Monday, May 4, 2015

Burning with the Boys


Sometimes I get to visit the life I used to have. The fire crew wanted help with burning 540 acres in the forest, and I tagged along. Once, I used to be a burn boss, in charge of setting thousands of acres ablaze for habitat renewal purposes. Others, younger than myself, are now in those positions. I've let most of that life go and for the most part, I'm happy with that. I'd love to have the 20 year retirement plan, and I miss the excitement and the loose knot of people who moved in a migration across the country. If I start getting wistful, it's good for me to go visit that country again. It reminds me of why I've made the choices I've made and how I can't really go back.

Bearing the world's best brownies, I gathered with the crew to get our briefing. I quickly noted how much has changed over the few years I've been out. Hardly anyone wears the high heeled logger boots anymore, choosing the mountaineer/hiking boot option. The end of an era, I thought. Everyone had their radios tucked into their (fancy) lumbar packs instead of strapped onto a chest bra. And everyone was. well, young.

I felt like someone was going to ask, "Who is the Grandma?" but nobody did. And even though I have years on these guys, I didn't want to be in charge of anything. Just give me a torch, I thought, and point where to walk. I have enough responsibility in my job.

We split up  into two groups and headed around the unit with our drip torches, walking in parallel lines about twenty feet apart. The idea was to create a blackline near the unit boundaries so that the helicopter could light the interior safely. We were right on the line with spring green-up, so parts of the unit burned well and others did not. We tried, making several passes, fighting our way through brush, up hills and down. How did I ever do this for days on end, I wondered. I could keep up easily, but now I prefer my workouts on my own terms.

I miss my fire years, but they are all tangled up in being young with no ties, able to jump on a bus or a plane with only an hours' notice. I don't have that kind of life anymore. I want to hike and swim in  lakes and travel, and unfortunately there are drawbacks to every choice. People often say "You live a blessed life" or, "you are so lucky". What they don't see is what I have to do to make my life happen. There is no such thing as luck. You make your own. I sit at a desk. I struggle to get any writing done with a full time job. I have to work out extra hard because I don't get to exercise at my job. I'm not lucky, just determined.

I've never really wanted to let fire go, but I am getting better at it. One of these days I won't want to go on the line anymore. "Can I have that in writing?" J asks. He rolls his eyes. But it's getting closer to the truth.

Our burn wasn't that exciting, not like the ones I used to supervise in the Glades, where they would rip through the prairies faster than we could run. Those were the days, and they won't come again. But you can't live in the past and be happy. I put up my drip torch and headed back home to my life. Let the young guys live in this one. Everyone is where they are supposed to be.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Grand Canyon was in a bad mood

I sat in my cabin at the Bright Angel Lodge debating whether to risk backpacking into the canyon. Rain and snow I could handle, even though my dreams of soaking up the sun at Granite Rapids seemed to be evaporating. But a forty mile an hour wind? Seriously, why was the wind following me around the country? The forecast had looked so benign when I had packed for my work week in Sedona, and I had brought the Skyscape, a non-freestanding tent that is not good in wind. Well, I thought. I was here. How bad could it be?

A moody day in the canyon.
I had pulled together an ambitious itinerary, stitching together a route that I hoped would keep me clear of the crowds. Hermit Trailhead to Granite Rapids, then back to Boucher River, and out the Boucher trail, a fabled route of much steepness. The rangers tried to talk me out of it, saying that 30 miles in 3 days was too much. Too much? No way, I scoffed. I had just been doing twenty milers in California! Dude, please.

At six in the morning, I rode the shuttle to the trailhead, accompanied by two other hikers, who were heading for Monument and who asked me my name. My first impulse was to say my trail name, so I did. I guess I'm still on the PCT in spirit...

Flowering yuccas!
The Hermit, once a cruiser trail, has now been unmaintained for years. The going was slow as I picked my way through boulders. I skidded on tiny ball-bearing pebbles. As I was passing under a rock fall, the Canyon struck back. A huge rock rolled off the trail and onto my ankle.

Disaster! I hobbled around a bit. Should I hike back up the trail or continue? The shame of a helicopter rescue flashed through my mind. Never! Well, I can walk on it, I reasoned. Might as well keep going! This approach, while probably not the wisest, has served me well over the years and kept me relatively doctor free.

