Tuesday, September 23, 2014

paddler's box

Years ago, when I was a different person: We paddled through air thick enough to taste, the combined smell of kelp and salt mixing with low-lying fog until it was a musky soup. There were five of us in long fiberglass kayaks, following Eric the instructor on a compass bearing. Town had been swallowed by fog and we drifted in the wide sea.

a rare sunny day in Alaska
As we moved like ghosts, the only sound the dip of our paddles and the distant clang of the Eastern Channel buoy, Eric showed us the paddler's box. The box isn't a real one; it's an imaginary set of lines where you keep your body as you paddle. You can always tell who has learned this and who has not. In the paddler's box, you flow in an unceasing rhythm; no flailing arms. You are part of your boat.

There are some things you can't forget, and I have never forgotten the paddler's box. I miss the sea and the little islands, the otters and the whales, the limitless possibilities of escape from a rain-soaked island and all of my bad choices. Paddling in Alaska kept me sane. I don't need to escape now, but I still kayak, though it is limited now to the lake. It's better than nothing, I tell myself, as I launch on a pane of glass, unspoiled by later motorboats.

People don't stir that early here, except for the ranchers, who are off doing important rancher things, no time for self-indulgent exercise in a pink boat. It's nearly as good as the Gulf, not quite, but I will take it. I circumnavigate the whole lake, past the summer homes, past the invisible line where I swim when it is warmer. It takes about two hours, and I don't wear a dry suit, don't carry a beacon.

Eric shot himself on one of those fall days when the rain seems interminable and the waves kept us on the beach. Like all tragedies, it lacks definition, cannot be placed in a neat box. The rest of us kept kayaking, wondering, remembering his lessons.

It is a day far from the rainy isolation of Alaska as I round the shore for home. It's familiar, and I still struggle with the familiar=boring. I suspect I always will, though I've learned to appreciate learned surroundings more, the longer I stay here.

Friday, September 19, 2014

1700 miles of sagebrush

Truths of a road trip:

1. You probably shouldn't stop to pick up the dude who runs out of gas outside of Lovelock, Nevada after tailgating and zooming around you at 90 mph earlier (I didn't stop)

2. Gum and grapes are essential to keep you awake.

3. When you are in the most desolate part of Nevada, the only radio station you will get plays Christian rock or Rush Limbaugh.

4. At some point you will think, I really should have stopped for gas back in Lovelock.

5. When you really have to pee, there will only be this sign: Prison area. No Stopping.

I recently went on a work road trip to Reno and Winnemucca. In fact, I drove the lovely stretch of road between Reno and Winnemucca four times. Good times! Though a work road trip is not the same as a recreational one, there are some similarities. For example, the idea of a road trip is fun until about 100 miles down the road when the reality of it hits. Also, despite your best efforts, you will end up eating food that isn't great for you.

I should know; for a decade I drove between Idaho, California and Florida every six months as a traveling seasonal worker. It was enough to make me swear off road trips forever. Give  me an airplane anytime. But for this trip, I decided to drive, thinking I would a) have time to hike; and b) could stop into a hot springs place on the way back. Neither happened--work got in the way, like I should have known it would.

There's a curious state that occurs a few hundred miles into a solo road trip, at least for me. It's almost like a dream state, where you are awake but not, on autopilot, kind of like mile 20 of a marathon. It's the road trip zone. You pass by all the exits, wondering; what really is at Nightingale hot springs, no services? and, oh, Jordan Valley, I had a boyfriend from here, I wonder what happened to him?  And, shudder, McDermitt, how do people survive? For me the years blur and I'm back to being twenty, enroute to another national park.

I look at the other people driving and wonder about their lives. So many little satellites circling the nation's arteries. There's somebody with a sign saying, Going to Stanford. So glad I'm not just going to college! There's somebody with skis and a bunch of bikes. Where are they going with both snow and trails? Oh look, firefighters. I used to do that.

Road trips aren't my favorite thing. I tend to avoid them--it's too much sitting and not very interesting. But it's also another way to get down to the essential thoughts, spend some time alone with yourself, wrestle with old love stories, sing loudly and badly, and eat Oreos.  Everyone should take a solo road trip once in their life. Just make sure you stop at the hot springs. Don't let work get in the way.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

feeding the dragon

The man lifting weights in street clothes peered at me as I grimly worked through another set (in case I haven't mentioned enough times, I really hate lifting weights. But upper body strength is important! Go do a pushup! Back? Okay. I'll go on...)

