Sunday, March 18, 2018

escaping the fergi vortex

After several hours, I thought that we were about to make a break for it. The T had shut down, and nobody had been caught sledding by the rope tow. Nobody had gotten stuck in the parking lot.  All dogs were accounted for. We had done a successful retrieval of our shuttle vehicle, left several miles away at the start of our long ski that had ended here, at Fergi, the local ski area.

But escaping Fergi is never as easy as it may seem. Who needs Sedona? We have our own vortex. Completely volunteer-run, the place is the center of the universe for all the skiers. There's a comfortable lodge with food, a ski shop to hang out in, and a deck to sit on. There's always something going on here and tearing yourself away is not easy. You see all your friends here. You get talked into staying.

We had finally started driving out when we saw one of the regulars hiking back up the road. Stuck, he was walking back for his snow cat. There ensued a comical shuffling of vehicles. One more hour spent at Fergi.

There are some good ski loops that leave from Fergi, which allows you to start and end there. I chose one today, a route that requires sufficient snow or else you scream down the hills in abject terror. Since our March Miracle continues, with so much snow that we have completely gotten back to normal snowpack, I can ski on advanced terrain without fear.

It had been days since anyone had been back there, and I saw nobody.

A lot of skiers like tracked trails. It's true you can go fast, but I prefer the deep snow, even if you end up shuffling for several miles. This town is changing fast--houses have gone up in price $200,000 over the last nine years, and there are many new people here--but I hope this always stays the same.

After a couple of hours of peaceful quiet, I descended into Fergi, immediately seeing several friends. A couple of them unsuccessfully hunted for a hidden keg of green beer. The vortex seized hold and I found myself hanging around the deck, where the sun made it feel about sixty degrees. Snow and sun is a great combination. Only a scheduled book reading tore me away. We all need our little vortexes, places we feel most ourselves.

The results of the poison ivy experiment are in--and no rash! Treatment in the Golden Hour is key.

Monday, March 12, 2018

A shot of spring

I'm conducting an experiment. If you are crossing a stream and trying to keep your balance on the rocks, and you reach out and grab a branch to steady yourself, but you break the branch and fall in anyway, and then you look and see that the branch you grabbed with your bare hands is poison ivy, that is dormant, will you then get a poison ivy rash?

Check back in next time and I will let you know.

Sadly, there is no such thing as paradise. Three spring-seeking friends and I sat on a new beach near the Snake River (new because the high water flows have created new beaches and cleared out prickly vegetation on others) and basked in the sixty degree sun. The only lingering threat was the possible PI that was awaiting in a few days. I had rinsed my hand in the ice-cold Snake and used an antiseptic wipe from my first aid kit, but still. Unless you are susceptible to PI, you are immune also to the deep-seated fear that arises when you realize you may be contaminated.
 As we sat there, marveling in the magic of spring, while "up top" in the mountains where we lived, it was still full-on winter, I felt a creepy crawly feeling. "A tick!" I exclaimed. Everyone leapt to their feet. Time to go!

There's no such thing as Paradise, but this place comes pretty close. I've hiked this trail (and written about it) many times before, but it's one of those that never gets old. It's where you go when the flat white of the landscape fails to inspire. It's where you go when you need a shot of spring.
Someone wrote their initials on the sand, but now I wonder if the T stands for "tick". We only found two though. Not terrible.
Two thousand feet below our houses, the flowers are beginning to come out. Once again I felt grateful to live in a place with such diversity. Canyon, mountains, rivers, all within a small radius. You could ski and hike in the same day, if you had enough energy.

Can you see the bighorn sheep? Not a great picture, but exciting to see the herd.
I'm not much of a drinker, but the shot analogy seems appropriate. I drank in the sun, the dirt under my feet, walking without a coat.

A ton of people were camped near the trailhead, but most were sitting around in lawn chairs, not even attempting to walk very far. You can tell spring fever has hit. Sadly for them, we have one more month of snow and sometimes two. Or three! Even if you love winter, sometimes you just want to see green. Back when I used to work at the forest, we used to fight over who got to drive an hour of bad road to clean the stinky outhouse down here. The call for spring is powerful around these parts.

One of my friends has lived here for forty years. On the narrow, exposed road driving out, she knew everyone driving in. She knew where the "hippie camp" had been in the 1970s. She knew where all the old trails went. This is a kind of history of place I won't ever have, and while I don't regret my rootless years, I admire the dedication to sticking it out somewhere.

We arrive back in the snow at the end of the day. The skiing will be good, and there's no need to hurry the seasons. The canyon waits; it's always there when we need it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Recalculating a goal

Since I came home, I've had a lot of time to reflect on the failed PCT hike. It's easy to armchair it and think, why didn't I just get a motel room and regroup? I could have at least day hiked some of it if the weather wasn't too terrible. I could have made it through the snow. I even started to think about if I even wanted to hike the PCT anymore. I'm of the philosophy that if an optional activity isn't fun, why do it?