The rain and wind materialized as I hiked over to Granite Rapids. Fifty mile gusts lashed my belongings, throwing sand into the tent. It was clear: I'd have to trudge the mile and a half back to Monument and camp with All The People. You know the ones: Old schoolers, with all the gear, the loud talking, the little ziplock bags of toilet paper, headlamps blazing when it is perfectly light out. The snoring! (I know, this sounds really judgmental. At least they are out there! But guys! Why do you take so long in the communal toilet? What can possibly....oh never mind.

It wasn't too bad, though. Everyone seemed a bit subdued by the weather, trooping around in rain gear. "Hi, Monkey Bars!" the hikers chorused, and we talked for awhile until rain forced us into our respective tents.

Stealth camping proved successful and I backtracked towards Hermit Creek the next day under passing clouds. The people I saw there would be the last I'd see for an entire day.

The lovely Tonto.
I love the Tonto, its broad expanse, the flirting glimpse of river. All of the hikers were happily in the main corridor, not here, and I arrived at the majestic Boucher Canyon at ten, after hiking ten miles, way too early to stop, I thought. I looked up at the impassive cliffs. I had heard that this trail was the hardest of all of the south side trails. Brutal, some said. Easy to lose. Lowering packs on ropes. How bad could it be?

I decided to put a dent in the trail anyway and headed up. In most of my travels trails never live up to the hype other people give them. They are never as scary or as hard. But it didn't take long to discover that this trail definitely lived up to the hype. It was a route in places, marked by a few cairns, hand over hand climbing, boulder choked gullies.  I had to stop and consult the landscape to see where the trail went next. This was not a place to traverse cross country. You would never be found again. In the old days, Mr. Boucher used to bring a string of mules down the "trail." It was hard to imagine. Finally I found a small campsite and settled in for the night.

View from campsite.
I wondered if I should have gone further but after 14 miles I was ready to sit on a rock and enjoy the view. The next day though I broke out on a plateau below Yuma Point with the campsites of my dreams, looking over the canyon. I could have just gone an hour further and camped in paradise. Darn you. GC, I thought. Break my heart every time. Always leave me wanting more.

Lovely windy plateau.
But there were shuttles to catch and things to do, and I had to go. All too soon I dragged myself to Hermits Rest. I stood there for a moment looking into the canyon. Sometimes you have a picture in your head of how a trip will be. I had thought of placid sandy beach at the river, hours to contemplate life, a moderately challenging hike up the Boucher with a sweet campsite. None of those things happened. It was a different trip, but a good one.Even in a bad mood, the Grand Canyon was still a great place to be.

I was pretty happy to see the end of the Boucher!
Next time, I told the Boucher. I won't hike all the way down. Just to Yuma Point, to those great campsites perched on the rim. I'll loiter. I'll lounge. I'll hang out. The canyon seemed to chuckle. You, hang out? Dude, please.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Pacific Crest Trail Section A: The End of the Trail

The last day of hiking was enough to make me wish for more. It was what we had wished for in the San Felipe Hills, large expanses of golden fields, a trickling stream, live oaks. Were we giving up too soon? I knew I had to go home, but a part of me wanted to keep going, to not even stop at the community center.

Love.

But you do what you must, and we hiked in to find a center of wonderfulness: food, outdoor showers, other nice hikers, and even a laundry service. I retreated to the loaner clothes closet. Typically on the trail you must do laundry sweating in your rain gear, but the community center had an odd assortment of clothes which you could wear for the duration. I selected an Amish looking flowered dress and emerged much to the amusement of Shepherd and Herro, who had arrived that morning and were on their second meal of the day with no inclination of leaving. "Monkey Bars has got it going on!" they hooted. Flash and I were inspired to take an American Gothic photo in our dresses. I haven't seen a copy, but I am sure we look amazing.


HikerTrash (and a wonderful volunteer) at the community center. Wild Card, Guy Waiting for a Tent, and Shepherd.
I felt the familiar tug of war inside. I wanted to stay on the trail. Sitting there with the other hikers, I felt like I had found my tribe. It didn't matter that I was considerably older than most of them. They got it. They got me. But at the same time, I knew I had something to go home to. I could never leave my husband and my pets for five months. I wish I had known about the PCT when I was younger and with no ties.