"Are you training for an event?" he asked. "Because I saw you running at the lake, and then once when I was in here you were on the elliptical for a LONG TIME."

In a small town, people know what you do with your time. I notice too, and what I've found to be true is that the happiest people are those who have a "Thing." This is something they love to do, but doesn't cross the line into obsession (see: Ex- Husband, also Guns). It's the thing that makes them jump up and down (powder snow, skiing) and brings them a level of contentment that I haven't found in people without Things. It doesn't have to be athletic, although I think it helps to move. Your Thing could be knitting. It doesn't matter. People are just more interesting when they have a sparkle.

"You look really good, you can tell when a person spends time in the outdoors," someone else said to me this week. I've found that to be true too. I envy the wrinkle-free faces of my more sedentary counterparts, but I wouldn't trade my days under a big sky for theirs.

That being said, it's fall here, and Type II fun is more frequent. * Soon my main Thing, long distance hiking, will go away for the season, and nothing really replaces it in my heart. So I've pushed the season a little, trudging through torrential rain, and, this week, ignoring an instinct. Let me explain.

I have to work, as I've bemoaned here in the past, so I feverishly worked as many hours as I could possibly arrange so that I could leave at one pm on Thursday and race back in time to check work email on Friday morning. My destination, Chimney Lake, a much-loved piece of water only five miles up the trail. There can't be that many people staying overnight on a Thursday, I reasoned, and was bolstered by the report some Crocs-wearing backpackers ("we're trendsetters! In ten years everyone is going to be backpacking in Crocs!") gave out: "Oh, there's one group at the lake."

One group, no problem! SIX groups, big problem!  I grumpily checked all the hidey-holes I knew of, only to find tents occupying all the good real estate. I don't know what's up with the Wallowas, but all of us locals have noticed way, way more people here this year. I gloomily contemplated squatting in one of the beat-out horse sites far below the lake, but that didn't sound appealing. Over the pass two miles away lay a sweet lake named Hobo, in the alpine, with very few trees to block the wind (foreshadowing here). I would go on, I thought, but felt uneasy. Something just didn't seem right about this decision.

However, Hobo was just as sweet and sparkly as ever, with nobody around. I even got in a (chilly) swim. I set up my wind-phobic (more foreshadowing) tent and prepared for a nice starry night.

Until the wind came. It howled down from the saddle at about forty miles an hour. My tent flapped in a way that was about to drive me insane, so I collapsed it and cowboy camped, but even then, the wind was unrelenting. I looked at my watch. I could lie here sleepless, or just hike. It was four in the morning. I would hike. In the dark. With a headlamp.

There's something about hiking by headlamp and slice of moon that is both disturbing and wonderful. You can imagine creatures lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce as you follow a circle of light. Once you do it, you realize how little there is to fear.

I arrived at the trailhead at just after seven. There was plenty of time to get back to work, to slog through another day of bureaucracy. These tiny adventures feed the dragon, for now. Pretty soon it won't be enough and changes will come. Until then, Gym Guy will see me training for the event called life.

What is your Thing? Do you have more than one? 

*Type II fun: An adventure that contains  elements of misery that might not seem as fun at the time.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The young girls

Two young women drifted over like butterflies to sit with us at the pub. Their skin glowed and their arms chimed with the music of many bracelets. Their hair flowed long down their backs. One was headed for six weeks to work for a packer in the Wind Rivers. The other, to a heliski company. They had no real plans beyond that. They were gloriously adrift, like I used to be.

"Well, they probably look up to you," J said later. But I don't know. I probably look like an older lady who has never, could never, have experienced drives across country, road atlas on the passenger seat, chasing fire or wilderness, a new job every season. It's not so much that I miss that old life, the taking off and leaving, constant, constant, but the possibility, the endless years ahead of me, that I miss. It's strange to form the fabric of a new life, a settled life, while still trying to be wild.

Do other people feel this way? I don't know. This is why I left at three in the afternoon on a Thursday and hiked up to Maxwell Lake for the night, waking up with ice on my sleeping bag. This is why I hiked in torrential rain because it was the weekend and the other choice was to stay home. This is why I run, bike, take trips. I'm trying to hold on.