Except not really. I mean, the gym isn't super fun, but I know I need to weight train or be a weenie, so I go there. So there are exceptions. But why throw a lot of money and time at a goal if it isn't worth the adventure anymore?

I spent a lot of time skiing this week. We had a March Miracle, and got about three feet of snow. This will save us. I thought about the PCT and long distance hiking in general as I traversed the quiet forest.

I gave up running marathons when it seemed pointless to pound my body on the pavement just to reach an arbitrary goal. Running every day wasn't doing me any favors, and I didn't want to just focus on one thing. I wanted to do all the things. When I started doing a long run in the morning and then rushing, exhausted, to meet a friend to kayak in the afternoon, I started to question my priorities.

After much skiing and contemplation, I decided it was time to go back to basics. The way we had approached this last PCT section was just to get it done. It wasn't going to be all that scenic, it wasn't going to be warm, and my hiking partner had sped up considerably, leaving me at almost a sprint to keep up. The need to do twenty mile days hung over us like impending doom. Whenever we would sit to eat lunch or contemplate going off trail to see something else, the clock continued to tick. Would we get our miles in? We couldn't miss our plane! So not fun.

So I've decided to recalculate. My next section, from I-80 near Donner Pass to Chester, will be much more relaxed. I'm going to drive a car to one end, which will alleviate the airplane woes. Flash has decided to come with me, which will be a joyous reunion--we've always been really good hiking partners. We plan for a leisurely 17 miles a day, leaving the options open to hike more if we want to.

I have about 650 or so miles to hike of the trail. I've been hurrying to finish, mostly because in life you are not guaranteed immunity from tragedy. Just because someone you know can still run marathons at 80 doesn't mean you will be granted that same gift. But I am done with hurrying. Yes, I could finish that 650 miles in a month. But I don't want to. I'm going to enjoy every step.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

escape from the Sierra Pelona

The snow started at nine in the evening. It was a quiet whisper against the tent walls, as if they were being brushed with a broom. It was difficult to tell from where we huddled, our tents pitched right in the trail at the least windy spot we could find, how much was falling and how much would fall. Sometime in the night, though, I woke and pushed big drifts off the sides.

My mind went back to all the missing, people who had been caught by unexpected storms like this one. Some have never been seen again. Even though I knew we were close to a road, a road we could tell would eventually lead us to a place with some houses and cars, it was hard not to imagine how a set of small decisions could lead to disaster.

All winter the southern California mountains have been bone dry. The week before we set out on our section hike, Acton to Tehachapi, the temperatures had soared into the nineties. The forecast for our week had shown a cooling trend, low 60s during the day, 30s at night, which seemed like a good thing. There was only a hint of rain later in the week.

A rare warm campsite on the trail. Yes, our tents are on the trail.
This section, California PCT section E, is not for the weak. It is what separates the cherry pickers from the obsessed, the fair weather hikers from the more determined. Arguably the least scenic of all the trail, it climbs like a rollercoaster into the dry Sierra Pelona, down to the California aqueduct (20 miles of concrete river) and climbs again to the wind-torn Tehachapis. That's not to say that there aren't small things of beauty. In fact, that is what the PCT has taught me: to appreciate small vistas.

Night one camp, on a ridge without wind. Win!

The first two days were benign, save for a biting wind in the mornings. There were no other hikers. We had the trail to ourselves, and even though the trail needs a little love--a lot of washed out and brushy sections--there was a sense of peace on being back on it. The nights were cold and clear.

Vasquez Rocks County Park. Some Westerns were filmed here.

On the third day we got water from a wildlife guzzler and continued higher. The wind was intense and a high film of clouds began to form. I wanted to go higher, to get the climbing done and be closer to the next road, but I could tell my hiking partner didn't, and we set up our tents in bitter cold. That night, it snowed. My chosen camp would have been 1500 feet higher. It had been good to stay lower.

My hiking partner had made up her mind that she was hiking out. While it's good to be decisive--I am sure she thinks I am a big waffler--it was clear that if I disagreed, I would be on my own. Without knowing how much more it would snow, I reluctantly decided that going on solo wouldn't be a great idea. I'm much more of a wing-it person, convinced that something great is around the next corner. I know this drives a decisive person nuts. I think difference in hiking styles is why so many people do long hikes solo. It can be much easier. Though as we geared up for a self rescue in drifting snow, it was good to know that someone else knew where I was.

We retreated. I can't even tell you how hard it was for me to turn my back on the trail and hike down the Forest Service road to safety. It is going to be really hard to connect my steps back to where we stopped and if I don't, I will feel like it's skipping (I told you: obsessed). A little chunk of 60 miles remains, but logistics makes getting back hard.

At the road, a woman and her kids were playing in the snow. She offered to take us to town in her old beater car, wiping off her windshield as she drove due to a faulty head gasket. I gave her $20 and felt good about that. She obviously needed it.