But at least I get to do some of it. We gathered our laundry and piled into the shuttle. Soon we would be back in San Diego, at the trail angels', amid a fresh crop of hikers who hung on our every word about Section A. They rushed to the store to get more water bottles. We looked at their packs and shook our heads. Those packs were huge! A bear canister in the desert? I didn't have the heart to say anything. They would learn. The miles have a way of teaching you things.

Eagle Rock. Every single person takes a picture of this.
Ever hiked in the desert? Here are some things I have learned:

  • Figure out your mile per liter ratio. Mine is about 1 liter per 5 miles. Yours could be more. It probably isn't much less.
  • Dry camping is not something to be feared. It's freeing to not be tied to a water source. Pick food that doesn't take a lot of water to hydrate and plan on an extra liter to liter and a half.
  • Stop. We stopped every two hours or so to take off our shoes and socks, clean our feet with a bandanna and apply body glide. The result? No blisters.
  • Beware the wind. People without free standing tents were out of luck. We had to pass up campsites due to wind. Know how to set up your tent in the wind.
  • Thinner socks!
  • Bolt energy chews! And all you sugar free people, yes in everyday life simple sugars should not be consumed in high doses. Even most backpackers, who cover maybe 8 miles a day tops, don't need much. But try a prolonged effort for at least ten hours a day, day after day and see how you do.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Pacific Crest Trail Section A, Days 4-5: In which we see the same house for 24 hours

If I were a thru hiker, I thought as I corralled the flapping tent, with as little experience as those on the trail behind us, and didn't know it would get better, I would quit now. But it always gets better. The wind vanished as we headed for the valley floor. We shed layers as we began a rollercoaster descent through gullies and washes to our first stop, the Rodriguez tank. Here we gathered water from a spigot for a long water carry. There was rumored to be a water cache ten miles distant, but we did not want to rely on caches, so we filled up all our available platypii and hung out talking to a thru-hiker who had started three days before us.

At Rodriguez water tank. Picture by Flash.

"I'm 36, I have lots of aches and pains," he said. Eye Roll. He promised to see us again in the San Felipe Hills, but we never saw him again. The lure of the town of Julian must have proven to be too much. Most hikers were already taking zero days there. Really? I thought. I wondered if I were a thru hiker, if I would be all that into the towns. I like trails, not towns. Maybe I would feel differently if I faced five months of walking, but on day four, it just seemed too soon.

Hmm, should we go to Julian? Nah...let's keep hiking. Picture by Flash.

Instead we contoured down a mountain and past an intriguing off-the-grid house, with shady curtains on the porch billowing in the breeze. Who were these people, and why did they live up here, with a cistern for water and a solar panel? A little-discussed truth about long distance hiking is this: You end up running out of things to think about. So I thought about those people and made up a life for them.

The  longest mile on the PCT. Ever.

About five in the afternoon, we reached Scissors Crossing. There was indeed a cache there, but we didn't need the water. What I did need, though, was a delicious Granny Smith apple. We had about three miles to go, all uphill as the sun dipped lower on the horizon. Powered by the apple, I led the charge, and in about an hour we had a semi-protected campsite in a sandy wash. We were in Anza-Borrego State Park and it finally felt remote and wonderful.

View from our campsite.
Oh the San Felipe Hills. So fascinating with flowering octotillo, prickly pear and barrel cactus. So waterless. So frustrating, as we circled the San Felipe Valley, due to landowner disputes. We could see the same darn house for twenty four hours. This is a place that some hikers skip; despite calling themselves thru-hikers, they hitch right to Warner Springs. We saw some of these, people we had left behind inexplicably showing up. HYOH. But I am glad we did it. There was a resiliency and toughness to the hills that I admired.



The third gate water cache is huge. Thousands of gallons of water brought by volunteers. Though it was totally possible to hike the 33 waterless miles without it, I did take a liter here (and ended up hiking to our campsite with a liter left. I was sorry about that). I viewed the cache with mixed feelings. Is it really sustainable to keep trucking water out here so that a few hikers can complete a personal quest? I'm not sure. It seems like a big impact on the water resources and on the desert itself.