This weekend, four of us hiked towards Echo Lake, a three thousand foot climb over three miles, and we met up with other women doing a day hike. Why is it only the women out here, we wondered? But it is, all women of a certain age, the men at home puttering. Echo was beautiful and remote, nobody else venturing up the eroded "trail." We scrambled up the goat trail and down to Billy Jones lake, a place where perhaps two hundred people a year venture. Maybe not even that.

When is it enough? I don't know the answer. My friend and I sat drinking a glass of wine and we agreed: if something happened to us tomorrow, we've had rich lives and we would be okay to go. I don't know if you can get any better than that. I watch the young women leave the county and hope the same for them, when they get to be my age, countless, impossible decades from now.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Running down a dream

I've never been the  kind of person who needs motivation, like a race to train for. Most days I want to run, or hike, or kayak, or ride my bike.(the exception being the gym. I drag myself there.) In the beginning of 2014, though, I decided I needed a Big Thing to do, and that was spend fifty nights in the backcountry, preferably in wilderness, arriving there by human power. 

Fifty nights doesn't sound like a lot until you start to do the math. Or when you have a full-time job. Or when you live in a place with abundant snow. Despite being "gone all the time", as a friend said recently, I'm only at #36. Still, I have until the end of January 2015. Totally doable, right?

Well. Not much keeps me out of the woods. Not music festivals, rodeos, parties, even (sorry) my husband (though I do rush back home to see him). Until now. THIS:


 I have a four week old kitten, abandoned by its mom. I've been bottle-feeding him and he is pretty cute. How can I leave him?

Luckily, everyone loves Puffin and I've been able to sneak away, to places like this:
Jewett Lake!

Still, the fifty nights is in danger of not happening. I'm okay with that. Along the way it became less about the adventure than about the number. Sort of like my marathon training days, when I faced a 22 mile run in horizontal rain. You have to really want it, and I'm more the type of person who likes to wake up and decide what sounds good that day. Warm and sunny? Let's swim in the lake! No tourists? Let's trail run! Awful wind and snow? Okay, the gym it is. I think this approach has helped me stay interested in exercise.

I may still get to fifty. I have a trip planned to Big Bend National Park with friends I met at the Grand Canyon last December. There will be overnights here and there until the snow shuts us down. I'm okay with forty, though, or forty-five. Big Things are good, but it's okay to make them Smaller Things.

The other day I was sleepily heading out of Six Mile Meadow at six am, bound and determined to get to the trailhead in two hours despite the rocky tread. A trail runner I often see hove into view, enroute to an 18 miler. "Where have you been?" she asked. I thought for a minute. Then it came to me. "Everywhere."

And that's how I feel about this summer, guys! I may not get to fifty, but I've been everywhere that matters.

Friday, August 29, 2014

If I had a dollar for every time...musings on women solo in wilderness

The women, I kind of get. As I hoisted my pack for a hike to Frances Lake, I thought about it. As women we are inadvertently taught that danger stalks us. Never mind that weirdos very rarely have the inclination to backpack, the images of missing girls haunt us. When a woman tells me, like she did a couple of weekends ago at the trailhead, that she could never backpack alone, it makes me feel sad. I feel like she is missing out. It's challenging, rewarding and empowering, and even if you try it once and just don't like being alone with your thoughts--which I actually think all people need to do instead of surrounding yourself with chatter all the time--at least you have tried it. In all of my decades of outdoor adventures, things have not come a very long way. I got these same comments in the late 1980s, descending into New Mexican canyons, climbing alpine ridges in the Olympics.

Sometimes I want to live without compromise. Hiking alone, running alone, kayaking alone, I can ease into the flow of my own pace. I don't have to wait for people or run to catch up or debate the merits of stopping early or turning around due to weather. "I can't believe you went out last week," a friend says, referring to the torrential rain that dumped a fire-season-ending event on the mountains, and I was out, hiking in it. If someone had been with me, there would have been either grim determination on the part of the one who wanted to go home, or reluctance to leave on someone else's. Let's stick it out! versus hell with this! and the constant tiptoe dance of are you okay with this? that women just aren't that great at, but guys have no problem with. Look, this pace isn't working for me, I'm going to go ahead. This isn't fun, I'm bailing. Not my style, buddy, see you next time. Women have a hard time with this. The feelings thing. Not wanting to offend, while guys just say it. I wish I had more guy companions, but once I got married they vanished. I don't want to think too much about this.