As I shelled out big bucks to change two plane tickets, I wondered why I am so obsessed with finishing the entire PCT.  I've hiked almost two thousand miles of it, shouldn't that be enough? Maybe. But I'm already thinking about where to go next. In the summer.
sunset over the Sierra Pelona

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Freezing at an RV park

And I'm pretty sure the guy on the street outside the Seattle airport thought I was homeless, as I walked by with my backpack and he tried to give me a muffin.

PCT section hiking. Not always glamorous.
More later friends.

Monday, February 19, 2018

I can ski anything

To everyone's surprise, a huge storm blew in this weekend. One day I was running in my spikes to the trailhead, something completely unprecedented (usually it snows itself shut), and the next, I was breaking trail in skis at one mile an hour. This is sort of ridiculous, I thought as I plowed along uphill, why am I putting myself through this exactly? 

But. Nobody was in sight. The trees were completely shrouded in snow, the forest a delightful snow globe. I could have called it and gone to the gym, which I have been shamefully neglecting in favor of outside activities. What was slogging uphill in cross country skis with nary a glide to be seen proving?

"We went up to the top of the ski hill and somebody had broken trail up there," J said later. "We couldn't believe it!" He wasn't overly surprised that it was me. I seem to have that reputation around here.

I nervously turned my skis downward on the Fergi trail. This is a place of steep drops, where I have had to shamefully walk my skis on occasion. But today, skis could go anywhere. I skied down hills I have rarely skied, thanks to the lovely powder snow. I emerged victorious at the ski area, where all the skiers were ecstatic over the new snow. "This is as good as it ever gets here," they enthused. After the lifts were shut down, a few of the guys were sitting around and decided to open back up to ski some more.

The next day, L and I skied the same route in my old tracks. It was a lot easier (first tracks on cross country skis aren't as desirable as in downhill skiing).  Our dogs, the Gems (named Topaz and Ruby) bounded around, high-centering in the snow. This wasn't the red-lining slog of the day before, but it was a day to marvel at the fresh blue sky and the foot of new snow that will save us from the fires of summer (or so we hope). Just in time, the snows of February have come through.

We emerged onto the canal road to discover a pleasant surprise. The snowmobile club had groomed the road! A mystical corduroy, it is a draw to skate skiers, fat bikers, and skiers like us. Usually the downhill section of this route is one I approach with fear. You can get to whizzing along on icy terrain way faster than you want to and have to steer for the snowbanks to stop. But today was different, again.

Once when I lived in a small town of fifty souls, a man in the bar unkindly expounded on a woman he had known there. "She might think she's beautiful here, but once she gets back to Seattle, she won't be anymore." (Supply and demand, he meant. I later wrote an essay about this called "Beautiful in Nevada.") As mean as this was, and untrue, fresh snow is like this for me. I am a good skier in fresh snow. Fresh snow makes me feel like I can ski anything, anywhere, all of my fears forgotten. Inevitably, it will warm up. Crust will form. I will cautiously side step the hills. But not yet. For now, I can continue to believe.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Revenge of the Slow Shoes

"oh no, slowshoes," Scott groaned when he spied Jean and I carrying our snowshoes. "I need to be back by three," he went on, clearly doubting this would happen if the ski party contained us. We were headed for a day trip to the ski shelter, a steep climb that required skins to navigate, and one that caused a major meltdown on my part, years ago, trying to ski down. Snowshoes are my weapon of choice for this climb.

Curses! A low snow winter.
Snowshoes don't get a lot of love around here. Skiers will slog up mountains for hours with their skins, refusing to touch the things. Granted, slow, I mean snow, shoes aren't fast, but on the two mile climb in, Jean and I easily kept pace with the skiers. They slipped and slid on the Hill of Death while we marched casually up, and they cursed the sidehills while we strode along.

Of course this wasn't matched by the descent. Jean and I had to leave early in order to beat them to the car. While I am not a Strava fan for many reasons, I was intrigued by the stats that she had on her phone. Our top speed was four miles per hour! In snowshoes. (Scott's was 31 mph. But we did all leave before three pm.)

It's hard to find kindred snowshoeing spirits. One of my local buddies escapes to Hawaii for almost two months. The conditions aren't always right. But sometimes I do see the tracks of my people. The other day I was snowshoeing along and saw an unfamiliar track. "What's that?" I mused to the dog. Bigfoot? Then I realized: Snowshoes! The hiker was long gone, but I turned into the woods to follow the track, feeling a warm fuzzy at the fact that others appreciate the meditative, slow progress through quiet woods.  Basically: snowshoeing extends the hiking season. Who could be mad about that?

The tracks of my people!
Scott appeared at the trucks, eyeing our snowshoes. "This was probably great conditions for that, wasn't it?" he asked. We agreed. "You'll come to the dark side someday," I said.


Oh well. Some people aren't going to be snowshoe converts. They'll keep dissing our slow shoes and be convinced they have chosen the best method of transport. I know differently.