We fell in for a short time with two thru-hikers named Shepherd and Herro, who were taking their hike to different levels by taking it as it came, not worrying about miles, but putting them in all the same. After they stopped for a break, it was just us again, on a surprisingly deserted trail. Apparently the rumors of a massive herd was inflated, or we just were ahead of everyone.

Look, we walked 100 miles!

Barrel Springs was at the end of a 21 mile day, with the last two miles winding in and out of gullies in a rather monotonous manner. Finally we came through some trees festooned ominiously with poison oak, and some men sprang up from the water tank. "We've been waiting for you!" they exclaimed. What was this? It was trail magic!

I've rarely experienced trail magic, where complete strangers show up with food and drinks, and I felt a little embarrassed. All we were doing was hiking. We carried enough food and water. We weren't heroes of any sort. But that didn't prevent me from grabbing some mini Snickers.

It was our last night on the PCT. We had done it much faster than planned. Tomorrow we would head to Warner Springs, an inconsequential hike of only ten miles. It was warm here at 2,900 feet with the wind no longer a factor. We settled in, along with three other hikers. Only one more day on the trail. It was hard to know whether to be overjoyed or sad. The trail will do that to you. It's bipolar, wind or stillness, steep or flat, love or hate. There is no in between here. I've read that 40% of prospective thru hikers drop out at Warner Springs. I can see why.

I could do it, I thought. I could be one of those who made it. If I wanted it enough. But I didn't, not now. Still, there was one more day, and that would have to be enough.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Pacific Crest Trail Section A, Days 2-3 In the Pines, in the Pines and a Desperation Camp

I awoke in Lake Morena Campground with the unwelcome sensation of an ice-covered tent in my face. None of the hikers we had helped yesterday were in evidence. I coukd only hope they had reached the water cache and were evaluating their choices. There wasnt much movement in camp: I imagined many of the hikers lay stunned, this, their first backpacking trip.

Flash and I were in agreement: pack up quickly and hike on to a sunny spot for breakfast and a "yard sale" of our wet gear.We noted that the other hikers were still sleeping or glumly shivering as they ate breakfast. We had learned in the Washington rainforest: waiting for the sun to hit your camp was an exercise in futility. What you did instead was put in some miles and walk to the sun, instead of waiting for it to come to you. The others would learn. Or they wouldn't.

There's few things I like better than hiking in the morning. Five miles in the morning are a completely different creature than in late afternoon. We wound around the "lake", never seeing any signs of water, discovering a perfect set of boulders for breakfast. As we sat, we were serenaded by loud music. Music from loudspeakers at seven in the morning?  Oh. It was Easter.



The world heated up as we climbed through brush and rocks, passing a small campground and into a canyon. This section of the PCT is not remote at all, so whenever the trail ducked away from houses, roads, or powerlines, I took a deep breath. This was why I was here. We passed high above Kitchen Creek, a slice of water gleaming far below. We carried two liters per five miles, a ratio that we had discovered worked for us, so we didn't need to go there. Other hikers were planning their days around water, but we knew our abilities and limitations. Again, experience.

That's when it happened. A young and fit day hiker bounded toward us, wearing a day pack and shoes and...nothing else. Question: what do you say in greeting to someone hiking completely naked? In the end I took the cowardly route: "How's it going?" "Happy Easter!" he answered, continuing on his merry way. We giggled, thinking he would soon pass Wild Card, another hiker of our vintage, and the clueless day hikers headed his way.

We both agreed that if we had to see a naked hiker, this was the one to see. It could have been much, much worse.

A rare stream trickled through some burnt trees. Our goal was a meadow site about a mile ahead, but as I was preparing to head down there, a thru-hiker named Todd approached looking wind-blown. "Pretty windy down there," he said, and I noticed a strong wind was tossing the trees around. For some reason wind grates at me more than anything else when I am camping. I'll take almost any other kind of weather over wind.

Flash and I looked at each other. It was about four more miles to Mount Laguna. We were already passing hikers who had started the day before us. This would mean a twenty three mile day, but we knew we could do it. We headed up, into the pines.



