt like nothing had really happened. Probably it will sink in later. I think? Probably because I wasn't at a terminus, it didn't feel real. On the way home, plane snafus meant I was stranded in LA for a night. I looked around at all the people partying it up in the hotel. I had never felt so alien, so different. I wanted to be back with my people. That feeling has subsided, a little. But I long to get back on a trail.
Cookie, my friends' cat, celebrated with me.