On my way back down from Frances Lake, after a beautiful solitary trip, I came upon four men gamely hiking upward. About fifteen years older than me, they said they couldn't carry the weight anymore (cringe. Another thing I kind of hate) and so were being packed in by mules. (Four of them. One mule load per guy. Really? "We can eat really good out here now." Can't you eat freeze dried for a couple of days? But I digress). One of them said, "You are by YOURSELF? I could NEVER DO THAT."

I always feel compelled to say something in this situation. Apologize? Say, "I really DO have friends"? "I'm packing pepper spray"? Does this sentiment really come from a place of caring, as one woman said on my private outdoors Facebook group, or is it, like another one posted, a belief that women are fragile creatures that need protecting? Instead I resorted to the old, "Well, I used to be a wilderness ranger, so I'm really comfortable in the woods."

You could see the change in expression. Relief and understanding. "Oh, okay," the man said before rushing to catch up with his friends. I continued on to the "safety" of the real world. I still don't understand it.

Looking down into Frances Lake, GASP! ALONE!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

What I Learned From Hiking 720 Miles of the PCT

Some questions are just unanswerable. On a long 23 mile day, we played Would You Rather...

Change gender every time you sneeze or be unable to tell the difference between a baby and a muffin?

Hike the PCT with George W. or Mitt Romney?

Have as your daughter, Lindsay Lohan or Miley Cyrus?

Other things are easier to answer. You don't hike this far on a long trail without learning some things about yourself. In a 12 hour day there is plenty of time to think and only so many Would You Rathers or Two Truths and a Lies that you can dream up. There's time to listen to the crunch of your feet, the wind in the trees, water off a cliff. Your mind kind of goes into a free flow. If you're lucky, you can pick out some polished stones.

  1. In the Sierras, I learned to choose companions wisely. With other people that have decades of friendship behind them, it can be lonelier than being alone. On long trails, it helps to know someone well, because sooner or later a decision will have to be made when all of you are hungry or tired or under the gun from a thunderstorm.
  2. In the Sierras, I also learned that I love hiking alone, but that I love having company at camp. It's tough to find companions who want to put up with this behavior. But it's also nice to find people who can hike your pace--harder than it sounds--to pause with on top of a pass, to  point out a lake far below.
  3. In the North Cascades, I learned that it's all about the people. I go to the mountains to get away from people, to be honest. My work days are swimming with them. I am constantly on the phone, on email, and in video conferences. But on long trails, things are different than they are on short ones. We leapfrogged with the same people over 200 miles, and we would look out for each other. We sat together on breaks and camped in some of the same places. The last week of our hike, we met an unforgettable hiker named Cherry Pie, whose aptitude for twenty mile days upped our game. 
  4. In the North Cascades, I learned how tough I could be. Torrential rain, hail, 60,000 feet of elevation gain and loss--I thrived on it. Hiking, I learned, was my thing, my reason to get up in the morning, my reason for putting in ten hour days at work so I could do it all over again.
  5. In the South Cascades, I learned that there is no way I can make it to a thirty year retirement. I'm not going to quit my job and become a professional wanderer, but I need to figure out a way to drink life in now, not just in chunks on the weekends.
  6. In the South Cascades, I learned that I can thrive on big miles, water carries, dry camps, and no showers. I really didn't want to go into town. I didn't want town food or showers or laundry. It just didn't seem necessary. (It might have after a month). For better or worse, being in the mountains just feels real. It's where all the insecurities, stress, and problems just melt away. I belong there. I really do.
A few other things I learned:

Toe tubes rock for blisters! Best invention ever.  
People think I'm a little kid with braids. Especially when I wear a hat too.
DEET really is the only thing that works.
Sierra Designs hiking skirts are awesome. Better than skorts, or god forbid, pants.
Skyscape tents stand up to 40 mph winds.
I might not be allergic to poison oak?

SO WHAT'S NEXT? I'm sure you're all waiting to hear! My plan A is to hike the PCT from Tolumne (maybe from the Valley, since I think I've done some of that section when I did the JMT) to Sierra City. I want to do a lot of it solo to see what I am capable of, but I also want to invite a few people along to meet me and do a few miles, especially if they can hike in my resupply, heh heh heh. It's 11 months away, so things can change, but I am excited about this idea. If I do it, that means I will have done almost 1000 miles on the PCT, and maybe will pick another trail (Colorado?) to play with.

That's it from the PCT, folks! I've done a couple of backpacking trips since then that I will write about soon!