As we gained elevation, the temperature began to drop drastically. The wind tore at my clothes. Here at almost 7,000 feet, it was not yet summer. We gained the ridge and saw the promised land glinting below--a campground! Eagerly we bolted down to it.

But wait. Something was wrong. Nobody else was here. The water spigots were turned off, the bathrooms locked. It began to dawn on me: the campground was not yet open. We would be the only ones in a wind-swept, desolate place. What if a ranger drove by and made us leave? Unlikely, I decided. The Forest Service budget does not allow for much compliance checking. Anyway, we weren't going to use any of the facilities. We found out later that other hikers had hitched down the road to a private campground with showers and toilets but..Nah. too much work. All we would do is wrestle a floorless tent into submission, shiver over our camp stove, and retreat inside the tent for a long, long night in the pines, where we would hopefully not shiver the whole night through.....

We awoke in the closed campground, still unticketed by passing rangers. Our destination: the store, for resupply packages, coffee (Flash) and perhaps some warmer clothes from the outfitters'. Grabbing our boxes, we retreated to the only semi-warm place to sort our food: the bathrooms behind the closed ranger station. "We've sunk to a new low," I reported to Flash, munching on a Fig Newton. "Want one?'

"I have a rule, never eat in a bathroom," she replied, but minutes later she was crunching on something.  "I have sunk to a new low," she reported.

Discouraged hikertrash loitered outside the post office, which wouldn't open until noon. Luckily we had sent our packages to the store, which opened at 8. People huddled in their puffys, assuring us they would see us later (we never saw them again)."Gonna snow tonight!" some carpenters yelled as we hiked back towards the trail.

Snow did not materialize, but the wind did. On some of the exposed ridges, it pummeled us with a vengeance. I envisioned us being blown off, far to the desert floor. We would round a point in the lee, get warm and peel off layers, only to dive for them again as we turned our faces back to the wind. It was survival hiking at its finest.

Ten miles in we stopped to get water at the Pioneer Mail site, trees whipping violently in the wind. In other circumstances this would be an ideal place, an old mail route shaded by live oaks. Today it howled, too windy to stand for long. We hunkered down on the trail, accompanied by thru-hikers Daniel and Amanda, both of whom toted huge sticks as trekking poles. I had to wonder how far those pieces of wood would make it towards Canada. They were fast, though, and disappeared from sight as we climbed the old mail route into the teeth of the wind. Someone had hauled in a water cache here, which was puzzling, since we filtered water of out a tank. Can't  hikers learn how to filter water, I thought? Wasn't this teaching people to rely on caches of plastic water jugs?



After a few miles we passed through a delightful and boulder-strewn canyon called Oriflamme, which allegedly produces balls of light as sand particles strike boulders. I looked longingly at the small campsites dotted throughout the rocks, but there was no way to camp here, not today. Would this wind ever stop, or was it going to be a constant? I could not imagine the way it was before wind.

Darkness was threatening as we reached the turnoff for the Sunrise Highway. Water was rumored to be there, and also outhouses. But it was a quarter mile off the trail, and right into the wind. "Let's just find a place around here," Flash said, surveying the brush-studded ridge. We crashed down through prickly bushes to a small basin. The wind still howled, but not as strongly as up above, and we managed to wedge the tent between some brush. Shivering, we dove inside.

"Flash and Monkey Bars?" a male voice rose over the wind. We had lured two hikers into our windy basin, both in the same predicament as we were.

"What'cha eating?" Kevin yelled. "Polenta," we yelled back. Silence.

"What's that?"

"A kind of grain!"

"Oh."

 Grimly we all hunkered down for the night. I found out later that the wind gusts topped 50 mph.

"Hike Section A, they said," I grumbled. "It'll be brutally hot, they said." But even as the trekking pole that held the tent fell onto us, I knew we could survive this. It couldn't get worse....or could it?
I'm only allowing this hideous picture of me on the blog to demonstrate the awesomeness that was Desperation Camp. I'm wearing three layers. Behind me is the tent of Kevin, who sanely stayed in bed.



Saturday, April 11, 2015

Pacific Crest Trail Section A Day 1: Dying for Water

Flash and I stood at the Mexican border with four Israelis, one German, two Frenchmen, and one other American. Ahead of us was a trail stretching over two thousand miles, ending in Canada. Flash and I were only hiking the first section, 110 miles, but everyone else hoped to make it the entire way. Would they? It was hard to say.

Flash was here too but I don't post pics of people (except from the back, ha ha) without permission! 

The night before at the trail angels' house, I had felt like the other hikers were skeptical of us. Two of them even mistook us for volunteers, since we were helping with dinner ("we help because we are middle-aged women," Flash said, as we took in the oblivious twenty-somethings staring intently at their phones while the angels, using their own time and money, went out of their way to provide abundant food and shelter for no payment in return). But Flash and I knew that we would outwalk them all and we did. We never saw any of them again after Day 2.



We hiked along through live oaks and sand, passing the remains of unknown tragedies: cowboy boots and underwear, abandoned backpacks, bottles of water. Regardless of how you feel about illegal immigrants, the truth was here in our faces. We were out here for a week's vacation, choosing to carry six liters of water through the dry landscape. Other people were not as fortunate.



Casualties of another sort soon littered the trail. Three Liter Girl, hiking with only that amount of water, struggled along as we passed her, bent under a heavy pack. A young guy implored us for water, though we could tell he was embarrassed to ask. "I just wasn't ready for this," he said.  As we headed down toward Hauser Canyon, an older man hailed us with the news that his water container had broken and could we spare some water? He looked defeated already, trying to walk himself into shape.

The scariest of all was C, who wavered unsteadily as he held out a plastic army canteen and croaked out, "can you spare some water?" Wearing jeans and a flannel, with a pack we later learned topped seventy pounds, he was walking the line between life and death. In the end we gave out three liters, and probably saved some lives. I am not a fan of water caches, as I believe that all the plastic is bad enough and that hikers rely on them too much, but the cache at Hauser, fifteen miles in, undoubtedly prevented a few helicopter rides.

Why does this sign show someone drowning?

As for us, we felt strong. I had wondered if I could pull out a twenty mile day on Day One in eighty degrees, but even the climb out of Hauser Canyon was not overly taxing. A high cloud cover helped, and by 4:30 we dropped into the busy Lake Morena campground. You can drive here, and it appeared that everyone had. Music blared, some campers drove around blasting a cow horn, and kids peered at our gear. This was hiking the PCT? It was so...different than our other sections.

Here a camping incompatibility arose. Flash and I are a remarkably good team, but Flash likes to have tasks completed immediately. While I like to sit at camp for a moment taking it in, she wants the tent up, her stuff organized, the lay of the land figured out. We hadn't shared a tent before, so this incompatibility caused us a few tense moments. Another thing had happened that I didn't tell her was that a weird pain had arisen in my hamstring and up and down my leg. Almost like a spasm, it had appeared as we descended into Lake Morena, and I fretted. Stress fracture? So I wanted to sit, but didn't want to say anything, because saying it might make it real. (Fortunately it went away the next day. So now you know, Flash. I wasn't really tired)

Tent dithering aside, I felt good about us. We had gotten the scary part over--the first day, the day everyone talks about, how much water you had to carry, how hot it would be. The trail, though so different than Washington, felt good. It felt familiar. But now there were hot showers to take! (Some advantages of a real campground) I settled into the tent, blissfully unaware that the next days would bring a sight that could not be unseen, a camp of desperation, winds so strong I thought they would carry me away, and the longing to stay on the trail forever.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Cold desert

It feels so familiar. Gather the food; by now I am pretty good at judging how much I will eat on trail. Stuff the puffy jacket, wonder if it will be enough. Fill up six liters of water, really?
Flash and I laughed as we looked at our pack explosion. This is so familiar, and yet so challenging. 
We start Section A of the PCT tomorrow. We are in San Diego right now, staying at an amazing trail angel house. They are driving us to the trail, feeding us today, and even gave us keys to their car. How do they do it? People like this restore the faith.
Typically the desert bakes. We packed planning for this. However, as we flew here, the forecast changed to a cold front, possibly rain. Lows in the twenties? I started to fear pack, throwing some Walmart leggings in. We will be all right. Fifty and sixty degrees will really help us with the water consumption. We have some long carries.
Will we be cold? Will we be thirsty? Will we love it? Probably all of the above.
Back in a week.